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Malcolm Gladwell drew the largest ever lecture crowd at UTC, and that worried him.

The auditorium was packed with more than 500 people, as countless others listened in live from four separate overflow locations.

"That's the sort of thing that also makes you nervous, because you wonder if there's been some sort of mistake," he joked from the stage of the Roland Hayes auditorium Tuesday. "If anybody was expecting something else ... it's just me tonight."

Gladwell, the nerdy star author whose works of social science include bestsellers "The Tipping Point," "Blink" and "Outliers," came to UTC Tuesday to kick off the George T. Hunter lecture series with a hourlong talk on "Overconfidence and the Diseases of the Experts."

Using illustrations from the recent financial crisis and the Civil War, he talked about how experts with an abundance of talent and information sometimes are doomed to failure simply because they think they cannot fail.

"When experts make mistakes ... they may be really good at what they do, but they think they're really, really really good at what they do. And in that gap is an extraordinary opportunity for failure," he said, pointing in the air with his slender fingers, his head shaking the mass of tiny curls in his hair. "Incompetence is the disease of idiots. Overconfidence is the disease of experts. Incompetence annoys me; overconfidence terrifies me."

In conclusion, Gladwell said, "In times of crisis, we think we need to rely on the expertise of our leaders. We don't. We need to rely on the humility of our leaders."

Corinne Allen, executive director of the Benwood Foundation, which along with the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and CreateHere, sponsored the event, said Gladwell was the ideal speaker for the lecture.

"The purpose of this lecture series was to bring the nation's best speakers here to promote civic dialogue. I think he's one of the most provocative speakers we've had," she said, adding that her favorite of his books is "Outliers."

Earlier Tuesday, Gladwell spoke with staff writer Kelli Gauthier.

Q: Which of your book theories can you most see at work in your own life?

A: I think "Outliers," probably. The theme of "Outliers" - how much of our accomplishments are a result of our environment outside ourselves - is very much how I see my own success. "Outliers" is supposed to make the successful a little more humble about what they've done. In the course of examining my own life, that's the conclusion I came to.

Q: How has the current state of the economy affected your theories for helping others envision success?

A: Well, I guess, I mean, "Outliers" talks a lot about the kind of institutional and cultural forces that help to shape success. And, you know, for better or worse during this recession, we have rediscovered the government as an agent of economic change and security. So in a certain sense, the recession has stripped us of this illusion that we can make it all by ourselves. It's sort of reminded us that, no, when banks collapse or General Motors hits the wall, there's no alternative but sometimes for the government to step in. In a certain way, ³Outliers² is a kind of testament to collective action; this recession has underlined that idea.

Q: Some people fear that you give credibility to teachers who are dismissive about social media and collaborative learning, saying kids need to learn skills related to the new tools so they'll be able to put the tools to better use. What is the role of social media, collaborative learning and crowdsourcing in education?

A: Well, you know, I will say in general ... the piece ["Small Change," The New Yorker, Oct. 4, 2010] isn't dismissive of social media at all. In fact, I very explicitly talk about the things that it does and it does very well. And I mention in the piece how I think that collaboration and the sharing of ideas and the linking up with people in difference places is one of the extraordinary achievements of social media. I was just interested in whether it is a useful tool for people who are engaged in risky social activism, who are trying to challenge the status quo ... I think it's a fabulous learning tool, and that's why I said so in the piece.

Q: You once said, "We have a scarcity of achievement [in this country] because we're squandering that talent." What needs to change in higher education in order to not squander talent?

A: Where to start? So many things. One is obviously that the cost of education, of higher education, has been growing faster than the rate of inflation for a very long time. Everything is getting cheaper except for health care and education, higher ed. That clearly is putting a serious constraint on the access to higher education among people who aren't from the wealthiest section of the population. So that's one piece, the cost thing.

And second, when you look at the mediocre performance of our [kindergarten] through 12 education compared to our other Western countries around the world, we're clearly not preparing people for a university education the way that we ought to be. There are any number of reasons for that. And then I would add a third part of that is that we're not educating people in the right areas. We're in this weird situation where we have the highest level of unemployment for many years and yet there are all kinds of jobs that require an engineering or science background that are going begging. And that's crazy. That's just a small beginning, but the basic question you can ask yourself is: How efficiently are we making use of the human potential in the American population? And when you have cost issues, and when you have preparation issues and when you have fit issues ... then you are leaving a lot of talent on the table, and that's not something we can afford to do.

Q: What's your secret for making science approachable for the masses?

A: I don't know what my secret is. I don't know that I have a secret. I just write about things that interest me. And because I'm not an expert. ... I tend to ask the same kind of questions that my readers ask. I always say that I write for my mother, which is not a joke. I write for ... reasonably well-educated, curious people who want to know more about the world. But we're not experts in the fields we're necessarily interested in, we're lay people. We just want to get a sense for what the right type of questions to ask are and to get a little window on how other people think of things.

Q: Can you give us an idea of what you're working on next?

A: I have another piece coming out in The New Yorker either this week or next week that is all about what happened in 1970s with people's salaries, the salaries of professionals. And right now I'm working on a piece about the bailout of General Motors and what we can learn from it. And then, I don't know what I'm going to write about next, no idea. Maybe I'll get some ideas in Chattanooga.

Q: No book ideas on the horizon?

A: No, I don't have any right now. I'm in no hurry to write another book. And you can't force it; you either have an idea or you don't, and I don't at the moment.

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