Malcolm Gladwell: Why your attitudes matter as much as your skills

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at HubSpot's Inbound conference in South Boston (photo by Kyle Alspach)
Malcolm Gladwell speaks at HubSpot's Inbound conference in South Boston (photo by Kyle Alspach)

Speaking to thousands of technology and marketing professionals at today’s Inbound conference, author Malcolm Gladwell shared his view on the key to profiting from technological transformation—arguing that there’s not nearly enough focus on our “habits of mind.”

“When people talk about transformation, they focus on the technological aspect, and on the skills necessary to cope with this transformation, the resources necessary,” Gladwell said. “The piece that goes underestimated is the notion of the importance of attitude … Transformation is about much more than using skills and resources and technology. It’s also about habits of mind.”

Gladwell — a longtime writer for The New Yorker and best-selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and the more recently published David and Goliath — summoned a number of biographical anecdotes (as he typically does in his writing) to illustrate his points. Those included Malcolm McLean, creator of the modern shipping container, and Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, both of whom persisted against huge odds to revolutionize their respective industries.

Attitudes shared by both entrepreneurs were as crucial to their success as their particular skills or resources, Gladwell said. They were massively open (willing to consider new and unusual ideas), conscientious (capable of following through on their ideas), and highly disagreeable (able to tune out the naysayers), according to Gladwell.

Critically, McLean and Kamprad also had the imagination to re-frame the problem they were trying to solve. McLean, for instance, framed his challenge as how to move goods from A to B, rather than saying he was in the trucking, railroad, or shipping business. That freed him up to do whatever he need to in order to make it happen, such as going to a crane builder that didn’t specialize in shipping (but instead in lumber) to get cranes made for his new containers.

A final key component, Gladwell said, is a strong feeling of urgency. Steve Jobs was able to build the first successful computer for consumers by copying a central idea from Xerox — the mouse — for the initial Macintosh, Gladwell said. Xerox had been working on its mouse-controlled computer for years, but didn’t release its computer until more than a year after the Macintosh—and it was more expensive, too.

“What was the advantage that Steve Jobs had? He was in a hurry,” Gladwell said. “That’s it. He had a sense of urgency.”

The computer scientists at Xerox were brilliant but they were “taking their sweet time,” he said. Jobs, meanwhile, had “a burning desire to get something done.”

Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
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