Monday, 6 January 2014

The Gospel of Malcom: Sowing Seeds of Change without Seeming to

It took me a while to figure out where Malcolm Gladwell's new book David and Goliath  fits into the brilliant populizer's world view.  The book documents through the stories of several interesting people just how advantages are not necessarily what we think they are.

It has its roots in an article that Galdwell wrote for The New Yorker four years ago about a geeky Silicon Valley dad who coached his daughter's basketball team to victory by insisting on a full-court press every time.  By playing in-your-face ball, the "little blonde girls" overcame teams who were more talented but who didn't keep up the pressure.  Davids, Gladwell shows, beats Goliaths nearly three-quarters of the time if he plays the unexpected, and plays it hard. 

This uplifting message sounds like vintage Gladwell, but the book also deals with such questions as (according to the bumph on Gladwell's webpage) "When is a traumatic childhood a good thing? When does a disability leave someone better off? Do you really want your child to go to the best school he or she can get into? Why are the childhoods of people at the top of one profession after another marked by deprivation and struggle?"

 The question these questions prompt is: has Gladwell written a self-help book, a companion to the many volumes about the good habits of the rich and successful? 

The book also contains a fair amount of Biblical quotations, and at first I was inclined to think the answer to the queston was "Yes."  But neither this book nor many of his lectures are addressed at people like me.  As with his other books, he has  markets other than that of leftish intellectuals.

His first book The Tipping Point started out as “The Cool Hunt,” a New Yorker  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, 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.”

His second book, 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. 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.

In  Outliers  he 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.

Here he has take-home messages for rich folk who worry about their kids--too much money can be as bad as too  little--as well as those who want to punish  crime. agressively.  Forgiveness is more effective than vindictiveness, he says: after a certain point being tougher makes things worth.And maybe--this point just floats there without being hammered home--some people make just too damn much money and we'd all be better off in a more egalitarian economic system.

None of that is news to me, but it may be for some of the people who pick up the book because they want the real story behind David and Goliath or advice on how to pick a university for your kid (the top school is not always the best one.) If so Gladwell will have succeeded again sowing the seeds for social change without seeming to try to do so.

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