Small-business owners can learn a lot from the rise of Malcolm Gladwell's star, not to mention his collected works of nonfiction.
There is, for example, his undaunted persistence in the face of early rejection. While most people now know Gladwell from his insightful articles for The New Yorker and his bestselling books, The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, few know that his undergraduate grades didn't qualify him for graduate school, which led to his decision to pursue advertising … a career he never actually entered because he couldn't get a single agency to hire him.
There are also his early journalism stints at The American Spectator and The Washington Post, where he toiled for 10 years covering the intersection of science and business before securing the rare and coveted position of staff writer for The New Yorker. This career coup helped prove his popular "10,000 hours" rule of expertise—that mastery of anything requires at least 10,000 hours of practice—which became the most "sticky" part of his second book, Outliers.
And "sticky"? That's from "the Stickiness Factor," one of the three components required for an idea to go viral that Gladwell outlined in his first book, The Tipping Point. This popular book was based on one of his first articles for The New Yorker in 1996 and remains a New York Times bestseller 13 years after its publication.
The Tipping Point
Gladwell didn't set out to become a business guru, bestselling author or six-figure keynote speaker. It just so happened that his two main interests—collecting and telling interesting stories, and combing through academic research to derive insights that overlapped or explained those stories in a counterintuitive way—when combined with a unique narrative style, proved universally resonant, first with the intellectual readership of The New Yorker and then with the world.
What gives Gladwell's dissertations the elusive combination of both star status and staying power is his uncanny ability to deliver universally applicable principles in a compelling way.
From The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, we get three simple but profound principles—the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context—that can be used in a nearly infinite array of endeavors, from marketing and sales to entertainment and urban renewal. When these three elements come together in just the right way, ideas spread in the same way viruses that reach epidemic proportion do: They "tip" when a critical mass is reached. The "tipping point" term itself comes from Gladwell's investigation of epidemiology.
Gladwell's Key Concepts
The Law of the Few is Gladwell's interpretation and extrapolation of the Pareto Principle (aka, the 80/20 rule), which states that 80 percent of any outcome can be attributed to just 20 percent of the input. In Gladwell's view, three kinds of people are necessary (but not sufficient) for an idea to spread virally:
- Connectors who get the word out through their well-developed social networks
- Mavens, or information specialists who are "people we rely upon to connect us with new information"
- Salesmen, who use their inherent powers of persuasion to get others to agree with them.
The Stickiness Factor, which became the basis for another bestselling book, Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, refers to how memorable and resonant a concept is. The Power of Context refers to the environment in which a specific idea is born and bred. As Gladwell puts it, "Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur."
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is Gladwell's follow-up book to The Tipping Point about how we think without thinking--about choices that seem to be made in the blink of an eye that actually aren't as simple as they seem. In this book, we learn that the role of subject matter expertise is not nearly as important as we think it is in making the best judgments, for two reasons: first, because deep knowledge can be a curse and is the mother of all biases; second, because too much information can cloud the most important issues. More intuitive or spontaneous snap judgment, or "thin-slicing," as Gladwell terms it, can often yield better results than in-depth analysis.
In Gladwell's third bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success, we learn that the role of talent in the eventual success in any domain is often not nearly as important as cultural origin, practice (the 10,000-hour rule mentioned earlier), timing and luck. An "outlier" as defined by Gladwell is a person or group that doesn't fit our normal understanding of achievement: Canadian hockey players born in January or February, Bill Gates and The Beatles are a few cases in point. In each of these instances, talent was not the differentiating factor.
Gladwell's latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, is already a bestseller, and promises another insightful and counterintuitive discourse, this time on the nature of competitive advantage. If his previous books are any indication, Gladwell will deliver another interesting take on the world, tell wonderful stories, cite new research and make connections the rest of us just wouldn't, connections that reveal things don't really work the way we think they do.
These implausible views on competitive advantage could just have you thinking quite differently about your business and the way you run it.
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