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Published on July 19th, 2011 | by Natan Margalit


Covenant II: What is Malcolm Gladwell Hiding?

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite writers these days. But he’s keeping something from us.  Last week I wrote about how I can’t be a writer on my own, and in fact no one can accomplish much completely on their own. I wrote that this is the basis of the Jewish idea of covenant: we need one another and the task can’t be done alone. But the world around us gives us another message: There are heroes who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. There are geniuses who are not only born smarter but who also work harder and make themselves world changers.

But this message is starting to change, and one of the main writers out there changing it is Malcolm Gladwell.  Recently Gladwell has been writing about invention and inventors.  (See his article in the New Yorker, May 16, “Creation Myth.”)  In this New Yorker article he tells the story of Steve Jobs and how he took the idea for the computer mouse from Xerox Corporation. The myth is that Jobs is the creative genius and Xerox the clueless bureaucrats who didn’t have the imagination to see what they really had.  As Gladwell puts it: “Jobs is the Biblical Jacob and Xerox is Esau, squandering his birthright for a pittance.”

But the article goes on to show that in fact no one person is an inventor.  The process of invention takes a few different kinds of personalities each playing their roles.  Xerox actually played its role just fine.  The corner of Xerox that got the idea of the mouse had a culture of free inquiry, pure theory and intellectual play.  That is great for coming up with ideas, but not well suited for putting them into a user-friendly, marketable form.  That was Steve Jobs’ role. Neither could have brought the mouse to market without the other.

Gladwell has written a lot of things along these lines.  He contrasts the stories of a man named Chris Langan (Ever hear of him? Neither had I) who has an IQ that is off the charts, but who never made it, with that of someone like Bill Gates, who is also a genius, but who happened to also have the right connections, and the right timing, to make his impact. Gladwell compares successful people to trees in a forest – not only does the seed need to be strong and healthy, but it needs to have good sunlight, rich soil, the luck to not be eaten by little animals or chopped down if it hopes to become the tallest tree in the forest.

In fact, he relates how not only did someone like Bill Gates have the connections that helped him (his private high school acquired a recently invented time-sharing computer in 1968!) but he was born in exactly the right time to become a computer tycoon: 1955. Gladwell shows how a huge percentage of the builders of the personal computer revolution were born in 1954 or 1955.  You might have been a math wiz and a computer genius, but if you were born in 1951 you probably already were started on your career, probably married with commitments in 1975 when the personal computer came on the scene.  If you were born in 1958 (like me) you were still in high school and not yet ready to revolutionize the computer world (I knew there was some reason I’m not a billionaire!)  1955 was the perfect time to be ready to catch the PC wave.

On this issue of birth, Gladwell’s first example in Outliers is hockey players. It turns out one of the most important factors in determining success in the Canadian elite hockey leagues is . . . birth date. Yes, an astounding 40 percent of elite Canadian hockey players are born in January to March.  This is not astrology. It’s because January 1 is the cut-off date for age-class hockey in Canada. So if a league lets 5 year old boys in and you’re born on January 2, you’ll be the oldest in your league. At that age a few months make a difference in size and coordination. And that difference gets multiplied because they start early choosing elite players for special attention. If you get into an elite team you play more, get better coaching, more practice. You have a much better chance of being picked for the next level elite teams. And so a star is born.

Our oldest son Nadav is about to enter kindergarten. He was born on August 5 and if we had let him start when he was five years old he would have been one of the youngest in his class. But since we’re Gladwellians we’re starting him in kindergarten this year when he’ll just have turned six.  Because as in hockey, the statistics for success in school are also clear: when you start out on the older side of your class, you get an advantage, and that advantage doesn’t dissipate, but multiplies over the years.

One of the main points in Outliers is that success is less a function of an individual’s high IQ and more related to things like how that person connects to others, where they happen to be in located in history and society, and the culture in which they participate. Like forests, success also has an ecology.

We look at a successful person and want to know if s/he has the right stuff, as if it resides somewhere inside them. We are not used to the idea that what we are is not “in” us, but emerges from all of the things that make up our ecology. And a small thing can spiral into a huge thing.  A small advantage like being born on a certain date can give you a step up and from there it can lead to more and more advantages. A small difference can lead to a big difference, which of course, is the subject of another of Gladwell’s best sellers – The Tipping Point. In that book he surprises us because we tend to follow the mechanical logic that small changes make for small effects.  But in the real world — he takes examples from fashion, business and popularculture but he might have also included climate change — a small change can lead to giant effects.

So, what is Gladwell hiding?  Ironically (because Gladwell loves to show us underlying patterns) what he’s hiding is the underlying pattern behind almost all of his writings. I’ve found that pretty much everything I’ve read of Gladwell (and I must admit I haven’t read every word he’s every published. But I’ve read a lot) fits with the shift on which I base Organic Torah: from mechanical, linear thinking to organic, pattern thinking. I love reading him not only because he’s onto a bunch of cool insights (he is) but because his insights lead us away from the way we’ve been thinking for at least three centuries and toward a more organic (and, I think, more Jewish) way of thinking and being in the world.

One of the foundations of this new/old way of thinking is Emergence, and it’s all over Gladwell’s writings. Gladwell is helping us to re-discover that “who I am” is not contained within me, but I emerge from my network of connections, my history or my culture. In Jewish terms this is covenant. As I wrote about in the last post, Judaism embraces the idea that the individual is never complete. When a baby is born we give him or her a name and enter them into a chain, an ecology, of the larger whole.

Gladwell’s most famous term is tipping point. We’ve seen here how a little thing like being the oldest in your class can mean getting chosen for the “gifted and talented” groups, and that can lead to more attention, and so on as the school system feeds back on itself and rewards those who succeed. This is another of the underlying foundations of organic (or to use the more scientific, nerdy term, complex systems) thinking. When things are connected to form a whole, whether we are talking about people in a society, molecules in a cell, or climate on a planet, a small change can trigger feedback and create a giant effect.  Judaism’s basic idea of doing a mitzvah has always operated on this idea. You don’t know whether your small action, giving some tzedakkah, saying a blessing, helping someone out, is going to make a difference or not. You do it because it’s a mitzvah.  But it might, it just might, change the entire world.

I don’t know. I haven’t asked him, but I think the reason why Malcolm Gladwell never talks about organic thinking, complex systems, or other generalizations (which I think are the underlying pattern behind his ideas) is because he’s a good writer and wants to sell books. He writes best sellers (they’ve even “gone viral” – how cool, to invent a concept and then see your own books fulfill it!) because he tells great stories and opens our eyes to a different way of looking at the world. But in the process he’s done more than just about anyone to help us start to shift toward organic thinking, and a new/old way of being.  He’s not Jewish, but he’s one of the heroes of Organic Torah. We’re all connected in surprising ways. Now, if only my blog would go viral!

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