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The intoxicating mid-life transformation of Malcolm Gladwell

March 13th, 2005 · No Comments

Monday night I wasn’t able to attend Malcolm Gladwell’s reading at Eagle Harbor Bookstore on Bainbridge Island, but Chris Holmes provided a number of posts and pictures for others to enjoy. My apologies for my delay: Chris posted his reports that same night.

I had heard beforehand that it might be crowded .

Malcolm Gladwell must have been mesmerizing. I’m amazed there were no tough questions.

There were no tough questions put by the audience who were clearly eating out of his hand.

However, Malcolm did say he’d been criticized for not going into greater depth on the workings of the sub-conscious. To this, his reply was that not even Freud could have come up with a comprehensive study on the subject.


Incidentally, one of Gladwell’s ace traits is his meticulous courtesy in summarising each question so the rest of the room can hear. In some of the cases, the summary was clearer and better phrased than the original.

He even answered the big question I would have tossed at him after seeing different headshots of him used in publicity.

Someone even raised the question of his hair which he explained thus

* He’d originally cut it short to please his mom. When he realised he was older and no longer needed to keep her happy in quite such detail, he let it grow out.
* The incident with the police involved being pulled in for his resemblance of a rapist.
* As Gladwell told us he pointed out, it was only the hair he had in common with the suspect: in all other respects, he was more slender, younger, and better looking.
* Gladwell also explained that, back in the days when his hair was short and mom-pleasing, he was called a dork. With his bushier frizz, he is regarded as ‘cool’, a heady experience MG is unwilling to bring to a premature end.

Hmmm…an interesting personal experience on market research…

The details Chris shared added flavor, helping me imagine how cool and relaxed Gladwell was in person.

MG looking particularly relaxed and cool in a track suit top with orange piping.

His public speaking voice has an abrasiveness which lends to audibility, and he’s enough of a showman to modulate tone, mood and changes of pace as well as spot when a joke is working and milking it to full effect.

I read the book but I somehow wasn’t aware that Gladwell saw intuition separate from rapid cognition. I agree with Gladwell’s opinion that polling is a waste of time and I think Chris did too.

As one who has worked in market research, I was struck by Gladwell’s pointing out that such polling is largely a waste of time since getting a “truthful” answer is a “cognitive impossibility”.


I’ve not finished the book, but I wonder if I’d have spotted that nowhere does the word “intuition” appear. Gladwell does not believe it has any connection with snap judgments or “rapid cognition”.

How well can we know ourselves? Can we tell the difference between our own intuition and cognition? I understand from Chris’ posts that the author wanted only to start a discussion and claimed that the observations in his book could not be explained, even by Freud. If we can’t understand it and it is unreliable at times, then how can we improve this blink?

Regarding Gladwell’s next project, Chris reported that it has something to do with ketchup…

Chris’ coverage was so thorough that I only found one sentence in the newspaper’s article that was new to me, the last sentence in this description of his hair.

It’s heady celebrity for a guy who said he only stopped being considered a dork when he let his afro-style hair grow longer. The attention hasn’t all been positive, he said. He was stopped by three police officers because they said he looked like a criminal they were seeking.

That experience, however, hasn’t diminished the shock of suddenly being considered “cool.”

“This kind of mid-life transformation is so intoxicating I just can’t give it up,” he said.

Mid-life transformation stories encourage and inspire others too. I do believe – or hope – that Mr. Gladwell is referring to more than the change of his hairstyle. Going from dork to cool is intoxicating at any age. Maybe he could write a book describing these powerful transformations. Or maybe he could describe the power of trying to please one’s parents and its impact of mother’s hairstyle opinions on society…

The author of Blink is now in Austin at SXSW. I won’t be seeing him there either but I can use Technorati to find a wacky picture of him at a party. Since he will be giving a keynote, I imagine he’ll be receiving more links this coming week.

This week I also discovered that Chris is an talented poet. I love his Waiting for the Ferry which begins:

Killing time waiting for a fog-bound early ferry
I saw a heron on the Eagle Harbour flats.

He also sings and performs with his guitar.

Perhaps Chris will be doing his own tour someday…or appearing at SXSW…

Tags: books · culture · island

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