academia, ideas & perspectives

ideas || notes on the tipping point by Malcolm Gladwell

Okay, I’m going to make a confession. I finished this book weeks ago. And writing a blog post summary of my thoughts and notes has been a majorly recurring to-do list item. It went somewhat like this in my to-do list:

  • write blog post
  • blog post (urgent)
  • okay, seriously write blog post
  • write the damn blog post already!

At this point I’ve practically reached the ALL-CAPS stage of my past-self-future-self conversation.

So here are my somewhat organized thoughts and notes from this book. There were some pretty neat takeaways that found their way into my marketing year-end assignment, so that’s how you know it was a worthwhile, thought-provoking book. I included a lot of my own reflections on the things I read, too.

Buy The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell for yourself

overall thoughts

This book was enjoyable and thought-provoking. It wasn’t difficult to keep reading at all because every topic read like a story.

In fact, much of the book was structured in a storytelling fashion.

This is nice but also presents the weakness of many first-hand individuals’ accounts being loosely tied to somewhat-related scientific research. Wikipedia calls it “anecdotal evidence“. The ideas stand as theories, but they’re worth some more investigation, statistics, and research for sure.

I’d also like to add that I adore reading books by well-known writers who consider their craft to be writing. Neil Gaiman is like this, too. Not just because their writing feels like a beautiful, unique art form that gives me the shivers, but it also gets me in the mood to write again myself. It adds some inspiration to the experience. This effect was further amplified because I had just finished the book when Malcolm Gladwell was interviewed in a new series about COVID-19 called Dialogues, by the Munk Debates organization on April 9. I watched it and one of the questions he was asked was something along the lines of, “What are you most looking forward to when the epidemic ends?”

I never related to someone more when he chuckled and said it was likely getting back to writing in coffee shops, because that’s what he does – he generally makes his living writing with a mug of coffee in a New York coffee shop (much to the chagrin of his bank account, he says).

how i read the book (and why it matters)

context of my reading perspective

This is a book, put plainly, about the concept of ideas spreading like epidemics. Which was fitting, you know, because I read it while stuck at home during a global pandemic.

Had I read this book last year, when I first considered it, my interpretation of it would be immensely different. This whole situation puts some more perspective into the English teacher adage that a book’s ultimate message is determined by the reader not the author.

I also read the book as a marketing or business book. As a student studying business, many of the ideas discussed sparked some of my knowledge of consumer behaviour, brand awareness and how to spread an idea.


We have a physical copy of the book, so I decided to go ahead and underline the key passages or most interesting bits.

time it took to read

This book took about a month to read. I started it when I got home for the start of social distancing and read a few pages here and there every day. It’s not a dry read, but it’s not wrench-your-heart, cannot-put-it-down captivating like a fiction book. That’s to be expected. You’ve got to choose nonfiction books about topics that genuinely interest you if you plan on finishing them.

highlights from the book

The book starts by going over Gladwell’s three rules of epidemics. It’s worth noting that Malcolm Gladwell brings some of his own experience as a reporter covering the AIDS epidemic for the Washington Post. His ideas are shaped by that, and also by the reading I’m sure he does as a professional writer.

first rule: “law of the few” – connectors, mavens, salesmen

The Law of the Few is self-explanatory. In order for an idea to become a social epidemic, it takes just a few key individuals to tip it over the edge.

A connector is someone who finds everyone interesting and sees possibility in every interaction. They know lots of people, and the right people, and can push a message out at a snap of the fingers.

A maven is someone who is an expert information accumulator. Their advice is memorable because it is practical and personal. It reminds me of the trend in marketing and advertising to personalize messages as much as possible. This character is also described as “wanting to solve others’ problems generally by solving his own“.

A salesman is persuasive, not so much from logic like a maven might be, but from energy. These are people who “can draw others into your own rhythms and dictate the terms of the interaction.” Sounds a lot like charisma, and Gladwell’s talk at this point turns from theory to self-help. YOU can be a salesman, too, he intones.

glorified opinion of people

In a style remnant of Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People, Gladwell conveys a somewhat glorified view of people and their stories. This is coming from someone (me) whose bio used to include the words “people are amazing” at the bottom, and had a similar naive – one might call it a “writer’s lens” – view of everyone new I met. But I think I’ve gotten a bit busier and a bit more cautious with my time. As nice as it would be, coffee chats can’t really last more than an hour anymore. I cannot become friends with everyone I meet (and wouldn’t want to). Also, I’ve had my time wasted more times than I can count – by silly clubs (there are many) or unnecessary workshops my eager freshman mindset thought would be a great chance to meet new people. Maybe I’ve been hardened by life. Maybe I just no longer believe this glorified view.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always love meeting strangers by nature of my extroverted personality. There’s always possibility. But I’ve also come to realize that you cannot make connection with everyone you meet, and you’ll have to be selective about the people who you keep in your life. So this talk of connectors who love people and salesmen who are infinitely charismatic to everyone they meet went a bit over my head.

an intermission to cite some social experiments

This should have been a chapter title in this book, because the book was peppered with some really neat psychology or behavioural economics experiments that were loosely tied to the main ideas.

The first was one by well-known Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. His experiment was to investigate “how are human beings connected”, and his team sent a number of letters to random addresses in Omaha, with the message being essentially, “get this letter as close as you can to a specific stockbroker guy living in Boston”. Generally, it took 5 or 6 iterations of the recipient re-mailing the letter to a connection who might bring the letter one step closer to Boston. He calls this “six degrees of separation“.

The series of experiments is called the Small-World Experiments, and you can read more about them on Wikipedia.

This was a curious experiment and I thought it spoke a lot to the idea of networking that every business school student is familiar with. You would be surprised about the stories or expertise you might not know you were connected to in some way.

second rule: the stickiness factor and children’s educational TV shows

I loved this section of the book. It really awakened my interest in tutoring (I was a math tutor in high school), pedagogy (I had a part-time job at a math school in high school) and parenting (yep I thought about parenting at the ripe age of 14).

blues clues and repetition : Blue's Clues Inflatable Chair : Baby

Blues Clues was MY show growing up. One year, I even got a red, inflatable Thinking Chair for some gift-giving holiday. So it was crazy to read more about how the show was created.

The main idea was that Blues Clues’ producers did something different. They decided to run the same show episode all week long. So a new episode only came out every week, and the kids would watch the same episode each day of the week. Boring, right?

As a side note, I was surprised by the amount of thought and planning and research that goes into making educational children’s shows. Never thought about it before.

Back to the repetitive show. Based on the research into preschoolers and their attention spans as well as learning process, the conclusion was as follows:

An adult considers constant repetition boring, because it requires reliving the same experience over and again. But to preschoolers repetition isn’t boring, because each time they watch something they are experiencing it in a completely different way.

The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, page 125

I related so much to this bit, because throughout high school I was definitely on a search for novelty and new experiences. Going into my first year of university, I was constantly overwhelmed and excited by the many new experiences I had the opportunity to learn from.

And then I began second year and things settled down and I turned 20.

In a way, I experienced a mini quarter-life-crisis (if that’s not the most pretentious thing you’ve heard all day, I don’t know what is and I really do apologize but that’s the best word I have to describe it). I looked at my tenth-grade bucket list and realized with horror that I’d crossed off nearly all of it. Even things I thought were such distant realities, like getting to be on TV, or even having my first New Year’s kiss. Were all the key milestones of my life over, just like that? Would I now become an adult, my sense of time perpetually becoming quickened due to repetition and lack of novelty? And, even more depressing of a thought, have I experienced most of what life has to offer me ALREADY?

(The answer, which is beyond the scope of this post, is obviously no – because then I realized I must simply create a new list with longer-term goals.)

But (if we’re ever going to get back to it), the main idea is that understanding your audience is absolutely essential when trying to make a message “stick”. These researchers got right to the heart of what drives a preschooler’s desire to learn, and crafted their delivery to appeal to them.

In fact, their case studies observing children watching the show day-by-day revealed that the children’s confidence grew as they began remembering answers to the questions being posed. Their involvement and attention span increased, and by the end of one week watching the same episode, they would be yelling out the answers excitedly at the TV screen.

sesame street and mutual exclusivity

Sesame Street, on the other hand, was never my show. And despite willingly subjecting myself to a YouTube rabbit hole upon reading this section of the book, I concluded that it still isn’t my show (and likely won’t be for my kids either). In fact, I don’t like Sesame Street and its annoyingly voiced characters at all. Sue me.

But, research is research, and there’s no denying that a lot of work went into every episode of Sesame Street as well.

The coolest bit in this section was about an episode called “Roy”. (That link you see is to the Muppet Fandom Wiki page, if you want to read the scene-by-scene episode breakdown. You’re welcome.) It’s an episode in which Big Bird embarks on a quest to find himself a new name, because “I wish I had a real name like that, instead of one that just says what I am, as if I were an apple or chair or something.”

But when asked about the episode, children weren’t getting it. They also were losing attention quickly. To avoid just paraphrasing an idea that really isn’t my own, I’ll insert a quote by Gladwell here that beautifully and curiously describes the problem.

The concept is one called the principle of mutual exclusivity by psychologist Ellen Markman.

Simply put, this means that small children have difficulty believing that any one object can have two different names. The natural assumption of children, Markman argues, is that if an object or person is given a second label, then that label must refer to some secondary property or attribute of that object. You can see how useful this assumption is to a child faced with the extraordinary task of assigning a word to everything in the world. A child who learns the word elephant knows, with absolute certainty, that is is something different from a dog. Each new word makes the child’s knowledge of the world more precise.

The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, page 115

This makes so much sense. The discussion then got extended to talk about personality…

thinking about personality in absolutes

How many times have you said something like “I’m just impatient.” Only to have an incredible amount of patience when helping a loved one? Or, “I’m very social.” Only to find yourself in a social setting that completely makes you retreat into a shell?

The idea of this section was fascinating because it described a phenomenon that I always knew was true but needed Gladwell to put into words for me to recognize it. We tend to gravitate towards “essential attributes”, he explained. Thinking back to the children’s shows discussion, I wondered, how much do we really still have in common with our child-like brains?

My biggest takeaway here was to stop beating down on myself for not staying true to a quality or attribute that I consider to be “part of who I am”. Many times in university have I found myself in that latter situation: a party where I feel completely uncomfortable and unable to have my usual enjoyable conversation with anyone. Often, I come home dismayed and disappointed in myself for not coming off like I wanted to, or not being able to overcome internal barriers to having a good time.

But the truth is that different circumstances – environments, people – create different reactions in us, and describing ourselves as a list of essential personality attributes is a major fallacy.

third rule: the power of context

The third section dives deep into the New York crime issue. I wrote a short Instagram post about this when I first read it, so I’ll include that here because it summarizes my thoughts quite well.

Broken Windows Theory is a theory penned by criminologist the 1982 suggesting that “visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder.” (Wikipedia) While used to help manage crime rates in places like New York City in the 1980s, I think it’s applicable in a way closer to home as well.

Feeling put-together isn’t all about your state of mind or your character. There are so many little, tiny things in our environment that don’t seem to make a difference, but make a huge difference. And we control some of those! Everyday habits to do with our environment and appearance, after all, are what get our body into the rhythm of getting things done and, ultimately, building the confidence to feel “put-together”. Things like making your bed, creating a dedicated workspace, keeping that space clean, changing out of PJs, doing your hair, or opening the (unbroken) window for some fresh air.

marketing and early adopters

The book then dives into some case studies, primarily themed around marketing and advertising firms who made ordinary ideas famous. I forget most of these, so I’m going to assume they were supplementary or just didn’t resonate with me that much.

However, one concept stuck and really got me thinking the most when I put down this book.

To describe it, Gladwell used car company Lexus’ recall of its first LS400 luxury model line in 1990. Due to a glitch, they needed to recall 10,234 of the cars and decided to individually call every owner of one of these cars. Although this was an immensely expensive feat in the short-term, the long-term reputation benefits were worthwhile.

Gladwell’s take is that it wasn’t about how many recalls they had to do, but who the people were.

The people most likely to have taken the gamble and purchased the first luxury car offering were what the company would consider their Early Adopters.

This concept ties beautifully into the first part of the book, where the Mavens were described as being somewhat of an Early Adopter species as well. These are the key people who matter and can tip your idea into social epidemic status. They are the O.G. buyers, the most experimental, and the ones whose opinions are trusted because they truly know about and research your product and industry.

This is a huge marketing lesson, and puts those boring consumer adoption curves from marketing class into real-world perspective.

Rethinking the Change Adoption Curve
Source: asae Center

i guess i do remember the part about smoking

I said previously that I forgot most of the case studies. But there was a significant discussion about smoking, and one idea stood out to me there. It was that smoking is not what makes people cool. Instead, cool people smoking is what makes it cool.

This concept also has a marketing and branding application. Many of the best brand choices marketers make are based on associations people already have in their brains.

let’s try an experiment.

Write down or remember the VERY FIRST thing that comes to mind when I give you each of these categories.

Think of a colour.

Think of an item of furniture.

Think of a flower.

The majority of people – and I’m sure this is a study somewhere, but I’m basing it off anecdotal experience having participated in an experiment like this at a conference – will have the following series of thoughts. Red. Table. Rose. It’s inevitable. Because of whatever stories or media we’ve already been exposed to, those pairs of associations are already in many of our minds.

This is why market research matters so much, and why sometimes you’ve got to remember that you cannot reinvent the wheel. The “stickiest” product or branding decisions will be ones that understand and make the most of these existing trends in association.

favourite quotes

I added this section in because I find it’s useful to prompt memories of my favourite bits of a book, and in a way, this blog post is as much for your information as for me to be able to revisit this book sometime in the future. But I think I’ve included several quotes throughout the post already, so I’ll leave you with this completely unrelated bit of wisdom Malcolm Gladwell injected into this book instead:

Books grow richer with each new reading.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, page 264

Once again, if you want to grab this book for yourself you can find it on Amazon. This is an affiliate link but there is no added cost to you! If you do decide to get the book, using my link helps support my work because I get a small commission from your purchase. Much appreciated! <3

Did you read The Tipping Point? What did you think of it? What was your biggest takeaway?

3 thoughts on “ideas || notes on the tipping point by Malcolm Gladwell”

  1. I read your first comment about how “write up X” was constantly on your todo list and I can totally related to that. Somedays I try eat my frog first and then other days I just pretend the frog isn’t there. This post was an interesting read and it’s funny that you mention blues clues since my daugther just recently got into the new age version, and I remember my younger brother being obsessed when he was around her age. Anyway, just wanted to drop a comment saying that I enjoyed your post. Keep reading books! I know I am 😉

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