Malcolm Gladwell on how diversity can be an engine for creativity

The bestselling author and journalist's audiobook 'Miracle and Wonder' tackles the subject by diving deep into musician Paul Simon's career

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 22:  Journalist Malcolm Gladwell speaks onstage during OZY FEST 2017 Presented By at Rumsey Playfield on July 22, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Ozy Fusion Fest 2017)
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Paul Simon’s multimillion-selling 1986 album Graceland might not sound like the most obvious soundtrack for this week’s World Conference on Creative Economy at Expo 2020 Dubai. But as the three-day celebration of the importance of diversity in the cultural industries came to a close on Thursday night, journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell said Simon's process of making one of the most popular records of all time has become an object lesson in the importance of inclusivity and experimentation.

And Gladwell should know. The author of bestselling pop psychology books Outliers and The Tipping Point recently released Miracle And Wonder, a fascinating audiobook that deep-dives into Simon’s career. Gladwell believes there’s a lot to learn about the mechanics of a successful creative career in that one record.

“He's one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, maybe one of the greatest pop music songwriters of all time,” Gladwell says of Simon. “When he releases Bridge Over Troubled Water with his friend Art Garfunkel in 1970, they’re up there with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But by the 1980s, things were not going well for him; he felt creatively he had come to an end. His marriage had fallen apart, his relationship with Art Garfunkel had soured, he was depressed.”

And then, someone gave Simon a tape of South African street music. Something about that sound got him enthused again and, on a whim, he got on a plane to Johannesburg, gathered together South African musicians and wrote Graceland. It’s probably the high water mark of his solo career, a joyous, hopeful album written by a depressed man in his mid 40s.

“It seems really unusual to us that somebody would have produced their greatest work when they were that far into their career; we expect creative bursts of genius to come in people’s twenties,” says Gladwell. “The economist David Galenson calls those sorts of people 'conceptual innovators’ – someone who has a bold and radical idea and expresses it clearly and articulately, in a work of art. Someone like Picasso.

“But far more interesting are the 'experimental innovators'. They never have a big, radical breakthrough idea, they work through trial and error, constantly trying new pathways, opening themselves out to new possibilities. Picasso’s near contemporary Cezanne was like that – now he’s considered to be as influential, but it took him until his fifties and sixties to reach his creative peak.”

Gladwell cites Thomas Schelling’s famous dictum: “No-one, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, can draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” Or, if you rely entirely on your own imagination for solutions, you will always be limited by the contents of that imagination.

If you are willing to experiment, to be brave, to take chances, to be uncomfortable, then the creative life can last as long as you want it to last
Malcolm Galdwell, author and journalist

“So Paul Simon realises that if he goes to this country that he's never been to, and works with musicians he's never met, who are part of a musical tradition and culture of which he is not part, he's opening himself up to possibilities that would never ordinarily have occurred to him,” says Gladwell.

And for Gladwell, such diversity and inclusion has two key benefits. Obviously, it’s important as an expression of social justice; we need to hear from voices that have been silenced or ignored for centuries. But he believes diversity can also be an engine of creativity.

“When you bring diverse voices into consideration, you expand the range of options and ideas available to any kind of creative enterprise,” he says. “Take American universities; we spend an enormous amount of time and attention arguing about their composition, exam requirements and social justice. The argument should be that the reason you want to let people from a diverse group of backgrounds into this elite institution is that if you learn in a group of people who don't think like you, you will get a better education. If you're exposed to that kind of difference during your time in college, you will emerge a better, stronger, smarter, wiser, more loving and empathetic person.

"We don’t make that argument enough, and it breaks my heart.”

So Simon, a white male from New York who had been making music with white men from New York for a long time, decided on this stint to South Africa. There were controversies about apartheid and he didn’t even take any lyric books with him. But a seemingly uncomfortable experiment resulted in the greatest album of his career.

Of course, not all trials like this work. Simon’s next project after Graceland was a flop. But unless he had been open to risk, Graceland itself would never have been the hit it was.

“If you are willing to experiment, to be brave, to take chances, to be uncomfortable, then the creative life can last as long as you want it to last,” says Gladwell. “Open your mind and your heart to those who think and create and live differently from you – and the world will be yours.”

As a takeaway from the compelling three days at the World Conference on Creative Economy, it was thought-provoking stuff.

Updated: December 10, 2021, 11:18 AM