The Gladwellian Approach: Who is Malcom Gladwell?

The public intellectual is an individual who utilizes their vast knowledge and ability to communicate to the mass-population in order to educate them further on social/philosophical issues affecting our society. As vital to the well-being of humanity as these people appear to be, the average person is not familiar with this term, or could even name but a few actual public intellectuals. This is quite surprising, given the fact that technology has allowed us to communicate with one another like never before; one would assume there should be no such ignorance of public intellectuals to the large population. After all, there is an abundance of knowledge the average citizen could receive from a public intellectual, and we should listen as these people are extensively educated in their respective fields. For example, Malcom Gladwell, writer and journalist for The New Yorker, is perhaps, a most interesting type of public intellectual: Gladwell bases his research on topics and ideas aiming to uncover the mysteries of human behavior and its effect on society– Why do certain individuals become extremely successful while others do not? How can a small idea or trend held by a minority of individuals radically spread to a national scale? What effect can our subconscious mind have on our future actions? Through extensive research, Gladwell answers questions like these regularly in articles and his published works (almost all are best sellers). Gladwell considers his work as “intellectual adventure stories” and describes them as, “combining narratives and ideas from academic research in an attempt to get people to look at the world a little differently.” He has even moved his presence to social media using Twitter; in his tweets, Gladwell weighs in on current events, notifies followers when he publishes new work, and encourages them to read the work of his favorite researchers. Gladwell’s unorthodox repertoire of information along with his dedication to bringing other’s new information makes him one of the most exciting public intellectuals of the modern day. To support the claims that I am making about Gladwell’s works, I will illustrate but a few examples in the preceding paragraphs of Gladwell’s most vital contributions to intellectual thought.

Born in England and moved to Canada at age six, Gladwell’s parents’ professions stimulated his intellectual curiosity: his mother was a psychotherapist and father was a university professor. He worked for The Washington Post for six years before moving to The New Yorker where he still writes today. The reason Gladwell’s work has fostered a cult-following is because he finds inspiration from topics and occurrences that are not easily spotted. His TED profile states,” Sparkling with curiosity, undaunted by difficult research (yet an eloquent, accessible writer), his work uncovers truths hidden in strange data.” Gladwell questions that status-qou and social norms in a way that is so rare among intellectuals. Many of the brilliant social psychological insights Gladwell raises through his various articles and published works are abstract in that they look at human behavior and communication vastly different than general public opinion. Gladwell accomplishes this because he so deeply analyzes these human-phenomena, which allows him to see beyond surface-level to uncover surprising observations. Many of these observations have such great scope that they have the ability to influence how we should view the world and society.

One of Gladwell’s most alluring contributions to intellectual thought is his popularization of the Ten-Thousand Hour Rule- the idea that there are no natural “talents” in a field, and the only way to become a true master is to put in over ten thousand hours of appropriate training. Ten thousand hours strictly devoted to one task is an incredibly time consuming feat, and Gladwell also laments that in order for someone to reach the ten-thousand-hour limit, they must have unusual circumstances. Meaning, they need to have exposure to their craft at an extremely early age, or be gifted with the necessary resources that others do not. For example, Bill Gates was lucky enough to be capable of working with computers in the 1970’s when the technology was not widely available. Despite Gates’ cerebral genius, this early exposure most definitely was a major contributor to his creation of Microsoft. Furthermore, Gladwell has referenced research conducted on grandmaster chess players: not one of the most historic chess players had less than ten thousand hours of training before reaching their peak of success at the game. In fact, the researchers estimated these chess players had around eleven to fifteen thousand hours of training. I believe the significance of Gladwell’s popularization of the ten-thousand-hour rule is immeasurable for to mass-society. Most people tend to assume that others who are extraordinary in a given field have a sort of visceral talent as opposed to an unwavering work ethic. Using the ten-thousand-hour rule, Gladwell shrewdly rejects this assumption and proves that in order to become “talented”, individuals simply must dedicate years of hard work.

An obvious concern that could be raised in relation to Gladwell’s prominence: why are there so few other notable public intellectuals who have achieved the fame Gladwell has? There are two major conflicting explanations as to why there is such a shortage of those in the public eye that could be deemed, public intellectual. One argues that American society has grown stubborn with our ideologies, and this causes us to develop an indifference to people who know more than ourselves. The other is just the inverse: arguing that the quality of intellectuals has dwindled in recent years and greed has caused many would-be public intellectuals to take certain stances in exchange for perhaps, a monetary benefit. Dr. Stephen Mack published a paper titled, The “Decline” of the Public Intellectual, with the intent of explaining rationally the downfall of the public intellectual. In Professor Mack’s paper concerning the decline of the public intellectual, he references a John Donatich quote where he states,


“How does it reconcile itself with the venerable tradition of American anti-intellectualism? What does a country built on headstrong individualism and the myth of self-reliance do with its people convinced that they know best?”


Donatich argues that this rise of anti-intellectualism has hindered the public intellectual’s ability to find an audience to listen to their educated findings. Dr. Mack disagrees with this statement entirely, and instead supports the synthesis that public intellectuals not affiliated with academia have declined in quality over the years. In effect, the people that average citizens are suppose to be listening to are feeding the them untrue and irrational arguments.

Malcom Gladwell has indeed dealt with this high level of disregard to logical research to the fault of so-called public intellectuals, and his work provides insight as to how these individuals tend to develop self-serving ideologies. For example, in Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, he alludes to a phenomenon experienced by New York City in the mid-1990s: crime rates plummeted by incredible rates in just a few short years. How did this happen? NYPD chalked it up to stronger police work, economists pointed to the steady rise in employment rates in the city, however, Gladwell dismisses these arguments backed by compelling evidence. Instead, he asserts that contagious behavior spawned by just a few individuals grew to have an exponential effect on the causality of the dropping crime rates in New York. Gladwell compares these seemingly random-chance occurrences to that of deadly epidemics. Unfortunately, most people are not satisfied enough with this answer, and therefore must come up with another response. Now, the NYPD does not necessarily count as a public intellectual, but economists and criminologists certainly do: if these supposedly trustworthy individuals are incorrect in their arguments, then we can safely conclude that we should not place blame of the decline of the public intellectual on the mass-population.

Gladwell does have no shortage of opinion, and he regularly weighs in on various social topics using social media app: Twitter. An intensely sarcastic individual, Gladwell unapologetically will mock individuals with public attention for their social/moral misconduct. For instance, Gladwell openly berated hedge fund manager John Paulson of Paulson & Co. for donating $400 million to Harvard University to support their engineering & social sciences school. With the largest university endowment in the world at $37.6 billion, most rational individuals would agree that this donation should have gone to more humanitarian uses. In response to Paulson’s donation, Gladwell posted,” Next up for John Paulson: volunteering at the Hermes store on Madison avenue. Let’s make this a truly world class retail outlet!” Gladwell’s satirical rhetoric is often intelligently amusing and brutally honest about various newsworthy events. Gladwell has also spoken out about the National Football League (NFL) and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s hypocrisy of targeting certain athlete’s for supposed offenses while committing scandalous acts themselves. Acts such as attempting to cover up the damaging effects of football on the brain, destruction of incriminating evidence during the “Spygate Scandal”, and their ignorance of various domestic abuse charges committed by players in the league to avoid bad press. Some may think that discussing a sports league would be a foolish exercise, but with revenues of $13 billion a year, their behavior without question has an influence on the American public. Gladwell’s use of Twitter is but another way he continually communicates with in the public domain.

This is not to say that Gladwell’s work has no shortage of criticism in and of itself: many critics point to Gladwell’s lack of expertise and reliance on anecdotal evidence as major shortcomings of his work. Many feel that Gladwell conveniently picks his academic sources to match the stories he connects to them- as opposed to presenting extensive empirical data. Gladwell himself has even conceded that his work does demand trade-offs in that his use of stories make his assertions appear wobbly as these events have the potential to be idiosyncratic. For people who do subscribe to this critique of Gladwell’s work, I would argue that they are missing the point of what his primary goal is in his writing. Gladwell uses his works to show people that when examining various events or occurrences, we must always look beyond the obvious, as the real answer may be inconspicuously hiding right in front of our faces. It just takes us analyzing the situation from a different view for us to see what is clear in front of us. Besides, the nature of Gladwell’s work makes it impossible for him to organize any type of controlled random assignment study to test if his theories are indeed, correct; for this, it appears a short-sided view in a sense, to patronize Gladwell for the lack of definitive research. I fully realize that correlation does not imply causation, but the unfortunate truth is, the majority of people will not be adequately entertained by reading an academic paper, or else they would do just that. People crave a narrative. Gladwell realizes this, and this is why his work is concerned with intertwining both fact and entertainment. This is the primary reason social scientists tend to have been Gladwell’s staunchest critics. This approach to his writing means Gladwell’s syntheses may not always be thoroughly accurate, but it certainly is compelling conjecture, and this does not always sit well with those in academic communities.

Despite having his share of detractors, Malcom Gladwell has provided originality to the fields of social psychology and sociology. His theories encompass an interesting take on society and they should not be completely discounted due to a lack of concrete evidence. Gladwell stands as a public intellectual who continually strives to educate his supporters on public issues regularly using social media. At time when so few public intellectuals speak their beliefs not for personal gain, but for strictly influential purposes, Gladwell is someone to be revered. From when he first rose to prominence with his first published novel of The Tipping Point, where he unravels how modest happenstances can lead to tremendous outcomes. And again he contributed greatly to the ways in which we define how people become masters of their craft with the ten-thousand-hour rule. Regardless one’s opinion, his commitment to the cultivation of knowledge is unquestionable and that is worthy of praise from all.