Well Said Podcast | Aug. 4

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Heather Reisman:
Hi, I’m Heather Reisman, and this is Well Said, a podcast on the art and science of living well. This podcast is brought to you by Indigo.

Malcolm Gladwell [preview]:
The kind of brilliance and personality traits and obsessiveness that it takes to conceive of a technological breakthrough also makes you the least trustworthy guide to how that invention will be received and used by society.

Heather Reisman:
We’ve all learned and been inspired by Malcolm Gladwell. His New York Times bestselling books, The Tipping Point, Blink, the Outliers, and Talking to Strangers, have helped us to think about things in new and more meaningful ways. His newest book, The Bomber Mafia, is a departure from what we have come to expect from him. It is a history book, of sorts—the story of a few very consequential people during the dramatic years of World War Two. With his penetrating mind and unique talent, Malcolm not only entertains us with The Bomber Mafia, he provokes us, as he always does, to think about how we approach tackling really big and important problems and the sometimes unintended consequences of those decisions.

I am delighted to welcome Malcolm Gladwell to Well Said. Malcolm, I have enjoyed every conversation we have ever had over the years, and I’m looking forward to this one. So thank you, so much.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Thank you, Heather. My pleasure.

Heather Reisman:
OK. So. What I’d like to do is let’s just start with the title of this book: The Bomber Mafia. Who were The Bomber Mafia?

Malcolm Gladwell:
So, in the 1930s in—just outside of Montgomery, Alabama, in a forgotten little air force base, they were a group of young men who had deliberately sequestered themselves as far as possible from Washington, DC, where the military leadership was, because they wanted to explore a really radical idea. And the radical idea they had was that airplanes, and in particular bombers, were going to reinvent war. And they thought that the combination of this new thing called a bomber and a new technology that allowed us to drop bombs with precision would make every other part of warfare obsolete. No more armies, no more navies, no tanks, no infantry, no artillery, nothing. They thought that the only thing that would matter was going to be bombers.

And they were so obsessed with this idea, and they were such a tight-knit group of obsessives, that their enemies dubbed them “The Bomber Mafia,” which, you know, remember, in the 1930s calling someone a member of the mafia was quite an insult. That was the height of the Mafia. But they grew to quite like the term. And so that was the—ever since then they have been known by that.

Heather Reisman:
So kind of a renegade group but who were pushing against, when you say, they were pushing against conventional ways of doing war.

Malcolm Gladwell:
One of the Bomber Mafia famously says, “If everyone back in Washington knew what we were up to, we’d all be fired.”

Heather Reisman:
This is a particularly interesting group of people. So before we delve in, I want to bring all the characters in, for the people in this audience who haven’t yet read the book. So you’ve got this—this group of generals who are going to go against the grain and want to do it differently. And then there’s your other main character, Carl Norden. In short, tell us a little bit about who he was and what his claim to fame is—essentially, how he got to be labelled the person who came up with the Holy Grail of bombing.

Malcolm Gladwell:
So, Carl Norden is someone who set out to resolve what was, in the early days of aviation, military aviation, the great technological problem. And the great technological problem was no one knew how to drop a bomb out of an airplane with any accuracy. So if you think about it, it’s an incredibly difficult physics problem. You’re in a plane flying at whatever, 250 miles an hour; you’re six miles up in the air; you’re trying to drop an object, a small object, to hit a little tiny object, a little tiny area on the ground, a house, a factory, a bridge. And it’s falling; the wind is blowing; the air pressure is changing; the temperature is changing; there’s cloud cover. There’s a million problems. I mean, think of all the variables. The Earth is turning, right? I mean, that’s another variable you have to think about. You know, and there’s all … There’s a, you know, there’s dozens and dozens and dozens of different factors that will affect your ability to drop that bomb with any accuracy. And if you, in the early, mid-1930s, even into the early years of the Second World War, no one knew how to solve that problem.

When you dropped a bomb, when the Germans were dropping bombs, you know, on London during the Blitz. So the RAF was dropping bombs on Germany in 1943 and ’44; they were missing more often than they were hitting. And Carl Norden said, “I can solve that problem.” And he’s this brilliant, irascible, eccentric Dutch inventor who creates what is essentially an analogue computer, which costs an insane amount of money and takes six months to master—and which he has people pull all kinds of levers, and it has gyroscopes, and it has all, you know, it’s this sort of it’s all inside this—it’s about the size of a very large football. It’s actually called “the football.”

And he starts making these analogue computers for the U.S. air force. And he convinces the air force that with the use of this device, called the Norden Bombsight, they can start dropping bombs accurately. And that claim allows the Bomber Mafia to believe they can reinvent war.

Heather Reisman:
So those two things come together, but does it really turn out to be the case? Does it really turn out to be the case that they were able to achieve their sense of accuracy and therefore limit the amount of collateral damage?

Malcolm Gladwell:
Does any technological dream turn out the way it’s intended? We were told when Twitter was invented, it was going to allow people to overthrow dictatorships. When Facebook was invented, we were told it was going to bring people closer together. When the new vaccines came out, the new mRNA vaccines came out in the end of last year, we were told this was, you know, a medical breakthrough so brilliant that everybody would set out to be vaccinated the minute they were available. Last I checked, a good 25 per cent of the American population is refusing to be vaccinated. I mean, I could go on. Right? We were told that the car was going to, you know, shrink distance and give people freedom; now we end up in traffic jams on the, on the 401 every morning.

Heather Reisman:
So what should we—and we’ll get back to the specifics of the story but—what should we understand about the potential unintended results of breakthrough invention? What should we, as humans, understand about the opportunity and the limitations of any great invention?

Malcolm Gladwell:
That the—the kind of brilliance and personality traits and obsessiveness that it takes to conceive of a technological breakthrough also makes you the least trustworthy guide to how that invention will be received and used by society. In other words, you want to know how Facebook is going to turn out, don’t ask Mark Zuckerberg. You know, he’s a dreamer and a—an obsessive. He’s not the person who is—is going to think through all the things that are going to go wrong. Henry Ford’s not going to tell you what’s going to go wrong with the car.

Heather Reisman:
Let’s stick with this for a minute, because I feel it’s just such a compelling point—particularly as it relates to Facebook and any of the social media platforms, and the domination of technology. So how should we, as a society, how should we as individuals, individuals who make decisions on who we vote for, advance our society? How could we reconcile our enchantment with new inventions, that seem to grab us at any moment, with the balancing of what to do about them?

Malcolm Gladwell:
This is precisely why the subject matter of this book attracted me in the first place. Because, even though I’m telling a story from the Second World War, involving a very specific question in military aviation—which is you can drop a bomb accurately, what does that mean for the way you fight wars—it struck me that I was telling a very modern story, which is exactly what you just asked, which is: what happens to new ideas when they encounter the real world? How does the innovator cope with the reality of his or her innovation?

One of the things I think we learn is that innovators make a series of relatively predictable mistakes. One of the mistakes they make is they assume that the world is going to adapt to their idea far more quickly than is actually the case. So I’ve been fascinated by this, actually, for a long time: how much longer it takes for brilliant ideas to be adopted than one would imagine.

The innovator also underestimates the complexity of the world that his or her idea is being introduced to. You know? You don’t think about that; you’re so focused on your little thing.

Heather Reisman:
You’re telling us that people who invent things that are significant, that are perceived as significant at the moment, and they gather currency—whether it takes a little while or not, the case of Facebook did not take a while, relatively speaking, Twitter did not take a while, so—so whether they gather currency quickly or not, is the point that these brilliant people, who can imagine something new, can’t anticipate how it will live in larger society? And inevitably there are some fallouts. I guess my question is: do we simply have to accept? Because it’s axiomatic, right? If it’s never happened, you can’t—to your point, you can’t ever figure out what will happen. Is it axiomatic that humans just have to messily work through the consequences, and the bigger the invention the longer the consequence? Or could we change the way we think, and as soon as we let something new into the world be deliberate about being conscious of those consequences? Or I wonder, is that too utopian an idea?

Malcolm Gladwell:
One idea is to do way more kind of simulations, war games. You know? I’m thinking of—to go back to the vaccine example, I gave a talk, about a year ago before we had any of these new vaccines, in which I was … I gave a kind of prediction. I said, you know, we’re going … We knew at that point, a year ago, we knew we were going to get these new kinds of, of mRNA vaccines. That’s a revolutionary new way of vaccines. We also knew they were going to be—we didn’t know precisely, we knew they were, in all likelihood, going to be really effective, but more than that that we get them quickly. You know, vaccines usually take forever.

So I gave this talk. And I said, “They’re going to come. These mRNA vaccines are going to come.” And I said, “What’s going to happen is we’re going to kill the anti-vaxxer movement once and for all. Because there’s no way you’re going to be able to stand up and believe that vaccines don’t work, in the face of this brilliant new technology that solved the problem of COVID in record time.” That was my prediction. Now, totally wrong. Right? If anything, the anti-vaxxer movement seems to have like gained some—at least in America—it seems to have gained a new life.

If I had had … What I did not do, what was outside of my imagination, was the kind of strength and persistence and perversity of the anti-vax position. I didn’t realize how strongly held that position was. Why? Because I had never sat down and had a conversation with someone before I made that prediction. Right? I was guilty of the very thing I’m writing about in my book, which is innovators don’t take the time, I mean, I’m not calling myself an innovator in this, but people who hold ideas don’t take the time, sometimes, to think through all of the different ways in which their idea will be received—partly out of what I was talking about, even, you know, we cannot make a list of all the things that have never occurred to us, but partly because I think there is this problem of overconfidence and arrogance. And I will point my finger at myself. When I gave that speech, I was exhibiting a kind of arrogance, because I was so excited about this new technology, I simply assumed everyone else would be too.

Heather Reisman:
I’m curious—and it’s a bit your obsession and the book deals with obsessions a bit—what is it about this period and these people that compelled you to actually tell a story, tell this deep story, write this book, do your amazing audiobook? What is it about this that is such a compelling subject to you?

Malcolm Gladwell:
Well, the characters. You know, I wanted to do—in addition to being a book about innovations and what happens to them, it’s a character study. The book is organized around the relationship between two air force Generals, one of whom is the kind of spiritual leader of the Bomber Mafia, a man named Haywood Hansell, and one is his antagonist, this guy named Curtis LeMay, one of the most controversial air force generals of the 20th century. And they’re—they couldn’t be more different, these two. They are polar opposites in every way. Hansell is this dreamy romantic and Curtis LeMay is this kind of hard-bitten, unsentimental, bloodthirsty, you know, warmonger. And they, you know, they know each other. At one point, LeMay serves under Hansell. They’re fighting in the same theatre for a time. They hate each other. And everything that Hansell believes, LeMay thinks is nonsense—worse than nonsense, he thinks is heresy.

And the story of the book is the story of their antagonism, and what happens. The book ends with this moment when they go head to head, and their visions collide. And it is a harrowing—I don’t want to give it away—but it’s a heartbreaking, harrowing conclusion. And as a writer, it’s rare that you find a story where the—the argument is so kind of beautifully illustrated by these compelling characters.

Heather Reisman:
There’s another interesting idea that surfaces in the book which is this concept of the true believers—the people who hold fast to their beliefs so strongly that they’re not letting anything else in. And it might even come back to the true believers about anti-vaxxers. Do you have a perspective on the danger, or maybe the lack thereof, of true believers, particularly in the context of today?

Malcolm Gladwell:
The Bomber Mafia, what’s interesting about them is that they bring this set of radical ideas to the Second World War. And they spend years trying to put them into practice. And they meet with failure after failure after failure after failure, and yet they don’t give up. They persist in trying to practise this kind of precision bombing. It’s not working. It doesn’t work in Europe. It doesn’t work—they moved to the Pacific theatre, and it doesn’t work in there. And they won’t give up.

And that was really fascinating to me. And it struck me again as something very typical of innovators is their persistence. And that is both a problematic thing and also a powerful and beautiful thing. And I’m grateful for their persistence. I am grateful for, you know, human beings, we shouldn’t move in lockstep. And I think this applies to—a little bit to the anti-vaxxers, in some way. The kindest thing you can say about that is that they are evidence of what is actually an important human trait, which is that all of us adapt to new realities at a difference pace. If we all moved in lockstep, in lockstep, we would be in trouble. We don’t want to do that.

You—what you want is people moving in, at 20 different paces. Because sometimes it’s very problematic if we all move at once. Sometimes really good ideas take a long time to reach fruition, and you want someone who is stubbornly sticking with their radical notion long after it seems like the radical notion is foolhardy. We benefit from that persistence.

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Heather Reisman:
I always like to end these conversations with a few fun questions. So let me start with this. Is there a book that you would say has had a truly profound impact on your life?

Malcolm Gladwell:
Absolutely. In fact, many years ago, two psychologists—Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett—wrote a book called The Person and The Situation, which is a book that kind of opened my eyes. And it was I read it at the very beginning of my own career. And it has influenced every single book I’ve ever written. And Lee Ross just died, and Lee Ross was Canadian. Grew up in Toronto. Was part of this extraordinary—this is going to mean something to you, Heather, I suspect—he was part of this extraordinary group of first-generation Jewish immigrants in Toronto in the ’50s who changed the face of Canada. And they wrote a book saying that when we make sense of people and their accomplishments, we spend too much time talking about personality and not enough time talking about the environment and the people—that surrounds people and the situation that they’re in. I read that book when I was in my 20s. And I have devoted my entire career to, essentially, riffing on that theme. That theme has obsessed me.

Heather Reisman:
And what are you reading now?

Malcolm Gladwell:
I just read what I think is the best beach book of the year, which is The Plot by, her name is Jean Hanff Korelitz.

Heather Reisman:
It’s so fantastic.

Malcolm Gladwell:
It’s so—I started reading it and I was like, “Oh, this is pretty good.” And then about halfway through I was like, “Oh, this is really good.” And then when I had like 10 pages left, I was like, “Don’t talk to me. Don’t go near me. Leave me alone. I need to finish this book.”

Heather Reisman:
That’s fantastic.

What does living with intention mean to you? I’m really intrigued with this idea these days.

Malcolm Gladwell:
Living with intention? When I think of that, I think it’s just about purpose and about having some direction in your life. Having something that you are trying to …. You know, one of my good friends is a pastor in Kitchener, named Jim Lefteeson. And for some reason I think of him when you say that, because he’s someone who has—who lives with intention. And his intention is, if you ever have a meaningful conversation with him, it always comes down to the same thing, which is he would like to understand people, and by understanding them help them. Which is what a pastor is supposed to do. And he’s as good at that as almost anyone I’ve ever met. As you say that, that’s who I think of. And he’s someone I have learned from over the years.

Heather Reisman:
Wouldn’t the world be just a little better place, when you say that, if we all tried to understand each other? I mean, again it might be a bit of an optimistic or even utopian idea, but people like that do have so much influence.

And so for my last question before I thank you for this just wonderful, wonderful time with you: what brings you joy in life?

Malcolm Gladwell:
Well, many, many things. It’s a very long list. You know, going for long runs, spending time with people I love, writing. Actually, re-writing; I am someone who loves sitting down with my first draft and turning it into a second draft. That’s something that brings me incredible joy. So many, yeah. There are many, many things in my life.

Heather Reisman:
Well, I can tell you one thing that brings me and the entire Indigo team joy, and that is getting our hands on a new Malcolm Gladwell book. So thanks for The Bomber Mafia. And thanks again for joining us today.

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Heather Reisman:
Thank you for tuning in to our conversation with Malcolm Gladwell. For more ideas to help you live well, including the book featured in this episode, The Bomber Mafia, visit indigo.ca/podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts. You can follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts. Well Said was produced for Indigo Inc. by Vocal Fry Studios and is hosted by me, Heather Reisman.

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