Recognizing Opportunity

It’s time for Malcolm Gladwell to deliver a fourth piece for The New Yorker.

He decides the moment has come to open up that tipping point sardine can that he’s had marinating in the back of his mind’s idea pantry for ten years.

The question now becomes how does he make it interesting to a wide audience?

He knows it is worthy of so much more than just a longform magazine piece. It’s been with him for a decade plus and it’s not any less fascinating to him. More so as each day passes. Which is nice.

But if Gladwell can’t make others feel the same way about it…the internal chatter will remind him that he’s either completely lacking in intelligence or he just doesn’t have the skills to translate it into the “aha” release he’s sure it contains.

At this point in his career, I suspect Gladwell recognizes these two nasty forms of Resistance rearing their ugly heads. Mr. I.M. Stupid and Mr. I.M. Incompetent have knocked on his workshop door before. But he’s wise enough now not to let them inside. He cordially says hello to both, gets them a cup of tea and ushers them to the wicker chairs on his front porch and tells them that he’s too busy today to entertain.

When you do that enough, those two creativity sucking vampires eventually give up and move on to someone else’s house.

Gladwell surveys the global landscape for the tipping point idea. His aim is to build a road into the center of the place—the “there” there where everyone will want to go… not just nerdy outliers who read American Journal of Sociology. So creating an idea map detailing the early trails bushwhacked by the others who’ve been in this terrain before him is a good place to start.

Here are the trail names:

GRODZINS ‘57: The University of Chicago academic Morton Grodzins successfully contributed his idea of neighborhood tipping points to a self-selected group of sociologists in 1957.

Ivory tower theorists use the GRODZINS trail throughout the 1960s until an economist/game theorist forgets to bring a book on a long plane ride. All he has are some pencils and paper and a fascination with self-segregation.

With nothing else to do, Thomas Schelling takes out a legal size piece of paper on his flight and comes up with a theory about how white flight actually happens–one house at a time.  Check out this interview with Schelling… At time marker 58:10 is when he discusses what he found out.

SCHELLING ’69, ’71, ’78: Schelling is a perfect example of a guy who just gets interested in stuff and thinks about it in a very systematic and nitpicky way. His dead time on an airplane was a major contributor to what is now called “agent-based modeling,” which is basically looking at the behavior of people based upon how they perceive others to be behaving. Or what Gladwell would call the “context” of one’s choices. If everyone is jaywalking…does that make you more likely or less likely to jaywalk too?

Schelling’s work led to that 30% number which was the agreed percentage to hold minority tenant occupancy at the Starrett City development in Brooklyn.

GRANOVETTER ’78, ’83: Mark Granovetter widened Schelling’s trail and added extra disciplines beyond the “white flight” self-segregation model, including theories about innovation, voting, strikes, rioting, whether or not to go to college, and even whether or not we should leave a boring lecture.

MORLEY ’84: The academic literature about tipping was so firmly established by 1984 that Jefferson Morley didn’t think it necessary (nor did his editors) to explain tipping points or their percentages to the readers of his piece “Double Reverse Discrimination” in The New Republic. What Morley did to widen the intellectual path surround the tipping point was to explain the practical implications of applying the theory as public policy. His piece proved volatile in political circles and among readers of high-minded periodicals serving a niche audience—wonky smart people across the country.

CRANE ’89: Jonathan Crane’s work introduces the notion of contagiousness to the central idea of tipping. His work “The Epidemic Theory of Ghettos and Neighborhood Effects on Dropping Out and Teenage Childbearing” is featured in American Journal of Sociology, though. Which doesn’t quite have the readership of People Magazine.

So that’s the lay of the land. The tipping point is an idea that’s been around for a while…but…and this is a big but, it has never been written for an audience larger than the 50,000 people who read The New Republic. And that piece is 12 years old.

Opportunity, thy name is…

No one has written about the tipping point for the 1,000,000 readers of The New Yorker, let alone The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or any of the other daily read newspapers of the “educated classes.” This is the audience Gladwell is being paid to reach.

Obviously, if you’ve read about a phenomenon in science journals and a smarty pants magazine and it’s been in the intellectual lexicon for decades, you better add something to the stew. You can’t just regurgitate the findings and analysis of others and call it yours. Instead, you have to have a unique “take” on the material to move forward.

So how is Gladwell going to translate the wonky stuff into narrative that a critical mass of readers will actually want to read?

Let’s go back to a post I wrote early on in this series, Nonfiction’s Big Genre Silos.

Here’s a cheat sheet to remind you:

1. Academic: These are essays/books that are written for and read by a very focused readership.

The groups of readers are clearly defined, but small in number. As Seth Godin would say, these are Tribal readers dedicated to very specific passions/professions.

2. How–To: These are generally prescriptive books “for the trade audience.”  What that means is that these books are written for the general Joe who wants to learn the best way to plant his garden, without having to enroll at Penn State’s Agricultural school. Or a general Jane who wants to learn how to change the oil in her old Volkswagen Beetle without going to a mechanic’s trade school.

So these are about translating professional skills into a method and language a laymen can actually do herself.

3. Narrative Nonfiction: These are completely Story based. That is, it uses the narrative techniques of fiction in order to contextualize reportage.

In other words, the writer/journalist collects the usual data involved in reporting a story. But instead of just presenting the traditional Who, What, Where, When and How? out of the old-school reporter’s toolbox, these Journalists focus on the WHY something happened.

They have a theory. A point of view. They collect the facts, sort them in their own minds, come up with a controlling idea about why something happened, and then construct a story using the facts as the pieces to build a story. Seabiscuit is not a biography of a horse. It’s a story about resilience and tenacity and love.

Which brings me to the fourth kind of nonfiction silo.

4. The Big Idea Book:

This is the big nonfiction blue plate special with heaping portions of Academic research, How-To, and Story all serving to create the entire global experience, the grand argument.

Gladwell does not fear academic research. His father took him into the belly of that beast any time he wanted as a child. And he knows the most important thing to impart as a nonfiction writer is simplicity.

This from an interview with Charlie Rose:

“I am the child of a mathematician and a therapist…My writing is shuttling back and forth between these two extremes, the obscure, but deeply fascinating regions of academia and this question of how do I communicate with a mass audience …My mother has always been my writing role model….all good writing must have one quality and that is clarity.”

Which is all well and good but what about narrative? How do you tell a Story about the tipping point?

Whenever someone asks me to give a simple answer to the question, What is a Story? I usually quote David Mamet:

“They start with a simple premise and proceed logically, and inevitably, toward a conclusion both surprising and inevitable.”

Gladwell must have asked himself if there was one like that for the tipping point.

And then he remembered Jefferson Morley’s Double Reverse Discrimination piece was all about how there was as settlement of a lawsuit between prospective black tenants and the N.A.A.C.P. as plaintiffs against the 70 percent white/30 percent minority quota system imposed by the Starrett City development as defendant, way back in 1984. And that the parties came to agree that if Starrett City allowed minority tenants to eclipse the number of white tenants a “tipping point” would occur and all of the white people would leave. All hell would break loose and the entire development would become an unlawful mess.

As The New York Times reported, “A lawyer representing the complex, Morris B. Abram, told a Federal judge in 1986 that a decision against Starrett City would tip the racial balance and ”create a segregated wasteland.”

Well, four years after the settlement, the Supreme Court ruled that Starrett City could not continue its racial quota system.

So Starrett City tipped and segregated as predicted, right?

Nope. The white flight never happened. Even as the percentages of white residents fell to 27% (the waiting list was overwhelmingly stocked with minority applicants when the Super Court stopped the quotas, so every apartment that opened up for years went to a person of color), the neighborhood remained safe and family friendly.

So the whole tipping point was proven wrong. Right?

Not if you can recognize that tipping is not a one way and then that’s it phenomenon.

What if the people who had been living at Starrett City since it opened in 1975 through 1988—about a generation’s worth of time—were affected by their surroundings? What if the context of their day-to-day life, year after year, changed their behavior.

That is, what if the white people who lived on the same floor as black people discovered that a guy with a different skin pigment was as likely to be as friendly or as misanthropic as his white neighbor? More importantly, would the kids of white and black parents used to seeing all kinds of people everywhere they went have less fear of pale or tanned people?

Well, duh?

The answer was that by the time the quotas were 86ed, Starrett City had already tipped. The other way. There was no forthcoming wasteland. White people didn’t “flee.” Supply and demand just brought the population into equilibrium. After thirteen years living together in a safe environment with plenty of playgrounds and park benches to share, self-segregation was just not on anyone’s radar.

I mean have you ever tried to move an apartment in New York City?  You have to be some serious ass racist today to take on that burden just because the guy who lives next door is a different color.

So what would happen if you concentrated on those little things that make life less stressful for people? The Starrett City development had always placed a high premium on a highly visible private security force, clean walkways, fresh paint…that kind of thing.

Could you tip a bad situation into a good one?

This was Malcolm Gladwell’s simple premise as he did the legwork necessary to deliver The Tipping Point for the June 3, 1996 edition of The New Yorker. From it’s very first sentence, it proceeded logically to a surprising and inevitable conclusion.  By concentrating on the little things, we can tip things to the positive.

So convincingly that he’d soon have a big advance to turn it into a book.



8 comments on “Recognizing Opportunity

  1. Jack Price says:

    Hi Shawn,

    This series is going so much deeper than I expected, each post an inevitable surprise. Thank you!


    1. Indeed. A book about the book. Loving every minute.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    I’ll be honest – this series is a challenge to follow sometimes, but so worth the effort. As for me, I’m going to get the tea set up for the Missus I.M. Stupid and I.M. Incompetent so that I’m ready for their inevitable arrival. As always, thanks!

  3. jim calocci says:

    good to get another chance to hear Gladwell’s Voice
    as expressed by Shawn Coyne’s Voice ,
    thanks for the access ,

  4. Tony Levelle says:

    Good stuff. Leads to a surprising but inevitable conclusion. Not so easy to do in a short blog post. Again, thanks.

  5. Patrick Maher says:

    Ahh! Duckies and horsies (Peanuts). I get it. You should have been a teacher Shawn.

  6. Valentin says:

    I like it!

    Still waiting for the surprise twist on this one, though.

    Hope it’s a good one…

  7. Patricia Wilson says:

    Shawn, unfortunately, I’m still “catching up,” so I’m so happy that I’m still able to read these invaluable posts of yours. This is one I found particularly interesting and thought provoking.

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