Malcolm Gladwell has the unique ability to start conversations with his writing. Many people, including myself, find that alone enough to be considered successful as a writer. Gladwell did the impossible and made social science cool in watercooler chatter. Many people have a distaste for conversations on social or political issues. Gladwell, through his unique writing style has changed that. By analyzing culture and social trends from a unique perspective he has sparked interest and conversation on topics and relationships in society that were largely undetected. Gladwell tackles topics in his book Outliers concerning the birth dates of hockey players and how strongly correlated those dates are with the players chance of being long term successful hockey players and playing professionally. Gladwell analyzed Bill Gate’s rise to fortune through a unique perspective. There is almost a sort of conspiracy style of writing that Gladwell employs which raises suspicion, interest, and ultimately conversation. I have never been interested in hockey but Gladwell uses statistics that seem to prove truly surprising relationships.
Gladwell’s ability to present sticky concepts to the masses is what really sets him apart. The profound ideas behind his writing fuel is popularity and success. This is not to say that Gladwell lacks any sort of writing or stylistic expertise, but rather in addition to his great storytelling ability is the profoundness of his ideas. More than anything Gladwell challenges popular belief and assumptions.
Murray Davis, a sociologist, published a groundbreaking paper in 1971. The paper included 12 ways of challenging conventional wisdom. Many of the points line up with what Gladwell does with his writing. Take for example the relationship between the second point in Davis’ paper and Gladwell’s Outliers.
2. What Looks Like an Individual Phenomenon is Really a Collective Phenomenon
Another way to challenge assumptions is to show that what we think is caused by individuals is in fact caused by broader societal forces. This is the heart of Outliers. Gladwell argues that we think professional hockey and soccer players make it because of talent and hard work, but it’s really about being born a few months earlier than their peers. We assume that planes crash due to mistakes made by individual pilots, but it’s actually about the cultures in which they were raised. We believe Bill Gates and the Beatles achieved greatness because of their talents, but they had to be in the right place at the right time.