When The Tipping Point was published in 2000, it marked a sea change in the world of books. Selling over a million copies, Malcolm Gladwell’s “biography of an idea” convinced publishers that, told well, readers could and would read serious books about economics and social change and history and science and business. A new genre of silo-busting, multi-disciplinary non-fiction was born. And even though it drew largely from academic research, it wasn’t stodgy, it was fun. And its central thesis — “there is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible” was broad enough to talk about over a beer. Suddenly books about ideas were cool.
That central idea wasn’t original; ideas of critical mass in physics and the threshold theory of disease had been around for decades. But applying the concept to pop culture — kids’ TV, shoes and drugs — sucked in new readers eager to understand how trends took off. Gladwell’s central metaphor of epidemics, while painful reading in our current circumstances, was distant and abstract enough not to discomfort; instead, he made the possibility of ideas or products becoming ‘viral’ positively aspirational!
Gladwell theorized that realizing that aspiration took three kinds of people: Connectors, who know lots of people, Mavens, who know lots of information and Salesmen (sic) who know how to sell. By deploying these three types, according to their skills and as appropriate to context, your product, service or idea could become infectious. Along the way, you’d need to learn to be humble, to subject your plans to testing and to pay fastidious attention to your customers and their world. If all of that sounds pretty obvious by now, well that’s what happens when a book like The Tipping Point hits a tipping point. The title entered the language as its ideas entered the atmosphere.
What makes The Tipping Point more uncomfortable today is that, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that every idea Gladwell champions also has a dark side.
Re-reading the book today, many of its themes have become so pervasive that they feel obvious. We know now that some people carry more public sway than others but we don’t call them Connectors, we call them Influencers. Though contagion theory as applied to social attitudes wasn’t new, Gladwell popularized it and accelerated its deeper understanding. Why did millions of people watch The Tiger King or The Queen’s Gambit? Because everyone else did. Why is there more obesity in some communities than others? Because social attitudes and behavior are as contagious as an idea. Gladwell’s concept of ‘stickiness’ is now a ubiquitous measure on websites and streaming platforms. Combine contagion and stickiness and you pretty much have the Netflix strategy. These were powerful ideas whose time, technology and salesman had come. And they stuck.
Other analyses in the book have proved less persuasive. Did crime in New York really fall because of Bratton’s application of the ‘Broken Windows’ theory? Many don’t think so. In Freakonomics (a book that followed in the wake of Gladwell’s success) Steven Levitt argued that the fall was due to a hugely expanded police force, coupled with easier access to abortion which meant fewer unwanted children. More recent evidence points to the removal of lead from gasoline as accounting for as much as 90% of the changing crime rate globally.
What makes The Tipping Point more uncomfortable today is that, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that every idea Gladwell champions also has a dark side. The techniques and manipulation that he marvels at for the wonders they create — the American Revolution, Hush Puppies and Blue’s Clues — can just as powerfully fuel QAnon, fake news and white supremacism. That his clever ideas might have an equal and opposite impact seems nowhere on his mind. Could such a clever writer really be that naïve?
But in the world of The Tipping Point, big change is always social and systemic, it’s never political and there are never any bad guys. Gladwell says he’d like to be remembered as “as writer who took cheering up his listeners seriously.” It’s a noble enough ambition, but his view of teen smoking and AIDS as purely social phenomena seems willfully blind to the power of big tobacco and big pharma. Yet in this very sunny book, nobody is ever in the wrong and commercial success has no ethical complexity. Sure, Blue’s Clues was a show designed to entertain and (perhaps) educate children but its very existence could also be seen as the commercializing of childhood by corporations who just want to sell stuff to kids. Teen smoking clearly has a social component but is it so strong that the manipulation of nicotine has no role to play? In his eagerness to please, Gladwell always stops just short of seeing any negative causes or effects; even when explaining the appeal of Ronald Reagan, he carefully sidesteps any political implications in his insights.
Before The Tipping Point, most business books were unreadable; you consulted them only if you had to and nobody outside the business world touched them.
Like Jim Collins’ bestseller, Good to Great, published just a year later, bigger is always better, success has no cost. Good ideas are just ideas that work — but for whom, at whose expense, well that isn’t his concern. This stance is beguilingly neutral, but it’s still an ideology, one that remains a frustrating hallmark of subsequent books. Although many of his ideas involved topics with deep political implications, the writing remained exquisitely, judiciously blind to politics. More recently, in his podcast series Revisionist History, he’s proved a little bolder; revealing Churchill’s involvement in the Bengal Famine wasn’t an obvious crowd pleaser. But his refusal in print to interrogate the logic of his own thinking feels uncomfortably reminiscent of a Salesman.
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It’s particularly strange because what The Tipping Point really purports to offer is a Theory of Change. The world is awash with such theories: the Great Man theory that sees change depending on leaders, network theory, to which Gladwell is closely aligned or, more recently, Erica Chenoweth’s research showing that the 3.5% of the population has to participate in driving change for it to take root. They all have some validity but not one comes near meeting the critical requirement of a theory: that it accurately predicts outcomes.
But long after many of its theses have been revised, marginalized or commercialized, what remains of greatness in The Tipping Point is its vivid proof of a more important argument than the book itself describes: that there was and is a large, mainstream audience for serious books that explore complex subjects that touch our lives. And that can includes business.
Getting business books out of their dreary ghetto wasn’t an insignificant achievement. Before The Tipping Point, most were unreadable; you consulted them only if you had to and nobody outside the business world touched them. A few bestsellers, like In Search of Excellence were largely consumed by readers who weren’t after entertainment but self-help. Narrative non-fiction tracing the dramatic stories of business triumphs or disasters — Steven Levy’s inspiring Insanely Great (1994) and Tracey Kidder’s magnificent The Soul of a New Machine (1981) — combined terrific storytelling with business narratives but featured no takeaway lessons. The Tipping Point was different; sure, you could read it for practical tips but you could also simply sit back and relish its entertainingly oblique approach to everyday topics (crime, kids’ TV, fashion) and come away with a better understanding of phenomena all around you.
It’s become fashionable to trash Gladwell as banal and derivative. That’s unfair and much of it must be envy. Yes, he is a Salesman, manifesting many of the characteristics he lauds in his book. But he is also a punctilious translator of academic research, careful (unlike many of his imitators) to credit the work of the less famous, less well paid, researchers on whom his own work depends. He’s manifestly impressed by the way new ideas emerge and comfortable crediting those who do the heavy lifting.
In The Tipping Point, Gladwell made research and thinking accessible and fun. Bookstores even invented a new category: Smart Thinking. Many subsequent authors have taken the form further and, since the financial crisis of 2008, shown a greater readiness to call out the political implications of what Gladwell portrayed as pure pragmatism. But these writers (and I count myself among them) all owe him a debt of gratitude. Business isn’t dull and success doesn’t stem from following recipes. Thinking is cool. It’s even better than that. It’s essential.