Malcolm Gladwell

Has anyone else been reading the “Innovation” issue of The New Yorker? And has anyone else developed the wee-est smidge of resistance toward Malcolm Gladwell?

I have to say, first, that I’ve been a Gladwell fan for a long time. I’ve read most of his books, and they’re fascinating. He has such a gift for telling a story, and also for putting together a clear case based on surprising research. I love the way he builds suspense. And didn’t he sort of invent a genre—the lay person’s academic survey? Over the years, Gladwell has connected me with all kinds of ideas that I’ve been happy to investigate.

But . . . he keeps doing the same. Exact. Thing. Maybe once you’ve invented a literary form, which is by no means easy or common, you get to keep doing that thing forever. But it has come to feel smug and formulaic. As in:

1) Open with story.

(Optional 1a): Surprise! Hero of story is a famous person.

2) Pan back to show more to the story than first presented, including childhood or past experience of hero.

3) Cite example of something else working in the same way.

4) Name paradigm.

5) Return to story anew, this time applying the paradigm we have just learned and named to hero’s story.

6) Where is hero now?

7) Clever ending.

In this most recent article, I absolutely knew what his surprise final line was going to be, at least 5 paragraphs back.

I’ve also come to suspect Gladwell’s work, because I’ve seen more than a few cogent responses to it, including a discrediting of John Gottman’s work (in Laurie Abraham’s lovely book), on which much of Blink is based. In other words, Gladwell’s arguments can sometimes be based on faulty research—we don’t know, after all, how closely he’s looking at the science. You could argue that so long as he’s using basic standards to evaluate research (peer review, university support, etc.), we have to give him the benefit of the doubt, and I agree. Yet more and more I tend to feel that Gladwell isn’t providing the entire picture.

So when I read his recent piece in The New Yorker, on the invention and evolution of the computer mouse, I didn’t quite trust it. It made sense to me, sure. And I liked the ultimate point about how hard it can be to fish the truly promising ideas out of a sea of inventions—though isn’t that kind of obvious? But I just kept thinking, is this the entire story?

I suppose I have lost my Gladwell innocence.

Or maybe, in the words of G.B. Shaw, I have learned something, which always feels like losing something.

2 Responses to “Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. Joe says:

    Yes! I’ve felt this way towards his work for quite a while. Although the content and ideas are interesting, his writing has become terribly formulaic…

    Last year at the Betty Crocker Bake Off, the winning entry combined salty and sweet ingredients. Turns out, this idea of combining two things that begin with S is exactly how American car companies can turn around the automotive industry: steering and suspension!

  2. admin says:

    Joe, I can always count on you to have passionate and well-argued opinions about the exact same things I’m reading! Also, I can always count on you to crack me up.

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