Thursday, October 4, 2007

Book Review: "The Tipping Point," by Malcolm Gladwell

I read about 100 pages of The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, a best-seller from 2000 and an inspiration for Make it Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, a current best-selling business book published last year. The connection is only significant because all my colleagues have read Make it Stick, and the book has become something of a bible at work (or more like a false god, perhaps). I’m not happy about this, but first, The Tipping Point.

The point of tipping points, a term not coined by Gladwell, is that there is an observed phenomenon that crosses disciplines such as epedemiology, population growth, advertising/marketing/fashion, and, by association, business. So while it’s important to figure out how the 1918 flu epidemic tipped from garden-variety influenza to the fierce killer of the 20th century, we’re also supposed to believe that the great Hush Puppy phenomenon of the late 90’s, when fashionably counterculture lower east-sider males of the late ‘90s caused a nearly-forgotten shoe brand to become a must-have, was equally important in the annals of tippiness. 

Is it just me or do other people find the codification of anecdote as scientific fact bothersome? I suspect that the popularity of this practice puts my sort in the minority. Gladwell is guilty of this sin of elision, as are the Heath brothers, as is every so-called business book I’ve ever attempted to read through. Some, like Good to Great, required reading at my previous job, attempt to hide the anecdotal reality of their evidence in a sea of statistical observation, failing to recognize the first lesson of statistics (at least for me), that a correlation is not a proof. More often, it is simply the diet-book effect—it worked for me and my friends, so it’s obviously a good diet—the proof is in the pudding. 

Perhaps it all boils down to The Power of Suggestion. And with this aphoristic beginning, I could write my own solution-to-all-ills business/diet/self-help book, but though a powerful temptation, I shall endeavor to resist. I will not write about connectors or disseminators or agents of stickiness. I will eschew type-A personalities and carbohydrate loading and all things karmic. I feel no urge to simplify what is necessarily a richly complicated world.

At the same time, I feel compelled to say more about tippiness and stickiness. The Heath brothers mention the tippy book as one of the inspirations for their sticky book. In fact, they pretty much re-branded the whole tippy idea as the sticky bible. Their book is an unabashed guide to making your business sticky, as if a few key thoughts could take any good idea and make it great. Essentially, they’ve homogenized the range of anecdote from Gladwell’s book, pasteurized the idea of the straw that broke the camel’s back, added an unhealthy dose of does and don’ts, and created a guide to ruining any spark of imagination or creative thought.

On the other hand, this is really want most people seem to want—a sort of pabulum for the narrow mind. I bridle and become peevish when forced to digest such revolting stuff. At least Gladwell is a good writer, and I probably could have finished the book if I hadn’t started with the Heath’s. Their book is a model of excess and repetition, and it’s not even very long. 

I wish that Gladwell had talked about the study of tipping points more and spent less time trying to define the sort of people who can cause tipping points. Perhaps this came up later in the book, but I didn’t have the patience to find out. However, I thought that this definition from Wikipedia was as interesting as anything I read in the book.

“In sociology, a tipping point or angle of repose is the event of a previously rare phenomenon becoming rapidly and dramatically more common. The phrase was coined in its sociological use by Morton Grodzins, by analogy with the fact in physics that when a small amount of weight is added to a balanced object, it can cause it to suddenly and completely topple.

“Grodzins studied integrating American neighborhoods in the early 1960s. He discovered that most of the white families would remain in the neighborhood so long as the comparative number of black families remained very small. But, at a certain point, when "one too many" black families arrived, the remaining white families would move out en masse in a process known as white flight. He called that moment the "tipping point." The idea was expanded and built upon by Nobel Prize-winner Thomas Schelling in 1972. A similar idea underlies Mark Granovetter's threshold model of collective behavior.”

I’ve moved on to Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Einstein. What a relief! It’s nice to be able to use words like brilliant and genius and have them applied appropriately. There’s no need for exaggeration and no attempt to say that you, too, can be an Einstein. It’s pretty much statement of fact, elegantly presented, written in a lucid, readable style, full of worthwhile detail, and entirely fascinating.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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