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Gladwell – tasty, but not nutritious

Everyone is talking about Malcolm Gladwell and his new book.  And everyone now includes me.

Gladwell and excellent writer.  He is one of the very best storytellers you’re likely to read.  But telling a great story and revealing great insight are two very different matters.  And I have never experienced any real insight from reading anything Malcolm Gladwell has written. 

As Josh Kaufman at Personal MBA says, he writes abundantly interesting, but functionally useless stories.  Of course the problem isn’t his lack of useful insight–its the pretense to useful insight .

In his own words:

“People are experience rich and theory poor. My role has been to give people ways of organizing experience.” (New York Magazine)

This of course is prefaced by some faux humility bullshit like:

When I wrote ‘Tipping Point,’ my expectation was it would be read by my mom and that was it. Now I realize I have a bit of a podium, so it seems silly to put it to waste

Just for your mom.  uh-huh.

The reality of Gladwell’s work is that he writes a kind of intellectual entertainment.  It make you feel smarter.  Sort of like the way people buy gym memberships but never go–simply buying the membship has made them feel like they’re doing something without the strain of actually doing anything.

I liken him to the WWE’s sport entertainment, or to the Ted conference’s intellectual entertainments. 

And speaking of Ted… I’ve never been myself, but I’ve watched dozens of presentations online.  At first I was blown away by all the smart people with smart ideas.  But with each presentation I found myself a little more unsatisfied.  Until I realized there there was nothing nutritious in them.  They are like eating a bowl of Cheerios–the box says they’re part of a balanced breakfast and contain 11 essential nutrients and vitamins, but on reflection the stuff is empty. 

Ted presentations are little more than intellectual performance art, displaying all the outward appearances of communicating great insight (making everyone feel smarter) without delivering any meaningful insight (so no one actuals becomes smarter).

I’d like to leave with a few words from Michael Pollan (one of Gladwell’s colleagues) which curiously come from a completely different subject, but relate to the exact same problem.

Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants… That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

8 Responses to “Gladwell – tasty, but not nutritious”

  1. Tom Froese Says:

    Insightful comparison between Sideshos Bob and Malcolm.

    As for the downplaying of Gladwell’s contributions, I disagree. Not that I have been able to measure the actual effects of his books—and I have only read Tipping Point—but he’s darn good at telling those stories and making you think a little. I say this at the risk of sounding like a satisfied consumer of Intellectual Entertainment.

    If his function is inspiration and a sense of wonder at social phenomena (in the case of the Tipping Point, at least), then I say he’s done his job.

    As for TED talks, I have felt these can be a bit overhyped. But again, some of the talks are incredibly inspiring. Perhaps they’re a bit on the novelty side of things, but I even appreciate the skilled presentations regardless of content. Maybe it’s testament to “it’s all about the package”.

    Now, as for the food commentary, that I can sink my teeth into ;)


  2. Tom Froese Says:

    ^ Correction: Sideshow Bob

  3. Jeff Delkin Says:

    Interesting perspective. Malcolm stretches my brain and helps make me *think* of things differently. How I think about thinks influences how I act on them. Epidemics, sneezers and connectors are all a part of my thought patterns. We’ve thought about our business in new ways as a result.

    Regarding TED – huh. I hadn’t thought about it, but I followed a similar pattern and thought process. I tend to agree. That is why I’m really intrigued that I recently discovered GEL ( There’s a more rich, experiential and participatory component to GEL. I look forward to attending in 09.

    And I join you at the table regarding the substance of Michael Pollan’s astute observations. He cuts to the chase, and doesn’t get overly concerned nor distracted with the packaging.

    Good post. Thanks.

  4. niblettes Says:

    I’m certainly not maligning a little entertainment (intellectual or otherwise). But I am maligning entertainment that pretends to be more. It’s the pretense that offends me. And it’s the pretense that I think is dangerous—in the same way eating food products instead of food is.

    I dislike Gladwell but I love the Daily Show, because while he pretends to be so much more than he is, The Daily Show is so much more than it pretends.

    Of course its possible to be both inspirational and insightful. Check out this video on Richard Feynman.

  5. Gong Szeto Says:

    interesting. but i think you diminish a person’s natural preference mechanisms. ted vids are snacks, or more accurately, hors d’oeuvres. none are meals themselves. and you could argue that gladwell is serving up a meal in his books, and you’d be right. the real question is what does your overall *diet* consist of. i don’t think it’s all pretense, in fact part of the fun in eating pastries or even sushi is their indulgent flair in presentation. if you’ve ever read gore vidal (whom i love) you are marinating yourself in his inimitable style inasmuch as his substance. also, for any of these high-profile celebs, it’s all performance – so yes, intellectual entertainment it is. vitrivius wrote of design having 3 pillars – firmness, commodity, and delight. the 2 out of 3 rule most often applies to most designed things we interact with. intellectual content often has a gravitas that ignores ‘delight’. the daily show interestingly enough, embodies all 3. rare. humor is his vehicle to disseminate gravitas, which is cool. it works.

  6. niblettes Says:

    I can’t argue with the power and importance of delight–its the stuff that often makes life worth living.

    But I’m worried that our natural preference mechanisms drive us to delight ourselves at the cost of all else, resulting in a very unhealthy balance.

    The marketing of journalists like Gladwell and Friedman and Brooks as authorities when they are really just storytellers, people who repackage other people’s authority, exacerbates the this.

    Of course reading Gladwell is a lot more fun than reading Putnam.

  7. Norm Barnes Says:

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