The currently somewhat-embattled Malcolm Gladwell (lotta sniping around his newest book) was on The Daily Show last night. You could sense Jon Stewart radiating a bit of skepticism. And the fact is, Gladwell’s theme for this one — that he was “struck” by how many successful people succeeded because of being disadvantaged in some way — is just an extension of what Joseph Campbell identified long ago — that you would expect successful people to tell their stories from the perspective of the disadvantaged or flawed hero (also known as Element #2 in our Connection Storymaker app).


SOME BOOKS ARE BETTER THAN OTHERS. If Gladwell had studied his Joseph Campbell he might not have been as “struck” by the success stories of world leaders.



I’m a huge, life long fan of Malcolm Gladwell, but by now most people have figured out he’s not perfect with his essays. For example, he opined in the New Yorker that, “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” just a few months before the Arab Spring revolutions were tweeted like wild. Roops.

As a long time fan, I think his book, “Blink,” is one of the most powerful and profound communication essays of modern times, even if it feels like only the start of a major work. He’s great.

But his new book, “David and Goliath,” has generated lots o’ blowback such as the lousy reviews summarized by The Guardian and others. Definitely not his best work.

So he was on The Daily Show and clearly Jon Stewart didn’t want to eviscerate such a popular guest, but you could tell he could have if he’d wanted to. You can feel it with this exchange, where he’s sort of asking, “Isn’t this whole book about something we already pretty much know?”

JS: Don’t we all have, to some extent, disadvantages that shape our character, as we go through, and it is the tenacity with which you overcome them no matter what that would be …

MG: I got started on this book because in my last book, “Outliers,” I was spending a lot of time talking to very successful people and I was always struck by how often when they accounted for what they had achieved, they began with the difficulties, not with the obvious advantages.

Hmmm … “difficulties” … that sounds a lot like “flaws” … where have I been hearing that term a lot lately …



Dorie Barton and I are living and breathing “The Hero’s Journey” these days with the release and implementation of our Connection Storymaker app. Last week week did our first full workshop with it at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Next week we’ll be demo-ing it in Washington D.C. at an EPA conference on Child Heathcare Centers (where I’m giving a keynote), in a workshop at Union of Concerned Scientists, and at AAAS and NAS.

At the core of the app — it’s most intricate and intriguing element — is Dorie’s 9 element template for Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” Element number 2 is “the flawed protagonist,” with Element number 7 being, “the lesson learned,” which usually relates to the flaw. It’s a sort of problem-solution combination.

What this tells you is that audiences enjoy the story of a hero overcoming a flaw … or disadvantage. Which means if Gladwell were up on his Campbell, he wouldn’t be “always struck by how often when they accounted for what they had achieved, they began with the difficulties.” All Joseph Campbell would have said to that pattern would be, “yep, just as the monomyth predicts.”

More to the point, how did he expect them to tell their life stories, “I was raised with a life of privilege AND I never had any serious challenges AND I succeeded.” The Hero’s Journey predicts that even a rich kid will point to his ADHD as a monumental life challenge in the making of a good story. And we’ll go with it, preferring to hear a good story.

But Gladwell, ever the storytelling opportunist, saw publishing gold in his not-so-novel observation, and now has to endure the skepticism that comes from the brilliant minds of people like Jon Stewart. Though he should be thankful he’s not Katherine Sebelius who got the roasting of a lifetime last week in her Daily Show interview. Yeeks!

One Response to “#310) Who Needs Malcolm Gladwell When You’ve Got Joseph Campbell?”

  1. #311) FREE App Friday and a followup on the Gladwell-Campbell bit | The Benshi Says:

    […] Erika Mudrak at Cornell tweeted me a GREAT story in relation to yesterday’s Gladwell-Campbell essay here. Malcolm Gladwell had said he was amazed at the tales of overcoming adversity he heard from so […]