Gladwell's Reader Friendly Tipping Point

May 8, 2002
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:There's something for everyone in this book stitching together case studies...

Cons:...although academics may question some of the rigor.

The Bottom Line: An enjoyable book on multiple levels, complete with fascinating stories you'll share (and perhaps butcher) with friends and co-workers.

Malcolm Gladwell, a former Washington Post reporter who also wrote for The New Yorker, has bridged the chasm between academia and current events in his accessible book, The Tipping Point. Gladwell effectively boils down numerous case studies to their essence, using subject matter experts and academicians to explain fads, epidemics and other social changes.

Now two years old, the book remains a business favorite, frequently cited by marketers, consultants and analysts. Though discussion of several interlocking theories, Gladwell describes what causes a breakthrough. Many recording artists, for example, often cite their ten year overnight success. The Tipping Point focuses on the factors contributing to the success.

The True Six Degrees of Separation

Gladwell’s coverage of what has now been reduced to a party game surrounding actor Kevin Bacon traces the early sociology experiments regarding this axiom. Breaking people into the groups called connectors, mavens and salespeople, The Tipping Point illustrates the law of the few that analyzes the true level of interconnectivity between disparate populations. By way of example, he cites the story of Paul Revere’s ride, showing that the silversmith was only one of two riders that night. Because of Revere’s level of interaction within Massachusetts, he was able to reach more people who could take charge in a shorter amount of time. His companion, relegated to a historical footnote, could not muster the same level of support because he did not share Revere’s network.

Gladwell includes a connector test that allows readers to count the number of people they know sharing a same surname taken from a telephone book. Cross the threshold, and you’re a connector too. The entire premise is that the more people one knows, the more likely one is to know someone in a position of power. Or at least know someone who knows someone. We call it networking, but really don’t understand the immense power this process commands. Connectors truly have networks that grow exponentially.

And, by the way, Kevin Bacon isn’t even the most connected actor in movie history. That distinction currently goes to Rod Steiger. Why Steiger? Gladwell explains that Steiger is older, has had a longer career and has crossed genres so often that he is connected with a great many more groups than the average actor.

This Is All Old Stuff. Sounds Like A Clip Job To Me

A clip job, one of those notorious works in which the author contributes nothing new, but simply aggregates existing information without adding additional analysis is how some critics have derided The Tipping Point. With ten pages of end notes and liberal citations, some readers may feel the same way, but this book’s power is in the way Gladwell makes those studies a pleasure to read, deftly knitting them into a whole fabric that begins to shape modern America. This is simply an outstanding look at the cause of fads, trends and things that broken the proverbial camel’s back.

An example of how Gladwell makes the entire premise more accessible is through his explanation of The Power of Context. People are hyper sensitive to changes in context without consciously realizing their sensitivity. Crime rates increase in neighborhoods with broken windows that remain broken, but decrease on transit systems when the graffiti is removed from the trains. The concept is simple: even slightly tolerating lawlessness gives ordinary people a tacit signal that the rules need not apply in this situation. Gladwell uses multiple examples, including the facial expressions of network news anchors when mentioning political candidates correlated to the voting records of people who watch those newscasts.

So there’s more than a clip job. Think of it instead as a styling of existing theories and some interesting linking of heretofore unrelated concepts.

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah – Anything Else Worth Knowing?

Tons. You’ll be using anecdotes from this book for years. You’ll learn about The Stickiness Factor and how children’s television shows such as Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues learned what frequency and sequences optimized comprehension and attention. You’ll also find out how a group of opinion leader teenagers in New York revitalized an old shoe brand, how a single area of bars in Baltimore caused the incidence of STD to skyrocket and how trained people (in this case, seminarians) react against their training when given a simple urgent prompt.

Most importantly, you’ll find that Gladwell has provided an enjoyable read that can be shared by young and old and from the CEO to the mailroom. For as much as business has co-opted The Tipping Point into the next big thing, this remains a fascinating book about the human condition that I urge you to read.

© 2002 Joubert

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