Malcolm Gladwell: The Tipping Point

The Failure Interview.

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.

Was there any problem from The New Yorker’s perspective about developing the article into a book?
No, not at all. It happens all the time around here. There’s always some grumbling when you take time off, but that’s to be expected. 

I checked this morning on and their sales ranking for the book is #217. I know those rankings are a little dubious, but are you surprised by how successful it’s been? 
To me the exciting part was simply getting a book published. I had no expectation beyond that. I was quite happy that I had something to give to my mother—that kind of thing. The staying power has been amazing. We have pushed back the release of the paperback because the hardcover continues to sell so well. I was expecting the book to go away and die really quickly. No one has been more surprised than me. 

Are people reading “The Tipping Point” because they are desperate to figure out what makes something popular or successful? 
I think that’s part of it, although I wouldn't use the word “desperate.” It's just a subject that is curious. It’s curious when a movie that no one imagines will go anywhere becomes a huge hit. It’s weird when everyone starts pushing around razor scooters. These are things that we live with in our society that are puzzling. It’s puzzling when you have a little outbreak of school shootings—all these little indices of mass behavior that defy normal explanation. And that’s what “The Tipping Point” is trying to explain. Some groups of people have had much more ambitious hopes for the book in terms of how it will help them figure things out. The book was meant to be a fresh and provocative set of insights about certain kinds of social phenomenon. 

Your message is very positive in that a small thing can make a big difference, but the downside seems to be that things can become popular and then disappear very quickly. That’s not too encouraging if you're in business. 
If you’re in business it's both a promise and a warning. It says that sometimes little things can cause some little guy to have an overnight success. It also says that it is the nature of epidemics that they come and they go. The NASDAQ will rise dramatically, but it will also fall dramatically. The flu comes in a rush every winter but it's gone by the spring. The book is optimistic because I chose to dwell on some very positive applications of this, but there’s no question that it's also meant as a kind of corrective to the notion that when change happens it’s permanent. In the middle of January or February it can seem like the flu is going to take over the entire world, but you know what? It’s not going to. And I think that's a very important part of the message.

What’s the most interesting response you’ve gotten to the book? 
That’s a good question. Some reporter did a little story on a philanthropist in New Jersey who gave away copies of the book and said he would give money to any library in New Jersey that would use the principles of “The Tipping Point” to make libraries more popular. I loved that. That's exactly the kind of thing that I want the book [to do].

What do you want people to take away from the book? 
It’s the same thing I try to do in all my writing. At the core, a lot of my writing is about some fairly arcane and obscure social science research that most people haven't heard of. I’m constantly looking for ways to package that so that people will get exposed to it. If you’re not a psychologist or a sociologist or you're not in cognitive sciences you just never run across these concepts. So the question is, How can I bring this stuff to people's attention without them falling asleep? There's a lot of pretty heavy stuff in the book, but I hope it's dressed up in such a way that everybody can read it and it’s in a language that’s accessible. I just want people to be exposed to a bunch of really cool ideas that they wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to. 

Do people view you as a trendspotter now? 
Well, some people want to, but I always tell them, “Just look at the way I'm dressed” [laughs]. Very quickly they realize that my finger is not on any pulse. 

Do you feel any pressure to stay ahead of the curve? 
No, I am more than happy to write about that kind of person, but I’m not that person. I’m just a guy that's saying it’s important to distinguish between those two groups. 

Would you classify “The Tipping Point” as a marketing book?
A lot of marketers have been very attracted to it for obvious reasons. We were puzzled in the beginning about where to put it in the bookstore.

Where are they putting it? 
It moves around. I think it’s now in Business because it turned into a business book. I didn’t spend a lot of time figuring out a niche for it. I just wrote whatever I was into.

I’ve heard a few journalists describe you as “The New Yorker’s failure guy.” Is that accurate? 
I’m obsessed with failure. In fact, I’m doing a piece right now about traffic accidents. It’s partly about the mistakes that people make that lead to accidents. To me why people make mistakes is as interesting as why they succeed. In fact, it’s more interesting.

In your article “The Art of Failure” [from the August 21/28, 2000 issue] you discuss several well-known sports failures. Can you describe the difference between “choking and panicking? 
The premise behind that piece was that choking and panicking are very different. They are diametrically opposed ways of failing. Choking is retreat from intuition. It’s when you're doing something and you lose touch with things that used to come automatically. You’re over-thinking. The classic choke in tennis is where all of a sudden everything you do becomes self-conscious. You’re thinking about your serve, you’re thinking about your backhand—all of a sudden you lose that kind of fluidity. 

On the other hand, panicking is a flight from reason. It’s where you no longer think logically about what you are supposed to do. You retreat to your instincts and intuition, which in other kinds of situations can be disastrous, such as when you are underwater. But those are very, very different ways of screwing up that happen to different people under different circumstances. I wanted to make the point that sometimes when we see failure we assume it’s one kind when it’s the other kind. You have to know what kind of failure is happening if you want to know how to stop that failure. 

I used the example of JFK, Jr. crashing his plane. That was classic panicking. He needed to choke. If he choked when he was in trouble over Cape Cod he would have lived. He needed to stop being fluid and intuitive and stop flying on instinct. He needed to calm down and think in the most wooden way. The kind of thinking that’s a disaster on the tennis court would have been perfect when he was in that plane. He needed to look at his instruments and forget about what was going on outside. There were all kinds of dumb, panicky things that he did. 

By the same token, people look at the performance of African-American students on SAT’s and they think they are panicking and not thinking. In fact, they are choking half the time—they are thinking too much. It doesn’t mean they are not smart. It means that they are in that mode going through a performance breakdown that is very specific to the test. I think understanding how and why failure happens is tremendously important in appreciating why people do the things they do.

What do you think will happen with Chuck Knoblauch this season? [Last year the veteran New York Yankees second baseman suddenly and inexplicably found himself unable to make routine throws to first base].
Knoblauch is in a choking spiral. This happens periodically in baseball. Although what goes on with him is what goes on with [Los Angeles Lakers center] Shaquille O’Neal all the time, except Shaq has so many other areas where he can shine. But he’s in this spiral. What he needs to do is stop thinking about throwing, but the worse his throwing gets the more he thinks about it. Historically, people don’t recover from these things. [Former Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman] Steve Sax recovered but I don't know whether Sax had it as bad as Knoblauch or as long. It’s just hard to understand how he’s going to get out of this. Maybe he needs to stop for a year. And it's the easy throws that are bedeviling him, where he has the most time to think. I think Knoblauch’s career is very close to being over.

Along those same lines, what’s the prognosis for Rick Ankiel? [At the end of last season, the hard-throwing St. Louis Cardinals rookie pitcher threw an inordinate number of wild pitches in a very short time frame].
Ankiel had two bad outings [last season]. But it’s not the same thing. He was a rookie in an incredibly pressure-packed moment. He’s not quite in the same league as Knoblauch, who is botching routine plays in spring training. All of us fold under pressure. If you put me in a major league game and I happened to field the ball cleanly, I would botch the throw to first base—but not in spring training, only under pressure. Knoblauch is folding under no pressure, and that’s what is scary about what is going on with him. Ankiel let’s wait and see. He was in a pressure situation and he choked. It happens. 

Are there any books related to “The Tipping Point” that you'd like to speak about or recommend? 
I know that Seth Godin has written about viral marketing. I did the forward for one of his books [“Unleashing the Ideavirus”]. And there's “The Anatomy of Buzz,” by Emanuel Rosen, which I didn’t read but which I read very nice things about. Both of those are more narrowly focused as marketing books. Mine is more of an intellectual ramble through the underbrush of some wacky ideas.