The Benefits of Obnoxious

Author and writer Malcolm Gladwell talks about his new book and spins tales about powerful people.

By Maya Bell
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (February 12, 2014) — The question came from a student in the audience: We all know you are special, but what do you think makes you special? Malcolm Gladwell’s answer succinctly summed up why the journalist is a best-selling author and renowned speaker who, with each of his books, has reshaped how we think about the world.

“Other than the fact that I am a Canadian, which counts for a great deal in my mind, my gift has been for finding people who are special, not necessarily being special myself,” Gladwell told hundreds of students, alums, dignitaries and others who filled the Student Activities Center ballroom at the University of Miami Tuesday night. “In the best of times there is very little I have to do except find people.”

In his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, the longtime writer for The New Yorker explores what compels ordinary, seemingly powerless people to defy authority, and fight against seemingly insurmountable odds. Among them is the Catholic woman he searched for in Belfast who, decades ago linked arms with other Catholic women and, marching on heavily armed British troops singing “We Shall Overcome,” defied – and dissolved – the harsh military curfew imposed on their neighborhood.

But instead of focusing on that turning point in the long conflict between Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority and Protestant majority, or on anyone else in his new book, Gladwell chose to share the fascinating tale of Alva Vanderbilt, an obstreperous, overbearing, egotistical, dictatorial “pit bull” from Alabama who became the queen of conspicuous consumption after marrying into America’s richest family during the narrow, oppressive confines of 1880s New York, a time when woman lived in the shadows while their husbands basked in the sunshine.

And why not? An extraordinary collector and interpreter of other people’s tales, Gladwell didn’t want to give away the contents of his book. After all, as he plainly stated, he wants readers to buy it, and afterward signed dozens of them for the long line of fans who waited for his MG scribble on David and Goliath, or his other bestsellers, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), and What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009).

But as he is obviously compelled to do, he regaled the audience with his own unique take on Vanderbilt, who through her own divorce and the unwanted marriage to British royalty she imposed on her only daughter, Consuelo, would become an improbable warrior for the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920.

Alva Vanderbilt’s transformation into a radical, Gladwell said, was akin to one of the Kardashian sisters shedding their belongings and moving to the Middle East to join Hamas. But, like the Catholic women of Belfast, her radicalism was easy for Gladwell to explain: People rebel when they perceive the system to be illegitimate, unfair, untrustworthy, and disrespectful.

“Nothing is a greater engine of defiance than the perception that we have not been treated with fairness, respect and trust,” he said, later closing the Q&A with this notable observation: “Very little of value in the world is done by people who are not obnoxious.”

Maya Bell can be reached at 305-284-7972.

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