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Thankful Thursday VII – Malcolm Gladwell

A pop psychologist well-known enough to be picked to flog new electric cars on TV. That can only be one person, and this Thursday, I’m thankful for Malcolm Gladwell. For over twenty years the Canadian’s been a bit of an enigma and at times a lightning rod for scholarly critics…but he’s also authored six of the best-selling, and most interesting Non-Fiction books of that time period and hosted a great podcast.

For the unfamiliar, Gladwell rose to prominence in 2000 with his book The Tipping Point. It looked at why some things catch on – Hush Puppies in the ’90s, syphilis in Baltimore around the same time – and other trends peter out quickly. The book topped best sellers lists and soon topped a million copies sold, rather good going for a book on psychology and sociology. A few years later he followed up with the equally well-recieved Blink, which essentially urged people to listen to first instincts and not overthink many decisions. Before long, book store new release sections were full of books trying to take scientific data and models and simplify them for the masses, often complete with Gladwell-like covers (white covers with a simple single image and bold black type) . Four more similar books have followed, most recently Talking to Strangers which looked at how we automatically typecast people and the far-reaching implications which have ranged from Sandra Bland being put in jail where she killed herself after being pulled over by police for dubious reasons to Bernie Madoff being able to swindle dozens of rich and intelligent people out of billions of dollars. His most recent venture is the podcast Revisionist History, which kicks off by telling the story of Elizabeth Thompson, a British painter who briefly rose to great fame in the 19th-Century but was the only female painter given acceptance by the art “society” of the day.

The books, and podcast, are all well-enough written, snappily-paced and just downright interesting enough to make you forget you’re reading what could essentially be entry-level college texts. Why were the Beatles so good? Same reason Wayne Gretzky was in hockey, he tells us in Outliers. I find not only each book, but each chapter fairly fascinating. do I always absolutely agree with him? No. Usually I do, but he sees the world through a different lens than I so sometimes comes up with different conclusions. For instance, in his podcast about Thompson, he connects her difficulties getting other women into the elite arts community to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was voted out of office in 2013 and suggests some kind of conspiracy is in place to allow just one woman into any important office, ever. Given the tumultuous state of politics there as well as here, that only eight years have passed since a woman held the office there and the fact that neighboring New Zealand has a female in charge right now, that seems an exaggeration to say the least. But it does get you thinking about the challenges women have breaking into previously male domains.

I don’t think Malcolm would want me, or any of his readers, to automatically agree with him. I think that he would be happy when people think for themselves and draw their own conclusions… a pretty recipe for life in fact. And for making that popular, making thinking more popular, I thank Mr. Gladwell.

By the way, if you’ve been noticing a number of GM commercials lately touting their new electric cars… yep, that’s Malcolm at the opening.

From Hitler To Drunken College Girls…Only Malcolm Could Make Sense Of It

It’s nice that over time, sitting here typing on my computer, looking out at a Texas suburb, I get to know some of you well enough to feel you’re not a stranger – even if I never met you in real life. And as many of you know, some of my favorite books this century have been from Malcolm Gladwell, a fellow alumni of the University of Toronto, albeit a stranger. But one who’d be a tremendous person to have dinner with, I’m sure.

Gladwell has found his niche making psychology and human nature interesting and combining a number of eminently interesting, but seemingly disparate case studies tie together in million-selling books.  Blink showed us how it can often be useful to believe our first impressions. His mammothly-successful breakthrough The Tipping Point suggested how some things get to be successful and popular – from old-fashioned hipster boots to VD in Baltimore – and other things don’t. His Outliers suggested that to be wildly successful, you need not only talent but a dedication to spend about 10 000 hours honing your craft, be you Wayne Gretzky and your vocation hobby, or the Beatles and your thing… well, being the Beatles. Music!

So, the latest book he wrote, Talking to Strangers, is surprising only to those who don’t know his work. Because those people would surely wonder how anyone could tie together stories about Hitler, ponzi-scheme ripoff artist Bernie Madoff, drunk college girls and midwestern police manuals and make it seem coherent. Which is what Malcolm does this time around. Oh, and did I mention, the war between the Mayans and the Spaniards?

Talking to Strangers does what he does – interesting case stories told well and briskly – loosely tied together.The overall theme is that we, people. as a species, do terribly when having to deal with strangers. We can assume the best of them, and risk the consequences (as thousands did with trusting their savings to Madoff or Olympian girl parents did with the respected Dr Nassar, gymnast doctor to the stars) or assume the worst of them (as police using Kansas City’s old crime-reduction suggestions do) and risk casualties, wrongfully-tarred civilians and worse.

The book is bookended by the story of Sandra Bland, a young woman who was pulled over by a Texas state trooper for making an improper lane change, and ended up dead from her own hand in a Lone Star jail days later. People tended to see it as Bland the victim – Black woman being profiled by racist White cop – or the cop as being vilified – officer pulls over a person and is polite, to begin, but is subject to provocation and verbal obscenity while feeling in danger himself. Gladwell is in the Bland camp, but is observant enough to point out the valid arguments from both… the world is complex, and knowing strangers is difficult. The officer was trained to feel that she was a potential murderer, but she was trying to go about her life and do good. Alas, he doesn’t have any catch-all, solve-all solutions. That’s for the reader to try to descramble in their own brain. An organ under-challenged by most mainstream media these days, so hats off to Malcolm.

Not his best book, probably not even in his top three. But in a world of relationships defined by The Bachelor and power illustrated by late-night tweets from the Oval Office, it might be the most important one yet from him. If you’re a person, and there are people in your life you don’t know … strangers … it’s a book worth your time.

Reading Is Contagious?

I mentioned at some point last year that one of my resolutions was to read a bit more than I had the previous year. Well, while struggling to bounce back from an unwanted Christmas gift of the flu, I finished off the appropriately-named Contagious by Jonah Berger. Despite the name, it had nothing to do with my ailment or any other disease.

The Berger book is another pop psychology type effort which he acknowledges was inspired in no small part by Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point . Berger looks at some “viral” pop sensations and tries to dissect what it is that makes them popular and much-shared, from the story of a $100 sandwich to growing moustaches for charity. He theorizes that if people follow his formula, including making stories that appeal to strong emotions and make the person telling it seem smart or “cool”, that they can make their own videos or ads become wildly popular.

Whether or not he’s got the formula scientifically figured out, I don’t know. But the book itself is an interesting enough read. What it doesn’t have though is the charm and way with words that Gladwell’s works have which make a lasting impression and makes it one of those tomes you just can’t put down. Nonetheless, it is worth a read and if you are looking to start up an advertising campaign or promotion it just might be “the tipping point” that makes it a winner.

Contagious marked the 13th book I read in 2019, actually one less than 2018. For the record, while I liked all the books I consumed, Freakonomics was likely my favorite non-fiction and Younger my favorite novel… unless I count Grace, Fully Living which I really liked. Of course, I also wrote that one, so I’m a bit biased!

So enter 2020 and a hold-over resolution from last year, once again I aim to read more than I did last year. Elton John’s biography Me is getting me off and running – or actually sitting and reading – towards that goal.

Whether you read one or 13 or 113 books this year, I hope you’ll find words which will entertain and inspire you in 2020…and when I do the same, I’ll let you know here.