A few years ago, a friend of mine sent me a desperate email.

He had a big lump of manuscript filled with stuff that went here and there and over there and around the corner and through the trees and over the hill only to cross the finish line at Daytona. He had exactly three weeks to get the thing into some kind of coherent form and deliver it to his publisher.

This wasn’t his first book either.

He’d already written a national bestselling memoir/investigative journalism book about the extremely compromised and corrupt world of online journalism/flackery.

But now, he was trying something new.

He somehow sold his publisher on a new book that really had zero to do with his expertise. Instead it was a sort of philosophical throw down targeted to those artists who have big plans but no core ethos to rely upon when the going gets tough.

Needless to say, if he delivered a scatterbrained manuscript with no real payoff beyond a dog’s breakfast of stories that only tangentially held together…chances were that his dream of moving beyond that guy who wrote that book about dirty publicity schemes would come to naught.

I’ve set this up this little story to make myself look like a genius, right? You’re probably waiting with keen anticipation for the big secret I gave him that transformed his philosophical goo into secular stainless steel self help that sold more than double the units than his tell-all bestseller.

You may not believe it, but the only note I gave him (and I confess I did not even read his mountain of manuscript before giving him this note either) was this:

Break your thing into THREE PARTS…a Beginning that introduces the dilemma that your reader is facing…a Middle that explains to them how he can combat and defeat the problem practically…and an Ending that shows him how the practical tasks are repeatable and reliable, capable of being integrated into his daily life.

I really didn’t even have to tell him all that.

Break it into three parts is enough.

There is mucho magic in the THREE PART beginning, middle, and end simplicity. It’s Story structure distilled.

So what does this have to do with Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point?

There is no better example of using the power of three to logically build an argument while adhering to the primal beginning, middle and end Story structure than The Tipping Point.

Let’s take a small step back and look in on Gladwell in 1998 contemplating his 50 odd bits of Story research I listed at the end of the last post. What synergy is he trying to concoct with those pieces?

What’s his Kavanah for this thing? What’s his overarching goal for this book?

As he’s been quoted on numerous occasions, Gladwell sees his role as writer/journalist as being a sort of grand theory explorer…a guy who goes into the academic wilderness, observes what’s going on and then comes back to translate and explain what he saw to the rest of us.

This from an audio interview with The New York Times:

People are experience rich and theory poor. People who are busy doing things as opposed to people who are busy sitting around like me reading and having coffee in coffee shops…don’t have opportunities to kind of collect and organize their experiences and make sense of them. So part of what I do is I give people organizing structures for their experiences. When you do this and you experience this and you see this…this is what it means…this is how all of the pieces fit together. That is kind of an accurate way of saying what the function of these books are is “their intellectual organizers.” When you read them, if it’s working right, you’re supposed to say “oh!” You’re supposed to connect it up to your real world experiences….say “oh I know yeah, that’s what was going on when this happened.” If someone says that, I feel like I’ve succeeded.

So Gladwell’s Kavanah is to present a global theory about why and how mass changes occur… like Hush Puppy shoes becoming overnight sensations. Why crime in New York City fell off a cliff in the 1990s. Why a book by an unknown author suddenly becomes the must read of millions. These are everyday experiences we all witness first hand.

That’s his grand goal. To tell us why this happens, how it happens, and what we can do to reverse engineer the phenomenon. Essentially he wants to explain to us HOW THINGS CHANGE IN THE MODERN WORLD.

And for more than ten years Gladwell has had the idea of The Tipping Point as the grand CHANGE theory percolating in his mind.

Well, okay, so how do people think things change?

Conventional everyday wisdom about change is bipolar.

We think linearly…cause brings predictable effect. That we become successful in our chosen field by effectively completing projects that require more and more of our brainpower. That those executed/shipped projects, if they satisfy the marketplace, will be recognized as valuable by the powers that be above us. That we’ll be appreciated for our work and given more and more responsibility until we reach the executive offices of our chosen field and perhaps if we work hard enough, we’ll achieve the position of Chief Executive Officer.

Or on the flip side, we believe in “magical thinking” too. That maybe one day we’ll pick up the guitar…learn a few chords and write a killer song. We’ll get out our iPhone and record ourselves singing the song and then upload it to Youtube. And then somehow the universe will align itself in a such a way that the song will then take the world by storm and become a sensation, making us famous and rich overnight.

These two polarities—linear and magical thinking—are our primal/conventional theories of CHANGE. Looking at them objectively, neither one seems quite right…even though we have internalized stories in our neural data warehouse to support both. The Horatio Alger canon and the Harvard drop out billionaire origin stories respectively.

But our experiences disprove this conventional wisdom just about every day. We witness lesser-qualified candidates get promoted over the best and the brightest of colleagues at work. We know extremely talented artists whose work we find revolutionary struggle to find an audience. They write killer songs, upload them and sing their hearts out to no avail.

This is where The Tipping Point comes in.

In his intellectual travels, Gladwell comes up with a single theory that envelops both of these worldviews about change. It explains how a buildup of small linear causes and effects can tip into exponential growth. How small events lead to a dramatic moment in time when large events explode.

There’s a threefold relationship…1) linear cause and effect leads to 2) a tipping point that 3) creates exponential growth.

So Gladwell’s goal is to explain how linear thinking can lead to a seemingly magical moment when exponential growth takes over. That magical moment he calls The Tipping Point.

Ugh, this stuff is making my head hurt.

And if it’s making my head hurt (and undoubtedly Gladwell’s head was splitting too when he was piecing together a first draft) imagine what it would do to a reader who doesn’t really care about his/her internalized “change theories?”

A reader wants a story to entertainment them, not a lot of wonky hullabaloo. (It is for this very reason that I suspect Gladwell wisely chose to steer clear of showcasing Richard Dawkins’ meme material from The Selfish Gene) He wants a translator to put all of this stuff into plain language that can be internalized and recalled with ease.

So instead of these mind-trippy deep thought analysis, what Gladwell needs is some real life experiences that reflect the trinity of linearity to tipping point to exponential that his readers will have zero difficulty understanding.

So what does every single person on the planet experience in his/her own private world that is akin to 1) linear cause and effect leading to 2) a tipping point that 3) creates exponential growth?

It’s right around the corner for those of us in New England…

Cold and flu season.

8 comments on “Trinities

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Okay (tongue in cheek), so how did things turn out for your desperate friend? Seriously, thanks for this. I love it even though it makes my head hurt sometimes too.

  2. Marvin Waschke says:

    Shockingly good and timely advice: break it into three parts. I’m working on an outline for a non-fiction book. Three parts, yes, that’s exactly what I must think about to stand it up. Thank you!

  3. augustina says:

    Trinities ARE powerful. In school I was taught to include exactly three points to support my position in a critical paper. Three is just right.

  4. Megan Williams says:

    Thanks so much Shawn, especially for the three-part advice. Also, for Gladwell’s quote. It has helped me to understand what I’m trying to do in my writing now, and what I was doing for years as a counsellor! God I love words. They are so powerful. Love you book too!

  5. I enjoy these explorations, but they are I admit mind-boggling.

  6. And a three-scene structure to every chapter, so we always carry the reader forward, story within story?

    1. augustina says:

      A lot of novels are structured with introduction, three chapters, conclusion. The trinity of chapters is book-ended in many books!

  7. Ken Friedman says:

    Hi Shawn – I have reading the posts by both you and Steve for a number of years. They have been both fun and extremely helpful. Steve’s pieces on kavanah, etc., were incredible – I have the Hebrew words posted on the wall in my office. I don’t usually submit comments, but your latest stuff is so good that I can’t help myself. I coached basketball for many years (I am 75 now) and you, sir, are on what is called a hot streak. I am writing non-fiction and this particular series about Gladwell has been so simple and at the same time so actionable and instructive. Thank you – and please keep shooting!

Leave a Comment