Malcolm, I Just Can’t Quit You

How to admit that — despite all of his flaws — one can still enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s work.


Photo courtesy of Pop!Tech

I know I should end it. I know that in many ways it isn’t good for me, it’s crowding out other things, that I might only be sticking around for base gratification and maybe just out of habit.

Maybe this love was too white-hot to last — isn’t that the oldest and most tragic romantic story? From the moment I picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, I was smitten and doe-eyed. I’m not exactly sure what it was (are we ever?) but it was an intoxicating potion.

First and foremost, there was his storytelling. In the face of a complicated world, Gladwell found people who were creating simplicity. Beyond the ideas, the writing was also empowering. Bring your brain, and you had a shot, especially if you were willing to think about the world differently.

I went to his website and read the entire archive of New Yorker articles. I read Blink. I heard Gladwell speak at a conference. It began to bleed into my life. I had a task in my organizer to check his website for new material every week, and I tried (without success) to get a public relations client of mine to structure their internal communications program around finding the connectors.

It was working for me.

Then, Malcolm began to write about some things I knew about, and I had this chilling thought: what if he’s wrong?

My doubts were born when I read a story about successful entrepreneurs like Ted Turner and Sam Walton. The point of the article is that “successful entrepreneurs” are people who have used other people’s money — either through inheritance or otherwise — to create their success, with little direct personal risk.

I know a lot of successful entrepreneurs. No, I don’t know Ted Turner or Sam Walton, but I know plenty of people who have created companies that lasted for years, and they all had everything they owned in the game. Not just when establishing the company but to fund growth along the way. Ted Turner and Sam Walton are the “outliers” in this world.

It wasn’t just that he was wrong. He was way, way wrong. You might have expected a man who was once entranced by the ideas of Ronald Reagan to have a better grasp on entrepreneurialism, but Gladwell was out-of-touch wrong on this one.

Then there was the article in which he said social media could never start a revolution. There was a huge amount of public criticism for this view, which I shared. As a Tipping Point devotee, I had read about the “connector” Sam Adams spreading his message in the taverns of Boston. Let there be no doubt: if Adams were alive today, he would be tweeting like mad. (Example: How strangely will the Tools of a Tyrant pervert the plain Meaning of Words! #lookingatyouKingGeorge)

This debate was eventually settled (ahem, Arab Spring) and not in Gladwell’s favor.

This all got me looking closer at the Gladwell oeuvre. Remember the 10,000 hour rule? The guy who did the original research says that while the idea of needing practice is important, the 10,000 hour mark is without meaning. In fact, it is in many cases an unattainable number.

Or, the guy in Blink who said he could tell when people were lying by looking for “micro-expressions”? Based on his mention in Blink, he was hired by the TSA to help train them to screen passengers, a $3 million expenditure that produced squadoosh. It turns out that actual experts say “micro-expressions” are hokum.

The whole Gladwell portfolio might have been summed up best by Steven Pinker in The New York Times. Taking a page from Gladwell’s hymnal, Pinker coins the grand phrase “Igon Value Problem:” “[w]hen a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.”

The problem comes at the intersection of two paths. Gladwell is who he is precisely because he is able to create entertaining, memorable, and marketable concepts out of obtuse academic work. (This is no small feat; try reading one of the papers Gladwell is working off to see why.)

Unfortunately, science (yes, even social science) is built on nuance, hypothesis, proof, validation, and measured conclusions. As such, it is at cross-purposes with someone writing for popular audiences.

So, Malcolm Gladwell has a new book coming out about how David beats Goliath. I was prepared to let it go — I thought it might be better if we had a clean break.

But who was I kidding? I’ve already pre-ordered it.

So why? Even with all I know about him — leaving the seat up on the toilet of truth — why can’t I let it go?

The world Gladwell writes about is a world I want to be in. Yes, there might be a fetid swamp of facts on the other side of the hill, but on this side there is nothing but a place where the green grass mingles with reason and inquiry, a place with ideas like daffodils.

Gladwell teaches us that what we see is not necessarily what is true, and what we have assumed to be true for many years may look differently now. The irony that the exact same could be said of Gladwell’s writing is not lost on me.

I’m not quitting him. But I am going to establish some distance. I’m not looking for anyone else right now. Maybe, I’m not ready for anything serious. I have been burned by trusting too much before.

BJ Fischer is a writer and blogger who has published on subjects including the use of baseball by conservatives and the significance of the moon landing to someone who watched it as a five year old. He is also an award-winning creator of television and public relations commercials and campaigns. He lives in Saline, Michigan, outside Ann Arbor.