“Stealing” Ideas

Eight years ago, I had knee replacement surgery.

As one is required to do after being made bionic, I imprisoned myself post-op at home. Rehab centers are strictly for the better insured. For the first two weeks, I remained doped up on Oxycodone in between grueling physical therapy sessions.

A charming older woman, an emigre from the Philipines, came to my apartment every afternoon at 2:30. And tortured me…but in the sweetest way possible.

I’m so excited today…we’re going for 130 degrees of motion! We’re going to crack apart that gunk stuck in your new knee once and for all!”

In between those medieval manipulations, I stared slack-jawed at the boob tube.

As I was watching Power Lunch on CNBC one day, there was a wonderful argument between two talking heads brought on to kill a three-minute segment about some Advertising merger. There was an in-studio Donny Deutsch (Advertising muckety muck and cable show mainstay) on the left side of the screen and a remote Charles Gasparino (former Wall Street Journal reporter “Live from the New York Stock Exchange”) on the right side.

At first glance, I could tell these guys didn’t like each other. Or perhaps that was just their on-air shtick.

Deutsch said something about the stocks for each of the companies, and then closed his comments with a reference to his own advertising gravitas. He is associated with Deutsch Inc., a company founded by his father, and is worth a rumored $200 million.

And then it was Gasparino’s turn.

“Donny, being born on third base doesn’t mean you hit a triple.”

Now of course, Gasparino didn’t credit the man who first came up with that zinger (former Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboys football coach Barry Switzer) and neither do the scores of journalists today who use it to poke Jeb Bush or Donald Trump either.

What struck me about the put down then and still does today is that there is a endemic human need to discount others’ accomplishments, be they rivals, and sadly, even more so friends. The closer someone we hang with comes to realizing her potential, the more snarky we become.

This phenomenon gave birth to phrases like “she used daddy’s money to start her company” or “he brown-nosed the CEO to get that job” or “they just bought out the competition.”

When we hear these caustic bromides, it gives us a momentary sense of relief. Like, Thank God they didn’t actually work to get where they are…they were handed what they’ve got. Hearing that someone got something because the fix was in, takes the pressure off of us.

We think that since we weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths or that we don’t have access to the upper levels of management are the reasons why we’re getting nowhere. There is a certain comfort to the belief that corruption reigns. Even honest to goodness hardworking grinders like us just can’t get ahead in a world riddled with fraud.

Despite the extremely negative Weltanschauung necessary to maintain this POV, you have to admit that this sort of self-talk gives us satisfaction. Because it absolves us lickety split from the responsibility of finding the work we need to do and then just doing it.

As Steve Pressfield and Seth Godin like to remind me when I vent and spew bile—and they do it somehow without pissing me off—the only thing we are entitled to is the work…not the bennies from the work.

Needless to say, writers and artists are superlative practitioners of what I like to call THE DQ, or the “dismissive quip.” And just like the frosty treats at that more widely known DQ, Dairy Queen, verbal DQs taste great when first consumed, but later on leave one with dyspeptic emptiness.

One of my personal favorites among writers is this one:

Oh yeah, that article/book/review/poem by New Writer on the Scene was great…twenty years ago when Mr. or Ms. Real Genius first wrote about it.

The not so subtle subtext of this particular DQ of course is: What he wrote wasn’t even an original idea. He stole it.

These are the very same arrows being launched at Elon Musk today. He didn’t invent electricity or rocket propulsion or pneumatic tubes. Musk just riffed on them like any of us could and brought forth Tesla, SpaceX and the potential for high-speed travel without burning up the atmosphere. So how come he did it and we didn’t?

Which brings me to the third longform—five thousand word-ish—piece Malcolm Gladwell wrote for The New Yorker for the June 3, 1996 issue.

First of all, “The Tipping Point” was not an original idea. Gladwell “stole” it.

It is a phrase that has been widely used in Physics to define the moment in time when the addition of any unit of mass to a balanced object “tips” it over. We all remember doing those cheesy experiments in High School. Finding the center of mass in an irregular object and then positioning that center out of equilibrium. The exact moment the gravitational force pushing the “top” of the object to the earth exceeds the mass at the “bottom” keeping the object static or “up,” is when the thing falls over. It tips.

The Tipping Point is also a term used in epidemiology when an infectious disease moves from contained (staying in one particular population at an equilibrium state of infection, i.e. one guy gets the disease at the same rate as one recovers from it) to an epidemic—infection moving in a geometric progression…an n+ 1 increase in infection.

Okay so physics and epidemiology speak of Tipping Points, that’s interesting. But it’s not something that will burn up five thousand words and still make Tina Brown happy.

Gladwell knew that.

In fact, he’d been sitting on this Tipping Point notion since 1984. That’s twelve years of inside his mind marination before he thought he’d found a phenomenon counterintuitive enough to make for an interesting story.

Here’s the thing about newspaper journalists who leave their particular “beat” and become longform piece creators. They don’t forget about their past work and start “thinking Big Original Thoughts!” They don’t abandon all of the stuff they learned as crime reporters and start writing about how Pret-a-Porter fashion influences the Tokyo Stock market.

Instead, they go to their brain pantry that they’ve lined with idea-stuffed sardine cans over the years.  Then they key open something that hasn’t exceeded its expiration date and gone bad and see if they can use it. They dig through all of the stuff they had to cut to make deadlines long since past in search of connections.

Remember that Gladwell was at The Washington Post for ten years before he went to The New Yorker. He first covered business for deputy editor Steve Pearlstein before he moved over to the science desk, which meant that if there was some FDA hearing on the hill, he had to show up and “write up” what happened and file that story for inclusion in the next day’s newspaper. Whether he liked it or not.

Every now and then, and at his editor’s discretion, a beat writer earns the latitude to go outside the wire of his/her particular niche and riff. But not often. Pearlstein spoke of how it’s done for Chris Wilson’s profile Gladwell’s Brain in the January 8, 2007 edition of The Washingtonian magazine.

You have to develop a reputation…when you do that sort of thing, editors like it and print it and give it good play, but you don’t ask permission beforehand. It has to come in the back door.

Gladwell didn’t go to J-school so he had no idea of where the front door was, let along the back door.

So he wasn’t clued in to the fact that the typical beat writer hired out of Columbia keeps his head down and minds his knitting… He doesn’t inject “personality” into the 500 words he files on an FDA hearing. And he certainly doesn’t compare the FDA commissioner to a famous historical dullard like Gladwell did in 1991, “(David) Kessler broke from his Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge impersonation just once…”

So Gladwell was not your average Washington journalist bear dreaming of one day getting promoted to an office off of the newsroom floor. In fact, Gladwell is so enamored with the din of the newsroom that today he prefers finding a table of a noisy restaurant to work. Simulating the chaos of the Post in the late 80s comforts him.

But what of this notion that he’d been sitting on the idea for The Tipping Point since 1984?

The thing about Gladwell is that I think he understood a fundamental life truth much earlier than most of us do. Finding something interesting to do and practically applying it to feed yourself and put a roof over your head while you take every opportunity to push yourself to get better at it…is the recipe for a happy life.

So after his College graduation and failure to get that cool job in advertising and after a stint at the American Spectator, Gladwell took a job in 1985 at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The EPPC is a conservative soft-lobby/think tank that dedicates itself to having its scholar/writers create articles that can be featured in its own publications as well as op-eds in other more mainstream papers. Gladwell could keep writing and pay for his ramen noodles too.

The EPPC is what Edward Bernays would call a Propaganda outfit with a mission to shape public opinion to its core mission—increasing the influence of Judeo/Christian morality on public policy. I’m not really sure what that means beyond a desire to reduce big government while simultaneously increasing government’s upholding of the EPPC’s definitions of fundamental moral principle. It’s complicated…on purpose. Because unfortunately manipulating human behavior for the “better” is dependent upon one’s definition of “better.” And when we try and define “better” we find ourselves dealing with ambiguity.  And no one likes that.  Especially in Washington.

As Gladwell himself said, “I was Canadian, so this was all very unfamiliar.”

In Washington, Gladwell came to share a four-person house with an intern taking a year off from Yale at The New Republic named Jacob Weisberg, a macher from a long line of machers who is now editor in chief of Slate. Weisberg became his “connector” and a lifelong friend. As Gladwell admits in the book The Tipping Point:

My social circle is, in reality, not a circle. It is a pyramid. And at the top of the pyramid is a single person—Jacob (Weisberg)—who is responsible for an overwhelming majority of the relationships that constitute my life.

As is typical for a unique thinker like Gladwell, the most critical introduction wasn’t the chain of people who led him to meeting his eventual literary agent Tina Bennett. She was the newbie agent at the powerful Janklow and Nesbit Agency in 1996 who masterfully worked with Gladwell to position and sell The Tipping Point for the big advance.

Rather it was Weisberg simply introducing Gladwell to his mother Lois that proved indispensable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Where did The Tipping Point as Big Idea really originate?  That’s up next.


18 comments on ““Stealing” Ideas

  1. Not only are you a unique thinker like Gladwell, Shawn, (and a brilliant editor and literary agent to boot) but you are also an amazing writer.

    It’s so much fun to read your posts. I get to improve my writing skills, peak inside Gladwell’s head and yours, and see wonderful examples of how to use words and phrases in clever ways: tortured me … but in the sweetest way possible; medieval manipulations; keeps his head down and minds his knitting.

    Thanks to you, my learning about writing and editing is richly layered.

    Please keep the posts coming and thanks very much for doing what you do!

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Great post Shawn – keep ’em coming! Gladwell’s journey is a fascinating one in which he clearly “picked himself” and went for it. It’s inspirational on so many levels – as always, thanks!

  3. I am reminded of the scene in Flash of Genius when Greg Kinnear reads out the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities in court.

    And wins his case for his “unoriginal” automotive concept.

    Most of the folks famous for this, that, and the other thing didn’t originate it, they “stole” it — and then did something with it.

  4. Shawn, great piece. This observation is just so powerfully Pressfieldian:

    “Despite the extremely negative Weltanschauung necessary to maintain this POV, you have to admit that this sort of self-talk gives us satisfaction. Because it absolves us lickety split from the responsibility of finding the work we need to do and then just doing it.”

    The cynicism that is common coin these days is, as you say, way too easy and, frankly, counter-creative. I’ve no appetite for the shock news circus anymore. But I do find myself drawn all the more to generous, wholehearted creators like you, Pressfield, Gladwell, Godin, Brene Brown–it’s a movement I’m glad is coming to the fore.

    Here’s to hoping that the nasty talking head business will be relegated to the stale backwaters of cable news and fast.

    Thanks for the inspiration again!

    1. Hear, hear to the movement about which you speak, Scott! I think many of us are good and ready for it!

  5. Fran Civile says:

    Debbie Kasman said it well, her words describe how I feel about sitting down to savor your latest post … the clever or unexpected turn of phrase that bring back memories of names and places that seem to be incidently connected to Malcom Gladwell. Thank you Shawn

  6. Dick Yaeger says:

    Wonderful. I sense you’re emulating Gladwell. You grab me with an elegant description of a universal issue, and then entice me with a glimpse of where it leads. Super well done!

  7. JJ Geraci says:

    Same thing happened to Tom Wolfe about forty years earlier. He was overdue on an assignment for “Esquire” and in desperation just did a “vomit” version of what he saw and felt about the “Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake, Baby” and a new journalism was born. Writers have those ideas fermenting down in the yeasty parts of their brains and every once in a while pop up. And we go, “Hell, that is so weird, I can’t use that.” But the breakthrough comes when you say the bleep with it, besides, it’s all I’ve got.

  8. Beth Barany says:

    Love this: “Finding something interesting to do and practically applying it to feed yourself and put a roof over your head while you take every opportunity to push yourself to get better at it…is the recipe for a happy life.” And thanks for baiting the hook for what’s coming next. I gotta know!

  9. Lea Page says:

    I love the image of the “brain pantry.” I’ll think of that next time I go rummaging.

  10. Peter Sutton says:

    I don’t write. I shingle houses and I like to read. Your stuff. Pressfield’s stuff. This piece was entertaining. Keep up the good work.


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Peter,
      If you weren’t on the other side of the country, I’d do a trade if you were interested… I’d teach you how to write, if you taught me how to shingle. I can’t think of anything more perfect than a cedar shingled house. And mine’s falling in on itself!
      Thanks so much!

  11. Talmage says:

    I appreciate the way you’re able to allow Gladwell to have worked for a conservative think tank, and not feel a knee-jerk need to forgive him for such an unpardonable “sin.” I know you’re an amazing source of accurate information into the writing/publishing industry, an outstanding writer and creative thinker, but now you’re demonstrating a non-judgmental open mind. The world needs your objectivity. What you’re doing will make a big difference. Keep at it!

  12. Patrick Maher says:

    Shawn, I like your pantry. I want to get it in there with a powerful torch when you’re not home.

  13. Herbert Exner says:

    It’s not where you take things from-it’s where you take them to, JL Godard. What does “stealing” mean in a framework of complex, multidimensional interaction patterns?

    I’ve evaluated about 500 innovation projects for the European Commission…in their recommended schemes the EC emphasized on intellectual property rights and exploitation. But in some way this is a trade-off…and I always weighted IPR very low…later the EC launched a task force, called Open Innovation.

    Now, some researchers in cognitive neuroscience argue that also human brains (not only animals) have mirror neurons that are important for learning new skills by imitation. Not verified yet. However that may convince us to kill the idol of competition if we want to innovate better?

    What we could have learned from writers much earlier: they do not compete by eliminating other books from the shelf. They know, more reading is better…?

    BTW, another quote from JLG: A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order 😉

  14. Ben Nesvig says:

    The tendency for writers to use dismissive quips reminds me of a quote from Eric Hoffer that you may enjoy:

    “There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day; we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life.”

  15. Your posts nourish me on so many levels. And then, all these wonderful comments. Life is good. Thanks, Shawn.

  16. Joe says:

    Thank you for pointing out the skills Gladwell learned as a newspaper journalist. It is how I learned this craft I’m applying to my fiction. Resourcefulness has many rewards.

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