Gladwell for Dummies | The Nation


Gladwell for Dummies

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In a 1998 article called "Do Parents Matter?" Gladwell championed the findings of one Judith Rich Harris, a "fragile, elfin" and grandmotherly editor of child-psychology textbooks who had published a groundbreaking study purporting to show that parents are rarely to blame for screwing up their kids. Harris had formulated her hypothesis while editing a book on juvenile delinquency that offhandedly credited the motivation for such behavior to the desire to be more like adults. "Adolescents aren't trying to be like adults--they are trying to contrast themselves with adults," she explained to Gladwell. But like a fickle teenager, Gladwell would casually shrug off the wisdom he had gleaned from Harris in a piece that appeared several months later. Here he contrasts the television show Beverly Hills, 90210, which "played to the universal desire of adolescents to be grownups," with its spinoff, Melrose Place:

About the Author

Maureen Tkacik
Maureen Tkacik, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and Jezebel, is a financial journalist in New York City.

"Melrose" was the opposite. It started with a group of adults--doctors, advertising executives, fashion designers--and dared to have them behave as foolishly and as naively as adolescents. Most of them lived in the same apartment building, where they fought and drank and wore really tight outfits and slept together in every conceivable permutation. They were all dumb, and the higher they rose in the outside world the dumber they got when they came home to Melrose Place.
 In the mid-nineteen-nineties, when a generation of Americans reached adulthood and suddenly realized that they didn't want to be there, the inverted world of Melrose was a wonderfully soothing place. Here, after all, was a show that ostensibly depicted sophisticated grownup society, and every viewer was smarter than the people on the screen.

But for all this vapidity, Gladwell finds something to admire in the melodrama: restraint.

The wonderful thing about "Melrose Place" was that just when you thought that the show was about to make some self-consciously postmodern commentary on, say, the relationship between art and life, it had the courage to take the easy way out and go for the laugh.

The publication of Gladwell's first book, The Tipping Point, proved his courage to be of a similar character. The Tipping Point was named for an epidemiological phenomenon that he had introduced to the public when he covered healthcare policy for the Post. Healthcare reporting is a beat that notoriously leaves journalists disillusioned by the destructive influence of money and markets on the public welfare; in Gladwell's case, it provided the central metaphor for a book that applied the observations of health officials to the business of "want creation," otherwise known as branding. Gladwell describes the genesis of the book in detail in a "Q&A With Malcolm" on Gladwell.com:

The word "Tipping Point"...comes from the world of epidemiology. It's the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It's the boiling point. It's the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards. AIDS tipped in 1982, when it went from a rare disease affecting a few gay men to a worldwide epidemic. Crime in New York City tipped in the mid 1990's, when the murder rate suddenly plummeted. When I heard that phrase for the first time I remember thinking--wow. What if everything has a Tipping Point? Wouldn't it be cool to try and look for Tipping Points in business, or in social policy, or in advertising or in any number of other nonmedical areas?

The product of this endeavor was what Gladwell calls "an intellectual adventure story," a genre-crossing book that whipped up a "little bit of sociology, a little of psychology and a little bit of history," tossed in some epidemiology and "examples from the worlds of business and education and fashion and media," and hocked the resulting mishmash of soft social science and hard cases to help readers make "sense of the world, because I'm not sure that the world always makes as much sense to us as we would hope."

The temptation to try to calculate The Tipping Point's own tipping point seems thus far to have been resisted, but there is no doubt that the book reached a great many Mavens, Salesmen and Connectors and eventually became a phenomenal success. To what was that success attributable? Surely encoding the principles of bestsellingness and infection by word of mouth in the book's DNA did some of the work, but there were other contributing factors, not the least of which was what has become Gladwell's signature style, which projects the expertise of a scientist and the easy helpfulness of the guy who delivers the local television station's "news you can use" segment at 6:25.

In searching for an anecdote or image with which to convey the ultra-absorbency of Gladwell's book as compared with that of his soggier-sentenced peers, I found myself remembering a story Gladwell wrote in 2001 about the technology of diapers. In this story, Gladwell reported that "those in the trade" refer to the waste that diapers are engineered to retain as "the insult," and this image seems to me as useful as any for thinking about Gladwell's success. His masterful maneuver was to engineer a style that artfully conceals "the insult," honing it in his articles before finally unleashing it in book form with The Tipping Point.

What made The Tipping Point remarkable was not the diagrams or axioms or anything it includes but rather what it left out: that is, any discussion of the real risks of business at a moment when its sexiest sector, technology, was increasingly uncertain about how it was going to survive once it had burned through its remaining seed money. Instead, Gladwell celebrated the way certain personality types can, given a hospitable set of circumstances, or "context," conspire with extraneous forces to profoundly alter human behavior--without ever dwelling on how this might be a bad thing or bothering to provide a clear definition of the word "context." In the "Q&A," Gladwell says he hopes readers will use the "new set of tools"--"brain software"--he provides them to create "'positive' epidemics" of their own. Dr. Atkins is nowhere to be found, nor is Susan Love; instead, he populates his book with a nonthreatening cast of folksy, relatable characters--behavioral psychologists, petty criminals and criminologists, effusive socialites and seminarians, Big Bird and Peter Jennings--and tells their stories in a manner so adamantly engaging that it reads suspiciously as if it had been focus-grouped. In conversation with Tom Scocca, Gladwell characterized his style as one that screams "Please, please, don't leave me," and indeed his stories often seem designed to do nothing more than to keep people reading.

This is nowhere more apparent than in What the Dog Saw. The book is mostly old news, with the exception of a preface in which Gladwell attempts to justify the methodology behind his pieces, an explanation, it appears, that is also meant as a rejoinder to all those aforementioned heckling critics who have failed, fundamentally, to comprehend Gladwell's project. Complaining that his greatest frustration as a writer has been the angry reader who believes that Gladwell wants him to "buy" his argument, Gladwell asserts,

Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. Not the kind of writing that you'll find in this book, anyway. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be.

One could quibble with the assertion that a writer's obligation to persuade begins and ends with keeping the reader reading, not in order to convince him of certain conclusions but merely to enable him to satisfy that basic human impulse to explore and temporarily inhabit other minds. But the critic's natural persuasion is to attempt to inhabit the mind of a writer, to evaluate how satisfying the stay was, even in the probable case that one wouldn't want to be lodged there permanently. And one thing that frustrates this reader of Gladwell is his obvious aversion to giving us any privileged access to his mind, encouraging us instead to inhabit more fully the consciousnesses of dogs and their whisperers, when one would hope that his mind is an infinitely more interesting place to be. But as Gladwell tells us, "self-consciousness is the enemy of 'interestingness,'" and so perhaps it is that impulse to protect the self from criticism that has so hampered his work, which he chronically undersells even as his books outsell his every rival.

"A book, I was taught long ago in English class, is a living and breathing document that grows richer with each new reading. But I never quite believed that until I wrote The Tipping Point," he gushed in the afterword to the 2002 edition, citing the "conferences and retreats and sales meetings" where he had mingled with his readers. "In a world dominated by isolation and immunity, understanding these principles of word of mouth is more important than ever."

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