Reasons to care about Malcolm Gladwell

 

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Category: Reflections 01 Apr 12

 

As I write this, the Malcolm Gladwell lecture held by the Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business as part of their Distinguished Leadership and Innovation Conference has not yet taken place, but I have had a glimpse of Malcolm Gladwell. I just introduced myself to Malcolm Gladwell who was sitting in the Hyatt veranda, his signature afro delightfully askew in the sea breeze working on his laptop.

I made the mistake of telling this to a businessman and his daughter with a kind of hopping excitement they both associate with teenagers and attending a Lady Gaga concert. Pat came the answer from the 17-year-old. “Who is Malcolm Gladwell?”

And the businessman’s response was this: “Why does he matter? Don’t get me wrong, I respect journalists but they can’t tell me how to make money or manage my staff. Why should anyone care about a former Washington Post and current New Yorker journalist who writes best selling pop economics self help books?

“I have better things to do with a thousand US dollars than spend it on his lecture.” I wanted to let them know that covering a Gladwell lecture, if not as titillating as Lady Gaga, was at least as valuable. I trotted out the stuff I thought would impress them.

Gladwell was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. He was chosen for Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers 2010 and 2009 list; is ranked number ten on ‘The Thinkers 50’ 2011. Newsweek has also chosen him for the Top 10 New Thought Leaders of the Decade.

They were unmoved. Both father and daughter would at this stage prefer Lady Gaga in a giant spider outfit with suspenders. I said, if you care about success, if you care about the success of your company, your employees, your community, your city and your country, then you should care about Gladwell.

I tried again. He has written four best-selling books The Tipping Point-Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), and What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009).” Their eyes glazed over. And besides, he commands about $600,000 TT or more for one hour of his time. The world is listening. They listened.

The first reason to care about Gladwell is his book The Tipping Point, because it dissects the anatomy of change to bring about an epidemic of change which we in T&T desperately need.

A small oil rich twin island republic in the Caribbean approaching T&T has been longing for an epidemic of change to sweep away illiteracy (40 per cent functional illiteracy is eating away at the heart of our society); an epidemic of change to become a proper tourist destination (its humiliating on the flight home from London to see all the tourists get off in St Lucia or Barbados); an epidemic of change to bring down our statistics of having highest rate of HIV/Aids in the world after Sub Saharan Africa. Most of all, we are longing for an epidemic of change away from having one of the highest rates of murder in a non warring country. We are at our wits end. Why not try some Gladwellian thinking?

In the The Tipping Point Gladwell says that human behaviour is hugely influenced by its environment. So, in Trinidad it will mean that our personalities, our propensity to litter, murder, place a lower value on books, not keep time, place a huge value on the “smart men” and entertainment celebrities comes from within each of us. Gladwell gives the example that the “zero tolerance efforts to combat minor crimes such as fare-beating and vandalism on the New York subway led to a decline in more violent crimes citywide.”

They were listening. The second most powerful reason that you should care about him is that if we study his book Outliers seriously we could finally get a work ethic and a far more equal society. Gladwell’s theory is that Outliers, extraordinary people are simply those who have followed the 10,000-Hour Rule based on a study by Anders Ericsson.

He says “natural talent” or very high IQs rarely don’t play much of a role in success. Extraordinary success comes to those who firstly, work hard for 10,000 hours over ten years, are supported by family and community and finally are at the right place at the right time. He uses the Beatles and Bill Gates among others as examples.

In Outliers he also says that we personalise success and make rules that frustrate achievement. We miss the opportunity to lift others to the top rung. We prematurely write people off as failures and are in awe of those who succeed. But he completely won me over with his writing which he does with great clarity (his Jamaican psychotherapist mother’s advice). His 10,000 or more hours of observing people, products, life, events with a mathematicians detail (his British father was a Math professor) results in extraordinary insight and compelling stories. His essay “true colours” which links the feminist movement with hair dye is my favourite. It’s beautifully researched, hilarious, and has a kick in its tail as extraordinary, whimsical and curious as the man himself.

Next week...My 20-minute one-on-one with Malcom Gladwell.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur