Malcolm Gladwell‘s books had been on my wishlist for several years until last summer when I bought The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, intent on finally catching up with the rest of cool America and reading them. Even though I purchased them in the summer, I didn’t get to them until the end of the year. I inserted them into some other reading I was doing and read Tipping Point and Blink in December and Outliers in early January. Here’s what I learned, in addition to the theses of these books, from reading Malcolm Gladwell.
- Question assumptions. No, this is not new. But reading Gladwell certainly reinvigorates the effort. He frequently turns the assumptions around to demonstrate the complexity of the situation. Two cases in point from Outliers highlight this. First, his thesis in the book is that success happens in more of a complex matrix of factors and less of a person-against-the-world, simplistic cause-and-effect manner, as is usually put forward in our Western culture. This thesis is introduced by the discovery of a remarkable trend in Canadian youth hockey leagues that the top players are the oldest in their competitive age division. It isn’t that they aren’t talented and haven’t worked hard on their game. That is almost always true. But they have a leg up simply due to the arbitrary fact of when they were born relative to the age division cut-off date. Second, in a later chapter he outlines the advantage of Jewish lawyers and it turns out that many factors combined to create a remarkable opportunity for success, including the prejudice of others against them (Anglo heads of older law firms). Was the effort on the part of Jewish attorneys in the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties critical? Yes, absolutely. But so was the setting, the context within which that personal effort happened. When we question our assumptions — not just others, but our own as well — we may find surprises, but those surprises might get us nearer to the truth.
- Cultivate curiosity. This point has a clear connection to the previous one, but is worth differentiating. Curiosity leads to questioning our assumptions, but questioning assumptions can arise from curiosity or from being contrarian. With curiosity, the motive to learn is purer. With contrarianism, the motive might simply be pushing others’ buttons. Curiosity builds up oneself and others; contrarianism, while it can offer a corrective to bad group-think, can also weaken relationships and foster an unhealthy competitive spirit in the contrarian that becomes simply a poor character trait/habit. Curiosity, on the other hand, can contribute playfulness, inquisitiveness, and a positive orientation to growth and change.
- Find the plot. This is especially important for those who either want or feel compelled to communicate something to others. I appreciated how Gladwell’s books read more like page-turning novels than typical cultural studies. The reason for this, it seems to me, is his ability to capture the plot-line that runs throughout the book as he puts forward the individual pieces of evidence that build toward his thesis. I think this is because, building on point #2, he manages to convey the sense of mystery to be uncovered, discovery to be made, or puzzle to be solved in the subject he is writing about.
Any other Malcolm Gladwell readers out there? What do you like or dislike about his approach to writing?