Malcolm Gladwell hung a poster of Ronald Reagan in his U of T dorm room. Maybe it’s not so surprising he’s making a lot of money today. Nevertheless, if you read just a little beneath the surface of Outliers, The Tipping Point and Blink, you’ll see he’s really calling for society-wide change nearly as far-reaching as the ones advocated by Malcolm X, the African-American human rights icon.
Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company, 2008) received a $4 million advance. Along with The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2002) and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2006), it’s been on The Globe and Mail and The New York Times best seller lists for months. He’s reportedly making $30,000 a pop for telling conferences of business types how to improve performance and foster innovation. Obviously, the man is saying something our culture needs to hear.
The Tipping Point started out as “The Cool Hunt,” a New Yorker Magazine piece examining how trends start, how styles race through society like epidemics. “A must read for any marketing professional,” according to its lead review on Amazon.com, the book can be read as a guide to getting people to buy or to act: small groups work best, pick plugged-in spokesmen, work to make your message “sticky.”
Blink considers how we’re hard-wired to react instantaneously, which was great for our ancestors back on the savannah when a lion might suddenly roar nearby. In our fast-paced life today that’s not so good: culturally-engrained prejudices can trump reasoned evaluations in tight situations. Gladwell, whose father is a white Englishman and whose mother is an African-Jamaican, says the idea for the book came to him when he grew an Afro and started getting ticketed for speeding. Social contexts should be changed so we’re not forced to rely on first impressions, he writes. That’s good for creativity—and also social justice.
The Outliers argues that success itself is based on a mixture of chance and hard work. Change the rules to make the playing field more level — don’t throw all the kids born in a calendar year together when they start a sport, for example, because that gives the ones born in January a big leg up over those born in December. Then tweak the cultural context to value hard work, and you increase the chance of success exponentially. The result will be more “outliers,” people whose accomplishment is extraordinarily high, Gladwell says.
He, of course, is an outlier, and the story he tells about his own family illustrates his arguments nicely. But he could also point to a man who called himself an outlier long before the book was published: Barak Obama (p. 18 in the Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, 2006, Crown/Three Rivers Press.) If you look at Obama and his electrifying campaign for the US presidency, Gladwell’s fingerprints everywhere — the kitchen meetings, the great slogans, the hard work, the hope held out. Whether the new president has read Gladwell’s writing himself isn’t clear, but you can bet the farm his staff has.
Which probably makes Gladwell smile as he rakes in royalties and speaking fees. The marketers and business types may not have noticed, but he’s intended a social revolution all along: “The hope with Tipping Point was it would help the reader understand that real change was possible,” he writes on his website. “With Blink, I wanted to get people to take the enormous power of their intuition seriously. My wish with Outliers is that it makes us understand how much of a group project success is. When outliers become outliers it is not just because of their own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances — and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds — and how many of us succeed — than we think. That’s an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea.”
Right on, Malcolm!
Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal writer and activist. Her most recent book is The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond (Véhicule Press). Check out her blog at marysoderstrom.blogspot.com