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In which I breathlessly and irrelevantly discuss Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell was profiled on 60 Minutes last night. My wife and I were trying to make dough at the time, and it needed about an hour to rise. I had just watched the obliteration of the Colts by the Cardinals, and 60 Minutes was beginning, and the first story — on the apprehension of Whitey Bulger — seemed interesting, so I rolled with it. (I typically watch 60 Minutes, but usually I’ll watch it the next day online or on the CBS News Hulu app or something.) When they previewed the show off the top, Anderson Cooper did his rundown of the Gladwell profile teaser, and my wife turns to me and says, “I’ll probably leave the room during that segment.” (She ultimately did not.) The segment, if you haven’t figured it out, is embedded above.

Gladwell is an interesting figure because among people that read him — and there are quite a few of those — there is almost no middle ground. You either believe he’s a genius and brings complicated ideas to the general public in an interesting way, or you think he’s a total hack. I suppose there’s a middle ground somewhere, like a laissez-faire version of consuming his work, but it’s likely less common than the polar extremes. Here’s an example of the former, more laudatory aspect. Here’s an example of the latter, less-praising approach to his work.

There’s a column from USA Today this October that encapsulates a lot of the basic issues surrounding Gladwell and his writing: first of all, he’s a storyteller/journalist; he’s not an academic. (He briefly wanted to be one.) Because his stories, especially his New Yorker stuff, have to be rooted in characters and people — and not explicitly in science and theories — that can offend academics. At the same time, the core of what Gladwell does is take generally-obscure scientific research/academic papers and apply them to more common, everyday-type contexts. He’s pretty much the storytelling social scientist of this generation. He’s not out to prove or determine things; he’s out to relate one thing back to another. This causes an inherently interesting conflict: true academics can resent Gladwell’s work, but … if he discovers one of their papers and uses it as part of a story/discussion/argument, they suddenly resonate more, as his platform is larger than theirs (in most cases). Odd, right?

That video embedded right there is actually the highest single view count for a ‘Malcolm Gladwell’ search on YouTube; phrased another way, there’s not a single Gladwell video on YouTube that has north of 1 million hits. That seems odd, but hardly a major issue.

Now, some of his articles have been very interesting — I kind of exist at a pop-culture-meets-more-relevant-things place myself in terms of what I find interesting (for example, if a pitcher starts dominating out of nowhere, I want to know that it had something to do with a new psychology being tried out on athletes, as opposed to, say, steroids), so I tend to like his work, even though I sometimes think the conclusions are pretty basic. (I’m not saying this part to be an asshole, although it will sound as such … but in terms of education, I’m probably in the top 10 percent of America, so maybe that’s why I find his stuff basic. I don’t know. It’s definitely not because I’m smart.) This is a good list of some of his core articles; the New Yorker (rightfully so) puts a lot of his stuff behind a pay-wall, but good reads include the role of parents, the logic of Ivy League admissions, the ketchup conundrum, the value of job interviews, and the truth about innovation. The Tipping Point, which is arguably his most famous and successful book (it’s still on NYT best-seller lists, over a decade after its initial release), contains that opening vignette about hush puppies and Brooklyn; some estimate that vignette has been the driving force behind companies spending billions to target “influencers.” His studies of Paul Revere and Roger Horchow (two very different individuals on surface) are also influential. The whole “10,000 hours” rule he discussed spawned almost a sub-industry.

This is an interesting read on why Gladwell matters — and why hating him, or finding him offensive, or whatever, is besides the point. In there, there’s a quick discussion on two Google options that kinda breaks this down well — Google “Malcolm Gladwell proved” and you get 111K results. Now Google “Malcolm Gladwell showed” and you get 19.9 million results. That’s a fairly significant difference. There’s very few Internet resources out there claiming that Gladwell has proven certain things, thus — “The Law Of The Few” is supposedly a term he coined, for example — but rather, most authors are explaining that he showed this or that to be true. That’s an important distinction when you understand what he’s trying to contribute to the broader discourse. He’s not trying to be an academic. He’s actually trying to take what they do and make it more accessible. When you do that, because of how American society (at least) is structured, you have people calling you “America’s best-paid fairy tale writer.”

I will say this: if you grow up in certain social circles (which I didn’t, but have been tangentially exposed to throughout the years), you will attend a lot of social functions (some would classify them as “cocktail parties”) where Gladwell’s works will come up, especially when they’re new. People tend to have opinions. I’ve heard this referred to as a “brie and chablis crowd.” I know I’m not part of it because I honestly am not sure what chablis is, other than the base assumption it may be some kind of wine that pairs with cheese (which is what I believe brie to be). I wear jeans 92 percent of the time. Sue me. The Daily Beast cut right to the core of the discussion and even provided you with talking points for a cocktail party regarding his latest book. 

I guess it comes down to this: he’s actually not the worst guy by any means. He’s a good writer, a good storyteller, even does stuff with Bill Simmons (accessible!), makes complicated ideas simpler for the masses, and fills a niche very few journalists — OK, he’s not expressly a journalist, as he doesn’t report the news — do. The hair and the West Village connection and the simplicity of conclusion and the fact that he seems to keep coming up at high-end social functions … that can all be a bit much. But if you understand him for what he is — a storyteller connected to the world of academia, but not a part of it — it all becomes much more digestible.

Ted Bauer

5 Comments

  1. too apologetic. Gladwell states ideas as though they are truth, insights he has insightfully seen that we have not. He is simply not nearly as cautious as he needs to be, or claims to be. So most adopt his insights as truth (i.e. it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert), when they are only ‘maybes’ that seem to make a lot of sense when presented with his eloquence and storytelling. Society is the worse for having that sort of deceitfulness in it’s thought leaders.

  2. I have yet to read any of his books (facepalm.) How many of us are willing or able to wade through all those zzzzzzz academic articles ourselves in order to sound smart(er)? I’m a fellow journalist who has watched his trajectory with amusement. Lucky guy. Smart guy. But also lucky.

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