Free will, determinism, and Malcolm Gladwell

What do free will, determinism, and Malcolm Gladwell have in common? Let’s find out, shall we?

Malcolm Gladwell has become wildly popular these days for writing books like The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. My interpretation of his line of thinking runs something like this. One, there seems to be some underlying order to how things unfold. Momentum or pressure builds up to a certain “tipping point.” Then boom! Things progress quickly to its conclusion, like a landslide. Two, our brains are pretty amazing and can learn a lot about this underlying order from very limited experiences. This information is stored subconsciously, and if we can learn to tap into it, we can intuitively make better snap decisions. Three, understanding the first two things won’t make you successful…well, unless you’re just that lucky. Mere mortals like everyone else must build up their skills through persistent hard work. If you keep at it for long enough (10,000 hours or so), then you’ll be ready to seize the opportunity when it presents itself. I’m being reductionist, of course. You should read his books if this kind of stuff interests you.

I think we all know what determinism is. It has many other names: destiny, predetermination, fate, etc. It means that our lives are already scripted by some outside agency. It doesn’t matter what we do, we’ll end up acting according to the script in the end.

The Free Will vs. Determinism debate has been raging forever, but I’ve always suspected that the reality was somewhere in the middle. As Gladwell points out, in order to be successful, you need to be both aware of the underlying rules and tendencies (determinism) and choose to persistently work hard (free will). It’s not one or the other; it’s both! Hallelujah, problem solved! Now smart people on both sides can stop wasting time on this silly debate and focus on something more productive like curing cancer or something.

So thank you, Malcolm Gladwell for unwinding this Gordian Knot. You were not the first one to do so, and you certainly won’t be the last. People are fond of saying, “we must learn the lessons of the past,” and then they promptly forget them…until someone reminds them, and the cycle begins anew. History repeats itself. Is this fate? Or free will?? :P

2 thoughts on “Free will, determinism, and Malcolm Gladwell

  1. “and you must persistently work hard (free will)”

    If you persistently work hard, what causes you to do so?

    Either there is an cause for your persistence, or there isn’t.

    If there is no cause, then there’s nothing more to say. Things which have no cause have no explanation. It’s a random event.

    If there is a cause, then what caused the cause? And what caused the cause of the cause? And so on.

    You can say “I choose to persist.” But *why* did you choose to persist? What caused you to make that choice?

    “My free will caused me to make that choice.” How did it do that? And why did your free will cause you to make that choice?


  2. Yes, that is one way to think of it. This line of questioning can break down anything, but then what are you left with? There is no free will, only the “appearance” of free will. There is no reality, no beginning of the universe…few things, if any, can be defined absolutely.

    But these concepts can still be useful despite their limitations. Even though we cannot truly imagine what “infinity” is, it is still highly useful in mathematics. To get any insights at all, we must simply use the best working definition we have at the time.


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