Book Review: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

The first book by Malcolm Gladwell that I read was Outliers, and I thought it was terrific.  Its premise, in brief, is that genius comes through practice, and Gladwell gives examples such as Bill Gates and the Beatles to prove his point.  The book was intensely inspirational because it left you with the feeling that if they could do it, so could you.  Although circumstance and luck are integral components in the equation, if you try hard enough and long enough and keep at it, you will continue to get better and better.

Gladwell specializes in giving interesting examples to broad generalities.  He doesn’t really deal with the nuances and exceptions.  That’s true of Outliers and even truer of The Tipping Point, which was actually published before Outliers.  In The Tipping Point, Gladwell goes into a theory of what makes epidemics, and he defines epidemics very broadly to include hit television shows, bestselling novels, rampant smoking, excessive suicide statistics, overwhelming outbreaks of violent crime, and other phenomena that fulfill certain conditions that cause them to reach a certain point and then grow exponentially.

According to Gladwell, the three rules that create tipping points that lead to epidemics are The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.  By the Few, Gladwell means highly influential people he calls connectors and mavens who know a lot of other people and therefore spread ideas and products. Stickiness refers to how contagious something is and what makes it irresistible.  Context is, of course, situations and circumstances that must be present to allow the epidemic to spread.

All of this is fascinating, and yet despite the unique and sometimes bizarre examples Gladwell describes to illustrate his theories, it all remains highly abstract.  Strange truths, yes, but nothing you can really use.  The problem is, all of the examples are anomalies that happen through very specific combinations of all these factors.  I have to admit that I was hoping for something a bit more practical: perhaps some thoughts on how one could create tipping points to inspire advertising campaigns, dissemination of ideas, and sales of books.  Alas, this appears to have been far from Gladwell’s intent.  Don’t come to this book looking for any sort of practical pointers.  You won’t find them.  The examples are too specific, too isolated in circumstance.  It’s like a tour of volcano sites in which you marvel at the natural wonders, and the guide explains in general terms what causes such phenomena but wouldn’t have a clue as to how you would artificially initiate or stop one.

Just as in so many instances in the past, the problem may lie with my expectations for the book, and not in the book itself.  Obviously The Tipping Point is not meant to provide any guidelines or practical tips on how to bring about or control epidemics; it’s an explanation, a guide describing what they are and some of their key attributes.  On the plus side, Gladwell writes in clear uncomplicated prose, and the examples he gives are always interesting.  If you’re approaching Gladwell for the first time, go with Outliers first, as it’s better organized and more practical and coherent.  But The Tipping Point is also well worth reading.

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