What You Should Know about Life, from the brain of Malcolm Gladwell

During my junior year of high school, my English teacher had our class read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. For the first time, I was intellectually challenged by what I was reading. Sure, I had read stimulating books before with intense plots that required you to be actively aware, but this book was different. Reading Outliers was not like reading the typical novel where we, as a class, analyzed the plot and the characters; Instead we discussed how Gladwell proposed his thesis and drew conclusions about success. After reading Outliers I felt enlightened and intellectual in understanding the composition and driving idea of a novel rather than just observing the content; I felt as though I, too, was as intelligent as Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell has a style of writing that does just that — he simplifies complex social phenomena in such a way that the reader feels fully comfortable with what he or she is reading, so much so that they feel they could just as easily share what they just learned with those around them. Gladwell leaves his readers intellectually stimulated, a refreshing break from articles that seem to simply throw information at you.

I chose to create an annotated bibliography of ten articles written by Malcolm Gladwell because I knew I would learn something new in each one. From curing cancer to Ivy League admissions, Gladwell did not disappoint.

“Tough Medicine.” The New Yorker. 14 Dec. 2015.

Cancer affects nearly everyone’s life in some way — through a personal diagnosis or through watching a family member or friend battle theirs. Finding a cure to this malicious disease has been the desire of millions, but is it truly a possibility? In this article, Gladwell reports about humanity’s war on cancer.

Is there a cure for cancer that we aren’t utilizing?

Gladwell writes about Vincent T. DeVita, a leading researcher and doctor in the fight to end cancer. DeVita joined the National Cancer Institute in 1963, where he encountered an “insurgent group” of scientists led by the head of the medical branch, Tom Frei, and Emil Freireich. The insurgent group believed that beating cancer required a deviation from the norm. They believed that by combining cancer drugs and administering them in larger doses with repeated cycles they could more effectively cure their patients. DeVita went on to create a treatment plan for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which hardly gained any recognition despite its outstanding success in clinical trials. DeVita rebukes the oncology field, frustrated with the “obduracy and closed-mindedness” of the profession. Gladwell notes that too many doctors are afraid of straying from the norm, even when lab results prove an alternative, but perhaps more unconventional, method to be more effective. DeVita argues in favor of an “absence of rules.” According to DeVita, “at this date, we are not limited by science; we are limited by our ability to make good use of the information and treatments we already have.”

In this article, Gladwell reveals the faults in our country’s system of standardization and playing by the rules when it comes to cancer treatment development. Doctors need freedom to “tinker and improvise,” Gladwell argues. “We have cancer theories,” DeVita writes, “that could cure another hundred thousand patients if used to their full potential.” The war against cancer needs more people like DeVita: scientists willing to take a stand against convention and instead opt for innovation in a field dominated by guidelines and standardization.

“The Trouble with Fries.” The New Yorker. 5 March 2001.

Do you want fries with that? For most Americans, the answer is a resounding yes. In fact, the average American eats thirty pounds of French fries a year. With this article, Gladwell notes the rise of the French fry in American food culture and explores the possibility of making America healthy again.

Are healthy fries in our horizon?

Gladwell begins the article with an anecdote about Ray Kroc, “the great visionary of American fast food.” Kroc initiated the first fast food revolution, and he is responsible for making McDonald’s the fast food powerhouse that it is today. Ray Kroc made the process of making French fries a science. The key to a tasty French fry lies in removing as much water as possible from the potato and replacing it with fat. Gladwell notes that in 1990, major fast food restaurants made the switch from animal-based cooking oil (which gave a rich, buttery taste but had concerning amounts of cholesterol) to vegetable oil. However, using vegetable oil creates trans fats, and the health concerns are even worse — one study estimates that consumption of trans fats likely causes thirty thousand premature deaths per year in the U.S. All hope is not lost, however. Gladwell notes that there are other options, such as the fat substitute Olestra, that could be used in place of vegetable oil. The problem lies not in the making of healthier products, but in the marketing of them. Gladwell argues that “we like fries not in spite of the fact that they’re unhealthy but because of it.” Sometimes we Americans just want to eat junk food, and no “healthier option” will suffice. Therefore, the solution to our fast food problem lies in marketing. Find a subtle and sophisticated way to bring healthy options to our beloved McDonalds and Burger Kings, and Americans just may choose to eat “healthy.”

This article caught my eye because I am a Public Health major, and a much discussed issue in that field is obesity in America and how to combat it. Malcolm Gladwell brings in history about McDonald’s and its use of cooking products and compares it to healthier options available today. Yet he also provides a cautionary tale about such a promising idea, with his description of the rise and fall of the AU Lean Burger. As he always does, Gladwell leaves one feeling educated and enlightened about yet another unique slice of life, in this case, how to fix the French fry problem.

“Small Change.” The New Yorker. 4 Oct. 2010.

Taking to the streets or taking to Twitter? The world has become fascinated by social media, and its uses are practically immeasurable. Malcolm Gladwell compares the use of social media as a platform for social activism with “high-risk activism,” that is, taking physical action for a cause, in his article “Small Change.”

Gladwell describes the Greensboro sit-in that took place on February 1, 1960. Four black college students asked to be served at the counter of Woolworth’s, and despite being told they would not be served because they were Negroes, the students stayed. The protest grew with each day, and spread to nearby cities. The civil rights war of the 1960s had begun.

Nowadays, people turn to the internet for revolution. People such as Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, have called for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, for how it allowed the people of Iran to feel “empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy” during the protests in Tehran. However, Gladwell argues that we have an “outsized enthusiasm for social media.” It is not, in fact, as powerful as we may think.

True activism often involves an acceptance of risk and violence; hence, it is called “high-risk activism.” People are willing to stand up for these causes based on personal connections-a “strong-tie phenomena.” This differs from the activism that social media promotes. With social media, ties are much weaker. You can have thousands of Facebook friends, Gladwell notes, which is impossible to have in real life. Furthermore, the protests that took place during the civil rights movements required detailed, militaristic planning. There was a strong hierarchy in place. Social media activism relies on its network; it does not have a hierarchical organization. Gladwell argues that this lack of leadership causes a problem in setting and reaching goals. To take on a powerful establishment, a hierarchy is required.

Some consider the social media activism an upgrade — it is surely quicker, easier, and requires less motivation and participation, and there is often no risk. But Gladwell points out that it is the strong-tie connections that come from physical activism that “help us persevere in the face of danger.”

Are “Twitter revolutions” for the weak-hearted?

Small change can come from this new social media activism, but it is great change that we often need to see in the world, and great change requires a great commitment and an acceptance of risk.

“Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.” Gladwell.com. 11 Jan. 1999.

The concept of six degrees of separation (the idea that all people in the world can be connected to each other in six or fewer steps by forming a “friend of a friend” type chain) came from Stanley Milgram, a Harvard social psychologist. There are some people in the world that are essential to many of these chains of connections, and Malcolm Gladwell makes the claim that Lois Weisberg is one of those people.

Cartoon depiction of the Lois Weisberg

In “The Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg,” Malcolm Gladwell analyzes the character traits that shape one of Chicago’s most “connected” people, Lois Weisberg. People like Lois, Gladwell explains, are the type who seem to know everybody, and people who seem to know everybody “may actually run the world.” It is through people like Lois that information is spread, that connections are made, and that ideas are formed. Lois’s character is unique because it is not just that she knows a multitude of people; it is that she belongs to many “different worlds” — “actors, writers, doctors, lawyers, park lovers, politicians, railroad buffs, and flea-market aficionados.” Gladwell also comments on Lois’s social power — her connections give her power that is different from the power of the Mayor, for instance. The secret to people like Lois Weisberg, according to Gladwell, is that they have an “innate and spontaneous and entirely involuntary affinity for people.” They have an endless web of connections simply because “they can’t help it.”

Malcolm Gladwell makes it clear that Lois is the type of person you desperately want to know — “Does she run the world?” he questions in his subtitle. Clearly she isn’t a world leader, yet in some way she possesses an influence that is equally powerful — she makes connections that change the city of Chicago, and likely beyond. I chose this article because the idea that people with connections run the world, not people holding office, is fascinating. With this article, Gladwell includes biographical elements and personal stories that help paint the picture of who Lois is. By the end of the article, you can practically picture her smoking a cigarette in one of her crazy, mismatched outfits.

“Offensive Play.” The New Yorker. 19 Oct. 2009.

The idea of dogfighting equates to feelings of disgust and contempt for the majority of the public. But football? Football means exciting and riveting games, devoted fans, and heroic players. How could these two activities have anything in common?

In “Offensive Play,” Malcolm Gladwell compares football to dogfighting. Why do people participate in dogfighting? “For the entertainment of an audience and the chance of a payday” Gladwell writes. Football is surely more ethical than dogfighting, as players themselves choose whether or not to participate and can freely quit, however, there are certainly some similarities. Football too exists for entertainment, and many players, coaches, and owners are involved for the “chance of a payday.” Gladwell analyzes the work done by Ann Mckee, who runs the Veterans Hospital’s neuropathology laboratory. McKee has studied the brains of deceased athletes, mainly ex-football players, and has found a striking realization — the majority of brains she has studied have shown signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.). Many of these cases are mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease, but this disorder differs from Alzheimer’s in that it is the result of an injury to the brain. The disorder presents like Alzheimer’s, with behavioral changes and irritability, leading to dementia. However, it is preventable — by reducing brain trauma. Gladwell then questions, is violence “incidental to the game of football or inherent in it?” He references the study Kevin Guskiewicz has done for the University of North Carolina’s Sports Concussion Research Program. Guskiewicz has found that cumulative exposure, or repetitive subconcussive trauma, is what causes the majority of concussions. More alarming, however, is that experts and specialists have no idea how to “fix” the problem — hitting with the head is necessary in football, especially for linemen, and no helmet can fully protect against the damage it causes.

Violence is inherent in dogfighting — a dog is prized for its “gameness,” or unrelenting ability to continue charging, Gladwell notes. Similarly, football players are prized for their resilience, their ability to keep playing through the pain. They are taught to believe they should “just fight through it,” Kyle Turley, a former NFL player, notes. They are taught to play “all out,” just as a game dog is in a fight.

Fans keep dogfighting alive, Gladwell argues, just as fans keep football alive: “We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else — neither considerations of science nor those of morality — can compete with the destructive power of that love.” In this article, Gladwell presents data and research that makes you question whether football and dogfighting truly are that different.

“Slackers.” The New Yorker. 30 July 2012.

Running is a challenging sport to take up. Anyone who has run cross country knows, this sport requires physical strength and ability, but it is also very much so a mental sport. That is, it requires almost as much mental strength as it does physical strength.

Alberto Salazar at the Olympic Trials

Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Slacker” details Alberto Salazar’s greatness, and how he achieved it. Salazar was one of the greatest distance runners in the world for the first half of the 1980s — he won the New York City Marathon three consecutive times among other achievements. It wasn’t his form that helped him achieve this greatness, as he “shuffled like an old man,” Gladwell writes. Instead, his greatness came from his desire. Gladwell defines slack as “the gap between what is possible, under conditions of absolute effort, and actual performance.” For most of us, he notes, this slack is unavoidable. We are all slackers, essentially. Salazar, however, found a way to eliminate that gap. While running, you comprehend mentally what winning will take — pain. Many shy away from that pain, letting fear take control. Salazar, on the other hand, embraced it. Salazars greatness came from his ability to embrace pain, even death, whilst running, Gladwell argues. “The pain of running is like the pain of drowning. A kind of weariness sets in and you lose the will to fight. What I could do is simply push myself through that exhaustion,” Salazar writes. Salazar was not a slacker.

Gladwell used the story of Alberto Salazar to prove his claim — that the difference between slackers and the successful is merely a difference in desire. The successful understand that their desire does not come without consequences, and that acceptance of pain is necessary. I know that every person is a slacker in some area of their life, whether it be in physical health or social life or academics. We can all benefit by learning from Salazar’s story — to close the gap between slacking and winning, you need only fight the exhaustion.

“The Naked Face.” Gladwell.com. 5 Aug. 2002.

Mind reading has long been thought of as an ideal superpower, but through this article, Gladwell explores the idea of reading people’s thoughts just by watching their face — no superpower needed.

Malcolm Gladwell documents the research and findings of Paul Ekman in this article on the art of reading faces. Ekman, a psychologist from San Francisco, set out to learn the physiological system of the face. He and his associate Wallace Friesen photographed and filmed faces and expressions from all over the world. They created a “taxonomy of facial expressions,” Gladwell writes, documenting the movement of facial muscles, called “action units.” Their research took seven years, but it was incredibly successful; essentially they had documented the “repertoire of human emotion.” These findings were compiled into the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a five hundred page report. The use of FACS, however, is what is truly fascinating. Gladwell notes that this system has been used by researchers investigating “everything from schizophrenia to heart disease,” and has even been used by animators at Pixar and DreamWorks. Reading people’s faces requires practice, but once mastered, it is a lifelong skill, Gladwell argues. Picking up on people’s “microexpressions” — fleeting looks of involuntary emotion — can mean the difference between life or death. John Yarbrough, for example, a police officer in Los Angeles County, stopped himself from shooting a young armed man based on his instinctive reading of the man’s face — “Something just didn’t feel right,” Yarbrough remembers. Yarbrough is impressively good at reading faces, scoring higher than the 50% accuracy average on a lie detecting test given to members of the FBI, CIA, DEA, as well as policemen and judges and trial lawyers.

I have always loved the idea of being able to read one’s mind, so naturally this article was incredibly appealing to me. Mind reading, it appears, can no longer be considered a superpower, but instead an “accessible skill” available to all those who have the time and patience to study thousands of facial expressions. Gladwell combines the personal stories of John Yarbrough and Bob Harms, another sheriff, with the research findings of Paul Ekman to create an enlightening argument for the possibility of mind reading.

“The Sure Thing.” The New Yorker. 18 Jan. 2010.

Risky business? In today’s society, we tend to believe that successful entrepreneurs are bold risk takers, unphased by the fear of failure. In his article “The Sure Thing”, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes how entrepreneurs truly succeed, and spoiler alert, it is not by taking risks.

Successful entrepreneurs: risk-averse or bold gamblers?

Gladwell references the life of Ted Turner, a successful entrepreneur who inherited his father’s billboard business, but made true profits from his purchase of a TV station. Buying a TV station with no previous work in television seems risky — a typical move for an entrepreneur keen on making money. Yet the deal was, in fact, not risky at all. Turner had a well thought out plan for merging his advertising on billboards with the new TV station; therefore, the deal had a great lack of risk. This, Gladwell argues, is how entrepreneurs succeed. He notes the work of a French study, “From Predators to Icons,” which depicts the truly successful businessman as “anything but a risk taker… He is a predator, and predators seek to incur the least risk possible while hunting.”

Gladwell goes on to describe the work of “the most successful entrepreneur on Wall Street,” a hedge-fund manager named John Paulson. Paulson made an enormous profit off of selling credit-default swap policies (similar to insurance policies) in the mortgage market. He did so only after having an associate perform a painstakingly detailed analysis of the housing market. Paulson wasn’t acting upon a whim when he continued to “buy C.D.S. policies by the truckload.” Paulson was fully aware that the market was in a bubble that would soon burst, thanks to his rigorous analysis. He is a predator, not a risk taker, relying on analytics and not whim. For those interested, Paulson’s firm took in fifteen billion dollars in profits in the year 2007 alone.

I chose this article because I felt that the desire for success runs rampant in our society. We praise the idea of the fearless businessman, putting himself on the line to make a risky deal all in the hopes of a prolific result. Malcolm Gladwell pulls together stories of true successes in the world of entrepreneurship and studies how they made it big. By combining his analysis with other studies, Gladwell is able to show that our praise of “risky business” is not entirely well-founded. Instead, we should be admiring the analytics — those who don’t make a single move until every possible outcome has been considered.

“Drinking Games.” The New Yorker. 15 Feb. 2010.

Drinking games — the name brings to mind beer pong and flip cup and college frat parties. However, in his article “Drinking Games,” Malcolm Gladwell analyzes how people drink and how culture affects drinking patterns.

Can your culture determine how you drink?

Gladwell begins his piece by telling the story of Dwight Heath’s time in Camba, Bolivia. Heath was a graduate student studying anthropology at Yale University. When Heath returned to New Haven, he was asked by Mark Keller, an expert on alcoholism, to document the alcohol consumption in Bolivia. The style of drinking in Camba differs greatly from the style of drinking in America. There, the community gathers every weekend and shares a bottle of one hundred proof rum — it is a cultural ritual. Alcoholism doesn’t exist. Gladwell contrasts this kind of cultural drinking with the drinking that occurs in America. Here, we don’t have rules or structure or cultural rituals surrounding drinking. We don’t have “positive and constructive examples” of how to drink because as a community, we Americans don’t have the same type of respect or reverence towards drinking. Gladwell also notes the difference between Americans and Italians in terms of drinking; they too have a strong cultural tie to alcohol that gives alcohol more reverence than we Americans do.

Gladwell brings in facts about alcoholism and personal anecdotes and research studies to show that the real problem is not necessarily how much people drink, but how they drink it. Alcohol abuse is a highly prevalent issue in America, and this article suggests that the key to solving the problem may not be in restricting how much people drink but may be in changing the way our society views alcohol — not with condescension, but with respect as a tool for bringing community together.

“Getting In.” The New Yorker. 10 Oct. 2010.

When did college applications become comparable to “applying to a private club”? To even be considered by some premier colleges, you must be exceptional in many different categories. In his article “Getting In”, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes the social logic behind Ivy League admissions.

Gladwell begins by describing the history of the college admission process for the elite schools. The process of getting accepted was not always so complicated. Gladwell writes that in 1905, Harvard used the College Entrance Examination Board tests as their principal basis for admission. Therefore, any high school student who scored well on the test — and who could afford a private college — had a reasonable chance of being accepted. Harvard soon faced a problem by their own standards: by 1922, Jews made up more than a fifth of the freshmen class. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president at the time, worked to create a solution — changing the definition of merit. At this moment, the “nature of the Ivy League took a significant turn,” Gladwell argues. This moment marks the beginning of what many high-achieving high schoolers know as the college application process today. An applicant’s personal life became much more important — hence the beginning of the letter of reference. The personal interview became crucial to rule out “undesirables.” Gladwell argues that the admissions process for Harvard now resembled “a series of complex algorithms.” Four dimensions were used to evaluate prospective students — academic achievement, extracurriculars, athletics, and personal qualities. The elusive “personal qualities” dimension got more focus than one would anticipate, Gladwell notes. Harvard’s own analysis found that the personal rating was a “better predictor” of admission than academic achievement or extracurricular rating.

America’s obsession with the Ivy Leagues centers around the belief that these schools produce success; that being taught by brilliance leads to brilliance and that the power of the name on the diploma will render you successful. However, Gladwell argues that this is not the case. It is not necessarily the school that produces these winners — “to graduate winners you must admit winners.” The Ivy Leagues chose to adopt what Gladwell calls a “best graduates approach” as opposed to a “best students approach.” That is, these elite colleges are admitting those students that they believe will have the most success after college, and that requires taking a variety of talents and attitudes and characters and backgrounds. The burden also falls on the Ivy Leagues to “reward” the customer, because “customer loyalty is what luxury brands do.” Therefore, being a legacy also must be factored in.

The college application process these days is time consuming and tedious. As a recent high school graduate, I can vividly remember sitting down and spending hours on a personal essay — every minute of my free time for the first half of my senior year was spent working on applications, and I did not even consider applying to an Ivy League school. However, for many, attending an Ivy League school is a long held dream. Clearly, getting into an Ivy League school is extremely difficult. The admissions process has evolved over time but, as Gladwell writes, the system is essentially a complex algorithm. Find the perfect mix of intelligence, drive, good looks, and personality perks, and perhaps have a parent or two that attended the university, and you may just find an acceptance letter to one of these elite universities.



Malcolm Gladwell often makes inferences and draws conclusions about countless different aspects of society and psychology. He makes inferences from research in the social sciences and uses academic work concerning sociology and psychology frequently and extensively. His writing style is incredibly unique: he typically begins a piece with an interesting anecdote about a particular person, place, or event, that in some way relates to his premise in each article. He then brings in information from various researchers and studies, analyzing the work and using it to corroborate his inference. He ties together people, events, interviews, his personal beliefs and values, and academic work in such a way that leaves you clinging to his every claim — his articles are nothing short of captivating.