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Gladwell for Dummies | The Nation

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Gladwell for Dummies

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Now let's skip ahead to "Group Think," an article Gladwell published in December 2002, just a few months after "The Talent Myth," by which time Gladwell had fixed his lens on some new constellations, the stars of the television show Saturday Night Live:

About the Author

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

We are inclined to think that genuine innovators are loners, that they do not need the social reinforcement the rest of us crave. But that's not how it works, whether it's television comedy or, for that matter, the more exalted realms of art and politics and ideas. In his book "The Sociology of Philosophies," Randall Collins finds in all of known history only three major thinkers who appeared on the scene by themselves: the first-century Taoist metaphysician Wang Ch'ung, the fourteenth-century Zen mystic Bassui Tokusho, and the fourteenth-century Arabic philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Everyone else who mattered was part of a movement, a school, a band of followers and disciples and mentors and rivals and friends who saw each other all the time and had long arguments over coffee and slept with one another's spouses.

Stars! They're just like us. Which is to say, every time Gladwell begins to close in on a conclusion of real meaning or intellectual impact, he clicks his heels and returns to the mental Melrose Place of quippy clichés. What's more, he apparently has no problem espousing the whole-truthness of two antithetical clichés--the innateness of genius and "The Power of Context" (as Gladwell had christened this truism in The Tipping Point) at almost simultaneous moments in time. Reduced further, depending on Gladwell's narrative needs, genius is either nature or nurture, and he has cheerily eaten his cake, wrapped it up neatly in a take-away box and left us wondering where the crumbs disappeared to.

It may seem obvious to some that these are false dichotomies; neither half is ever true to the exclusion of the other. But that is the rub: there are a great many book buyers determined to hedge their bets in precisely this Gladwellian mode. Depending on the situation, they want to believe in the sovereign power of either nature or nurture--to convince themselves that anyone can be a success but also that should one be so unfortunate as to fail, that failure was predestined by an accident of fate. This is the contradictory "story of success" that runs through Gladwell's articles, The Tipping Point and Outliers. The "power of apparent inevitability," as The Economist termed it, is a narrative that his hungriest readers can use to explain any turn their lives might take, and it was precisely these readers who flooded Gladwell's e-mail inbox with raves about how The Tipping Point had empowered them to take control of their lives and "contexts."

By the time Gladwell produced a sequel to The Tipping Point, Blink, his preference for light vignettes featuring plucky heroes over grimmer fare was proving its own insult. In Blink's afterword, he describes the book as "a journey into the wonders of our unconscious" but one that should not "be confused with the unconscious described by Sigmund Freud, which was a dark and murky place filled with desires and memories and fantasies that were too disturbing for us to think about consciously." Instead, Blink plumbs an unconscious realm that is surprisingly hospitable. Gladwell makes the case that because human existence is entirely too rich and nuanced to be reducible to data or logic (and by extension, to arguments or allegations), reason and reflex blend over time to yield snap decisions that are often better than the best-laid plans.

If nothing else, it was a counterintuitive moment for Gladwell to come out in favor of intuition: by 2005 the citizenry was turning against the warmongering gut instincts of the commander in chief. In Iraq, the number of casualties continued to mount daily despite Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's entreaty for the public to sit back and wait for the war to reach its tipping point. Blink does include a chapter on the war, in which Gladwell reveals that Rumsfeld's disastrous battle plan had been roundly defeated by a retired Marine general named Paul Van Riper in an elaborate simulation game in 2002 (the Pentagon then ran another test, in which it sabotaged Van Riper by installing a disloyal deputy and disarming the bulk of his equipment). But despite his proximity to these proceedings, Rumsfeld is never mentioned by name in Blink. Nor, for that matter, is Bush.

It seems odd that Gladwell would write an entire chapter about the war without ever mentioning two of its main protagonists, almost as if he might believe his readers were paying so little attention that they could forget whose hunches about a failed battle plan had gotten them into this mess. And perhaps he did. In The New Republic, Richard Posner jeered that Blink "is written like a book intended for people who do not read books." But that's not quite right: Blink appears to have been written not for people who don't read books but for people who read only books that spend years on the bestseller lists, books you can talk about with your boss or buy in bulk for the marketing department.

Gladwell has documented his love-hate relationship with such books: he has gone on the record about his disdain for the diet-book industry, but he has also described his admiration for Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life. And if Taleb is Gladwell's hero, his villain is, as Taleb's was, the mendacious and self-aggrandizing CEO. In 2001 Gladwell ridiculed Michael Eisner, Sumner Redstone and Jack Welch for ripping off Lee Iacocca's formula for the corporate memoir wherein modest, homespun beginnings and "gruff, no-nonsense" mentors lay the foundations for a self-made man to make his way to the corner office. Outliers is Gladwell's corrective to this genre. In it, we learn that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and sundry other titans of Silicon Valley were all born into affluent households in the mid-1950s and otherwise benefited from a variety of cultural and circumstantial factors that yielded some of the world's most successful people.

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