Malcolm Gladwell – The Fascinatingly Flawed Intellectual

Malcolm Gladwell – The Fascinatingly Flawed Intellectual

I’m interested in collecting interesting stories, and … collecting interesting research. What I’m looking for is cases where they overlap.

Malcolm_Gladwell_2014_(cropped)Is it surprising that one of the most popular non-fiction writers in the world today is a lanky, bespectacled, wild-haired, British-Jamaican-Canadian?  Or is it more surprising that several of the ideas he helped popularized have been proven wrong? Or is it most surprising that this may actually be a good thing?

Malcolm Gladwell first gained attention in 1996 by writing in The New Yorker magazine. Over the past twenty years he has written five bestselling books and an essay collection that have challenged conventional thinking on a variety of topics.  To me, Gladwell’s talent is his ability to systematically condense and connect information from a wide range of disciplines, and then write for a general audience with an attention grabbing style.  I greatly admire the way that he constructs his riveting stories, covers a broad spectrum of knowledge, and shows that there is no shame in being a big nerd! However, his popularity has earned him many critics.

Below are what I believe are the top takeaways from his six books.

Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

When a virus, fad, or idea spreads at an accelerated rate it is said to have reached a “tipping point.”   In the book, Gladwell defines it as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”  He asserts that three key types of people are required to create a tipping point.

  • Connectors: People who seem to know everyone and can facilitate introductions that would otherwise never happen.
  • Mavens: The experts in a given topic.  He writes, “Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know.”
  • Salesmen: People who know how to sell the idea or item to a broader market.

The combined efforts of these three types creates what we think of as a “viral” sensation.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

It is no secret we rely on snap judgements.  All it takes is one look at a person to sum them up.  This mental process of “thin-slicing” is the phenomena at the heart of Blink.  Gladwell shows how thin-slicing can be an extremely beneficial approach when combined with the right training and experience.

However, thin-slicing can go wrong when our minds are poorly primed.  Gladwell illustrates with many cases. The most amusing to me was President Warren Harding..  A “halo effect” made voters assume he would be a great leader based on his physical characteristics and demeanor.  Unfortunately, history views Harding as one of the least effective Presidents, remembered for the Teapot Dome scandal and the fact he died in office.

Outliers: The Story of Success

Why do some people skyrocket to success while most others barely get off the ground?  In this book, Gladwell explores an unseen side of success. While the American Dream narrative relates success to hard work and indomitable spirit, Gladwell spends time highlighting how uncontrollable factors such as the month of your birth, fortuitous family relations, and cultural heritage may be more significant.

Using the examples of The Beatles and Bill Gates, Gladwell argues that they were not overnight successes.  The Beatles practiced their music in Germany for years before finding success in the UK. Gates had unique access to computers and coding that enabled him to get a huge head start over his future competitors.

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

This diverse collection of essays ranges from the fall of Enron, to criminal profiling, to a biography of the “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan.  My favorite idea from this book was the Quarterback Problem.

Every year NFL teams collectively draft 256 college players.  Generally, star college receivers, defenders, kickers, and running backs carry their skills into their NFL role.  The same cannot be said for the most important player on the team, the quarterback. Essentially, the only way to know if a quarterback will succeed in the NFL is to have him play NFL games, a costly proposition.  Every year high draft quarterbacks wash out of the league. Yet perhaps the best to play is a scrawny guy drafted in the fifth round and now a six-time Super Bowl champion named Tom Brady.

The essay highlights how many professions, like teachers and financial advisors, have a similar quarterback problem in that even with sophisticated recruitment tests and interviews, we don’t know how these people will perform until they are in the job.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants

Was David really the underdog in the battle with Goliath?  While this story is commonly viewed as the archetypal little guy winning the day, Gladwell’s reexamination is a jumping off point to explain how we frequently misunderstand perceived disadvantage.  In his reinterpretation, David had a huge tactical advantage over the hulking brute Goliath. “David’s sling is a devastating weapon. It’s one of the most feared weapons in the ancient world. The stone that comes from his sling has the stopping power equivalent to a bullet from a .45 caliber pistol. It’s a serious weapon.”  He uses the Biblical story to point out how being small and nimble is a great advantage in the face of large, slow opponents.

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know

Have you ever fallen for a confidence scam or been misled on an investment scheme?  If so, the “default to truth” bias may be to blame. Most people are wired to trust others, even strangers, because it generally works.  However, this makes us vulnerable to deception. To illustrate, Gladwell shares the stories of spies like “The Queen of Cuba” and ponzi financier Bernie Madoff to show how easily even experts can fall for liars.

The book opens and closes with the case of Sandra Bland, an innocent African-American women arrested in bizarre traffic stop by a white officer.  Her suicide in jail three days later would stun a nation. Gladwell tries to show how charges of racism alone do not fully explain what happened and that certain truths run much deeper than skin color.  Read this review in The Guardian for a detailed explanation.

Popular and Criticized

Gladwell bridges the worlds of academia and popular non-fiction in a delicate balancing act.  A piece in The New Republic seems to capture his essence: “If his books do not display … intellectual rigor … Gladwell seems to be suggesting, it is because they serve a different purpose. Interweaving academic research with real-life stories, Gladwell aims—as he puts it—’to get people to look at the world a little differently.’” 

Over the years, a number of ideas that he popularized have been strongly criticised.  An example from The Tipping Point is the “broken windows theory” of policing in which he argued that New York crime rates dropped due to invasive policies.  Many writers, such as Rachel Nuwar, showed his conclusions to be inaccurate.  Another example, this time from Outliers, states that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to become a master in a given field.  Recent writers like David Epstein have challenged this conclusion with strong empirical evidence that the actual time varies and depends on many factors.

So should we dismiss Gladwell for getting things wrong?  It is certainly appropriate to chastise him for sloppy research or for exaggerating evidence to fit an appealing narrative.  However, I believe that Gladwell’s willingness to share his views and conclusions on topics is admirable. Writers like Gladwell offer an accessible and entertaining path to topics that many people would never explore.  So while we seek answers, I believe that opening the discussion is often more important than coming to a final definitive conclusion.

To put it another way, Gladwell makes us think, which I believe is something we all need to do more.

For further exploration, please visit Malcolm Gladwell’s web site and download his podcast, Revisionist History.