Book Reviews
Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell’s ‘Tipping Point’ Radically Altered Our Thinking

America's CU Conference keynoter continues to spark debate with analyses of social phenomenon.

June 23, 2013

The title of Malcolm Gladwell’s first book has proven appropriate in ways he likely couldn’t have imagined when it was published in 2000.

“The Tipping Point,” which probed the mysterious forces behind social trends, ideas, and epidemics, propelled the longtime writer for The New Yorker into the spotlight and served as the match that ignited an era of outstanding behavioral psychology books.

Twelve years and three more best-sellers later—with a fifth book, “David & Goliath,” coming this summer—Gladwell’s books have radically altered how we perceive our world and ourselves.

The always provocative Gladwell—who recently predicted that late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs will be largely forgotten in 50 years—will serve as a keynote speaker at the America’s Credit Union Conference, which runs June 30 to July 3 in New York.

Gladwell followed up his seminal work with Blink (2007), which examines the complexity behind seemingly instantaneous decisions, and Outliers (2011), which analyzes the elements that turned high achievers like Bill Gates into a software genius, or The Beatles into the world’s most popular band.

He also released a collection of his New Yorker articles of the same genre in the 2010 compilation, “What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures.”

The forthcoming “David & Goliath” focuses on the concept of practical innovation—that is, being best at innovating, rather than first—in the context of underdogs who beat the odds. Gladwell says Jobs is a classic example in that he honed and repackaged existing elements of competitors’ products.

Despite the success of Gladwell’s more recent books, the conversation often turns back to “The Tipping Point.” He defines the concept as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, and the boiling point” after which “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.”

In “The Tipping Point” he examines a wide variety of phenomenon, including the rise in popularity and sales of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s, the steep drop in the New York City crime rate during that time, a rash of teen suicides in Micronesia, and the continuance of teen smoking in the U.S. despite increasing public disapproval and an array of government initiatives designed to halt the practice.

Gladwell also defines three “agents of change”—personality types who drive these sociological transformations—concluding that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts”:

  • Connectors know large numbers of people and are in the habit of making introductions;
  • Mavens are “people we rely on to connect us with new information,” especially as it pertains to the marketplace; and
  • Salesmen are the persuaders—charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills.

In the years since “The Tipping Point” was published, Gladwell has emphasized that Mavens play an increasingly important role because the avalanche of electronic communication and paid messaging has made it difficult to divine what products or approach are best for you.

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