What Was Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s one of America’s most trusted public intellectuals.
By Pallabi Munsi
Malcolm Gladwell was running down Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, California, when a “totally buff” young Black man in an “exquisite” Porsche seized the moment, stood on the seat of his car and shouted: “I love what you do, bro!”
And that’s what makes it all worthwhile for The New Yorker journalist who grew up in a farming community in rural Ontario and has over the years become, as he tells OZY co-founder and CEO Carlos Watson in the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show, “an intermediary between the serious thinkers and the general public.” While it’s a role that came into his life serendipitously, Gladwell takes it very seriously, especially because this is a time “when the gap between scholars and experts and the general public grows wider every day,” as he explains.
How did Gladwell become the guy who has helped people change the way they think? For him, success is not just one thing — in fact, he says, it’s a chain of things “that largely happen to you, not that you make happen.” He believes six or seven key things happened to him but that the tipping point was, well, The Tipping Point, his first book.
The system — it’s not rigged, but it was organized to give a special benefit to a certain class of privileged kids.
“I wrote it because I had been covering the AIDS epidemic … [and] wanted to write a book that applied the logic of epidemics to other things. To ideas, to people’s behavior,” he says. “I just think it happened to come along at exactly the moment that people were interested in that metaphor and exploring it.”
The Tipping Point remains vital reading at a time when the world is under siege by the worst pandemic in a century.
It’s important, Gladwell says, to understand that “epidemics are asymmetrical. Certain people do most of the work, it’s true with COVID as well. Those people are powerful, in a negative sense; they’re spreading the virus. But it’s not any kind of power that we normally think about. And that’s what I was trying to get at with Tipping Point.”
And personal motivation is what has led Gladwell to write his subsequent books as well. Take his latest, Talking to Strangers.
“It is just about me watching that Sandra Bland video over and over again, and getting angry at seeing the tragedy and the stupidity and the absurdity of a young Black woman being pulled out of her car for nothing,” he says. “And then ending up dead in her cell two days later. So [the books] always start with some little precipitating incident in my life which affects me in some way.”
It often has to do with race, which Gladwell says for him has less to do with who’s saying the “N-word” and more about systemic injustice that, for example, traps poor students of color in inferior education, hampering their chances to become the dentists and C-suite leaders of tomorrow. “The system — it’s not rigged, but it was organized to give a special benefit to a certain class of privileged kids,” he says. “It’s not like it’s some perfect meritocracy.”
But when it comes to human nature, particularly in this era of political divisiveness, Gladwell says his time in journalism has made him more of an optimist.
“We’re in this moment where we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re all jumping to judgment, and hopelessly divided, and superficial, and addicted to social media,” he says. “My experience is exactly the opposite.… Most people are not like that. Most people, if you tell them a story and you tell it well, will listen to the story to the end. If it contradicts what they believe, they will at least consider the new evidence, they won’t dismiss it out of hand.”
- Pallabi Munsi, OZY Author Contact Pallabi Munsi