Kate Bowler: One of the great questions we can ask sounds too simple, but the implications are theological and philosophical and economic and social. The answer affects everything from whether we try to forgive our parents to whether we buy into the self-help promises of the televangelist next door. The question goes like this, can we do better? I mean, truly, how hard is it to transform into something kinder, gentler, more loving, less bitter, more prone to justice and mercy and everything else we hoped we might be? I’m Kate Bowler and this is Everything Happens, a podcast where I get to talk to unbelievably kind, funny and wise people and gently tear down the self-help industry one essential oil yoga retreat, best life now, best seller at a time, because frankly, I’m a bit tired of being told that anything is possible if I just believe. Maybe it’s better to say some things are possible, but not promised, and so maybe we can try and then let ourselves off the hook for perfection and then maybe take a nap later. This season I’m breaking down our culture’s favorite formulas for how to live. We know them. We’ve lived by them. We might even have them hand lettered on our refrigerators. At the heart of this mega self-help industry is a delightful, almost unanswerable question. Are we even capable of meaningful change? As a historian of self-help, I’ve been deeply invested in the answer. We might respond too quickly and say, yes, of course, here’s my five step plan to good, better, best. Or we might answer to obliquely and say maybe yes, maybe no, and fail to answer the existential challenge that we face down every day when we wonder, could I try a little harder? Who might I become if I do? It’s such a tender question that it’s best reserved for a brilliant and agile mind, so who better to pose this to than the spectacular brain of Malcolm Gladwell? Malcolm Gladwell is the author of many, many, many New York Times best sellers, including The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, David and Goliath, Talking to Strangers, and his latest, the Bomber Mafia. He’s also the creator and host of the podcast Revisionist History, which reconsiders things both overlooked and misunderstood. Malcolm has been included in that Times famous list of most influential people and received the Order of Canada, Canada’s deepest honor, which we both agree is kind of grand.
Kate: Malcom, what a gift. Hello, thank you for spending this time with me.
Malcolm Gladwell: Not at all. My pleasure.
Kate: I thought maybe we could begin with our origin story, which makes us both sound like superheroes. But both of us turn toward history very early on to get to some of our thornier questions. My parents were both professors at the University of Manitoba, so I used to run up and down the hallways with my sisters to hear the acoustics made by three girls high on orange soda. And there was something about having like a place where ideas could be unraveled that became very precious to me. So what in your upbringing led you to believe that becoming part- that part of becoming more human could be found in the past?
Malcolm: Well, that’s such a good question. Well, I think it’s because before I asked that question, I asked the question, where where does kind of magic and mystery lie? And, you know, children there are there are the science fiction people who think that magic and mystery lie in the future. And then there are the people like me who thought it lay in the past. I always you know, there was a moment in my kind of early adolescence when I started to consider which path I was going to take. I read a little science fiction and I was always very unimpressed by it because I just wasn’t I was completely uninterested in speculation about tomorrow.
Malcolm: When there was a parallel set of stories available about things that it actually happened. You can’t actually learn from speculations about the future because, you know, you quickly realize that all these speculations are false. Yeah. But you can actually learn from precise and involved accounts of what has happened. Yeah. So I chose that, which is not to generate those did not to denigrate those who choose the future. It just it never occurred to me. And in fact, to this day, I remain startlingly uninterested in kind of narratives about the distant future. Yeah, just as in space travel doesn’t interest me. Colonizing Mars doesn’t interest me. Nothing that has any kind of science fiction cast interests me.
Kate: Because you were a university kid and I wonder if, you know, I remember just sitting under the piano in my mom’s office. She was a music professor, obviously, that would have been like a weird choice for botany or something. But I’m reading Ray Bradbury. I was like, you know, I think everybody goes through like a brief Ray Bradbury phase.
Malcolm: I did. I did as well. Fahrenheit 451.
Kate: Yes, I well, I. I’ll never forget the story. But the short story, Harrison Bergeron, it was it was like it was an apocalyptic story about a future in which everything and everyone had to be made equal. And it was about – it was it was showing the slate of dancers weighed down by like hundreds of small weights. And it seems to me you’re absolutely right, that stories about the future are just the same questions about our what we’re capable of it just like cast in a, cast in a someday. And the question of that story in the question of some most of them was, will can we ever can we ever be different? Could there be what what if this wild experiment, one way or the other, never makes us, you know, more human, more beautiful to one another and more understandable to each other? Yeah, you’re right. It’s just kind of wild and incredible. What if stories, isn’t it?
Malcolm: It is funny how the other thing that always struck me about science fiction stories was that their accounts of the future were so predictable and everything I understood that the future is that it wasn’t predictable. So like, you know, the alien always was a small, slender creature with enormous eyes. And I mean, yeah, it’s like, why does everyone agree that’s what aliens look like? And they were you know, all of these accounts for the future were preoccupied with travel. Yeah. And, you know, but of course, ah, the the improvements we’ve made in our ability to travel over the last thirty years have been insanely modest. I mean, you know, we’re slightly-
Kate: Faster, slightly more likable.
Malcolm: I could have gotten, I’m now in I’m in the Hudson Valley in New York. I could have gotten to Albany faster one hundred years ago than I can today. It was a trolley car that ran right outside, you know, right close to my house, whisked me straight to Albany. Now I have to, like, fight traffic. And, you know, it’s like it’s not clear to me that this preoccupation with the idea that the future meant better travel looks like such a false promise. The New York City subway was more efficient in 1920 than it is today like, you know.
Kate: My dad’s a historian and I’m a historian, and so he’s just absolutely awful to watch movies with because he’s just forever ruining any account of the past with like a like a deep and lingering sigh and but I think.
Kate: A little insight from David Steinmetz, who is a historian I just loved so much. And he was always worried and excited about the the task of the historian. He felt it was their job to resurrect the dead and let them speak. But when you read your work, I’m just reminded so often of just that. That’s a much more difficult task than we imagine. So why is it so difficult to extract the truth from the past?
Malcolm: Well, is it more difficult than extracting the truth from the present? I think actually it’s easier than extracting from the present. It’s easier when we no longer have a direct stake in many of the battles that are being fought, it’s easier for us, the interpreter, to be fair. I think that’s one thing. So the like in my, I put out this book a couple months ago, called the Bomber Mafia, which was this book about ultimately about the firebombing of Tokyo. And you would have been very, very difficult to be removed and dispassionate as I was about that issue in 1945. Yeah. When the firebombing actually happened. Yeah. Really, really hard to be critical in any way of the American military in that moment because the war was still going on. Yeah. You know, how could you be dispassionate about an effort being made by the Air Force to end to end the war quickly? Yeah. Now, we can think about it with you know, it is possible for the audience, not just me, I’m not American, but, you know, for American audiences to actually reflect critically on their own. Yeah. Military’s actions in that in that in that war, in that phase of the war. And more than that, the Air Force itself, you know, many of the people who are most thoughtful and self-reflective and self-critical about what the Air Force did in 1945 are the- is the contemporary Air Force. So we even get the institution is now capable of reflecting on what they’ve done in a way that could never have done in 1945.
Kate: Yeah, in a way that we can hope for more and more wisdom that does feel like the like the accumulation of insight into your life that we might not have been capable of. I think one of the things that always strikes me to you about doing historical work is the way that it echoes the way that you can read something from I I’m just thinking of you like the writing of Sojourner Truth, for example, like she has this little- so she’s been recently emancipated, she’s this she’s not yet like the figure that we imagined her to be today is this, you know, impervious hero. And she has this minute where she finds out that her biological sister and her went to the same church in New York for- and then she never and she never met her that like she was robbed of an entire family, but that they were in the same room. And she has this little line like, did I touch her hand? It always shocks me the way that history can bring us back in the same moment as as as people so long gone that we can genuinely care about their problems as if they were our own.
Malcolm: And, you know, that’s I guess, right. That’s like, well, we recognize the commonality in our experiences in some of the we don’t get kind of distracted by all of the markers of defensive medicine, you know, we don’t see the fact that she doesn’t have a cell phone or that she’s not taken over to the church where her sister might have been. We’re just focused on what is the saying is that she is describing a human experience that could easily have today.
Kate: You’re so playful in your work. I always like I always like watching you put two very unlike things together and and then mashing them together and forcing me to learn something surprising. And one of the great obstacles it seems to to change into improvement and to finding that common humanity with others is that it seems really quite difficult to really even learn from the experience of others. And in your book, Talking to Strangers, you uncover a lot of different, really compelling reasons why those differences that is talking to people that are unfamiliar to us really is quite a divide. You tell me a bit about the kind of illusion of asymmetrical insight, why it does make it difficult for us to really see through the eyes of others.
Malcolm: Yeah, it’s this really fascinating idea that psychologists have been- have played with, which is this this notion that when when we analyze our own reasons for doing things, our own behavior, we are incredibly attentive to nuance and complexity. So, you know, why am I fighting with my friend Jeff? And I can walk my thoughtful walk around that issue and give you all kinds of- and particularly when I’m accountable for my own personality, I recognize that my personality changes in different contexts. I’m sort of. But when it comes to explaining other people’s behaviors, we tend to be very reductive. Yeah. We tend to- so even as I would say I’m complex and have all of these different dimensions. But Jeff’s just so selfish.
Kate: Jeff’s a jerk. Like even when you said it, I was like, that guy sucks.
Malcolm: Yeah. Yeah, right. So that’s the fancy name for that, which is something that we all do on one level or another is the illusion of asymmetrical insight, which is that we we are perfectly capable of acknowledging the complexity of ourselves even as we deny it in our views of others. And it’s a puzzle because you would think that having gone through this elaborate process of understanding our own complexity, we would be more than happy to grant that same generosity in our interpretation of others who we we just don’t you know, we and we you know, even as we I can look at Jeff and say he’s selfish, but if Jeff tries to analyze me, I’m like, oh, no, wait a minute, hold on. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Stop right there. You can be so reductive in your assessment of who I am.
Kate: Yeah, I had 12 good reasons for that.
Malcolm: Yes. Yeah, that’s the same. And it’s just because I understand our complexity is easy because we have access, of course, to the contents of our own mind. We don’t have access and you know, to other people and reminding us that we don’t have access to people’s thinking is and how easily we pretend that we do is a crucial part of what it means, I think, to be to be better as people.
Kate: Yeah, I am as a historian, I had to learn like some of the tools that anthropologists use to do, you know, cultural studies and interviews and stuff. And so, so many of my early, you know, little journals you take in order to keep track of the of experiences like. So for me, I was studying televangelists, so it’s always me and in a pew. At first I walk into the building, I listen to a televangelist. I’m, you know, fascinated by his hair and where his wife is sitting and what the tithing line was like. And but if you if if I let you read them, they especially the first couple of years, it was full of my just brilliant and searing insights they’re apparently very easy to discern motivations and claims. And it’s kind of wild how much I would interpret personally. Like, I would just imagine that every aspect of these sermons or this experience really in some way reflected me and what I was going through. And it took me a bit to realize that even I was feeling entirely differently about my life, especially as someone who was sick and in a church that celebrates wellness. But I felt wildly different if I sat near the choir and felt suddenly uplifted and buoyant or if I sat near the where everybody sits when they need wheelchair access and watching like little wrinkle on their forehead, when they they hear a verse about how God has promised them all things and I a part of it, I’m sure it’s just like, you know, entirely perspectival. And the other was just but the implicit arrogance of always assuming that I know just because I imagined myself to be like an intuitive person.
Kate: You describe to that myth of transparency. I wonder if you could walk me through.
Malcolm: Yeah. It’s sort of linked to this is this idea that where it’s linked to the idea we’ve just been talking about, which is- this is another idea. I, I was interested in talking to strangers, but transparency is the assumption that people’s inner emotional states are reliably and plainly displayed in their on their face or in their body language, so that the transparency is the assumption that if you right now are feeling sad, I’ll be able to tell that looking at you. And if you dislike me greatly, I should be able to tell by looking at you. I mean, I can go down the list of all the things and it’s a really powerful and seductive notion because a lot of the time people do operate with a certain amount of transparency and certain people operate a certain kind of transparency. But yeah, what throws us is, are those instances or those people who violate that assumption. And, you know, this is I spend a lot of time in the legal context because it’s a real problem when you’re trying to judge someone’s guilt or innocence. If you if you believe that guilt or innocence is something that is represented plainly and reliably on their face, if you think the remorse is a thing that is reflected in the way that you look, you see that as a huge influence on whether you think someone deserves to go to jail for 10 years or just or should be let off with probation, right? Yeah, it’s very hard to convince people that human beings are not reliably and plainly transparent in the manifestations of their emotions. And we get into so much trouble and make so many mistakes with people when we jump to conclusions about the emotional states based on this really. Yeah. Simplistic idea about how emotion is manifested. Yeah. Like, yeah, no, the it’s kind of it’s kind of crazy how, how, how dumb we are in the inferences we draw.
Kate: It seems to make it incredibly difficult to even know how to change if we’re so fraught with these cognitive slippages that trick us about our preconceptions. What kind of virtues, if you don’t mind me saying, I think you call us to certain virtues when you’re asking us to return to a kind of teachable, changeable place?
Malcolm: All of these things I think come back to it’s some version of humility, because what we’re asking people to do is to revisit their assumptions and entertain the possibility that they’re wrong. And that’s a has been a big theme in all of my work. It’s the central theme of my podcast, revisionist history, to be interested in history, in making sense of what has happened is, to my mind, explicitly an action rooted in humility, that the only reason to do it is if you’re open to the possibility that what you believe at this moment is not correct. Yeah. Otherwise you’re just wasting your time if you’re just looking. It was all a grand exercise in confirmation bias, then you know you. Why would you even, yeah, embark on that process in the first place? Yes. It’s so you have to be you have to be comfortable with this idea that you may have to come to a conclusion that was false. And one of the great puzzles I have with human beings is why that’s so difficult for us. It should be fine to say I was wrong. if you’re just interested from a self, if you approach this from a purely self-interested perspective, I’m saying I was wrong or I’ve changed my mind. Makes your life so much easier.
Kate: Yeah, but no regrets, but no regrets. I mean, I like because I study American culture more and I am always shocked by the amount of self-help literature that is entirely dedicated to refusing the sort of alteration of the past that you’re describing the rethinking, the the deep questioning, because it does seem to violate this deeply held American belief that it will then ruin the ability to then say, but it made me who I am today. Maybe that’s why you’re so uninterested in the future in that way in a way that I absolutely love, because this is it becomes a kind of intense and endless futurism. If it’s always, it’s always better. And yet it completely truncates looking behind you. It does make for this very hyper present and hyper futurist kind of person.
Malcolm: Mm hmm. Yeah, no, that’s interesting. And I was thinking as you were talking, you know, on this question of it’s easy how much easier it is to live your life if you’re willing to say it was wrong and how much harder it is to live your life if you are so relentlessly future focused because you’re your future for future focused, you’re you’re constantly measuring yourself against an uncertain standard and you’re constantly making that series of bets. Yes. About the way things will turn out. Yes. Which will invariably, as we stated, be wrong.
Kate: I, I think our mutual friend, Adam Grant would absolutely agree that there’s like some there’s like a deep rest and then in fact, some wonderful advantages to being willing to revisit assumptions, because then it can make us more I mean, you know that you can tell already I’m not very much into philosophies of winners, but like it does it does make us more nuanced and perceptive and dear God, like capable of responding to the world, to seeing the lay of the land and playing the course. Yeah. That that is instead of the one we wish it would be.
Kate: Your work reminded me of I did a lovely interview with a nurse and a writer named Christie Watson. And I came away utterly convinced that some professions, if done well, can change the way that people can relate to one another to move past some of these sort of inherent barriers in in not making the stranger intelligible. And, she as a nurse, she was talking about the various kinds of disciplines that they take on to learn how not to read others, but then to step into that like a void. And she was describing an amazing nurse that she had met and interviewed who worked a lot with the homeless and many of whom were using substances and on the convicted of crimes that were quite heinous. And she received a lot of questions of why then nursing would call her not just to love strangers to but to love that kind of stranger. And she said very simply, very beautifully, she said, well, we don’t have time to judge them because if we judge them, we don’t have time to love them. There’s such like a wild indiscriminancy to that. But that’s what was her argument, which is that nursing at its core was in fact the ability to love a stranger. And I thought, well, and what a wonderful set of habits to learn for it, not just to be like, you know, humility, but maybe even love.
Malcolm: I think about this all the time. Imagine that you’re a nurse in a hospital. Somebody comes in with very serious, life threatening case of covid and they were unvaccinated. Yes. Unless you are willing to forgive them. Yes. For their stupidity. Yes. Yes, which is what it is. And surely, I mean, they’re risking their lives of course. And you can’t you can’t try to heal them. Right. You can’t you can’t commit to the course of making them better. I don’t know whether you or a similar version want be. Someone comes in after suffering a motorcycle accident and they weren’t wearing a helmet. Yes. You know, these are you’re you’re forced to confront human beings in all of their frailty in that position. Yeah. And you you I can see that’s a beautiful thing you said is it strikes me as being absolutely true. Yeah.
Kate: Forgiveness is it’s such an intense word and it’s such it’s such a massive kind of undertaking to bridge that big gap between us with something that that might come from inside of us, like all of these little habits of like postures of humility and being willing to revisit your own assumptions and like that kind of deep work it takes just to make enough space for someone else to walk into your life and possibly change it or change you. Sometimes I wonder, too, how much of a change also must come from outside of ourselves that aren’t just like these little tiny steps we take. And I, I know that you and I both have a similar interaction with the same story. So I grew up in Winnipeg and you’re from a small town of Ontario, Surrey, and we were both born in England. So this is the time when I pause and say that we are twins, just gently separated at birth. But I was little there was a story in Winnipeg that we were all very deeply invested in, and that was it was the disappearance of a 13 year old girl. And we all watched this girl named Candace Derksen, and she was just walking home from school and she completely vanished. And I know you were also very deeply affected by that story, if you don’t mind sharing about it. I think about what happened to Candace and what the response of her parents taught you.
Malcolm: Yeah, I wrote about this in my book, David and Goliath, you know, Wilma Derksen, Candace’s mother, even before they arrested someone for the crime of the daughter, was later discovered dead, sexually abuse that she publicly forgave her daughter’s assailant, which I just thought was such an extraordinary and powerful and act of kind of courage, among other things, moral courage. And to me, it’s one of the most kind of powerful statements of the value of faith that because it was Wilma’s Christian faith that that permitted her to grant forgiveness to her daughter’s killer. And if faith can do that. Yeah, then to my mind, it has to be real. You know, I think of that kind of courage is almost superhuman. It had to have been could only have been done with that with the assistance of some kind of supernatural entity.
Kate: I like the way she describes to even those first moments when she when she used the word forgiveness and says, like, I couldn’t even have known what that meant at the time. But it felt like an unbelievably brave swimming upstream against her own emotion and her own fear and her own grief. And then just to imagine that, like, I wouldn’t just be the things inside of her, but that yeah. That that that God and love would somehow like turn the current from against her to toward her. I just that sort of little boost or grace that reminds me of this description, Willie Jennings, a theologian, has about what Grace is and like just for a moment, to be able to see through the eyes of God.
Kate: So when I was reading I’m talking to strangers, I, I just pause to think about that, because in the enormous chasm between us all, there are all the things like humility and we thinking that we might do in order to bridge the space between us. And then every now and then, we just pray for the, um, the miracle of a surprise that we might be able to have a little bit of help in in making that chasm somehow crossable.
Kate: Mm hmm.
Kate: I’ve only ever had it every now and then, but really not very often, to be honest. The that the ability to, like, see the world a little bit as it is.
Malcolm: Yeah. Yeah.
Kate: Then it kind of goes, which is really annoying.
Malcolm: Oh yes. What’s there’s a phrase for that the inevitability of insight.
Malcolm: There’s a wonderful forgotten phrase but it has the word inside it in and ineffable in it is this phrase that there’s a whole literature associated with that particular idea that we insight is mysterious and fleeting.
Kate: Yes, I do think there is something about these moments, this kind of, um, like the tragic, which is a place where I live a lot of life. I think about the the way that suddenly, like love is made possible. But it wouldn’t maybe have been possible in, like, ordinary time, like it’s a little less possible sometimes, like on a bus than it is like in the hospital room or or like in times of great need. But I do, and sometimes the divide seems like it’s too great. Like I spend a lot of time as a patient and I’m often trying to explain something like, oh, hey, remember when you guys sent me home with Pepto Bismol and I was actually, in fact, dying of Stage four cancer? And then I use the word misstep like it feels like it was because I’m trying to render it intelligible and my professional and and but I, I forget that the that all the people on the other side of that from that I am, in fact, a stranger to them and that it would actually take a lot of it goes against, I’d have to disconfirm a lot of things they already believe to be true for my account of the world to make sense of them. And honestly, your work did help me take that a little less personally, even though it is, of course, like deeply personal not to be able to, like, render yourself human sometimes. So maybe if you could come with me to appointments, I guess that’s where I’m going.
Malcolm: Consultant services.
Kate: Yeah. What a weird thing, I don’t know how we get there. If you could write like a five step seven step plan to.
Malcolm: very early on in my career, my books were put in the self-help section, which was very was deeply amusing to me because I never thought that that’s what I would end up doing there anymore. But it was a brief notion at some point that I was the business I was in.
Kate: I was just it’s so much of the best parts of like excavating our lives isn’t like digging into the small, wonderful, terrible details of like what made for a really stupid decision or what made something unbelievably unbearably beautiful, like and if I look back, there’s all kinds of things like I very frequently have the problem where I’m given like a horizon. We get scan horizon. So you have to decide all kinds of things in like three months, six months, one year, five years, that kind of thing. And it just made me so much less in love with the future and also not even in love with, like, the pardon, but like just endless bullshit love of Marcus Aurelius. I mean, why must we always imagine that Marcus Aurelius really has solved the problem of a of a of a hyper distracted, non-present mind. But just but in turning back and feeling like there were bread crumbs everywhere, maybe leading to something, maybe just waiting in a circle, the most of my good decisions were that way because they usually led me back to something like the feeling of counting my son’s eyelashes and making sock puppets for something very dumb and then often deciding to invest in work like really beautiful work, even if nobody read it. That was always I was sort of the past still leads you to a surprise. I know all of your work does. I wondered if my guess was that part of how you change is how you work, is that you discover new things and you play around with an idea and then you turn it around in your mind and then you let it become something else, isn’t it? Is that a good theory?
Malcolm: I think I think there’s some truth in that, that that if you know, to go back to our earlier point, it is what it means to change is to be a change or that useful change starts with humility with you on this journey to take it for granted that you’re usually wrong. I get to rehearse that in my work. Yeah, right. So actively searching for things that disprove my own intuitions. Yeah. And that’s a that’s a that’s an extraordinary privilege. Most people’s work doesn’t require that often and not because it’s inferior work, it’s just the nature of the work. If you’re a carpenter, that’s you better not be doing that. But it so happens that my job does allow me to do that. And that’s something for which I’m eternally grateful.
Kate: Yeah, I feel convinced, including you, that we are changeable and that doesn’t always feel like a promise, so to speak.
Malcolm: It’s a lovely thing to say. Thank you.
Kate: So what do you think, are we capable of meaningful change? I love that by nature, Malcolm and I are delightfully Canadian, which is to stay incurably optimistic. So, yeah, maybe we can change, probably not by much, but it’s worth a try. And sometimes something opens up that feels like grace that might allow us to look at others and ourselves with fresh eyes, forgiving the unforgivable, loving the unlovable, facing the insurmountable. And maybe the key is to start at the beginning and be willing to be changeable in the first place. Here’s a blessing for becoming ready to rethink your life. Blessed are you who take the risk of standing still right at the point of change, though, uncertainty and stress want to propel you forward. Blessed are you standing there at this new crossroads, giving yourself permission to stay suspended a while in the questions, maybe this isn’t maybe I don’t want maybe I need suspended and the reimagining discerning until you find the thought threads of what if I lead you into a settled if then and then you know it’s yours. Blessed are you gathering what you need to move forward in this new awareness, this new piece with truth comes a deep and settled calm that you’ll know when you see it. Our work on the Everything Happens podcast and with the Everything Happens initiative is made possible because of our partners and generous donors. Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Faith in Leadership, an online learning resource and a huge thank you to my team who makes this work not only possible, but fun. Jessica Richie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Katie Mangum, AJ Walton, Katherine Smith, Mary Jo Clancy, J.J. Dickinson and Jeb and Sammi. And if you’d like to be a human with me, come find me online at Kate Bowler. I also have a weekly email that might be the right dose of love and courage you need. Sign up at KateBowler.com/newsletter. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.