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The Gospel According to Gladwell

2012 July 15

Love him or hate him, Malcolm Gladwell has unquestionably become a cultural force.  His books are instant bestsellers.  His columns in the New Yorker have been known to go viral and his Ted Talks are riveting.

Yet his detractors say he plays fast and loose, glossing over facts, oversimplifying complex issues and sometimes just getting it wildly, wildly wrong.  The thing is, they’re right.  For anyone who wants to take shots at Gladwell, he certainly gives them plenty of ammunition.

However, it’s only fair to point out that Gladwell is not a researcher, but a journalist and a popularizer.  He takes ideas from the cutting edge and brings them into the popular zeitgeist.  For that, he should be commended.  However, those who read him should do so with caution, there’s usually more to the story than he lets on.  Here’s a rundown.

The Tipping Point

Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point, captured the imagination of millions, marketers especially.  The idea that you don’t need enormous budgets, but can come up with a “sticky” idea, win over informational “mavens, broadcast through connectors and win the market with a viral chain is compelling, to say the least.

In doing so, he introduced the general public to the concept of social networks, which was a very good thing, but he got some crucial points wrong and that pissed some of the real researchers off.  Duncan Watts, a key pioneer and one of the world’s top network scientists, dismissed Gladwell’s claims as nonsense.

Gladwell major sin was propagating the myth of influentials, which many still buy into. For the record, when it comes to spreading an idea, it’s not influence that’s paramount, but receptiveness.  Watts gives a short explanation of why in this video.

Even more frustrating, in a later column Gladwell took it upon himself to speak out about social media and revolutions.  This is an area where I have some first-hand experience and I pointed out his grievous mistakes here and here.  I was amazed that he could be so outspoken about a subject he obviously knew so little about.

That’s Malcolm Gladwell for you.  Always interesting.  Sometimes wrong.  Never in doubt.


In Blink, Gladwell takes on the science of decision making, which has changed drastically in the past few decades.  Advances in neuroscience and behavioral economics have shown us that we’re not as rational as we’d like to think.

Through vivid stories, he shows us why our snap judgments are often our best ones and that more information can often lead to worse outcomes.  He pointed to the work of Antonio Damasio and the results of the Iowa gambling task, which showed that we often unconsciously take cues from our environment and act on them without realizing it.

What he never mentions is that this approach is only useful in areas where we have significant experience and expertise.  A highly trained surgeon can go with his gut in an emergency, but you wouldn’t want to take just anyone off the street and give him a scalpel.

That’s a big problem.  We often have to make decisions in areas where we either have little experience or the experience we do have isn’t valid.  Overconfidence in our intuition can lead to disaster and often does.  Gladwell does us no good service when he encourages us to simply let it rip.


Gladwell’s third book, Outliers, was about how people become successful and he again brought to light research that few people had heard about.

For instance, he pointed out a study which showed that top hockey players tend to be born early in the year, making them bigger and stronger than their younger peers.  This early edge helped them stand out, which led coaches to lavish attention on them and to their inclusion on all star teams, which gave them more time to practice and increased their advantage further.

He called this phenomenon the Matthew Effect and then explained that the extra practice time was especially significant.  He then described additional research by Anders Ericsson, which suggests that it takes 10,000 hours to become a world-class performer.  He dubbed this the “10,000 hour rule.”

However, again, Gladwell ommited over a crucial aspect of Ericsson’s work, specifically deliberate practice.  You need have others who push and critique you, focus on weak areas and constantly strive to improve your skills.  Simply putting in 10,000 hours won’t make you a star, how you spend those hours makes a big difference.

David, Goliath and the Value of Malcolm Gladwell

Last week, Gladwell announced that he is publishing a new book, David and Goliath that will explain why underdogs win with surprising regularity.  From the early descriptions, I expect it will focus on disruptive innovation, which Clayton Christensen first identified in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma

I will most likely buy it and will be informed, entertained and ultimately, after working through the bibliography, enriched.  And that is a crucial point.  Gladwell is very much like the proverbial soldier’s girlfriend; he doesn’t lie, but doesn’t give us the whole truth either.  Inevitably, he leaves out something important and that requires us to look further.

In essence, he is a master storyteller with a good eye for important trends.  Unfortunately, many people take him to be something more, which can be problematic when someone who has read one of his books takes it as Gospel without looking for further substantiation.  However, I’m not sure Gladwell deserves all the blame for that.

Those who seek wisdom in an airport bookstore will inevitably get about twenty bucks worth.

– Greg

5 Responses leave one →
  1. July 15, 2012

    Greg: I agree with your thoughts and logic. A while back I wrote a piece “The Healthcare Revolution Will be Tweeted” in response to his New Yorker article last year. It still has legs, well I hope it does.

  2. July 15, 2012

    Cool! I’ll take a look.


    – Greg

  3. Clemencedane permalink
    July 21, 2012

    So he’s made the incredibly original conclusion that people make snap judgments and you need to go with your gut. And people who don’t follow the crowd tend to be innovators. And if you come up with the right idea at the right time it will go viral. These revelations are simply staggering. Maybe next time he can write a book about how if at first you don’t succeed, try try again.

  4. Steve In Canada permalink
    August 8, 2012

    I thought he covered the idea that trained minds should use their gut – but only for things they are trained in. I thought that was the whole point of the book. Maybe I need to read it again. I could swear his point was experts can blink – but only in areas of their expertise. Anyway interesting post. Thanks.

  5. August 8, 2012

    He was never particularly clear on the point and was certainly vague enough about any qualifications that you often hear about people “blinking” in just about any context. Jonah Lehrer, depsite his present troubles, made a concerted effort to make the distinction in How We Decide.

    Thanks for the comment.

    – Greg

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