To be made into an adjective is probably the closest to immortality that any of us are going to get—and every time Malcolm Gladwell comes out with a new book, we're reminded of the writer's everlasting ability to remain interesting.
But what is it to be "Gladwellian"? With the release of his new book, David and Goliath, we can see that the adjective summons constructive criticism, as in Slate, GQ, and Time.
And when the New York Times asked him how he feels when a book is called "Gladwellian," he said:
I’m flattered, naturally. Although I should point out that it is sometimes said that I invented this genre. I did not. Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross did.
Aside from setting us scrambling for the work of Nisbett and Ross—who authored
The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology, a book exploring how our individual identities are so dang socially contextual—Gladwell's answer on the question "Gladwellian" still feels incomplete.
Getting to the bottom of the (Glad)well(ian)
If Fast Company has learned anything, it's that if we need greater illumination, we should look to Adam Grant. The Wharton organizational psychologist wrote Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, which might just be the best business book of the year. He also blogs an insane amount—including a post on what makes Gladwell so fascinating.
As Grant argues, Gladwell's books resonate for the same reason that certain academic papers (and, we might say, certain blog posts) tend to catch fire: They're interesting. But "interesting" has many moving parts—and it turns out that sociologist Murray Davis provided a taxonomy of the interesting back in 1971.
Summarizing Davis's ideas, Grant says:
The difference between the dull and the interesting lies in the element of surprise. When an idea affirms what we already believe, we’re bored—we call it obvious. But when an idea is counterintuitive, we’re intrigued. Our curiosity is piqued, and we’re motivated to ask questions: How could this be? Is it really true? What else might this explain?
"Interesting" has many parts.
Gladwell has mastered making narratives that are just counterintuitive enough.
Davis, the sociologist, made an Index of the interesting, tracing the different ways that counterintuitive ideas can get us all excited. And as Grant notes, Gladwell fits along this index remarkably well. For example:
If it's bad, it's good: In David and Goliath, disadvantages—like dyslexia or a tough upbringing—are made into advantages.
What's individual is collective: In Outliers, we learn why professional hockey players aren't the best simply due to their hard work, but also due to the month that they were born.
What's local is global: In the Tipping Point, we discover that sexually transmitted diseases, pop culture trends, and crime sprees all have the same dynamic systems behind them.
Funnily enough, Davis predicted these successes in the context of sociology. His steps of writing a successful paper also hold for penning a best seller or a viral post. So if you ever want to do any of those, it only takes four steps:
1. The author articulates the taken-for-granted assumptions of his imagined audience by reviewing the literature of the particular sub-tradition in question ('It has long been thought…'),
2. he adduces one or more propositions which deny what has been traditionally assumed ('But this is false…'),
3. he spends the body of the work 'proving' by various methodological devices that the old routinely assumed propositions are wrong while the new ones he asserted are right ('We have seen instead that…'),
4. [and] in conclusion, he suggests the practical consequences of these new propositions for his imagined audience's on-going social research, specifically how they ought to deflect it onto new paths ('Further investigation is necessary to...')."
Counterintuitively enough, becoming Gladwellian is pretty intuitive.
Hat tip: LinkedIn