Gladwell sells smart ideas | Sunday Observer

Gladwell sells smart ideas

19 July, 2020
Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell

People write books for various purposes. Some of them try to promote an ‘ism’ or doctrine. Others write to entertain readers. However, Malcolm Gladwell writes books to sell his smart ideas. Although he is relatively a new author, he needs little introduction. Gladwell is known to be a writer of best-sellers. Most of them were published at the beginning of the new millennium. The few books he has written, notably, ‘The Tipping Point: How Little things Can Make a Big Difference’ was published in 2000. My favourite, ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’ came out in 2005. His latest book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ was published in 2008. In the following year he published ‘What the Dog Saw’ which was a compilation of stories originally published in ‘The New Yorker’ magazine. He was a staff writer for the magazine for more than a decade. In 2005, he was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Gladwell has an unusual knack for explaining and interpreting theories about ideas and humanity. He copiously uses anecdotes from the real world to explain mysteries of everyday life. His writing has been described as ‘a new genre of story, an idea-driven narrative that is focused on the everyday life and combines research with material that is more personal, social, and historical.’ Gladwell calls them ‘intellectual adventure stories.’ Unlike many other specialists, he deals with a wide range of subjects which are of practical use to readers. He brings out the familiar common sense cutting out dry intellectual arguments. This is the very reason why his books have been bought by a large number of people.


To succeed in life, you need some kind of obsession. Some people are mad over films. There was a film buff who used to see at least two films a day.There are others who read detective stories, novels and short stories. One of my colleagues working at the Central Telegraph Office had a library consisting of only detective stories. Meanwhile, most readers go for self-help books which are full of advice. However, Gladwell’s obsession is with the unknowable.

He is fascinated by mysteries and incredible events. He subtly trains readers to think out of the box and open their minds to a wide variety of infinite possibilities.

In other words, he wants people to think about the world in a different light. While most of us are worried about the complexities of the world, he consoles us telling everybody that there is no need for such worries.

At an interview he was asked what drove his research and writing. Gladwell said he was driven by curiosity. He had a very simple childlike desire to know what was happening around the world.

And he expects his readers also to be curious. He has confessed that he did not write for a particular target readership. Like him, he expects his readers also to explore new ideas which will be a thrilling experience.

Both in the East and the West people want to succeed in life. Arthur Miller’s ‘The Death of a Salesman’ clearly showed the danger of trying to succeed in life. A large number of books on how to succeed in life have been written by prominent authors such as Napoleon Hill (‘The Law of Success’), Stephen R. Covey (First Things First’), and Peter Collett (‘The Book of Tells’). I do not know how many people have succeeded in life after reading such books.

Whatever that may be, successful people in any part of the world take a lot of personal credit for their success. In a way, the successful people belong to a new cult. Gladwell too explains his own success story to make sense of how it worked out.


Although success in life is achieved largely due to hard work, luck also plays a vital role. Some students who sit examinations after studying their subjects well do not get good results. However, those who never took their studies seriously pass examinations with flying colours. Even Gladwell admits that luck plays a role in success in any field of activity.

There is an ongoing debate whether success in life depends on external cultural and environmental factors or innate factors and heredity. Gladwell’s formula for success, as explained in ‘Outliers:

The Story of Success,’ depends on family, luck and opportunity. However, we have no control over some of them. For instance, we have no control over luck.

It just happens to some people leaving out others. If you do not hail from a successful family, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Similarly, opportunities do not come your way when you want them. One redeeming factor is that you have some control over hard work.

According to Gladwell, we have a lot to learn from successful people. One such lesson is to learn how they made the choice while pursing something different. A young man who inherited his father’s tobacco trade in Horana soon realised that it was not his choice.

He shifted his attention to cinnamon cultivation. After many years of hard work, he became the owner of a large company which exported cinnamon products to Western countries. Everything depends on how you identify an opportunity in a way that others cannot see.


Accumulation of wealth is not the only yardstick to measure someone’s success in life. If a certain line of work brings you the greatest satisfaction, you have succeeded in life. Most leading poets and novelists are not multi-millionaires. But they enjoy what they do. Gladwell says, “The key thing is making the choice to pursue something that will allow you to express yourself and use all your gifts.”

Whenever we meet a great thinker, we ask, “Where do you mine for ideas?” Gladwell does it everywhere. For instance, when I started my career in journalism, I found that everything was interesting in my new job. My editors asked me to keep my ears and eyes open at all times. That was because we never know where or when the next insight might come from. There is no formal way of getting inspiration. Even after hanging up my boots, I exposed myself to a constant stream of new people, new ideas, unusual books and random encounters. With his journalistic background, Gladwell knows how to use anecdotes and stories. Whenever he comes across a new idea, he illustrates it with apt stories. Practising journalists have much to learn from his books. I am glad that Gladwell did not become a specialist. As a generalist he is free to dabble in psychology, literature, political science, economics and what not. He calls himself ‘a bumblebee that hops from plant to plant.’ We need some more thinkers and authors of his calibre.

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