Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling author of books such as Outliers and The Tipping Point, has made a career out of considering the factors that lead to success. But even someone who has made such a dogged study of the subject can still be surprised about what connects with people. An example of that is his most recent project, a podcast called Revisionist History that explores figures of the past that have been overlooked and misunderstood.
“One of the things you do if you tell stories is you can’t have expectations about how they are used. You have to put them out in the world,” Gladwell told Entrepreneur during a conversation at OZY Fest 2017 in New York City on Saturday. “I had an expectation going in of what I thought the most important and most meaningful shows were, but almost every one of my expectations have been contradicted. I didn’t even know would appeal to people. I was totally wrong.”
Gladwell shared more insights about how to continue on when you hit a rough patch and the question you have to ask yourself before sharing your idea with others.
What is a process or strategy you use to break through your own misconceptions or bubble when you’re approaching a new story?
You have to take the notion of curiosity seriously. The little voice inside you that says, “OK, that’s enough,” or “I’ve looked hard enough,” or “I’ve made enough phone calls.” You have to shut that voice off. One of the things I do a lot is look through archives. You have to be aware that you might have to look through 100 before you find one that’s any good.
I’m a runner and you’ll do a workout that’s 10 meters and you want to stop after eight. You always have to say, “No, I have two more.” It’s the same thing with your curiosity. Your curiosity sometimes hits a wall and you have to say, “No, I gotta keep going.” That’s really crucial.
For entrepreneurs, what advice do you have about communicating your ideas in a way that resonates with people?
I think people sometimes get things backwards. They have a technology that they are excited about and that becomes the story. As opposed to stepping back and thinking, no, the story has to be a much broader thing. What problem am I addressing? What issue have I conceptualized as the thing I’m trying to solve?
That kind of preparatory work is the part we often skip. We sometimes pursue cool ideas because they are cool ideas. As opposed to saying wait a minute, we have to solve a problem and answer a need. You have to answer the basic question of why you are doing this.