Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell is known for his gift of explanation. In Blink he studies the “hows” and “whys” of split-second decisions. In Outliers he tackles the “who” behind success. But in his first book, The Tipping Point, he focuses on “what”, as in what makes certain phenomena spread across cities, states, countries, even the world. He offers detailed insight into the precise moment something goes viral, when mere events or spectacles get nudged over the line and become crazes. Like when Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle-Me-Elmos and fidget spinners went from toys on a store shelf to national obsessions.

According to Gladwell, the tipping point is the “moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” With language usually reserved for the medical field, Gladwell discusses “infections” and “epidemics” that happen across disciplines ranging from medicine, criminology, commercialism and urban development. Backed by studies and anecdotal materials he identifies important moments during specific phenomena’s lifespans. With an uncanny ability to infuse dry material with a dose of, he takes readers through different phenomenon and pinpoints the causes in a way that can change your viewpoint.

As is Gladwell’s signature style, he points out problems and the obscure solutions and explains why it’s obvious. For instance, New York’s improved subway safety can be traced, not to more police presence, but to fixing broken windows and cleaning graffiti. Why? Because those things symbolize a breakdown of society thereby giving the criminals a perceived camouflage. Removing the pervasive low-level criminal elements (graffiti and vandalism) makes the next level (muggers, gangs) stand out.

In a different example, Baltimore’s successful needle exchange program wasn’t a success because of the medical agencies going out and exchanging needles one by one. The “retailers”, addicts who picked up hundreds of discarded needles, traded them in and made a small business out of selling clean needles to fellow addicts for a dollar. It doesn’t diminish the success of the program, but it changes the way it operates.

The most striking comes from an edition of Gladwell’s book that includes a new afterward by the author. He compares an epidemic of suicide among teen boys in Micronesia and the school shootings done by teen boys in the United States.  In both cases, the boys were “infected” with the ideas. In Micronesia it can be traced to a well-known affluent young man who killed himself as part of a love triangle. In the United States, it can be traced to Columbine. The fact that they can be traced at all means there’s reasoning, logic and methodology to the phenomena. It also means there is hope of curtailing it, if not completely stop it.

That’s what makes The Tipping Point so interesting. His findings give people reason to look at problems in different ways, looking for a solution that may not make sense in theory but does in practice.