Before Malcolm Gladwell took to the Convention Center stage last Saturday morning at the 35th annual National Association of Federal Credit Unions conference, the mostly middle-aged association members were treated to a barely warm breakfast of pancakes wrapped around Washington state apples. The membership did not seem particularly excited about hearing from The New Yorker's prolific and exceptionally original staff writer; this was not an audience of New Yorker subscribers.
Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, spoke mostly about "social power" as wielded by people he calls "connectors"—people like Kevin Bacon (remember that game?) who are the common denominator in a crowd. If you haven't read Gladwell's 1999 article "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg" go to www.gladwell.com and do so right now. Weisberg is a prominent socialite who, because she knows many people in many different fields, has a remarkable influence on society. She is almost directly responsible for the spread of innumerable ideas and trends.
Gladwell is not a connector because—unlike Weisberg—he knows only certain kinds of people: Manhattan journalists, Canadians he went to college with, and his family. He doesn't know any lawyers, for example. "Whenever I'm introduced to a lawyer at a party, I'm at a loss for words," he says. "Once I've talked about Ally McBeal or—my absolute favorite topic—billable hours, I'm done; I have nothing to say."
In a tangential way, Gladwell made his fascinating social power theory relevant to the work of largely unsocialized financial wonks whose daily job is convincing you and your brother to switch from having a bank account to being part of a credit union.
He was well awarded with applause but responded, "One time a woman stood up at a reading of mine and said, 'Mr. Gladwell, I really like your writing. Would you marry me?' So the bar's really quite high for me when it comes to audiences."
Mr. Gladwell, who, by the way, has amassed an extravagant Afro, finished his talk and returned to his seat at a table in the front row. Then the prodigious NAFCU chairman emerged and perambulated to the microphone, where he stood and breathed and spoke sentimentally about the close of the conference. Mr. Gladwell must have bolted as the chairman went on about "leaving the land of Starbucks, leaving the land of flannel and fish"—by the time one had a chance to stand up and make one's way to Gladwell's table, he was gone.
Speaking of prolific, exceptionally original, and gone: Local author and journalist Jack Olsen died last week. Read Michael Hood's laudatory profile of Olsen at www.seattleweekly.com/ features/0040/features-hood.shtml.