Author Malcolm Gladwell lectures about the experts and idiots of Wall Street

Paige Comaduran, Paige Comaduran, and Paige Comaduran

From the wrongdoings of the most respected generals in the Civil War to the investment bankers who triggered 2008’s financial crisis, Malcolm Gladwell, award-winning author, journalist and theorist, says only one factor caused these professionals’ failures – their overconfidence.

“Expertise leads to success, leads to overconfidence, leads to disaster, ” Gladwell said about heedless experts who “miscalibrate” the information they are given.

Gladwell, a best-selling author of four theory-based books and one of the 2005 Time Magazine‘s 100 Most Influential People, spoke to a full house at the Arlington Theatre on March 10. The venue was part of the UCSB Arts and Lectures 50th Anniversary and was sponsored by The Simpson House Inn.

Gladwell’s storytelling consisted of making sense of events by looking at the pathology of professionals and paralleling examples of the failures of the American leaders of yesteryear to current ones.

He focused on the cause of the U.S. economic plummet. Investment bankers on Wall Street “were not incompetent; they were brilliant.”

Still, he explained, they believed that they were given perfect information to predict exactly how the market would change.

“Their overconfidence in the information that was presented to them was miscalibrated,” Gladwell said.

His clear voice silenced the audience. The crowd laughed when he shed light on the unfortunate truths about American leaders’ failures. As he strung together example with example, he unveiled his theme of egotistical high-authorities who lack humility.

“Humility is the single (most) important trait that a culture can possess,” he said.

Gladwell, showing his own humility as an expert, said in the concluding question and answer session that he feels blessed in his career to have been “surrounded again and again by people who have guided, and helped, and inspired” him.

One of his most influential guiding lights is his mother, whom he feels “is one of the most beautiful writers” he has ever encountered.

Gladwell has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, before leaving The Washington Post where he was a journalist from 1987 to 1996.

He also speaks internationally, fostering his theories about sociological and psychological behavior of people based on a mass of historical examples written in his books.

After the speech, some audience members sparked controversy by posing questions for Gladwell that contradicted his statements in his speech.

One man asked why Gladwell hadn’t addressed the theories in the first “Freakonomics” book in his own book, “Roe v. Wade trial permitted abortion.

Gladwell said that he doesn’t believe in the theory that such legalized abortions prevented the births of future criminals, thus decreasing the crime rate.

Criminal rates had plummeted, he argued, because the lead in water and gasoline was extracted, and no longer normally consumed by lower-income kids living in inner city areas. If intoxicated, lead can make people have a brash behavior causing criminality.

Gladwell presented colorful historic examples about the mishaps of careless “square of jaw and blue of eye” Civil War generals, politicians and bankers. He said balance is the key to success, especially when you have a high-ranked career with more to lose.

“All of these arguments that I’ve been making… are about striking a balance between the confidence that is necessary to make your way in a complex world, and the overconfidence that becomes fatal to those who try to make sense of a complex world, ” Gladwell concluded.

Then, after a burst of applause, the man with a composed nature and a bushel of brown curly locks walked from the stage, leaving behind his bounty of new thoughts and theories for the audience to take home.