Malcolm Gladwell Knows What He’s Talking About

by | Oct 14, 2018 | Sunday Notes | 1 comment

Rosemary Lawlor was a newlywed, but was she just a newlywed?

In the “Strike an Intentional Tone” section from his MasterClass video on writing, Malcolm Gladwell begins with a quote from the first chapter on the “Limits of Power” section in his book, David and Goliath.

“When the Troubles began in Northern Ireland, Rosemary Lawlor was just a newlywed.”

Gladwell discusses the importance of the two keywords “newlywed” and “just” in this sentence. The points he makes are relevant and valuable and Gladwell presents a compelling case for the structure and tone of his opening. More than merely instructional, he’s passionate while describing his thinking behind that sentence. Those precise word choices set the framework and context for the rest of his story.

The problem is, that’s not what he wrote. Here’s the actual opening sentence:

“When the Troubles began in Northern Ireland, Rosemary Lawlor was a newlywed.”

When you watch the video, Gladwell doesn’t think he used the word “just,” he KNOWS he used that word. But crack open a copy of the hardback to page 197, and it’s just not there.

Revisionist History

In the 2018 season of Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, he covers the fallibility of human memory over the course of two episodes, “A Polite Word for Liar” and “Free Brian Williams.” For more than an hour across these two episodes, Gladwell discusses multiple cases where, over time, memories transform and change.

Gladwell theorizes that the further away we get from a memory, the more it distorts. Every time we retrieve a memory it opens it up to change. If somewhere along the way we hear a new detail related to the memory, our minds incorporate the new data into the pre-existing memory. Or we’re guilty of confusing events that happened in the same proximity of the core memory and the sequences get jumbled together. To quote Gladwell directly, “Only a fool accepts the evidence of his own memory as gospel, and we’re all fools.”

The story of NBC News anchor Brian Williams and what happened to him in Iraq in 2003 serves as the backdrop for the second episode. The story Williams told about those events slowly changed over the course of ten years until it finally boiled over on late night television, vaporizing his career in the process. Gladwell’s final point is that Brian Williams did not intentionally mislead anyone. Despite his occupation as the anchor of NBC Nightly News, he was still a normal human with a faulty memory and made a normal human mistake. He wasn’t a liar. He was simply wrong.

We’re all fools

In explaining the phenomenon, Gladwell sites studies where memory degradation is estimated to be over 50% only one year after the occurrence of what he terms a “flash-bulb moment” – a moment like 9/11 or the Oklahoma City Bombing, when the event and where we were when it happened is supposed to sear itself into our memory. A year following one of these “flash-bulb” events, some study participants swore that their current account was the accurate version despite their own handwritten account from the day after the event took place. There was no room for probably. They were adamant, despite the permanent record in their handwriting. “I don’t know why I wrote that because it’s wrong.”

Gladwell weaves his personal story concerning the morning of 9/11 throughout the “Free Brian Williams” episode. He admits he’s no longer confident in his own memories regarding details of a morning that remains galvanized in many people’s minds. But the details Gladwell admits he may have wrong are minor ones from that day. Whether a neighbor knocked on a door or called first. If he was scheduled to travel the following day or travel a week later.

In the case of Gladwell’s MasterClass lesson, the detail in question is not minor. The lesson hinges on the words “just” and “newlywed.” In reviewing the discussion from participants who viewed that lesson, the majority of the comments reference those two words. Yet one of those words never appeared in the sentence Gladwell himself wrote only 5 years prior.

It may not be Brian Williams, but it’s more than a knock on the door.

Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up

If you stacked the words each of us has written in his lifetime, mine reach the roofline while Gladwell’s land on the moon. Gladwell is a more than 10,000-hour expert, while I’m at 42 consecutive days of writing and posting. He’s at 30+ years of experience and I’m at 40+ days. When it comes to actual books, I get skunked by a score of 5 best-sellers to 0 books written.

Who am I to criticize Malcolm Gladwell?

The only reason I’m aware of his MasterClass is because I paid money to take the class and learn from Malcolm Gladwell. Not only is he one of my favorite non-fiction writers, he’s one of my favorite writers, period. This was not a “Gotcha!-style journalism” quest aimed to knock someone out of their ivory tower. I stumbled across this the way a blind squirrel finds an acorn.

While viewing the lesson in question, Gladwell’s passion in discussing his intentional usage of the words “just” and “newlywed” struck me as more emphatic than previous lessons. From the reading and studying I’ve done on writing, I knew that “just” is typically a word that editors strike and edit out. And this particular “just” wasn’t appearing in some sentence buried mid-paragraph and mid-chapter. This was the opening sentence to a chapter. A chapter that led off the third and final section of a book. In other words, this use of “just” would be lit up under a bank of spotlights with the camera zoomed all the way in.

Gladwell’s animated explanation, I imagined, was a result of having this same discussion with the editor of David and Goliath, as he explained why it was critical to leave the word intact. Intrigued, I went to my bookshelf to view firsthand the result of (in my mind) Gladwell’s heroic fight with his editor.

Shocked, I saw that when the Troubles began in Northern Ireland, Rosemary Lawlor was a newlywed.

The Faces of Northern Ireland

Gladwell’s goal for the chapter from David and Goliath was to personalize the conflict in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. His grander purpose of doing this was to demonstrate how people in power fail to appreciate the human toll of conceptual decisions.

Gladwell explains, “The people who are trying to end them [conflicts] or trying to confront the disorder never stop and think about the people that they’re fighting on a personal level. They don’t think of them as individuals, they think of them as faceless representatives of a hostile force. I feel like this mistake is made again and again and again, and then in that chapter, I was trying to kind of describe that failing using the story of Northern Ireland.”

With the story of Rosemary Lawlor, Gladwell hoped to provide an individual face as a humanizing example of Northern Ireland violence.

A Star is Born

Following the success of Lady Gaga’s feature film debut in A Star Is Born (and at my nineteen-year-old Little Monster’s urging), I recently watched the Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two.

The film humanized a person (her real name is Stephani Germanotta) who has spent her entire career presenting herself as larger than life. In some respects this is the very nature of celebrity, but Gaga has accomplished it on a level few others have ever dreamed. We watch the transformation from Stephani to Gaga and back to Stephani again. Glamour is merged with meltdowns. We see her at the stove cooking with her family followed by the spectacle of a Super Bowl halftime performance. Stephani receives injections at her doctor’s office to treat her fibromyalgia while an assistant applies her Gaga makeup.

Mostly though, we see the human behind the image that millions consume in bite-sized chunks. Gaga flails around in the middle of a desert on your screen for three minutes, while Stephani wears the cuts, scrapes, and bruises on her body for three weeks. She’s paid extremely well to do so, but that doesn’t lessen the pain.

Malcolm Gladwell is no Lady Gaga, but in the world of non-fiction writing, he’s a bona fide celebrity. He moved from the Washington Post to New Yorker magazine to an independent writer and podcaster. His books spend weeks atop the best-seller lists, he’s a sought-after speaker, and even the design of his book covers are industry-defining. In the way the marketplace likes to keep score, he was a successful author even before his first manuscript was completed, earning a million-dollar advance for The Tipping Point.

Gladwell is not a faceless celebrity. Despite all of the trappings of fame, fortune, and success, like Lady Gaga and Brian Williams, he’s human. And he made a human error. In the fourteen lessons that preceded this one, when Gladwell cited a specific passage in one of his books, he held the book and read from it. For this lesson, however, he recited the sentence from memory. Fallible human memory.

Intention announced the Malcolm Gladwell writing class on February 27th, 2018. Gladwell released the Revisionist History podcast “Free Brian Williams” on June 6th, 2018. Given the preparation time and post-production time needed for both of these efforts, they were likely recorded around the same time as each other.

On September 25th, 2018, while driving between New Braunfels and Austin, TX, I listened to “Free Brian Williams.” I watched the “Strike an Intentional Tone” lesson two weeks later on October 11th, 2018. I now find myself wondering if Gladwell realized he was warning me of exactly what he was going to do. He spelled it all out during his podcast in a way that only he can, and then, in the sentence at the core of his MasterClass lesson, fell victim to his own observations and lessons regarding memory.

I also find myself wondering if the missing “just” made the point of his lesson on being intentional any less credible? No. In fact, if anything, it magnifies the importance of setting an intentional tone and choosing one’s words with surgical precision.

Because once you’ve finished the work and released it to the world, there’s a permanent record.

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1 Comment

  1. Howard Nelson

    Hi Michael,
    I love the way you wrote this piece. I just finished listening to the 2 Gladwell podcasts you cited here, and found your blog in a random search.
    I think somehow you should get it to Gladwell. I think he would love to read your observations. He would be blown away by his memory error, I think.
    In the episode about Larry Adler, A Polite Word for Liar, Gladwell laid out his view on memory:
    Adler, quoting Tolstoy, ‘And he realized as he spoke that truth was slipping away from him, and soon he wold no longer know what the truth was.’ And then Adler says, ‘I think that applies very much to anybody telling any story about anything.’
    Gladwell then says: “Making something up and forgetting that it isn’t true –
    Thats the way memory works. They’re up for grabs.”

    His discussion on memory through Adler and Weitz was fascinating to me.

    I just don’t understand your last 2 paragraphs. How does “missing the “just” magnify the importance of setting an intentional tone and…”?
    Your answer, “Because…there’s a permanent record.”, alludes me.
    I don’t understand the meaning of your last 2 paragraphs in the context of what you wrote before. It is an obvious example of memories being slippery and fallible. But, why doesn’t it detract from his intentional tone message?

    Would you please clarify this for me? Also, do you recommend Gladwell’s masterclass?

    This was the only blog of yours I read. I love the way you write. I will read a few more.
    Thank you, Howard Nelson


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