Can we Really Blame it on Gladwell?

There’s this great scene in Annie Hall.  Alvy (Woody Allen) overhears this arrogant teacher comment about Marshall McLuhan.  Here’s a condensed version of the scene from the script:

you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan’s work!

Really?  Really?  I happen to teach a class at Columbia called “TV Media and Culture”!  So I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan-well, have a great deal of

Oh, do yuh?


Well, that’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here.

ALVY (To McLuhan)
Tell him.

MCLUHAN (To the man in line)
I heard what you were saying.
You know nothing of my work.
How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.

ALVY  (To the camera)
Boy, if life were only like this!

I thought of this as I read some recent criticism of Malcolm Galdwell.  We now know, from the book Too Big too Fail, that Joe Gregory, former Lehman President, swore by Malcolm Gladwell.  He loved Blink, and “even hired the author to lecture employees on trusting their instincts when making difficult decisions.  In an industry based on analyzing raw data, Gregory was defiantly a gut man.”  (I got this from here).

BlinkHere’s the problem – do we really understand the point of Gladwell’s Blink? Do we understand the point of any writer clearly enough to take some action and say, in essence, “it was his/her (the writer’s) idea.  I have permission from this expert writer to take this step.?”

There is no pure exegesis and interpretation of any writer.  All interpretation is colored and filtered by our own understanding, our own preferences, our own hopes and ideas.  We find a sentence, a paragraph, an idea, and say “Aha.  I knew I was right.”

We seek confirmation of our own thinking.  But, do we really learn anything?

My opinion is that Blink does not give permission to make instant blink decisions out of ignorance.  It is not a “gut decisions are ok” book.  It is that the “gut” that is trained well makes a very wise decision – in an instant.  It depends on the situation, the decision to be made – and the preparation (the life preparation, the intellectual preparation, the life experience preparation)  of the decision maker.

Here’s a quote from Blink:

Our world requires that decisions be sourced and footnoted, and if we say how we feel, we must also be prepared to elaborate on why we feel that way.  …if we are to learn to improve the quality of the decisions we make, we need to accept the mysterious nature of our snap judgments.  We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that – sometimes – we’re better off that way.

But this blog post is not about Gladwell.  It is this: do we read honestly, or do we allow our own prejudices to so color our thinking that we seldom actually let the words of a writer sink in and change the way we truly think and act?


To purchase my synopses of the three Gladwell best-sellers, The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, with audio + handout, visit our companion web site,

One thought on “Can we Really Blame it on Gladwell?

  1. Randy Mayeux Post author

    Bob, your comment sort of confirms my point. You and I disagree on the book. Unfortunately, we give the books away at the First Friday Book Synopsis, and I don’t have a copy at the moment. So, this is from memory: but I remember a story at the end of the book about a policeman who did not shoot, and he described in detail how the wisdom and experience “flashed in front of his eyes in an instant”(my wording), and the policeman decided that the man in front of him, with a gun, was actually frightened, not threatening — so in a blink decision, he decided not to shoot. I think Gladwell did make this distinction effectively.
    But, the point of my article was this — people read books differently.
    You may be right, by the way. That was just my impression from reading the book.
    Here’s a footnote to this discussion – Chesley Sullenberger certainly provides an example of the right kind of blink decision, which he has described in many interviews, as he chose in an instant to land the plane in the Hudson River rather than try to make it to an airport.


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