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.
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.