📻 — Malcolm Gladwell 20 Years Later: Lessons on Leadership, Stickiness, and Building Community via The Tipping Point

Reading Time: ~ 12 min.

Good morning yeniverse!

I shared a quick vlog last week about my (re)reading of a classic and I realized that there’s an incredibly amount of wisdom and insight that is very applicable and useful for creators and community builders!

Consequently, I wanted to spend the weekend to capture those and share them with you, my friends! But, before we jump in… a quick decent reads to share with your community or to read over a hot cup of joe:

  1. The metaverse is coming via David Baszucki, founder of Roblox. I don’t think he gets this right, but, I’m not sure I would care to be right because I think that it’s inevitable. What I disagree is what it will actually “look” like — I think that it’ll look more like decentralized groups globally connected via tools like text, audio, and video first and then these would graduate to AR / VR and then full synthetics. But what do I know.
  2. One of my friends and a fellow yenizen shared some very kind words in his 2020 in-review post — he took yesterday’s course and…
  3. Do you love me? If not, Super Nintendo World. Yes.
  4. Whoa. This google sheet on Chrome Screen Recorders is dope. I love it when our community finds amazing stuff like this.
  5. First #yenED cohort… success!! We’re running our second next week as well as our first cohort of our “Identify, Build, and Profit” workshop.

Let’s make 2021 start off with a bang, shall we? Kick ass, take names, don’t bend the knee for anyone. It’s time to build the project, community, and/or business of your dreams.

If not this year… when? To infinity & community,

— john

When I first read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell I was a tender 18 years of age and was heading off to college later that fall — yes, it was originally published that long ago!

And although I’m sure I took a few nuggets of wisdom out of the read I honestly can’t remember much of the specifics; in fact, after having re-read it last week — in two gloriously-long moments during the holidays — I feel as if I had never read it!

I suppose that’s the beautiful thing about reading books that have a timeless appeal; every investment reveals even more value.

But, as you might imagine, I’m not even the same person as I was then; I’m weathered and worn, 20 years older at a tender-age of 38! In addition, I’m dragging 20+ years of an obsession of community data that now reads Gladwell’s work in an entirely different light.

I wanted to share some of these insights and perspectives that might be useful for community builders; especially in this day in age. Enjoy my personal notes and you can thank my dad for sending me his copy so that I could level-up once more:


The first “law” that Malcolm centers around is “The Law of the Few” which essentially describes a type of person that is a “connector”; someone who knows a lot of people:

It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.

Malcolm Gladwell

As I’ve gotten older I’ve seen this to be completely true as there are just a few folks that I know who have access to a crazy-amount of relationships.

They are “gatekeepers” (but not in a bad way) to an outsized-network usually a magnitude or greater than most folks; they aren’t stingy with their network either and they are oftentimes very generous.

One of the other neat realizations is that you can also develop this skill. Meaning, you can learn to be a Connector and thus become a super-networker which can unlock an unlimited amount of opportunity.

Community leaders, on the whole, naturally do this already but not all of them have built the systems they need to do it at-scale. I think these connectors, when Gladwell was writing, weren’t entirely the same thing as they are now. Technology has enabled this to the nth degree and it’s also allowed folks who may not have naturally been a Connector to become one.

I feel fortunate, for instance, to feel as if the internet has enabled this within me and how its become a core skill that I can weaponize for myself and for my projects, business(es), and community(ies).

To be sure, I’m not sure that I could have been as-effective of a “connector” (or even interested in being one) if it wasn’t for the internet.

Again, I know there are some people who do this naturally, but, I still believe very strongly that these skills can be taught and learned.

The Maven is a Natural Community Leader

One of the more fun sections of Gladwell’s book was his development and unpacking of the word Maven:

The word Maven comes from the Yiddish, and it means one who accumulates knowledge.

Malcolm Gladwell

The Maven is a natural community leader, especially on the internet, because their job is often to collect, manage, and curate data and information for their community members.

In fact, many of the playbooks include the process of capturing, saving, and curating data and information as a fundamental part of the community formation and building process.

I’ve captured a few that share this process here:

One of the things that makes a Maven a Maven is the fact that they can’t help themselves: They have to share what they know!

The critical thing about Mavens, though, is that they aren’t passive collectors of information. It isn’t just that they are obsessed with how to get the best deal on a can of coffee. What sets them apart is that once they figure out how to get that deal, they want to tell you about it too.

Malcolm Gladwell

It’s true and I didn’t consider myself a “Maven” when I first read this book but it describes me to a perfect-T!! I collect information in a number of different systems and I can’t help but share what I know about those things.

In fact, this newsletter is simply one way that I behave as a Maven! I am sharing all that I know (and see and observe and find) out there in the world of creators, startups, and community building!

And many of the best newsletters and blogs and even Twitter accounts are effectively Mavens in their own unique ways; capturing, educating, and sharing what they know with others.

The question, of course, is whether or not the Maven is profiting effectively from their work or if they haven’t quite figured that out. I believe that many amazing and gifted community builders — effectively digital Mavens — are not being adequately compensated for their outsized value that they bring to others and their employers.

Perhaps they should just work for themselves.

Taking a Community (and Education) Lesson from Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues

There was a few pages where Gladwell dove deep into the history of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues and uncovered some useful insights for building community, educational experiences, and even product (design).

Getting the attention of folks to join “another” community is hard, but, the best have three ingredients:

  1. They are purpose-built for experimentation and learning. This creates an intentionally safe place for people to try new things and test-drive new ideas, even and especially ones that are counter-culture or unpopular.
  2. They are purpose-built for collaborative production. Great communities build stuff together, period.
  3. They are purpose-built for member success. This is often tightly coupled with a real sense of urgency, driven by the members who want to succeed and who aren’t happy with the status-quo. Membership is highly-curated (and kept) by getting stuff done. No growth, no membership.

Part of discovering how you’re going to execute against this well for your own community is going through the customer discovery process (e.g. interviewing!) and interviewing your potential members and customers about their problems so you can devise solutions.

The other part is listening to not just what they want but also what they are ignoring as well. This is especially important in course design and education / information architecture in teaching.

Minimizing confusion is a healthy reminder because clarity is king.

At some point, you’re going to have to develop your own unique solution for your project, business, and community. You have to find a way to be “sticky”:

Stickiness has become particularly important in advertising in the 21st century, because there is so much advertising in general, and it’s hard for any single ad to stand out when there are hundreds of others. It thus becomes especially important to discover techniques for holding people’s attention.

One of the major pioneers of these attention-grabbing techniques was Sesame Street. The show was built around the idea that, by getting children’s attention, one could then educate them about reading, writing, and math.

Malcolm Gladwell

There’s a reason why I’ve intentionally crafted the identity of a yenizen in a way that centers around these ideas:

  1. We entertain others by being our authentic, genuine, and quirky selves; having “fun” is how we get work done!
  2. We educate and serve our friends by sharing what they know openly & freely (build in the open).
  3. We equip others with our resources and know-how; we don’t hoard knowledge and we build to help others succeed.

By combining these three valuable and naturally-sticky elements, it helps us grow and also find the “right” type of folks for our growing community. I won’t lie — I was very happy to read Gladwell’s study and know that I was very directionally-correct to his findings.

But, that’s probably more of luck than anything else.

But the next “iteration” of Sesame Street was Blue’s Clues which took everything that they had learned and optimized it all. The result? Even more stickiness and even more engagement and even more positive results:

Blue’s Clues was designed to entertain children by providing the humor and fantasy of Sesame Street, but with longer segments, a more obvious narrative, and fewer jokes intended for adults (which had been a staple of Sesame Street for a long time). The show revolves around solving riddles (the children on the show are given clues, which they must solve). 

Blue’s Clues borrowed the sticky techniques of Sesame Street: the producers used test audiences to measure the segments of the show that interested children most, and used strategies like keeping the educational content in the center of the screen. The show also used lots of repetition. While repetition is often thought of as boring and annoying, it’s an important feature of children’s shows, since children tend to enjoy repeating new information, “celebrating” what they’ve just learned.

One way that they did this practically was just naming things literally:

The TL;DR: of this section is as-follows:

If you paid careful attention to the structure and format of your material, you could dramatically enhance stickiness.

Malcolm Gladwell

What I have learned after 20+ years of product design, development, and community building is that the more you finesse and refine the way in which you deliver the content — not the content itself! — you can oftentimes “win” despite the fact that many others have the exact same content that you’re offering, selling, or aggregating.

Information architecture, and it’s close-cousin information design, are important considerations for serious and sophisticated community builders and educators. How you build the experience and the environments in-which you invite them into matters deeply to the success of your community and/or project, full-stop.

A fun example of this in action in Sesame Street was the “James Earl Jones Effect” and how the viewers were effectively “synchronizing” with Jones’ booming voice; sequencing, to be precise:

Again, successful creators and community builders in 2021 (and beyond) will have to care deeply about how they initiate their engagement with their audience and (future) community members / customers.

Becoming a Full Stack Founder is one way to get ready and get equipped:

Another example of this sequencing can be as simple as repetition — a quality reminder for community builders! You need to be constantly repeating your vision and mission and the reason “why” this project exists!

For kids and adults equally, the ability to exhibit and express (growing) mastery is key and results in a the sense of (growing) power. These are all positive emotional and psychological gains that are powerful motivators to be quality community members.

Blue’s Clues reminds us to test the hell out of experiments. Good community builders — especially full stack founders — love humans and data, just like a good yenizen should!

More sequencing and the importance of a quality onboarding experience and the ordering of data and information:

If every project builder, startup founder, creator, and community developer could “unlock” their own version of “stickiness” then we’d have a much better relationships and communities resulting in a much happier and healthier world. I believe it in my bones — that’s why I’m committed to helping 1,000 communities become profitable. It’s my personal goal of 2021.

A Few Practical Community Building Tips

Here are a few things that I highlighted or gave more serious thought in this second reading of Gladwell’s book. They don’t seem to fit anywhere specific or have a theme, but, they are useful to consider and think over.

Take a look:

The best community leaders that I know find a way to “synchronize” with their communities in a way that feels natural, organic, and empathetically-real. As Malcolm captures, this is similar to musicians and public speakers / communicators who find a way to “sync” with the audience in a way that makes the entire experience even better.

Give this some thought as to how you might be able to better sync with the folks that you lead; it doesn’t have to be anything dramatic. And, in a similar way, we do this from an emotional level and perspective:

The most effective communicators on the internet (and digital spaces / mediums) are ones that are expressive. This doesn’t necessarily mean just the facial features or reactions but making things memorable on the internet isn’t hard; just takes intentional thought and composition.

One thing that I intentionally do is have the color “orange” in my images or in my screenshots or even YouTube videos. This is intentional and part of my project’s brand colors / styles.

It is also my favorite color, especially #ff5100.

There is too much “information” and not enough contextualization that enables people to get shit done. I love the reminder for community builders, especially when building new projects, to keep everything as practical and personal as possible.

You will have a much better chance at building quality relationships with your members in this way, developing a powerful business and community moat. And, that’s always a good idea.

The idea of “infecting” people is a little bit weird coming off of 2020 and covid19 but I get the idea:

I wish I could grab each and everyone of my friends and yenizens and shake them silly and yell in their face (with love!) what Gladwell is sharing here with his readers: “What you are capable of changes.

This is the year, my friends, where you’re going to kick it in the ass. You are capable of changing in a dramatic way and building a project or community or business of your dreams. I really do believe that.

John Wesley’s work is a crazy-amazing reminder of the raw horsepower and leverage of “group power” — simple yet profound organizational workflows. I also think his idea of building-up “enthusiastic converts” and smaller societies or groups is how real community building happens at-scale.

It’s not about infecting a large amount of people at the same time; it’s about infecting a lot of small-yet-agile/mobile groups in a thoughtful way.

Great communities connect often and on a schedule. Strong:

Wesley realized that if you wanted to bring about a fundamental change in people’s belief and behavior, a change that would persist and serve as an example to others, you need to create a community around them, where those new beliefs could be practiced and expressed and nurtured.

Malcolm Gladwell

Social experiences, focused / topical conversations… all of these simple systems and mechanics work.

I like this idea of how effective communities have a bit of “peer pressure” built-in; it’s “knowing people well enough that what they think of you matters.

This idea of wanting to “live up to what is expected of them” is also a powerful reminder. Oftentimes I think that many folks lack not the wisdom, drive, or capacity for great things — it’s that they have no one to impress or no one to serve. That’s tragic and a waste of good talent, resources, and value. More so, the person isn’t living their best life.

Good communities have a “joint memory” of work done and time spent with one another. This is another reason why you want to use a technology and system that allows the saving of long-term data as a way of recording and archiving the community’s content and therefore existence.

Limitations (like Slack’s 10,000 message limit) is barbaric to community builder’s most fundamental needs — long-term data integrity and culture.

Find your specialists. Organize appropriately. Build systematically.

Like I said:

That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.

Malcolm Gladwell

2020 made this statement feel a fuckton different.

One more time for good measure folks:

The Stickiness Factor says that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes.

Malcolm Gladwell

Boom goes the dynamite.

Have a good ones folks.


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