Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Geek Pop Star

Ever faithful to his big new idea, Gladwell continues to attribute his success to everything and everyone but himself. “As gifted as he is,” says New Yorker editor David Remnick, “I think he knows that there is a dimension to his success of a man catching lightning in a bottle, of crazy fortune.” More than luck, though, Gladwell credits the academics whose work he bases his own on. A couple years ago, a business professor took to the pages of the Journal of Management Inquiry to urge his fellow academics to do more popular writing and thus “put Malcolm Gladwell out of business”—which didn’t trouble Gladwell in the least: “If that was the condition under which I would be put out of business, I’d be delighted.” Indeed, sometimes Gladwell almost sounds tortured about his success, since it does seem to come at the expense of those whom he credits for making it possible. “If the spotlight should be anywhere, it should be on the originator of the idea,” he says. “I try to give credit whenever I can. And sometimes you fail, sometimes you fail because of your own sloppiness, and sometimes you fail because people don’t pick up on the credit … because necessarily, the figurehead-y person with the crazy hair giving the talk, even if he tries to give credit, it doesn’t stick. And I worry about that. In fact, that’s not fair. But there’s nothing—no, there isn’t nothing—but there’s a limited amount I can do. It’s a function of the way people receive knowledge.”

Of course, Gladwell’s description of himself as a parasite serves as a handy defense when his work comes under fire. Two years ago, after the economics blogger Megan McArdle criticized Gladwell for attributing in a New Yorker article Ireland’s success as the “Celtic Tiger” to declining birthrates, he responded on his blog that McArdle had the wrong guy—and did it, rather strangely, in the third person. “ ‘Gladwell’ does not attribute Irish success to falling birthrates,” he groused. “David Bloom and David Canning do. Gladwell is a journalist. Bloom and Canning are two exceedingly prestigious economists at Harvard, who are considered world experts in the field of demography and economics.”

“When I wrote ‘Tipping Point,’ my expectation was it would be read by my mom and that was it. Now I realize I have a bit of a podium, so it seems silly to put it to waste.”

When Gladwell’s critics themselves are world experts—as was the case when New York Times business writer Joe Nocera went after Gladwell for “conflat[ing] fraud with overvaluation” in a New Yorker article that argued that Enron’s misdeeds were hidden in plain sight—Gladwell retreats to the defense that his writing is merely meant to be provocative. “I don’t think it’s proper for someone in my position to be a definitive voice,” he says. “These books and New Yorker articles are conversation starters.”

Henry Finder charitably says of the instances in which Gladwell has been wrong: “There’s a great line of Wallace Stevens: ‘Sometimes you must go too far to see what would suffice.’ ”

Gladwell describes much of his writing as “playful, intellectual explorations” of ideas. But these explorations often result in Gladwell being decidedly agnostic about the ideas he’s propagating. His willingness to quickly concede error—“Much the mensch,” the Slate media critic Jack Shafer wrote of Gladwell after he admitted being wrong about the subject of women and estrogen—can also be read as a lack of conviction. If ideas are just an occasion for fun, Gladwell seems to be saying, who needs to believe in them? Which is the biggest reason why Outliers is such a break from Gladwell’s earlier work: In Outliers, Gladwell’s finally writing about ideas that, as he puts it, represent his “very bedrock beliefs.”

The other way Gladwell explains his success is more succinct: “People are experience rich and theory poor. My role has been to give people ways of organizing experience.” That’s only part of it, though. Gladwell’s real innovation is providing theories that organize experience in a deeply reassuring way. Gladwell isn’t just selling theories; he’s selling peace of mind. Much of this is achieved through skillful storytelling. Gladwell’s theories come packaged in nifty little tales, like Paul Revere’s midnight ride (Revere, you see, was both a maven and a connector) or the thin-slicing psychologist who, after a mere fifteen minutes of observation, can predict with 90 percent accuracy whether a pair of newlyweds will still be married in fifteen years. As an admiring reviewer in Time once put it, Gladwell is “like an omniscient, many-armed Hindu god of anecdotes.”

But the ultimate secret of Gladwell’s success is that his stories almost invariably have happy endings. As he readily admits, he is “congenitally incapable of glooming and dooming.” Even his account of Amadou Diallo’s shooting at the hands of four New York City police officers, which occupies a chapter of Blink, delivers the reassuring message that the cops weren’t racists acting with evil intent but, rather, simply poor mind readers who misunderstood Diallo’s actions. Thus, the way to prevent future police shootings, according to Gladwell, is not to undertake the impossible task of purifying people’s hearts but simply to train cops to “extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience.”