Malcolm Gladwell: The Tipping Point

The Failure Interview.

Malcolm Gladwell: The Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point.”

One of the most surprising literary hits of the past year doesn’t deal with Harry Potter, political intrigue, or murder but rather attempts to explain the characteristics of epidemics—why major societal changes happen suddenly and unexpectedly. On the surface, the subject matter of “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” (Little, Brown & Co.) isn’t particularly sexy, but businessmen and marketers—charged with breaking through the clutter in today’s marketplace—have strongly embraced the book. Perhaps that’s because Gladwell—a staff writer for The New Yorker—demonstrates his concepts using easy-to-understand examples, utilizing everything from fashion trends to children’s television shows like Blue’s Clues.

Of course, Gladwell is known in publishing circles as a writer that is very interested in failure—more specifically, cognitive failure. Recently, I sat down with Gladwell to reflect on “The Tipping Point” and discuss certain failure-related topics that he has previously explored, including the often-misunderstood concepts of “choking” and panicking.

Why don’t we start by defining the term “tipping point”?
The tipping point is a term that comes from epidemiology that describes the moment in an epidemic when it takes off. You know, that week in December when everybody starts coming down with the flu. Or those critical months in 1982 when all of a sudden AIDS went from being this rare, gay cancer to being this thing that we were all obsessed with. The term was originally used to describe that moment in the life of a white neighborhood when a certain number of blacks moved in. It’s the moment of critical mass common to all epidemics. It’s what sets apart epidemic change from steady, linear change.

What was your thought process behind taking “The Tipping Point” from a New Yorker story to a full-fledged book?
The original article [from the June 3, 1996 issue] was about crime, but I knew that I didn’t just want to write about crime. I wanted it to have a much broader appeal than that. I began to realize that just focusing on social pathology was way too narrow, and I could have a lot more fun playing with this idea in a variety of contexts. As I was sketching out the book, I developed all kinds of ideas about the direction I wanted to go.

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