Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point

I am finally reading “The Tipping Point” after at least a year of planning to.  There’s certainly many things I could write about, but one paragraph just stuck out as something I should share here.  It’s on character.

“Character, then, isn’t what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be. It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.”

Gladwell goes on to explain that he enjoys dinner parties and is considered “fun” by his friends.  He thus hosts lots of dinner parties.  That is a controlled environment.  He admits he may not be so fun in other situations.

This theory goes a long way to explaining the general idea that heroes are never perfect.  There’s always something a critic can throw up to attempt to discredit someone.  Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela all have their detractors.  Perhaps we should always be describing the situation in which the hero has become heroic.

Mother Theresa is considered heroic for her dedication to helping the poor and the “untouchable”, but she is criticized for many of her financial dealings.  She was able to control her environment to a great extent so she was able to remain “heroic” and “caring” in the public eye.  It simply doesn’t make sense in our heads that someone could be caring and greedy.  That is due to our need for simplicity; to label someone with a character, just as Malcolm Gladwell is labeled “fun” by the friends he hosts at his dinner parties.

So, when we’re calling someone a hero we need to remember that we are simplifying to keep our brain happy.  We’re not ignoring flaws.  We’re not looking for a golden example.  We are describing the character of someone in a certain environment or situation and seeing heroism.

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3 Responses to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point

  1. Susan December 23, 2008 at 3:23 am #

    Very thoughful post!

  2. Susan December 23, 2008 at 3:24 am #

    That should say, “Very thoughtful post”!

  3. Matt Langdon December 23, 2008 at 11:08 am #

    Thanks Susan. I appreciate the comment.