Editor’s Note: In more than two decades of journalism, at the Washington Post and then The New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell has fed his curiosity with innumerable questions and swept his audience along on countless journeys of discovery. When the ideas just got too big for articles, he started writing books – three in the last nine years – distilling and expanding his article research into broad and engaging analyses. The latest of his book-length works, Outliers, caught the attention of RedFence and we decided to take a look back at all three of his books. RF newcomer Andrew Collins begins here with The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, (2000) In coming months we will explore Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005) and, of course, Outliers: The Story of Success (2008). A collection of his work at The New Yorker can be found in Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw—TG
The Causes Behind the Curtain
Malcolm Gladwell likes to know “why.” Why do some succeed while others fail? Why do people have “gut feelings” and why do they often prove accurate? Why are there so many kinds of mustard, but only one kind of ketchup?
In The Tipping Point, the first of his three New York Times bestselling books, Gladwell asks what makes a trend turn into a fad and even a grand social movement? He explores topics as curious and varied as shoes, crime, and television shows. From these, the book springboards into a deeper discussion about “social epidemics,” phenomena sparked by what the author dubs “Tipping Points.”
Drawing upon knowledge he acquired as a business and science reporter for the Washington Post and leaning heavily on research and experts from a variety of fields including psychology, business, and religion, Gladwell works to debunk common notions about trends – like the explosion of Hush Puppies shoes.
“For Hush Puppies…the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995,” Gladwell, now a New Yorker staff writer, wrote in his self-described “biography of an idea.” He continues, “The idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the … mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.”
Consider a familiar historical example. Everyone has heard that Paul Revere rode to warn the American colonists of British invasion. Most people do not realize that another revolutionary named William Dawes set off in the opposite direction across Boston with an identical message. Dawes rode through just as many towns and reached just as many people as Paul Revere. Furthermore, the countryside he rode through was not pro-British any more than Revere’s route.
What makes one of these men a national hero and the other largely forgotten? Revere was a “connector,” Gladwell writes, someone who has a knack for meeting people and making friends. He surely had a huge social network in and around Boston, so when he galloped through the countryside, people knew who he was, respected what he said, and responded accordingly. Who would have thought than an entire revolution could have been sparked by one unique personality on one night? This is only one of the writer’s many examples.
Gladwell’s particular genius manifests by offering simple theories with incredibly complex practical applications. He argues that specific and precise causes undergird every social phenomenon that hits the Tipping Point, but rarely do they ever arise from the mass advertising campaigns or social programs that one might expect. Superficial views and intuitions should not be relied upon too heavily in the world of social epidemics, Gladwell writes. Instead, he offers three basic principles for understanding Tipping Point phenomena:
1. The Law of the Few: identifying key influential and knowledgeable people.
2. The Stickiness Factor: discovering what makes a message “stick” in the minds of the audience.
3. The Power of Context: people are sensitive to environmental changes.
From here, Gladwell demonstrates that it takes a little guessing and experimentation before one can explain, or expect to spark, an epidemic product or idea.
Do not be misguided. This is not a hard sell or typical how-to book. The Tipping Point does not hold a secret formula to economic success, never professes to solve all of the world’s problems, and certainly makes no claim to be the final word on the subject. On the contrary, Gladwell constantly stresses the fact that we live in an extremely complex and unpredictable world. It makes no sense to run the same TV episode five days in a row, but in the case of Blue’s Clues, it worked. It makes sense to prevent teen smoking by keeping them from experimenting in the first place, but anti-smoking campaigns have seen little widespread success.
Gladwell sets out merely to point readers in the right direction, and it is fair to say he does so with resounding success. Indeed, the writer seems to approach the book as a personal learning experience — as much as any reader might. Later editions even include an afterword in which Gladwell speaks of The Tipping Point in retrospect. There he finds even more real-life applications and problems concerning Tipping Points, while admitting that the example concerning teen smoking may have been used too cavalierly.
There may be few purely original ideas or artistic elements in The Tipping Point — the author relies almost exclusively on the latest sociological and psychological research and experience of others to make his arguments — but this book takes the pieces of the epidemic puzzle, attaches all of the edges, and leaves the interior details and application to the reader.
Gladwell’s research is, for the most part, sufficient to make his point without bogging down the flow of the book. In a few instances he uses a single study to make a sweeping assertion, and while these assertions are not necessarily unmerited, readers who tend to be skeptical of polls and statistics may not be satisfied with every point or conclusion.
It may seem hard, initially, to understand why Gladwell is writing this book in the first place. He does not set out with any grand personal agenda. He has no axe to grind or souls to save or a particular audience to please. Instead, he comes across as a humble writer trying to get people to see the world in a new way. The burden of responsibility then falls on the readers to go out, find Tipping Points, and make the world a better place … one epidemic at a time.