Malcolm Gladwell still finds grace in running

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell, a 1500m star in Ontario as a teenager, is still a big fan of running.

Malcolm Gladwell (left) and Dave Reid coming into the finish at an Ontario school race in 1978. Photo: Bob Olsen.
Malcolm Gladwell (right) and Dave Reid coming into the finish at an Ontario school race in 1978. Photo: Bob Olsen.

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell recently did a wide-ranging interview in Runner’s World and we were happy to see that the former middle school 1500m star in Ontario is still a big fan of running.

Mike Shanks and John Carson, board members of Run for Life, a non-profit running organization based in Cambridge, Ont., travelled to New York City to interview Gladwell for this article that appeared in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Canadian Running.

International bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell inspires millions of people with his ideas. Titles like The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers dig deep into concepts typically reserved for academics and shed light for the masses. A self-professed popularizer, Gladwell sees writing as a graceful act, no different than he does running.  He started running as a child and it has always been part of his life, from his Jamaican roots right through to our run along the Hudson River.  Shanks and Carson sat down with Gladwell in New York to get his thoughts on running:

Mike Shanks: As a young man, you came into running and ran through high school, and even in college. What were you  like as a child?

Malcolm Gladwell:  I guess I was pretty competitive. Running was the first “thing.” I feel like childhood is the search for the thing that you love, right? You’re constantly bombarded with things that you don’t like at all, and you search, search, search. And if you’re lucky you find something. Running was the first kind of grand activity that I found as a child that I loved, so I kind of fixated on it, you know, in that way that you do as a teenage boy.

John Carson: When I run, I often search for cadence and rhythm. As a writer, are there similar parallels – just kind of getting into the groove?

MG:  I think so. You’re right, as a serious runner you become obsessed with this question of running gracefully. Running, at its best, is a graceful, elegant act. It is an aesthetic exercise, moving your body beautifully through space. Writing, at its best, is purely an aesthetic exercise, how to get as simply and cleanly and elegantly as possible through a sentence. So it does, it introduces a habit of mind, which becomes enormously useful in other domains.

MS: Excellence, depending on where you are and who you are, can mean something different. What does excellence mean to you?

MG: Well, you know in my last book Outliers, I talk a lot about this concept of meaningful work. Meaningful work is work that is complex, and it engages your imagination and mind. It’s autonomous, self directed, and there is a relationship between effort and reward. And I think the successful execution of that kind of work, is excellence. I don’t think excellence is about meeting some external standard. It’s not like you have to win, or make a lot of money, or be famous. But I think if you can do something that satisfies those conditions and do it well, then it can be said that you have achieved excellence.

JC: Now the value in terms of mentors and having talented and hard-working youth a year or two ahead of you, that often drives excellence. Did you find that?

MG: Oh yes. When I was in grade 9, two of the guys who had been in this OFSAA-winning cross-country team were in college at the University of Waterloo and they were still living in Elmira [Ontario], and they would invite me to go running with them. So they were 19 or 20 and I was 13. I would go like five miles. It’s pretty tough for a 13-year-old to keep up with a 20-year-old – a particularly good one. I jumped in being pushed by two very good, very strong runners, and it made all the difference in the world.  I don’t know what they were running – sub-six [minutes-per-mile] pace, maybe – for them a very easy pace. But this notion that you could run with someone for whom running at that speed was easy. It just tells you, “Oh, it’s possible,” you know. Back to when Bannister breaks the four-minute mile and then everyone does right after that. There’s a whole rush of them who suddenly all break it. And you just realize these self-created barriers exist and there’s nothing physical. It’s just purely psychological. I knew from the minute I started running that running really fast was something that people could do, because I would go running with these guys.

MS: There is a video clip with Will Smith, accepting an award.  He stands up in front of what is obviously a youthful audience. He says that there are two keys to life: running and reading. Running, that if you can conquer that little voice in your head, you can do anything, and reading, because out there, there is somebody who has done it before, somebody who’s achieved excellence, and you can learn from them through reading. Tell me a little bit about your thoughts on that comment.

MG: I didn’t realize he was a runner. That’s a lovely surprise. I think there is something – both of those are very pure activities.  That’s sort of what’s lovely about them. They don’t involve lots of other people, they don’t involve expensive machinery and they don’t involve driving a hundred miles somewhere. They don’t involve a large degree of technical skill. There’s a beauty and elegance to both those things. Notice he doesn’t say the two most important things are skiing and reading. I mean skiing can be a wonderful thing, but there is nothing pure about skiing. It’s the most contrived activity known to man. I mean, I’m biased – I’m a runner. But skiing can never be as meaningful as running. By the time you’ve got there, and bought your tickets and lugged some 50-pound thing up some hill, you’ve distanced yourself from the purity of the activity. Where I can lace up my shoes and be gone out the door in 30 seconds.