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Malcolm Gladwell: Here's why you should slow down and do less

Malcolm Gladwell
Photo by Bloomberg
Malcolm Gladwell

The constant connectedness of life in 2017 often puts a premium on speed: the sooner, the faster, the better. "The more output you produce, the better your shot at stumbling onto greatness," according to organizational psychologist and "Option B" co-author, Adam Grant.

Not so, says best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell — instead, greatness is about performance.

"In any kind of high-stakes job where the penalty for error is high, you can't afford to have hares," Gladwell tells Grant during an interview at Wharton Business School.

Gladwell, who studied individuals who have achieved remarkable success for his book "Outliers," uses lawyers as an example of where the relationship between speed and performance can break down.

"We do not want the high output, lots-of-errors lawyer," says Gladwell.

"Can you imagine a lawyer who said, 'Here's the contract, take a look. If it turns out it's not right we can just go back and do another version later,'" says Gladwell. "Are you kidding? That's a disaster."

Gladwell continues: "In the financial crisis, someone put the comma in the wrong place and ended up paying $20 a share for Lehman and not $2 a share. Who was the person who read that document at 2:00 in the morning? The hare."

"In any kind of high-stakes job where the penalty for error is high, you can't afford to have hares." -Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author

In some cases, working more slowly, producing less but higher quality work results in greater levels of success. For instance, the publishing industry pressures writers to write quickly, but Gladwell says quality work takes time.

"As a writer, my principal observation about why other writers fail is that they are in too much of a hurry," says Gladwell. "I don't think the problem with writing in America right now is a failure of output. I think it's a failure of quality."

The New Yorker, which Gladwell writes for, is a good example.

"The New Yorker is a hit-driven enterprise, that probably eight articles a year account for 90 percent of people's interest in the product, and so to the extent you could encourage people to write fewer hits, you're better off."

Generalizing that speed is correlated with competence is a good way to miss out on some very talented people, according to Gladwell.

He suggests using apprenticeships or trial periods when hiring, which he says are a version of privileging power over speed. By giving potential hires a reasonable period of time to demonstrate their competence, managers are able to assess the strength of candidates without biasing for how fast they work.

Gladwell concludes: "Let's create a safe space for the neurotic tortoise."

See also:

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