Malcolm Gladwell On The Merits of Being Disagreeable and In A Hurry

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Successful entrepreneurship requires more than a well-executed idea, Malcolm Gladwell told a Michigan Ross audience on Tuesday. Certain personal attributes matter just as much. 

“The entrepreneur has to deal with the real world. You don’t execute brand-new, risky ideas in a vacuum,” the acclaimed author told a packed house at Hill Auditorium. “You have to get up in the morning and fight for what you believe in. There’s a social side to entrepreneurship.” 

Gladwell started his remarks by describing a visit to a campus area-store. “My hat is off to the person who figured out 200 different ways to put Michigan on a T-shirt,” he said — ultimately revealing an “Ann Arbaugh” tee beneath his dress shirt. 

The latest speaker in the Handleman Lecture Series at Michigan Ross, Gladwell, was welcomed by Dean Scott DeRue. “Our world has never needed us more to innovate and to advance our society,” DeRue said in introducing the evening’s theme of entrepreneurship. 

Using the story of pioneering cancer researcher Emil Freireich as a prime example and weaving in tales of other innovators, Gladwell identified three key characteristics common to most successful entrepreneurs: 

  • A sense of urgency — “When you look at entrepreneurs, time and time again, that’s what you see. That’s what distinguishes them,” Gladwell said. He told the story of how software engineers at Xerox PARC in the 1970s developed the concept of a mouse-driven graphical user interface for computers. They understood the potential of what they’d developed, but a visiting Steve Jobs was the person who made the idea take off when he adopted it for the original Apple Macintosh. “What is it that distinguishes Steve Jobs from all those geniuses at Xerox PARC? Why did he win? Because of urgency.” Who was smarter, Gladwell asked: The Xerox engineers for designing it, or Jobs for stealing it and putting it into action faster?
  • A “disagreeable” personality — Gladwell explained that this does not mean the common understanding of the word as unpleasant, but rather a more literal reading — someone who doesn’t rely on the approval of others to do what they think is correct. Combined with a sense of openness and discipline, a willingness to “follow through even in the face of social disapproval” is critical. He illustrated this with the growth of IKEA in the 1950s, which persevered with an unlikely concept of unassembled “shipped flat” furniture from a then-unpopular lower-cost source of labor (Poland). It wasn’t just that Sweden was higher cost, but also that the furniture establishment rejected his disruptive model. 
  • A belief that the world is volatile — Trying to predict the future based on the present is impossible, Gladwell argued, pointing to unexpected, rapid social changes like the drop in the murder rate and the rise of same-sex marriage. Understanding that volatility is key. “That is the special quality that I think animates all successful entrepreneurs and innovators,” he said, adding that they must believe nothing will get in their way. “If you want to make the world a better place, I think that’s the way you have to think.” 

Following his prepared remarks, Gladwell took a few questions from the audience. Prompted to name his favorite author, he said the answer varies but called Michael Lewis “the gold standard.” 

Asked about his advice to students, Gladwell spoke about patience. “For every genius who’s great out of the gate, I can give you a genius who took forever,” he said. “You can’t be in a hurry to discover where your passion lies or where your gifts lie. It can take a while.”

In response to a student question about the “disagreeable” trait and how society finds it more acceptable in men than women, Gladwell noted that focusing on traits of male entrepreneurs might reinforce a pattern of male dominance in the field. “I think that’s a very useful argument to raise. I don’t know the answer,” he said. But “we are very unforgiving of disagreeable women in all areas, and we need to get over that.”

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