Time to Walk - Time to Walk with Malcolm Gladwell

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Malcolm Gladwell: My father was a walker, and he would come home every night from work and go for an hour or more, and he would also walk to church every Sunday. And as soon as I was old enough to walk with him, I walked every Sunday morning, just me and my father. I think it was probably three miles and then three miles home. He would never slow down for me. So I was always touched by the fact that he assumed I was adult enough to keep up with him. It was my time alone with my father. So that was my, introduction to walking, and it’s always seemed sacred, I guess, is the right word, ever since.


Sam Sanchez: It’s Time To Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos and songs that have influenced their lives. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell is known for his ability to see things others don’t. He has written numerous New York Times bestsellers, including “Outliers”, and hosts the podcast “Revisionist History”. On this walk, he reflects on abandoning judgment and why a little mediocrity can be a good thing.


Malcolm Gladwell: I live out in the countryside, outside of New York on an old dairy farm, which, when I bought it, was kind of overgrown and abandoned. And I bought it with one of my best friends, and he lives with his family on one half of it, and I live on the other half, although a third friend of mine is also going to build a house on this. So it’s a little… I guess it’s a little mini commune.

I… It’s basically just a meadow with prairie grasses and wildflowers and little kind of shrubs mixed in and a few trees, and it just kind of grows semi-wild. What I love about it is that in every season, it looks dramatically different.

This is a story about my father. He died three years ago, and he, he was a remarkable man, although I always think that’s a strange word to use to describe him because we use that word to describe someone who is obviously exceptional, and my father was not obviously exceptional. You had to pay attention to him to figure out what was remarkable about him. He was a mathematician and an Englishman, and he had a big, bushy beard and a very, very large head, a head so large no hat could fit it. He would always wear a shirt and tie, even when he was gardening, which was his favorite activity. And he didn’t say much. But he was really, really smart and from my earliest age, that was the fact about him that seemed most salient.

We lived in this very small town in rural Ontario, about an hour and a half out of… outside Toronto, and it’s home to a very large community of Mennonites and Amish, who are a communally-based religious group who have decided to live in the 18th century: you know, horses and buggies, no electricity, dress plainly in black, and the women in gingham dresses.

On Sunday morning, we would look out the window, and we’d see a long line of horses and buggies, and that was the Mennonites going to church. I mean, that was our kind of reality.

And not long after we moved to Canada and moved to this town, a neighbor not far away who was a farmer, a Mennonite farmer, his barn burned down. And, as was the practice, the local men in the community gathered to do a barn-raising, where they all get in their horses and buggies, and they drive there on a Saturday morning. And they… 100 or more people will essentially rebuild a barn in one day.

You know, these are people who have as their core fact of their community their belief in equality, their belief in sharing, their belief in… that if one person suffers, they are all responsible for lifting that person up. And if one person has plenty, he or she is responsible for sharing it with the others. That’s their kind of ethic.

Anyway, so there’s this barn-raising down the road, and my dad decides to join in. And I have to kind of stress how weird it is because he’s this bearded Englishman with a PhD who’s, you know, an advanced theoretical mathematician, driving a Volvo, wearing a tie and a jacket. And he shows up in this group of 100 Mennonites, all of whom came in horses and buggies and are wearing straw hats and, you know, plain, black outfits, and none of whom, by the way, have, and I am not exaggerating, have… probably have more than a sixth-grade education. So, here I am, I’m seven years old, and my conception of my father is of this intellectual giant, this guy at the top of the hierarchy. And, you know, he teaches at a university, which seems to me like the most glamorous thing in the world. And then here he is joining a group of people who couldn’t be more different from him.

So I have two brothers. And he brings all of us. And we just… I sat there, and I just watched him for however-many hours. They put him to work immediately, and he was doing the most menial of tasks like lifting wood. And, like I said, it was one of those moments in my childhood that I’ll never forget because I sort of learned something, I think, fundamental about the world.

One was the… I was struck by the fact that he was welcomed, that a group of people who were… whose whole identity was bound up in being different had taken in an outsider, someone who’s almost… could not be more different from they are. And I wonder why they did it, and I think it’s because he didn’t make a request to be accepted, my father. He didn’t come with any list of demands. He didn’t come with an explanation. He just came to, to join in and help and work. And it made me realize how incredibly freeing shared labor is, that when there is a task and a group of people have decided collectively to perform that task, all kinds of barriers fall.

And the other thing that struck me was, well, why did my father go? Because no non-Mennonite ever goes to barn-raisings. I mean, it’s a kind of unheard-of thing. And he knew our immediate Mennonite neighbors, but he didn’t know this farmer. It wasn’t like the farmer was a friend of his. And I knew, even at that age, that I wouldn’t have gone. I would be way too self-conscious. I would’ve worried about being rejected. I would’ve felt awkward. I would’ve wondered whether they needed me. But my dad never seemed to have any of those concerns. And I think it’s not because he stayed up the night before thinking through, you know, the logic of his position. I think he was just oblivious to those concerns. I just don’t think he got hung up on matters of difference.

You know, my mother is Black, Jamaican, and my father married her in the ’50s when it was a very radical thing for a white person to marry a Black person. And I always wonder, you know, “Why did they make that decision?” And from his perspective, I think it’s… It’s the same thing. It wasn’t that he thought of himself doing this radical act. It’s that it would never have occurred to him that it was a radical act, that he was someone who was oblivious to difference. And I, I think that there’s something… there’s something really beautiful in that.

I think about this now because we’re in a moment when we’re obsessed with difference, both with the extent of our differences and the magnitude of the task and… of overcoming them. And my dad’s perspective would be, “Why are you obsessing over the difference? Why don’t you obsess over the things that you have in common?” And that was his… The whole point of him going to the barn-raising was he just didn’t think the differences he had with the Mennonites were significant, even though society would. He didn’t think the fact that he rolled up in a Volvo and had a PhD made one whit of difference to the fact that… or was more important than the fact that he was a neighbor who wanted to help and felt an obligation to help.


From the very earliest that I can remember, I was good at running. It was… It was something that came really naturally. You talk to people who run, and they’ll often talk about how difficult it is, the pain involved, the struggle. That is not my experience. My experience is the opposite. It just seems almost effortless for me, or at least the effort seems part of the pleasure.

I started running competitively in high school, and… the 800 and the 1500 meters, and I won everything. I mean, it sounds sort of very boastful, but it’s true. I won… In the space of three years, I ran… I won four provincial championships, a Canadian championship, and set a Canadian record. And if you’d asked me at, you know, 14 what my identity was, I would’ve said, “Oh, I’m a runner.” And, actually, more specific, I would’ve said, “I’m a good runner,” because it was a really important part of that identity that there was excellence attached to it.

You know, there’s this thing that athletes do where, if you’ve been doing something at a high level for long enough, you immediately know whether someone else who’s doing it is better or worse than you. Like an NBA player, if they were to play a pick-up game with LeBron James, even if they had no idea who LeBron James was, they would know within five minutes that he was on another level. Well, when I was 14, that’s the way other runners looked at me. We would run, and they would say, “Oh, he’s better than I am.” And when you’re 14, that’s this insanely kind of intoxicating feeling, to be the one at the top of the pyramid.

So then, in my junior year of high school, I got sort of injured for a little bit, and I had a bad spring of training. And then I had… went through all the kind of meets that summer until I came to the Ontario Championships. It’s called OFSAA. It is the marquis age-class track championship in Canada, and I was running against a guy named Steve and on the final curve of the 1500, I pulled even with him, and I expected to blow by him because that’s what I did.

And I still remember, you know, there’s a huge crowd. It’s the provincial championships… everyone kind of roaring because they’re expecting something to happen. And nothing happened. I expected to kind of sprint past him, and instead I just hit a wall. And he kept going, and I just fell apart. And it was the first time that had ever happened to me.

I ended up finishing fourth. I walked off the track, and, you know, at that age, my… Like I said, my entire identity was being a good runner, and I suddenly realized I wasn’t anymore. And I was no longer the kind of person who everyone… other runners would look at and say, “He’s the best.” And it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that I did not race seriously again until I was 50. I took a 35-year break from running because of the overwhelming disappointment of that, of that one race.

I had to kind of come up with a new sense of who I was because so much of myself had been bound up in this notion of myself as a runner. And, you know, I often sometimes wonder whether the fact that I’m a writer, which was an interest that I developed after I stopped running, was my running substitute, that I needed something else that was compelling and demanding to take the place of this thing that had been so important to me for so long.

When I’d just turned 50, I started running again a little bit, and I was at a track on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And there was a group of people there. They were part of a running club, and they invited me to join them. So I went over, and my first thought was, “These aren’t runners.” Meaning like, when I was running as a kid, a good percentage of the kids… people I ran with would go on to the Olympics. I mean, they were elite athletes, and they looked like elite athletes, ran like elite athletes, held themselves like elite athletes. And these people didn’t. So I had this immediate biased response. And, you know, you do this thing when you have that reaction. You critique them. What’s their form like? Are they forefoot-strikers or heel-strikers? You know, you go through this whole checklist in your mind, and it’s a way of judging them, of saying, “Are they up to my level?” And I sort of wondered, “Why would I run with these people?”

And then the strangest thing happened, that I really enjoyed myself. And then I went back the next week and enjoyed myself again. And I started going back more and more and started to run seriously again. And I stopped judging people in that way. And more than… I began to realize that judging people or holding people to some standard of excellence was the problem, that that’s why I had denied myself the pleasure of running for so many years, because I had this idea that the pleasure of doing something was in doing something at a high level. I began to realize that that was backwards, that if you make the joy of running about excellence, then you’re saying that joy is only available to some tiny subset of people who have some natural gift from God that helps them run at amazing speeds. But that’s not what joy is. Joy is open to all of us, right? That’s its power.

So I had a definition of joy that was completely confused, and that joy is not about doing something excellently. Joy is about the participation in something that brings you pleasure at whatever level you want to join it. So running has kind of returned to the… near the center of my life again, but now I am at peace with the fact that I am not any good anymore, you know? I’m, I’m 57 now. I don’t win races. You know, I’m creaky. I can only run three days a week. But I understand now that the point is not to be great. And once you accept the fact that the point is not to be great, then a whole world of, of happiness is open to you.


My best friend growing up was a guy named Terry, who is a really wonderful and brilliant guy, and his family owned a feed mill. They made chicken feed. His father had built this chicken feed company up from, from nothing into a pretty successful business. And every year, they would have a banquet for their employees. And one year, not that long ago, Terry’s brother, a guy named Rick, invited me to come and speak at the Christmas banquet. They rent out a hotel in town, and they invite all of their, like, 100 employees. So I said, “Of course.”

So I showed up, and I, I gave my talk and sat down, and then my friend’s brother, Rick, stands up and says, “Now it’s the time for us to give out our year-end bonuses.” So he calls out the names of every one of the employees, and they come one-by-one up on to the stage, and he hands them an envelope with their bonus, right?

So I’m sitting there, and I say, “Okay, this is like… This is their year-end ritual,” right? Then, just as he’s finishing up, someone comes up on stage and whispers something in his ear, and there’s this whole kind of semi-commotion. And Rick goes back to the microphone, and he says, “Oh, we made a few mistakes,” and he names like four people, “Could you and you and you and you come back up to the stage, and we’ll give you a new check?” And I’m sitting there thinking, like, “This is sort of weird.” My notion of what a bonus is… I live in New York. So I imagine a law firm or a Wall Street bank, they have a compensation committee, and they have some complicated algorithm, and they have reports from managers. And they generate your bonus using all these… You know, you wouldn’t, at the last moment, correct the bonus.

So Rick sits down, and I say, “Well, what was all that about?” And he goes, “Oh, our bonuses are based on how many children you have, and what we didn’t realize is there were a bunch of new babies born last week. So we had to adjust the checks.” I remember thinking, you know, like, “What? They’re doing bonuses based on how many kids you have?” You know, this is my New York self responding to this. And, you know, all I could think of was, “Good lord, if you tried this at, you know, Skadden Arps or Goldman Sachs, they would be lawsuits. You can’t. How do you have a bonus based on how many kids you have?” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized, like, what a kind of bigoted response that was.

I come from a world that says that your employer is invested in your employee self, right? If you’re a law firm, your interest is in your employees as lawyers, and if you’re a bank, you’re interested in your employees as bankers. And when it comes to handing out bonuses, you define merit according to that role. You get paid your bonus as a lawyer according to how good a lawyer you are, right? Rick was saying something much more kind of powerful and beautiful than that. He was saying, “I’m interested in you as an employee, but I’m also interested in you as a person. You know, it really matters to me that you’re a parent, that you have a family, that you perform a number of other roles.” And he’s saying, as well, that, “I’m not just interested in rewarding you based on your performance. I’m interested in rewarding you based on your need.”

This was maybe five or six years ago, maybe even more, seven years ago, and I have to say I have been obsessed with this idea ever since. It has really powerfully changed the way I think of people.

You know, like, see, if you take my mother, for example, you know, she’s Black, and most people, when they look at someone like my mother, they give her an identity. They say she’s a Black person, right? Because that’s what she most obviously is, especially these days, when we’re so kind of attuned to those issues.

But if you asked her, she would say, “Well, I’m a mother. I was a wife for many years. I’m a grandmother. I’m a psychologist. I’m a Canadian. I’m a Christian.” That would be hugely important for her. She would give you nine identities, of which being Black is one and maybe not the most important. To really understand her, you have to understand that she isn’t just one thing, and if you think of her just in that narrow way, you’re… you’re doing violence to her humanity.

The reason to pay attention to people’s multiple identities and to how they rank them is that, almost invariably, the way they rank them will be different from the way you, as someone who doesn’t know them well, will intuitively rank them. And so you’ll never know. You’ll never… You’ll always be walking around ignorant of some fact that powerfully shapes their life unless you really inquire into who they are.

Similarly, with my mother, you can’t look at my mother and know anything fundamental about… You see Black woman, but that is the thinnest sliver of who she is and how she relates to the world. That willingness to spend time with someone and to get past their obvious identities is, I think, what the task of creating a more socially equal world is about, that the only way you can make us all feel like we’re on the same level is if you stop clinging to these incredibly narrow ways of describing each other, right?

You know, I don’t think we leave ourselves open to the possibility that people have complexity, and I think that’s what Rick was doing at that Christmas banquet, is he was reminding himself and all of his employees that, that we are more than employees of this company, and he is more than their boss who’s only interested in their performance. That’s something that’s crazily beautiful.


So we are now at our destination, which is a little cottage, which is my office where I do all of my writing, where I come up with all of my podcast episodes, where… Huge chunks of my last book were written here. It’s a little… It’s a… It’s a little retreat, and I have a groundhog who comes out every morning and says hello to me. And he really does say hello. He comes out. He looks right at me, and he sort of does a little bow with his head, and he goes back. But, yeah, so it’s very much in the thick of nature here.

I was doing an episode of my podcast on why country music handles emotion so well, and I decided to pick the saddest song in country music, and it’s this song, I believe. And it was written by Bobby Braddock, and what’s amazing about it is that not only will you be in tears, even though it’s super cheesy, but it’s… it’s an example of songwriting genius because it is a complete story in three minutes that introduces you to a character, makes you feel like you understand that character, and then has a massive plot twist. For someone like me, who spends his life telling stories, figuring out how to tell stories, when you’re in the presence of a master storyteller, you’re just in awe. And this story is… This song is about master storytelling.

This is George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”.



“Piece of Clay” is one of the lesser-known Marvin Gaye songs, and a song that was released just before Marvin Gaye was shot to death by his own father. And it’s a song a, a son’s difficulties with his father.

And when you listen to it with knowledge of what happened to Marvin Gaye, it will break your heart.


I discovered Brian Eno when I was in college when I briefly dated one of the cool kids. And all the cool kids at my college listened to Brian Eno, and I discovered him then and have loved him ever since. And this is a song about infatuation, and the metaphor he uses for infatuation [MALCOLM GLADWELL QUOTES A LINE FROM “I’LL COME RUNNING”] is to my mind one of the most kind of achingly gorgeous metaphors for infatuation I’ve ever heard.

This is Brian Eno’s “I’ll Come Running”.


I realize that almost all of my stories are about things that happened a long time ago that I rarely think about. It was certainly a, a useful exercise for me to think about all the ways I was shaped by my childhood, and I hope it was at least an interesting exercise for all of you.

Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.