Darlene and I had the pleasure of attending a very special event at Mount Royal University here in Calgary. Quite fitting as the place that provided my post-secondary evolution in the late 70’s (it was a small community college back then) has grown substantially to where they now sponsor a speaker series called “Ideas” The people they bring in are not always pure speakers as much as they are academics with some brilliant knowledge, and yes…ideas. The big name this year was Malcolm Gladwell. Quite frankly, this series doesn’t usually present people as famous as Mr. Gladwell but as the College recently graduated to University status, plus, and with perfect timing, it is celebrating 100 years as an institution of learning. I am a very proud and biased alumni and even better (talk about ego), was Mount Royal’s first “Disinguished Alumni” award recipient in 1983. I mention this only because the Alumni Association spoils us rotten and I honestly feel funny about the attention I get but when I found out Malcolm Gladwell was coming to town I was selfishly satisfied that we would be invited as VIP guests for not one but two events in one day and a private reception prior to a sold-out evening at the Jack Singer Concert Hall, home of the Calgary Symphony Orchestra. Earlier in the afternoon, we were among fifty or so (mostly students) to attend a private and intimate Q & A.
For those unfamiliar with Malcolm Gladwell, he is the Canadian born author of the groundbreaking and hugely successful non-fiction novel, “Tipping Point”. That New York Times bestseller was followed by “Blink” then “Outliers” and most recently, a compilation of his articles written for New Yorker magazine, “What The Dog Saw”. He is quite recognizeable as well so when he was ushered into the small conference room, it was literally like being in the presence of a rock-star…sort of. For those familiar with the man, he has “big hair”, almost like a white-boy afro, all natural. When you see him in person you realize his hair may be big but he himself is small. My guess would be five foot five and one hundred twenty pounds at best. I hate to resort to stereotypes but the first thing I thought; “He must have been a world-class nerd when he was younger”. I also was struck with how meek and mild he appeared. He speaks very quietly and I guessed he wasn’t very comfortable in this role. Again with the steroype but he reeked of “Introvert” so I was very curious how this would go.
He had no opening remarks. He just came in wearing jeans, a long sleeve untucked shirt and runners. He turned down both an ear-worn and hand-held microphone and that struck me, as a speaker, a somewhat strange choice, especially with such a soft-spoken voice. My wife has a hearing loss so she couldn’t hear him at all. By the way, these are observatons not criticism and perhaps making a point would help.
There has been a trend in the speaking business that had it’s roots in the recession of 2008. In fact, the speaking business took a big hit in the wake of the downturn as budgets for things like conferences and special events were slashed as they were deemed non-critical activities. No event, no speaker, no work. It was actually like a cull and along that theme, only the strongest survived but I’ll write more about this another day. The point is, I think most people can tell when they are in the presence of genuine genius and it seems more often than not, geniuses aren’t the best at vocalizing their thoughts. The converse can also be true (with respect) where some professional speakers talk a good game but they are weak in intellect. A big part of this is directly connected to ego and as I listened to Mr. Gladwell my mind kept drifting to this very personal subject.
I get a lot of positive feedback on what I have done with my life and for a very long time it continuously fed my ego. How many people do you know who live in their own bubble wearing a metaphorical t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “It’s all about me!” People like that (I should know as I was one) rarely listen to anyone because they truly believe they know it all. As I get older, I am fascinated how I can spot both kinds of people so for that hour in the afternoon followed by almost two hours in the evening, I was thrilled to be in the presence of the “real deal” but was also confused by how “underwhelming” Mr. Gladwell was.
It was during the evening event and quite literally the point of a wonderful 45 minute story that I gained an amazing clarity. The key is humility! Malcolm Gladwell should be the poster child for humility. It explained so much about his style. He wasn’t wearing Armani, had no flashy jewelery, didn’t have a staff and came to Calgary on a commercial flight. The guy is worth millions and if you didn’t know who he was, you’d likely just walk right by someone who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest thinkers alive. What struck me the most was how much research he does to gain insight and opinion. In a world that is increasingly gaining it’s knowledge from clearly biased media outlets like CBC and FOX News, it was so refreshing and yes, inspiring to spend so much time with someone who has literally created his own Tipping Point and no small way, changed the world. Thank you Malcolm Gladwell for your brilliance, your work and most of all, your humility.