Everyone Is Nobody Sometime

Let’s go back twenty or so years and look at the world through the eyes of an ambitious journalist intent on creating something original.  Again, this material is from a series of posts I wrote over at www.storygrid.com.

Let’s pretend you’re Malcolm Gladwell.

It’s midish-1998.  Google won’t start up until September.  Facebook is more than five years away.  The Kindle launch is almost ten years away and not one publisher sees eBooks as a viable product. In August, Amazon.com publicly acknowledges that it plans to sell more than just books and CDs.

Everything that is tipping or will tip in the new century hasn’t happened yet. People are worried about Y2K and the Internet is for nerds.  Remember that?

Your first book is due to Little Brown in nine months give or take and you have a huge pile of stuff covering your desk. You have reams of printout with hours and hours of transcribed interviews. You have coffee stained Moleskin notebooks packed with your chicken scrawl from the scores of research papers and books you’ve read. You’ve got post-it notes, backs of envelopes, tear sheets, and scraps of newspaper…all with some intellectual fragment that you’ll need to assemble your first draft.

What’s sits before you are the support materials you’ll use to convince readers of the veracity of your Big Idea. An idea that you’ve globally categorized as The Tipping Point—an often used phrase among physicists, epidemiologists, and sociologists in academia, but not yet well known in the civilian world.

You have deep-dived into the core principles of the phenomenon—small changes can add up all at once to an explosive effect…one far greater than the sum of its causes—and compiled evidence of its occurrence in the discipline that fascinates America’s most passionate strivers—the practical economics of entrepreneurial business.

You’re confident that the business book buyer will be intrigued. And if there are enough case studies about how Wendy’s hamburgers launched or how a mass market came to buy pet rocks or beanie babies or tulips, then all will be well.

Your book will perform inside of that niche and you’ll not have trouble getting a contract to write another one.

You could leave it at that.

Instead, you’ve boldly taken your Big Idea even further and propose that The Tipping Point is not just a cool thing in evidence across multiple academic disciplines, but in fact, it is a deeply ingrained phenomenon that can explain “unexplainable” human behavior. Like why crime in New York City plummeted in the 1990s, why toddlers find themselves addicted to the inane television show Blue’s Clues, and even why teenagers in Micronesia have been known to kill themselves in epidemic proportions.

Your ambitions are all well and good, but how exactly will you tell The Tipping Point story? How do you connect all of this diverse evidence in a way that will hold anyone’s interest? Not just the business book buyer, but also the firefighter or the stay at home mom who have limited downtime for reading.

This isn’t to say that you are convinced that anyone—beyond the very insular book and magazine publishing industry—will really care about what you’ve pieced together. Chances are few will. Over one hundred thousand books are published each year.  How could your little riff (all in, you don’t see this book being longer than 75,000 words) on how you put together a dog’s breakfast of academic research and worked up a grand idea break through?

You have no idea. Right now, you’ve got a much bigger problem.

How do you write your book so that anyone, not just The New Yorker magazine reader, will find themselves compelled to finish it?

This is your mission. You’re hoping it won’t prove impossible.

As you sit with your coffee, you can’t help but wonder how in the hell you got yourself into this daunting mess?  You consider if there is a graceful way out of it…  But you’re like a woman at 42 weeks gestation on her way to the hospital… There’s no turning back.

For Gladwell staring down his first draft, and for all who find themselves driven to think and write down and share what they’ve contrived, how he got to that desk probably seemed like the result of some cruel accident.

It wasn’t.

By 1998, Gladwell was thirty-four, with a snowballing confluence of genetics and environment and what some would call magic directing him to write The Tipping Point. It’s obvious with the most cursory review of his story.

No one but he could have written it.

I’m convinced that all great art is personal. So deeply personal that it magically transforms into the universal, and if you’re Thucydides or Copernicus or Plath your work transcends time.

While it isn’t necessary to “know” the artist to appreciate the art, artists in training can learn indispensable lessons about the inner war and how to keep on keeping on by piecing together the life history’s of those who seemingly pulled genius out of thin air.

When I took on this project, Storygridding the Tipping Point,  I decided not to request an interview with Malcolm Gladwell.  If granted a sit down with him, I would have inevitably gotten lazy.  I would asked him the same old variations of “What’s your process?” “How do you get your ideas?” “Do you panic under deadline?” “How do you deal with criticism?” While I’m sure he’d have some fascinating answers to these softballs, ultimately I wouldn’t get much out of the experience. God knows he wouldn’t either.

What floats my boat is being a bit of a Story detective.  I love to read and analyze my favorite books and then investigate the circumstances in which they were written.  As Gladwell would say, I want to know the “context” of the creation.  No one sits down and has a great Story dictated to them by an otherworldly presence.  They grind it out of themselves with the otherworldly presence standing by with critical inspiration when they hit the wall.

If you don’t grind…the Muse moves on to find someone else who does.

So for fun, the next few posts will be about that–pretending to be Malcolm Gladwell before he became “bestselling writer” Malcolm Gladwell.

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  1. seth godin on September 29, 2017 at 6:35 am

    Love that you’re doing this, Shawn.

    One thing: like all business books, especially the big sellers, almost no one finished the tipping point.

    it’s easy to test. When I talk about William Dawes and Paul Revere, blank stares. And that’s the FIRST chapter.

    Part of the brilliance of The Tipping Point is that you could get the point without reading it, which is what the mass of business book readers want…

    • Mel Pullen on September 29, 2017 at 7:15 am

      what about condensed summaries of business books. Now there are [apps for that](https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/blinkist-always-learning/id568839295?mt=8)

    • Marvin Waschke on September 29, 2017 at 1:09 pm

      Sad but true. I hate to say it, but I’ve never been able to finish a single one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. After the buzz hits me and I’ve read a few paragraphs here and there, I’m done. Yet, I like his books, find them insightful and useful. It’s the same with most business books, but not all. I’ve chewed over every page of several of Deming’s books and still feel like reading them again. Oddly, I think Gladwell’s books are better organized and written than any of Deming’s. One of life’s mysteries…

      • Patricia Salem on September 29, 2017 at 4:44 pm

        I thought Outliers was much more engaging than The Tipping Point. I stuck with the former, whereas the latter I admit I too abandoned partway through. Is it a benefit or a detriment when a book can be read halfway and still readers get the point? Both?

        • Marvin Waschke on October 2, 2017 at 11:34 am

          Gladwell is doing well, so it can’t be too much of a detriment. But I bought copies of Deming’s books, I read Gladwell from the public library.

          There’s the old line from Sir Francis Bacon: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

  2. Mia Sherwood Landau on September 29, 2017 at 6:52 am

    Many years ago I heard of someone who could read a book by simply placing it on his chest, over his solar plexus. Doing so, he could access everything in the book. Maybe we’re all getting there, in a digital way, somehow… All the more reason to step up the quality, the transcendence of our output as, “…so deeply personal that it magically transforms into the universal.” How I long for that power and skill!

  3. Wes Roberts on September 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

    Sir Steven…keep it coming. This olde man here in the Rockies (…fast approaching 76yo…) is nurtured, encouraged, some times confounded, always challenged to be better at what I am about…whole-person mentoring across the generations currently alive on the planet…with what you write, mentor, challenge, create, suggest, unleash. Your own take on Gladwell will be welcome, gladly!!! And if ever in Denver, I’m good for a great meal………..

  4. Elliotte Bowerman on September 29, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    What a wonderful “reverse engineering” exploration into the creation of art. The unique the combination of influences a creator has – from their personal life, scenius (the influence of your social/professional scene), books and teachers etc — it’s fascinating. Looking forward to your dive into Gladwell’s development.

  5. Patricia Salem on September 29, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    I love this approach too. I tend to do this on my own–not to your level, though–after I’ve read a particularly moving book or seen an inspiring film. I am fascinated by the research and writing process, but I don’t want “softballs” either. I want grittier stuff. This will be fun.

  6. Angela Beeching on September 29, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    I’ve been reading this series with interest—I appreciate all the insights!

    And I’m very curious:

    Is there any indication that Malcolm knows you are doing all this?

    I wonder—has anyone let him know there is all this speculation and reverse-engineering afoot?

  7. Julie Murphy on September 29, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    This post was for me. Today. Thank you, Shawn.

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