ESSAY


Why We Take Malcolm Gladwell Very Seriously


What the Dog Saw: and other adventures

by Malcolm Gladwell


Little, Brown and Company | 410 pages | $27.99

An essay by Jan Alexander


malcolm gladwell

Some of us are old enough to remember a distant era when the new millennium had just dawned and anything seemed possible, and the stock market was irrationally exuberant, thanks to something called ‘The New Economy’. In those days, I worked for a dot.com where we wore jeans and tee-shirts to work, didn’t believe in private offices, and posted stories about 20 year old dot.com billionaires. In conversations, the name Malcolm Gladwell would come up with relative frequency, uttered with reverence around our wall-less workspace. His first book, The Tipping Point, helped us prepare for the revolution we were sure was on its way, and the day when we’d be making deals while white-water rafting, seeing stock shares rise on promises rather than profits, and marketing ourselves by a new kind of electronic word-of-mouth. That third expectation – which actually did come true - was where The Tipping Point shed light, though the book wasn’t specifically about the Internet.

What Gladwell said was finely glossed common sense: that an idea, a product, a message or a behavior pattern, can spread like a virus due to some “tipping point” at which it catches on. He was looking at Old Economy examples – some very old—of success through people who were good at being what he called Connectors (Paul Revere was a great Connector) Mavens, or Salesmen, or through creating a product that harnesses the power of Context (Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood had context, appearing as it did just when women’s book discussion groups were becoming a hot trend). But in the afterword to a 2001 edition, he wrote: “What is now obvious to me, but was not at the time I wrote The Tipping Point, is that we are about to enter the age of word of mouth…paradoxically, all of the sophistication and wizardry and limitless access to information of the New Economy is going to lead us to rely more and more on the very primitive kinds of social contacts…”

Therein lies Gladwell’s own formula for success. Posit Situation A, and then infuse it with an ironic twist on what is presumably the prevailing wisdom. And, very importantly, get your book out when the Context is right; in this case just when the world is suddenly filled with aspiring Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen looking for a guiding hand through the brave new world of Web 1.0

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We were watching science fiction arrive on our desktops, and The Tipping Point helped us cope with our collective separation anxiety from Mother Earth. That seems to be how a book that was mostly about a marketing concept, reached its own tipping point, resonating enough that the London Sunday Telegraph ranked it amongst the 20 best books of the decade that just ended, in a pantheon that also includes Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and Ian McEwan’s truly masterful Atonement.

Just in time for the 2010’s, Gladwell’s fourth book, What the Dog Saw, is here to give us a purview of the quirky curiosities that piqued his inquisitive mind through the 1990s and the “oughts.” This is his first collection of essays, all previously published in The New Yorker, and while the book is full of entertaining tidbits, nothing therein, is more enlightening than Gladwell’s introduction, in which he writes about his propensity to ask questions. As a small child, he says, he saw that his father, a mathematician, got paid to write “long rows of neatly written numbers and figures.”

“I couldn’t get over the fact that someone whom I loved so dearly did something every day, inside his own head, that I could not begin to understand….” he writes, and notes that children “have not grasped the idea that what is inside their head is different from what is inside everyone else’s head.”

As a grownup, he says “curiosity about the interior life of other people’s day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses, and that same impulse is what led to the writing you now hold in your hands.”

Indeed, what would seem to delight readers of Gladwell the most, even more than insights into how to market a new product, is the way he expounds like a very verbal child discovering something new. Everything he examines, whether it’s mustard or dog-training or screening for potential terrorists, gets scrutinized through the lens of someone seemingly wide-eyed and uninitiated. When his first book burst forth, it was to a pre-dot.bomb, pre-9/11, pre-George W. Bush world where, even if you were mature and cynical, there was no disputing that we were on the cusp of a huge, life-changing technological evolution, if not quite a revolution. Those were, even for the doubters among us, wide-eyed times.

In his introduction, Gladwell also responds to readers who have perhaps held him on a high perch since his accession to fame and become disappointed. Nothing frustrates him more, he writes, than someone who reads something and says, angrily, “I don’t buy it.” In defense of himself he says: “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…I’ve called these pieces adventures, because that’s what they are intended to be.”

In that spirit of adventure, I wondered what it might be like to travel into Malcolm Gladwell’s head and examine the oeuvre of a certain 46-year-old Canadian writer and (as defined by Wikipedia) pop sociologist who has become rich and famous. First, he would set up that ‘Situation A’. In his second book, Blink, and third book, Outliers, and in many of his essays, that foundation has taken the form of a premise that he informs us that most of us believe to be true. “We,” then, are the straw men. Psychologist Steven Pinker, in a less-than-glowing review of What the Dog Saw for the New York Times Book Review, wrote of “generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.” The banalities, said Pinker, “come from a gimmick that can be called the ‘Straw We’. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus -- for example, that ‘we’ believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation.”

Indeed, the Straw We has become a running character throughout Gladwell’s work. And it appears that some amongst the collective Us have taken his writing quite seriously; otherwise We wouldn’t be angry when he says something We don’t buy.

So to knock down our consensus: as his own words indicate, Gladwell is at heart just a grown-up kid with the talent to discover and entertain. He is great at building a narrative around two or three facets of a complex prism. As an aside, We might wonder why he hasn’t tried his hand at satirical fiction, letting his adventures lead him into a land where questions can be as valid as answers.

Sometimes his answers strive to be more like his simple vision of ketchup, when we live in a world with a range of complexities more apropos to his vision of mustard. Read, as evidence, his charming, if glib essay, “The Ketchup Conundrum: Mustard Now Comes in Dozens of Varieties. Why Has Ketchup Stayed the Same?” In it, Gladwell tells us about the advent of sophisticated Grey Poupon – remember the TV commercials of the mustard passed between windows as two limousines rolled through Paris? – and how it swayed America away from French’s mustard. Gladwell tracked down a man named Jim Wigon, who, inspired by the success of Grey Poupon, tried to go head-to-head against Heinz, selling gourmet ketchup that contained hand-chopped basil and maple syrup. But it turns out that there is a strong possibility that the rules that apply to mustard simply don’t apply to ketchup, Gladwell surmises. This could be because Heinz invented a ketchup that pushed all five of the primal human taste buttons, leaving ketchup buyers to believe that ketchup is ketchup, even though Gladwell himself, in researching the story, lunched with a ketchup expert at the Savoy in Soho, a restaurant known for making its own dark, unique peppery ketchup. What he chooses to disregard is a history of ketchup that dates back at least to the 17th century in China, as explained in Andrew F. Smith’s Pure Ketchup: The History of America's National Condiment, which traces its origins as a soybean-based sauce and its life as a condiment made from a wide variety of ingredients, including mushrooms, cucumbers, currants, and anchovies.

The ketchup and mustard essay first appeared in 2000, and since then Gladwell has tackled a great many subjects about issues of vital concern to society. Here’s where We would do well to remind Ourselves that he is not trying to fix, say, the economy, which has been the subject of a number of his essays. We get angry with politicians who leave out essential truths that are inconvenient to their agenda, but in reading Malcolm Gladwell, We should remember that he’s merely embarking on an adventure in examining human proclivities to screw up. If he disregards certain facts because they hamper his yarn, well, there is evidence that he doesn’t take himself as seriously as the Straw We does.

Which is too bad, actually, because if he took himself more seriously he might have reasons to testify to policymakers in Washington about such things as education, social safety nets, and corporate shenanigans. Take his 2007 essay, “Open Secrets: Enron, Intelligence and the Perils of too Much Information.” He relates how the prosecution team in the trial of Jeffrey Skilling, former CEO of Enron, portrayed this as a company that had lied. Then Gladwell sets out to prove Enron was actually quite upfront about the fact that its estimates of its own market value were just wishful thinking.

Gladwell explains how Jonathan Weil, a Wall Street Journal reporter, sat down with senior executives of Enron, who fully admitted that their grandiose claims were unrealized money – just money the executives thought they were going to be making at some point in the future. (Is there a way We can do this with Our own bank account?) What Gladwell concludes is that Enron was an example of what he terms a mystery, rather than what he calls a puzzle, the chief difference being that “mysteries demand insight and experience.” In the world of Enron’s and post-Cold War intelligence, he says, we need “fewer spies and more slightly batty geniuses,” who really understand the language and culture of the countries (and by implication, the corporations) they’re observing. It is true that a very culpable Straw We should have known better but instead chose to ignore warning signs that Enron’s stock was way overvalued. Gladwell leaves out an inconvenient anecdote about how Enron tried to retaliate and have future investigations killed when Bethany McLean, then a writer for Fortune, came out with a story titled “Is Enron Overpriced?”

“Open Secrets,” while an intriguing look at how transparency isn’t nearly enough in the complicated information age, doesn’t mention the not-so-secret subprime-mortgage-based-derivatives trading that was going on at the time and led to the financial crisis. Postscript: In a recent New Yorker essay not included in the book, Gladwell pinpointed overconfidence and hubris as major culprits in that disaster. Yes. Elementary. Many of Us are now hoping Washington will crack down on activities that only the overconfident would try. There is a strong probability factor that Malcolm Gladwell, however, is now moving on to his next adventure.

The empirical evidence? He keeps a dispassionate distance from his subjects, enough so that We generally assume that he is apolitical, at least in his writing. Still, when I say he could have some influence on education and social safety net policies, I am thinking in particular of his third book, Outliers. Of his three book-length premises, this is my favorite. It’s the anti-self-help book. It tells Us the game of life is rigged, that people who succeed always have someone cheering them on, in many cases an entire wealthy community. Not exactly a revelation, but if Gladwell were ever to re-invent himself as a crusader, he could present his findings as evidence of the not-so-surprising fact that society needs really, really good schools to help people climb out of poverty, and should not blame the poor for their misfortunes.

He treads on related territory in another recent New Yorker essay not in the book, “The Sure Thing: The myth of the daredevil entrepreneur” (January 18, 2010) in which he discovers that many of the multi-billionaires We most wish to emulate, such as Ted Turner; Sam Walton; Bernard Arnault, of the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH; and John Paulson, the hedge fund magnate who made billions betting against the housing market, have never taken risks with their own money. Rather, they are predators who know how to take advantage of people who undervalue what they sell to them or overvalue what they buy from them. That, if not exactly surprising, is solid material for an economic policy that recognizes We are very unlikely to get rich by maxing out our credit cards to open a poodle grooming salon.

We might believe Gladwell was an early-blooming genius, seeing as how he was still in his 30s when he became famous; or We might see him as a later-blooming genius who has still to produce his best work. Or perhaps he isn’t a genius at all. My answer is it’s too early to write that essay, but these are concepts minted by Gladwell in his 2008 essay, “Late Bloomers: Why do We Equate Genius with Precocity?” Assuming We do, Gladwell introduces Ben Fountain, who started out as a lawyer but really wanted to be a novelist, and at 48, after 18 years of writing, published a short story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, that took the literary world by storm. We get a roster of the usual precocious suspects: Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, Herman Melville published Moby Dick at the relatively young age of 32 (though Gladwell neglects to mention that even so, he never made a living from his writing); T.S. Elliott wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” at 23. Then Gladwell breaks down the world of geniuses into two categories: the “experimental,” exemplified in the prodigies, and the “conceptual” geniuses like Fountain and Paul Cezanne, who didn’t become famous until middle age.

Echoes of Outliers are found in this story, which I would also categorize in the anti-self-help compartment of Gladwell’s work. Ben Fountain didn’t make it all by himself; he had the unwavering support of his breadwinning wife. And Cezanne had many friends who believed in him, including Emile Zola, Camille Pissarro, and gallery owner Ambrose Vollard, not to mention a banker father who paid his bills and left him a substantial inheritance. (See A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, for further elaboration on emotional/financial support). What is left out is the similar support the early bloomers also received; behind almost every young virtuoso is a parent or teacher who nurtured their genius along. Nevertheless, the Straw We should certainly read this essay if We happen to be parents of a kid who is determined to be an artist. As for Gladwell’s continued experiments in the conceptual, let’s judge the success of his writing by how much it makes us want to start some rabble-rousing, whether on a large scale or simply in the privacy of our own homes.

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Jan Alexander is a writer and magazine editor living in New York City.



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