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Credit: Melanie Hilman

Renowned author Malcolm Gladwell debated ideas of success, intelligence, and the fundamental nature of our human abilities with Management professor Adam Grant at an Authors@Wharton event Wednesday night. 

Gladwell, a New York Times bestselling author, public speaker, and acclaimed journalist known for his writings on social behavior, spoke to a crowd of Penn students and faculty in Irvine Auditorium. Responding to challenging questions from Grant, Gladwell gave a lighthearted preview of sixth and latest book, “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know." 

Grant challenged Gladwell on his idea that success depends on hard work, citing research that natural intelligence help people process information more efficiently and contributes to success in all jobs. Gladwell acknowledged that success depends on many factors, going beyond raw intelligence alone.  

“Success is as much about hard work as it is about intelligence,'' Gladwell said. “But there are certain, very particular things that I am increasingly interested in that I think are really useful predictors of real success, not on a granular level. One is people’s willingness to persevere past the point of pretty good.”

Success, Gladwell added, means that you have the freedom to "do whatever you want." He said that he feels he became successful 15 years ago, because that was when he began writing.

Gladwell also touched on issues of privilege as it pertain to legacy college admissions, acknowledging that privilege is a systemic issue that is hard to regulate. 

“Everything that we know about privilege in America suggests that privilege is not merely confined to immediate family circle," Gladwell said. "It has ripple effects that these kinds of kinship roots grow over time and by the third generation you have a big kind of ball of privilege." 

Credit: Melanie Hilman

Students said they appreciated Gladwell's humor and Management professor Adam Grant's challenging questions. 

Gladwell also referenced recent race-related scandals, including the recent discovery of photographs of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau where people were wearing blackface and brownface. He argued that rather than complaining about these individual events from decades ago, people should focus on solving structural issues such as gerrymandering and voter suppression. 

“We did go through a period in this country and many other countries where we were very interested in structural solutions to problems, but it has fallen out of favor,'' Gladwell said. "So what we really believe in now is our ability to raise our voices and cry shame, and what we don’t have any faith in anymore is to get together with some group of people and use existing political and social and regulatory channels to change structures.” 

Gladwell later took questions from audience members, ranging from his advice for insecure overachievers to his opinion on "how doomed Generation Z is from one to 10." 

“Clearly the thing that is really lovely about, I think, this generation that makes it very different from mine is how deeply concerned about other people’s feelings, which is a fantastic thing," Gladwell said of Generation Z. "That they think before they say something, that they want to have a disciplined thinking first.” 

The event was part of the Authors@Wharton Speaker Series, a program Grant launched in 2012 to bring notable guest speakers to campus. Some past speakers have included technology executive Sheryl Sandberg, Penn psychology professor Angela Duckworth, and social psychologist Amy Cuddy. Gladwell has also come to speak at Penn several times before, notably suggesting in 2013 that Penn students boycott football games because of the risks involved in the sport. 

Students said they appreciated Gladwell's humor and Grant's challenging questions. 

“When constantly questioned by Professor Grant, Gladwell’s intellectual opinions helped me think about things from contradictory perspectives, which was something so refreshing to hear,” Wharton freshman Anish Bikmal said.  

“I actually didn’t know who Malcolm was before this discussion, but the talk definitely gave me a feeling of inspiration and relatability," College freshman Poojita Chinmay said. "His intellectual humor was so engaging, and his thoughts on emotions and success were thought-provoking.”