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The Happiness Lab Presents: Revisionist History


The Happiness Lab presents an episode of Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History, in which Malcolm explores the delicate science of hiring nihilism, examined in five deeply-personal case studies. Revisionist History is his journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, even a song—and asks whether we got it right the first time. Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
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Pushkin hello, happiness, lab listeners. Today, you in for a tree as our hearing in episode of Malcolm Gladwell, podcast, revisionist history, Malcolm is the author of best selling books like the tipping point outliers and talking to strangers in his podcast revisionist. History Malcolm examined something from the past an event, a person and idea, even a song and asks. Did we get this right? The first time each episode of revisionist history allows us to take a new look at our world today and to think about the origins of stuff we take for granted and all the time and this episode, Malcolm, takes on the question of job interviews
years. Malcolm has been holding forth on the right in wrong way to hire people without giving anything away. I can tell you that he's not a real advocate for interviews, but what does his own hiring record tell us to figure out Malcolm tracks down some of his old assistance. See what they're up to its a trip down memory or lack of memory and welcomes case lane that wines, through an examination of the Peter Principle and his own fathers funeral? I hope you enjoy it and if you have it, listen to revisionist history before you should. There are five whole seasons of episodes to discover you can download them wherever you get your podcast his only doing today ready, but I did I'm doing episode, revisionist history I think I'm obsessed with higher I've always been obsessed with it, so What I'm doing is I'm energy all people I ever hired and you you're the first president aware that bad pretty proudly on so you're Stacy killers.
My first assistant had never had an assistant before that. Maybe fifteen years ago, right after publishing my second book blink. I realized was spending all my time answering emails and booking travel instead of writing. So I decided I needed some out I didn't remember the circumstance, is under, which you can or for me. So I I thought I would just ask you. Remind me again how I found a big seem of what follows. Is it? I have no memory names faces dates. I basically for had everything a normal person doesn't have to do research on their own life, but I'm afraid I do ok, size funny funny memories around the whole hiring situation, so you found we hop how it happened was I had just finished grad school and is looking for a job
Stacy new someone who knew someone who had in assisting, who knew me or something like that very complicated. Anyway, I got Stacy's name and just emailed her out of the blue, we, like you, don't know me when I'm looking for an assistant Would you be interested? We met the next day for coffee. We chatted for literally I'm must say all of thirty minutes here So, yes, we were you going to. You are travelling to South Africa always spoke about of what I can remember is, you had said. Oh, you haven't acts that you have an accent on. My gap is born in South Africa and then asked me no move to a stranger that ongoing South Africa for business or we are for Europe speaking edged with the next day, and so I think about twenty minutes all we talked about, was like recommendations of what you should do in South Africa and pretty much, I think, was the rigorous job and rigorous like yes, you really vetted me through and through my knowledge
where best to eat in South Africa who talked about that. And I remember hilariously being very concerned because I just got in a nose ring. Thinking on all we know. Is he gonna that should take the nose ring out? For that view. Will he notice is this? Europe is a proper professional of me and I lived in a little remember like we'll six months to a year later, when I was ever sleep had me work. If you time and I said to you something about like: do you ever notice that or something about my nose ring came out, you like? Oh, I didn't even know you had one bright and agonized mobile than keep this nose ring in or not for fear that it will. Do you know, I don't know if it would be a bad luck and you did not, like the entire, a year. The first you that I worked for. You did not even notice that I had a nose right. I didn't
it is then I remember now this is getting off to a bad start. My name is Malcolm global. Europe sing to my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood. In this episode turn the unflinching, analytic gaze, that is, revision is history upon myself, Let us use as our text. The lines for the new testament Matthews, seven first, five zau hypocrite. First, cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the moat out of thy brother
Thank you Email me and we'd met the next morning, because if you are leaving shortly after that for South Africa, we spoke for about thirty minutes, twenty twenty five of which was about Africa, then you left me a you said to me, said: ok grade you, I got a couple of people, the interview and saw guess I'll be in touch when I'm back from my travel and like two weeks I saw a monk okay, now good, me too: I'm moving cod, nervous. You left a have to wait now, two weeks to find out about a tender fifteen minutes later my phone, and I also heard in your life it's Melcombe again. So listen! You seem nice enough. Why are you just via and start tomorrow,
misleading. Least professional iris drive ever had in as well as I was like. This must have been like a blink moment for him. I mean you would just finish: riding bling. That's when I started with you like two thousand and five right after that bug and the laughing with you again a few months later well into you, know the job and saying to you. When you hired me you're, we didn't you didn't really very much. Was it like a blink moment? You just new, and you said to me now I could be bought. Going through anymore intervene, and you see rising up. I was like you see myself. If you like guinea veering anyone else. As I stated I remember, none of this but it all seems a little strange, isn't it I was about to handle
the access to all of my business credit cards. Male media requests I would soon make her my main intermediaries, with the entire outside world appear to have read your resume. Skimmed maybe did I ask you to bear? If I asked you any questions about your schooling now, did you have any previous work experience that was relevant. I had, turned and worked at front line, but that's more document. Now really was a man of ITALY didn't work who knew full well if I'd known that it might have been, might have hired you in ten minutes and they're supposed to twenty five. Now my first defense action to a Stacy was telling me was. This was my first tire. What did I know? Then she reminded me:
Someone else. Do you still work with the bad neck? Mama god I'd forgotten that story, the bottleneck, dont bottleneck, even though I barely got started here. This requires a digression. Well, that's a funny story from Ireland where I dislike. You really I'd like you to tell us why all white year, which allows in five how can pull member because I'm so fond link had just hit the shelves. In case you haven't picked up on. It is about the power of first impressions, Don had just read it and liked. So anyway, one day I was out for lunch or went back or something I'm walking back to my office and there and there you are. I thought you walking down the street in the opposite direction of me,
and I know immediately who you were, but I couldn't think of your name. Couldn't think of your name. Couldn't think of your name, you passed by. I turn I'll My mouth, a yellow, hey, Malcolm, but I didn't know your name. I just yelled out, hey Malcolm just just like in the book point and you stop he turned around and seemed like a nice enough guy. You pay upon my energy of being excited by the book, so we're standing on the street talking for a while- and I said she I would love it if you would autograph my book for me and then it dawned on me. We were around the corner from my office, so I said you know what we're corner from my office and you came up to my office- is still didn't know. My name, you didn't know who I was. I was just a nice guy in the street and you come up to my office and we're sitting there talking and that's when you notice things on my desk and you see that the initial c p- and you say to me
oh you're, an account as a german account, and you said I'm really not that happy with the accounting from using right now I hire you and I was a little like excited and dumbfounded at the same time- and I said slowdown, I said I said- will make an appointment for certain will talk about what you're situation is and work on revised. I could possibly give you an answer. You'll figure out. If you want to hire me- and he said now- I want to heart- and I said no, we're gonna. Do this right, we're not gonna. Do this impalpable in eventually you came to my office and I gave you a consultation and you hired me so perfect. Danger shock. I read here, runs up to me on Madison Avenue, Malcolm Malcolm and five minutes I'm trying to hire him to handle all
My most sensitive affairs, who am I you wouldn't. Let me I was a girl. I want to hurt you, wouldn't let me I wouldn't want to one year, because I wanted to have a serious conversation where, where I gave you a consultation, and I discussed what what planning ideas I had for you, I wanted to make sure that you made your decision not faced on impulse but based on some knowledge and trust and confidence that I knew what I was talking about, but I'm just told you didn't like me all the grounds, because a big me are you going about accounting for how could I
now the computational review about whether we should be my account. He had never had caused a conversation with an account, but I will do my account precisely in those around and around and around whatever. This is getting. It bears no comes support. We're trying to send in every sees never vision is history. I followed with so many interview last season, it was Tony doubly the tea connoisseur who accuse me of being a t bro meeting Tony for reasons. I dont entirely understand made me very happy decision before that. It was Casey Ball the musician from Nashville who sang a song? That brings me to tears every time a hearing Gallagher dream and seeing how
k a c. I b, O L, L S son when this is over. Look her up. This season, the interview that surprised me, the most was with someone Adam Cronkite, I talked about him the episode undemocratic lotteries? Adam has made his life's work to convince grade school kids to choose this. In council governments by picking names out of a hat. Actually, Adam works in Bolivia by picking Father beans out of a clay part to ask you. If your question that's Adam have to be done. He seemed slightly mystified about why I had emailed him one day out of the blue, so how'd you find out about Others selection, like Dunkirk, lottery concept, I just you have always interested lotteries and I just was running. Around alone. I ran across Turkey, we're doing a mere two simples ice,
sitting in my coffee shop over there I was a day. I contacted you us like this is really interesting. Study random, now, there's a very important distinction with his whole lotteries It's between agnosticism and nihilism agnosticism is about indifference. It's an elaborate, gallic shrug, diagnostic woods. The reason to choose people randomly propositions of leadership. Is that basically anyone can do the job. The army in wartime has an agnostic position. They believe is they can take almost any able bodied person and turn. Into a reasonably effective soldier, but that's not Adam Crock Rights position. He absolutely thinks that there are good leaders and bad bakers and not everyone is cut out to be student council
He just doesn't believe that the systems we currently use or any good, so he says why bother just pull a name out. No other would argue that in the interests of a fairer system, but let's be clear, he's a nihilist. He does not look at the best apparatus of democratic selection. Honed and perfected over many centuries and shrugged that's what the agnostic would do? No, he looks at those elaborate rituals any rules, his eyes. He says Gimme a break. That's my position too. When it comes to hiring. I look at all the folklore and ritual around predicting how well people will perform, and I say break firemen. I roller not a shudder. I'm a nihilist- and my task in this episode of revision is history
you convince you to be analysed to the patron saint of hiring nihilism without question. Was the author. Educator educated, Peter, all of us in the hiring nervous community worship at his feet, when I was a boy I used to relieve my parents and believe my teachers, and that issue should respect for your elders and better than that, the men upstairs knew what they were doing. That's Peter. He was a Canadian, Am I of course- and I dont know if you remember from the lottery episode but Adam Cronkite went to University in Canada. The nihilist strain runs deep in the land of the frozen prairie anyway. Lawrence Peter was a great effort. Famous for saying things like.
The noblest of all dogs. Is the hotdog? It feeds the hand that bites it. Also deeply involved in something called the kinetic sculpture race in Humble County, California, which is really hard to explain, except to say that it's kind of like the triathlon of the hour, World involving sculptures on wheels that are required to perform certain feats, Peter famously proposed Especial prize called the golden dinosaur Lord, to be given to the first machine to break down immediately after the star which, if you knew lords Peter, you would recognise as being very Lawrence Peter, because his great professional obsession was with incompetence he had harnesses. I for it and ass I looked around me. I saw a sign on a that said: emergency exit, rising personnel only. I wondered who'd written that, but then
later. I saw another sign that emergency exit not to be used under any circumstances learns Peter formulated the most famous laws in social science- he called it the Peter Principle, the Peter Principle states very simply than in any hierarchy and employee, tends to rise to a level of incompetence. That's real estate. People get promoted, based on a prediction about their ability to handle the next job on the hierarchy and they keep rising until the prediction is wrong, you see In any organization where competence is essentially, eligibility for promotion and incompetence is a bar to promotion over them.
Rules apply. People will rise to the love incompetence and tend to stay there. No, it's Peter wrote a book called Peter PAN in nineteen sixty nine and it is delightful exactly in a Lawrence Peter sort of way like he has, riff on the special case of someone who is incompetent, promoted anyway kicked upstairs a movie calls progressive, sublimation or the case when an incompetent purse, is moved out of the way, but given along job title as compensation, Peter called that a ladder all arabesque, no chances. Are you ve heard of the Peter Principle, I'm guessing as a kind of ha ha. That's why my boss is so bad, but it's not a joke. Allow me to direct you to the work of a fellow member
of the hiring Nihilist club, Helen Benson, economist, received Minnesota why He was doing his doctrine at MIT. He got bitten by the Peter principle. Bug has started to go to sales management conferences, and I found there is this adage that the best sales person doesn't necessarily make the best manager. But then people laugh and say, but we do it anyway and I wanted find out. Why the great of using salespeople to validate the Peter Principle, Benson as it is You can measure performance really easily. It's not like assessing the performance of engineers or politicians. Know it's stupid, it forward. You just look at how many sales assails person is made. It is also easy to measure how good a sales manager is. You just add up. The sails of the salespeople manages managing so Ellen Benson finds a tech company itself.
What are those software platforms for sales organizations kind of like salesforce dot com and he gets access to all of their customers data four hundred firms, one hundred thousand salespeople. The first thing he finds is a confirmation of the famous eighty slash twenty rule that twenty percent of the sales people are responsible for eight. Percent of the sales across the board, it's not that we don't know who is a good salesperson. We definitely know some people are really good. Second thing: he finds that those superstars, rewarded. What we found in the data was that topsails people are far far more likely to be promoted into sales management than people who are outside of that top twenty percent, who aren't the best person on the team? Of course, the mix since you give the stones of promotion, that's what everyone
Ok now it gets interesting. One happens when those stars take overs manager, fair salespeople themselves, people who they manage their performances becomes a worse under them. Then it was under their prior managers the stars get promoted and their terrible managers. How terrible really terrible Benson looked at an alternate promotion scenario where companies decide to promote not the stars, but the salespeople, who are good at collaborating nice friendly people who work well with others, and teams managed by the friendly people do thirty percent better than the teams managed by superstars. Thirty percent is huge. Now you might say what does this have to do with nihilism? This is just an argument for promoting friendly people over superstars. That's not by rolling
or even shrugging well, I haven't told you about Benson's last finding because Benson found a fatal flaw in the ultimate promoting scenario, the one that seems to work thirty percent better, which is this. If you promote the friendly sales people over the top sales people than the top sales people get ups, so upset that their performance suffers and they aren't so talk anymore. The whole thing is oh magnificently, perverse, isn't it Oh you're sales come from the same small group of people who expect to be promoted as a reward for their excellence. But if you promote them out of sales, Would you get return, is a lousy manager and if you don't promote them and you pass them off in favour of some warm and fuzzy interpersonal was the top the farmers will pout and stop trying. So what he supposed to do
you, could pay the superstars more more and give them fancier titles The maneuver Lawrence Peter called the lateral arabesque, but you still insulted them by passing them over for the free. There was another idea that some Peter Principle terrorists have floated his lotteries. They end up or Adam Cronkite ended up put everyone's name and a hat and promote the winner. I mean why not, but then why, boss at all no concept of a bus. Is it a boss knows more than the people their basic? There is even a school of thought in the upper reaches of Peter Principle World that the best solution is just too man up. Forget everything else and deliberately promote the incompetent because this way you won't lose one of your superstars by turning them into a lousy manager. You'll transfer an incompetent person from their present position of incomplete. To another position of incompetence. Upstairs
somewhere where they will occupy a position which, according to Peter Principle, was bound to be occupied by an incompetent person. Sooner or later anyway, did you Father Peter principle? Theorizing gets very matter very quickly, which is why most people would rather concern themselves with the soothing banalities of merit and prediction and hurricane. Only a select few are willing to face the truth and who are those brave and lonely heretics. The nihilists people like me who look at the world with a cold and unflinching eye and say under the circumstances. Why bother to learn the first thing about any new perspective job candidate.
Things went well with my first time Stacy, but eventually Stacy needed to move on, and so I had to go through the whole process all over again with Sarah. Basically. We didn't talk about anything professional, as I recall that it was a little bit, family, and then I was half African, and that I could hear that. I knew the fifty states in America in alphabetical order that Sarah, remembering my second ever job interview, and he told me a year this word I taught you are yours: are you wanted to know? If I knew about the aware, maybe here just I just landed, I dunno, but it's the word. That is the kind of the opposite, directional flow of noxious, so nothing
the night, the joy, the children give you and this wide being Lucas yeah, the one that you give them. Yes, he s not ass in the US. I I just given by having to speak two, like some jewish organization in Boston and cause. I'm not. You are so I was filled with anxiety, and so I say as well that I had to impress the morally on it. So I began my speech by presenting thing about the distinction between the US and nothing was done novice right. So. There was schooling, you jewish person, now about yet, I hired Sarah by email. The same afternoon we met, she was another recent college graduate. I didn't really bring up the job description during the interview, because,
at that point. I wasn't really sure what my current assistant was up to. How would I know her job with duty so that I didn't have to do them survive knew what she was doing. She wouldn't be your job, which so stay A brief Sarah about practical things and much more, because now I remember that the two pieces of advice that she kind of impressed upon me like tablets, were I respect your privacy and be nice to his parents as it turned out. Sarah was exceedingly nice to my parents. My father thought you just where the bee's knees here. Thank you are his face. You are absolutely his favorite. I think I told you that strange and wonderful dinner that I had just with the two of us with your mom, and I heard what happened. What happened? I would not just that it was
It was I in New York a festival and you are flying off and I just went to see if they needed anything and I went to see there okay and they asked if I wanted to join the for dinner and and had told me what you're supposed to do in a moment like that, like I use both to go for dynamic, was his parents. You absolutely not supposed to go for it. Put your parents, so I did and they were just Sunday was so kind to me about him and to say very warm. An interesting, and that was that that was it. I think I wrote you about. It was when they asked the way trust. If we wanted pepper on our soup- and I said, he asks I thought, that's what you're supposed to say in your dad said. I don't know, I haven't tried it yet, and it was just it just. It was like, brilliant to me that you could just ass, he was he was being the petitioners scientist about his soup. But it was such a nice
All that somebody agent, I love. I miss my father so much the soup agnostic says, go ahead, put pepper and it's not gonna make much difference. Either way the soup nihilist says pepper, can make a great deal of difference, but it is impossible for me find out whether the waiter is often the pepper, because the soup leaves the kitchen deliberately under peppered or because the restaurant offers pepper as an amenity, regardless of the pettiness of its offerings. Sarah took the nihilist position has what I, of course I always get the pepper. The grand Gladwell was not a suit nihilist. He was a soup empiricist. He tried to soup, then consider the pepper, but on all other men. He took the same approach as I do. What do you think I get it from one snowy day when we were going to his friends, my father took an off ramp too fast
skidded down the embankment and landed on the honourable facing around direction, whereupon he drove off the on ram onto a road that none of us had ever seen before, and then he announced oh This is the way I wanted to go out alone. Did he mean that, yes, he did He believed that, if you're on a road for whatever reason, then that's the road you should take. If an accountant appears before you hire the ec- if Stacy seems nice higher Stacy. That is the way Gladwell think This is, in fact, the subjective by eulogy from my father at his funeral a few years ago, which was one those funerals that wasn't exists. We funeral in that there was so much Graham Global in the air that about halfway through we all forgot. We were supposed to be grieving, for my part, I got up and spoke about all the ways in which my father would have objected to his own funeral. This has been a
take sleep land service so far, my father did not in planning anything the union. He's in anything in my life. My father's life was plan with because in a spectacularly fortunate failure due diligence, he married my mother, then I talked about one of my heroes, Albert O Hersman, who is the true godfather of my kind of? I listen even more than nor its Peter Hersman was an economist and one of the towering intellectuals of the twentieth century. He help save the lives of count. Jews in the Second World WAR later he travelled to exotic lands. He was a man of action as well as words is
but in principle was always the hamlet was wrong and by that her method, hamlet with someone who's doubts made he'd incapable of acting right. Emma was frozen to be or not to be. That's the question, but Hersman Point was the hamlet, had it backwards that your doubts should free because once you ve accepted that you dont know what happens next, that you can't predict or plan everything in your life, then you're free to act because, what's holding back. What is there to be afraid of if you ve, given up on the illusion of knowing what could possibly happen? I I love her because he reminds me of my father. I think my father thought that him was wrong. She believe in God, even though no mathematical proved exists got existence doubt did not compromise his face. It was what gave him freedom to believe.
He married my mother, even though the world told him not to do that, went on walked about knowing where he would end up. He never looked at a map. He would you say, I'm going to follow. My nose he built a greenhouse even didn't know anything about carpentry I remember once looking out the window, the child I saw the cat whose cat streaking at top speed with his ears bag and following a cat, our dog at top speed with years back look of terror his eyes and then copy sprinting. At top speed, safety, the House and I thought what on earth And then I saw the shoe swarm of angry bees. Happy felt the freedom to be a beekeeper, even know it.
Didn't really understand how peace I like to think that I learned from the best hamlet, never kept b, but never had any fresh honey I'll stop, because my if my father The speaker had gone on too long. He would just get up and he would act. If you taking a walk at this point, my hiring. Nihilism failed just once it was The assistant came after Jane, Jane was there is roommate, go my heart because liked. Sarah and I thought under the transit of property that if Sarah was great, surely that meant that Jane would be great? because what are the odds here? It is no good taste in roommates and sure enough. Jane was great, Jane turned out to be the kind of person
who plan D day invasion and then checking with Churchill and Roosevelt at five on a Friday and say Do you need anything worth me before the weekend anyway, Jane want to move on, and I hired call her Susan. Susan seemed super nice, but she was not a good assisted in a spanish judge, few weeks- she made one air after another, some trivial, some major then, just as I was about to go out on a book to her she announced she was taking another job, leaving me in the lurch. I recommended her. She knew it wasn't working up, she was upset and apologized I had forgotten.
The whole incident until in the course of my forensic analysis of my hurrying history, one of my old assistance reminded me, so I searched back to my old emails and found this an email from me to Susan. Dear Susan, please don't be yourself up. Some people are good at this kind of work. Some people are not. It has no larger significance. Like how high you can jump or whether you were good at bowling. You are probably best for more scholarly pursuits in the end, which is not a bad thing. I was probably exactly the same way as your age I can't believe I wrote that email, it sounds so sweet and understanding, but I'm not Sweden. Understanding am, I know not really. What I am is a hiring, nihilist and Parents of graciousness is simply one of the wonderful side effects of hiring nihilism, because if you believe,
that nothing in someone's performance in one job predicts their future performance in another job. If you believe that the whole protection system, when it comes to people is just an extravagant exercise in so delusion, then you are free to say to Susan, it's, ok, the fact that you didn't work out is my assistant has no larger significance because it doesn't life's too short. You need an account. You made an account higher the accountant, You need Stacy, and you cancel all your other interviews because you realize what's the point, the Nautilus believes that people are mysterious and unpredictable. That life is a big crapshoot and at most of the systems, put in place are: they are just to satisfy our illusion that we can see into the future email went on items sorry. I was as harsh as I was with you. It's So this is a rather stressful time,
I have a million things going on, but Jacob, I believe, is just the kind of anal obsessive detail, oriented sort who will certainly well smiley face so well that ends well good luck with your next job. I wish you all the best and wait Jacob ass, Jacob Psmith, Susan's successor yeah, do you remember where the unity was whose at your place, Member that you know me, I don't really like dress up dress up, but I dressed up as much as I do and I, this. If we remember that you were but you weren't shoes. I think I had to take off my shoes. Do you remember what we what we talked about? What I asked you about that Obviously, the thing that always stuck with me, as you asked if I drive stick shift just yes, that is too big
I'm a real asked when my parents did just now, is a good question. I loved the faculty parents, teachers those two answers seal it forward, do you remember how long is yours? I remembered it was at war and am and being out of their nose like one twenty- and I well that either one really well are really poorly gets out. The fastest job interview had, and that's with, like five to seven minutes of just probably small talk and kind of getting settled in yeah, do three things in their to you? You drive. Stick your parents teachers. Then you said something that has already said. Then I'm so. I know that I would do something something I think we he's. Of admitting, to be honest, is a task. That is exactly what I want, which is money in retrospect I dont actually think about anal. I think I was paid that up having owes but actually but didn't see. If I might offend, I was interested in someone who understood They need to represent themselves as a anal.
As I am someone who's Juliet right right, you wouldn't actually want me to be severe now and how did Jacob work out? well for once in your life, listen to the cramps revisions. History is produced by Jacob Smith. You'll about with leaving us do aluys that and on an aim. Our editor, is Julia Barton Flood Willie is our engineer fact checking by best Johnson original music by Luis Gara, special thanks to Carl big Liore had a feigned Eric Sandler, Maggie Taylor and L halfway Jacob iceberg. Vicious history is brought to bear.
Shit industries and your resident nihilist, Malcolm.
Transcript generated on 2020-08-10.