A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

not merely superfluous, but ridiculous

The Tipping Point: Review

The following is taken from my Goodreads review:

Malcolm Gladwell’s books always strike me as quintessentially American products, balanced as they are between the desire to change society for the better and the desire to do so invisibly, in a way that impinges upon people’s desires and autonomy as little as possible. The Tipping Point might well be the quintessential example of this balance. In many of the examples from this book, people are confronted with a problem that would seem to require a fundamental change in society on a massive scale. And instead, they discover that the problem can be largely addressed from a small adjustment in incentives or engineering.

The key to this, according to Gladwell, is to think of social trends and mores in terms of epidemiology. By applying the theories of how epidemics spread through a population, we can better understand how to influence society for the better–or at least in the way we’d like to see society behave. It’s not surprising that this is the book of Gladwell’s most likely to make it onto lists of business books, and I borrowed this copy from my work’s library.

But the implications of using epidemiology to describe human behavior go beyond the business world, and even cause Gladwell to interrogate the idea of a coherent, static “self.” Rather than thinking of people as autonomous entities with consistent and predictable traits, he feels we should learn to consider the “personality” of individuals as something that is constantly in flux, susceptible to the influence of charismatic individuals, forceful ideas, or even the random circumstances of their surroundings. The Tipping Point can easily be read as an attack on the American conceptions of individualism, the idea that we are all masters of our own destinies and only need sufficient determination to achieve our goals.

But if Gladwell attacks individualism, it’s a largely covert offensive, and like all Gladwell books, persuasive due to Gladwell’s rhetorical gentleness, the way he doesn’t insist on his point of view or hector his audience. Instead, he lays out the evidence and brings example after example to support his thesis. And rather than frustrate his audience (who are likely inclined to think in individualistic terms) by telling them that their approach to their goals is worthless or wrong-headed, he suggests alternative ways of achieving those goals–rather than seeing struggles as a matter of willpower or personal responsibility, to see them as equations where the parameters can be altered, where a fast-and-cheap solution may be able to bring about as much change as a fundamental structural one.

This idea, of bringing about large societal change through small counterintuitive actions, is the idea I found most valuable on my first reading of this book. As with Blink and Outliers, I can see the value of returning to this with fresh eyes later, but it’s given me plenty to think about the first time through.

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This entry was posted on 21 May 2017 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , , .
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