Gladwell, Malcolm

views updated

Malcolm Gladwell


Author, speaker

Celebrated in Fast Company magazine as a "rock star, a spiritual leader, a stud," and named to Time's list of the "100 Most Influential People" in 2005, Malcolm Gladwell is perhaps the hottest nonfiction author of the 2000s. Gladwell is the author of two bestsellers: The Tipping Point, which explored how trends, ideas, and products "tipped" into phenomena of much greater importance, and Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, which examines the wisdom and folly of snap decisions. Gladwell's mixed-race background played a significant role in shaping Blink, for the genesis of the book came when the light-skinned Gladwell grew his hair out into an Afro style and was suddenly stopped far more frequently by the police. "The theme of the book," he explained to Rebecca Caldwell of the Toronto Globe & Mail, "is that what goes on in the first two seconds is really important in that those kinds of judgments are capable of being extraordinarily good but are also capable of being so screwed up and so biased that they can throw us off the track entirely."

Gladwell was born in England in 1963, but grew up in the Ontario, Canada, community of Waterloo, where his father taught mathematics at the local university. His father was British and white, while his mother Joyce was a native of Jamaica and black. She became a psychotherapist, but had also authored a memoir about being a young black woman in Britain and Jamaica during the 1950s. Like his two brothers, Gladwell was encouraged to read in the television-free home. At the age of age 16 he won a writing contest for an essay in which he interviewed God; not long after, he started his own (shortlived) 'zine, a journal of opinion.

Hired at the New Yorker

Gladwell studied history at the University of Toronto, and had a brief career as an advertising copywriter before landing a job at the American Spectator, a conservative political journal, before moving on to the Washington Post in 1987 as a reporter. Over the next nine years he moved up at the paper to become its science writer and then New York City bureau chief. In 1996 he was lured away from the Post by Tina Brown, the then-editor of the prestigious weekly magazine The New Yorker.

Gladwell soon carved out at niche for himself at the New Yorker with articles that offered explorations of the curious, unexplained phenomena of everyday life, such as 1999's "Six Degrees of Lois Weinberg," in which Gladwell explored how it was that certain people seem to know everybody. In this article, he traced the long career of the Chicago gadabout of the title, who was also the mother of one of his friends. Both Lois and Jacob Weinberg seemed to have vast networks of friends and were continually introducing people to one another. To explain this, Gladwell looked into the social-science experiment from a generation earlier era that yielded the phrase "six degrees of separation"—that everyone in the world is connected to one another by a chain of six other people—and posited that people like Lois and Jacob were natural "connectors" of others.

Sometimes, Gladwell's articles turned popular assumptions on their head, as in "The Talent Myth," which tracked the rise of expensive management-consultant firms like McKinsey & Company in corporate America. Many Fortune 500 companies hire consultants to come in, analyze operations, and make recommendations. Noting that such consultant firms hire the cream of the crop from among graduates of the Ivy League and the top-tier graduate business schools, Gladwell showed how disastrously wrong these talented thinkers could be for a company. He used the example of Enron, the Texas energy-trading company whose lengthy list of financial misdeeds and corporate mismanagement had managed to escape the McKinsey consultants who had conducted some 20 separate projects at Enron and were billing it $10 million a year for their services. Perhaps, intimated Gladwell, hiring the top talent out of America's best schools wasn't the silver bullet it was thought to be.

Found His Own Tipping Point

Many of the New Yorker staff writers specialize in a particularly field—John Cassidy on finance, Atul Gawande on medicine—but Gladwell's articles began to define a niche of their own, one summed up by Fast Company journalist Danielle Sacks as "an idea-driven narrative, one focused on the mundane rather than the bizarre. It takes you on a journey in and out of research through personal, social, and historical moments, transports you to a place you didn't know you were going to end up, and changes the way you think about an idea." These thoughtfully crafted essays landed Gladwell a book contract with Little, Brown for $1.5 million, which another journalist rounded out to a payout of around $5,376 per page for each of the 279 pages of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Published in 2000, the title was taken from his 1996 New Yorker article about why the crime rate in New York City had dropped so dramatically in the past 20 years. The "tipping point" refers to the method by which certain things—ideas, violent crime, consumer fads—suddenly seem to take over for a while, almost like an infectious-disease epidemic. These phenomena, Gladwell explains, indeed share some characteristic elements with viruses.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell explains that certain goods or trends seem to catch on via word of mouth, sparked by a small group of trend-setters he calls "mavens" who have influence in one area. Their enthusiasms are passed on to "connectors"—the people like Lois Weisberg—who transfer ideas between groups. Finally, persuaders Gladwell calls "salespeople" ensure that the trend, idea, or product in question spreads like the proverbial wildfire. The book is peppered with scores of anecdotes, such as the story of the Aeron chair, whose manufacturer was advised to kill the product because its design was so universally loathed when it first came onto the market, yet the desk chair went on to become a bestseller. "It's hard not to be persuaded by Gladwell's thesis," noted a reviewer of the book in Business Week. "Not only does he assemble a fascinating mix of facts in support of his theory—from the impact of Paul Revere to a rash of suicides in Micronesia—but he also manages to weave everything into a cohesive explanation of human behavior."

Like the Aeron chair, The Tipping Point took time to catch on, but eventually became a New York Times bestseller. It also led to a lucrative secondary career for Gladwell as a marketing expert whose public-speaking fee for corporate events soared to $40,000. The "tipping point" became a widely used catchphrase for a while, even uttered by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a press conference about the war in Iraq. In his book, however, Gladwell notes that he did not coin the phrase, but credits rather Thomas Schelling, a Nobel prize-winning economist. Schelling's theory originally referred to the point when white homeowners would begin selling their homes when enough black families moved in.

At a Glance …

Born on September 1, 1963, in England; raised in Elmira, Ontario; son of Graham (a professor) and Joyce (a psychotherapist) Gladwell. Education: Trinity College, University of Toronto, BA, history, 1984.

Career: Worked as an advertising copywriter and then in the editorial department of the American Spectator, mid-1980s; Washington Post, reporter, science writer, and New York City bureau chief, 1987-96; New Yorker magazine, staff writer, 1996-.

Awards: Time magazine, "100 Most Influential People," 2005.

Addresses: Office—c/o The New Yorker, 4 Times Square, New York, NY 10036; c/o Author Mail, Little, Brown, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Web—

Target of Racial Profiling

Conscious or subconscious racism also played a role in the genesis of Gladwell's next book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. The idea for the book began when Gladwell decided to let his hair grow after keeping it short much of his adult life. Because of his mixed race, he was fair-skinned but his hair soon grew into a rather exuberant Afro. "The first thing that started happening was I started getting speeding tickets," he told Sacks in the Fast Company interview. "I wasn't driving any faster than I was before, I was just getting pulled over way more." Once, police even targeted him as a suspected rapist. These events, combined with the highly publicized shooting death of an unarmed Guinean immigrant in New York City in 1999, began to weigh heavily on Gladwell's mind. Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times in front of his Bronx apartment building by four police officers who were looking for another suspect; Diallo had panicked, ran into the lobby, but then reached for his wallet; officers assumed it was a weapon, and opened fire.

Published in 2005, Blink examines how and why the human mind makes snap decisions, which seem to rely on a hunch or a subconscious "feeling." Traditional wisdom holds that these quick judgments are inferior to a more careful, reasoned analysis in coming to a conclusion, but Gladwell argues that most decisions we make are based on our subconscious and occur in just a fraction of a second. B book examines this process, once again providing anecdotes of when this "rapid cognition" or what Gladwell calls "thin-slicing" succeeds, such as the case of a tennis coach who knows instinctively when one of his players is about to double-fault in a match, or the art historian who can recognize a fake in an instant—yet both are dumbstruck when trying to explain how they know these things.

Blink also contains compelling tales of when snap judgments do not succeed, such as the case in the seven seconds before Diallo was shot. "I think of the Diallo chapter as the culmination of the entire book," Gladwell told Angela Ards in Black Issues Book Review. "It's where I want the reader to end up: understanding that what they may have written off as a criminal act by a group of outlier cops was in fact a product of beliefs and tendencies that ALL of us have, in some sense, unless we take specific steps to correct ourselves." In his book, Gladwell does not specifically address race, but does bring up some compelling statistics about how we react to physical attributes in others. For example, 58 percent of chief executive officers of the top U.S. corporations are six feet or taller, but only 14 percent of the male population in America reaches that height. "I chose things like height because I felt that they were more subtle and more acceptable ways of getting people to take unconscious bias seriously," he explained in the interview with Ards.

Blink's reviews were mixed—many in the scientific community judged his theories harshly—but the book once again became a bestseller and even reinvigorated sales of The Tipping Point. "What Gladwell is saying in Blink is often less compelling than the facts he uses to back himself up," wrote Lev Grossman in Time. "Who doesn't know that tall, good-looking people get preferential treatment? But Gladwell's analysis of the political career of Warren G. Harding—who was a lousy President but (apparently) a hot, hot man—is mesmerizing."

Gladwell's dominance of the New York Times bestseller book rankings for much of 2005 and 2006 placed him in the ranks of black authors like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Terry McMillan, each of whom enjoyed months on the same lists in the 1980s and early 1990s, a feat that had not been repeated since. But it was his mother's memoir that served as the most profound influence on his own work. Originally published in 1969, Brown Face, Big Master was reissued by MacMillan Caribbean in 2004. "Her book was the first book I ever remember reading closely, and it really inspired me," he told Ards in Black Issues Book Review. "She is a beautifully simple and clear writer. There is no wasted motion or unnecessary word, and that's the way I try to write as well."

Selected writings


The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Little, Brown, 2000.

Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Little, Brown, 2005.



Black Issues Book Review, November-December 2004, p. 64; July-August 2005, p. 20.

Business Week, March 20, 2000, p. 19.

Fast Company, January 2005, p. 64.

Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), January 10, 2005, p. R1.

New Yorker, July 22, 2002.

New York Times, March 20, 2000; February 5, 2006.

Time, January 10, 2005, p. 57.

On-line, (July 4, 2007).