the culminative effect – sometimes ‘tipping points’ are not enough

In 2000, the election of George W Bush arrived in tandem with another momentous introduction to the 21st century American lexicon: the phrase “the tipping point.” Malcolm Gladwell’s little book – The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference – was published in 2000 and the title phrase took off as a cultural meme.

In Gladwell’s wee book, he notes that change in social systems (which he calls ‘social epidemics’) occurs vis-à-vis the nexus of three agents of change – what he terms “the law of the few”; “the stickiness factor”; and “the power of context”:

1. The Law of the Few: “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social skills.” Gladwell describes these people in the following ways: (1) Connectors are the people who “link us up with the world … people with a special gift for bringing the world together.” Gladwell cites the midnight ride of Paul Revere and the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” trivia game as examples of ‘connectors’. (2) Mavens are “information specialists”, or “people we rely upon to connect us with new information.” They accumulate knowledge, especially about the marketplace, and know how to share it with others. (3) Persuaders, who are essentially salespeople or charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills that influence others.

2. The Stickiness Factor: the specific content of a message that makes it memorable and have impact. Examples include the Nike “Just Do It” campaign, Philip Yancey’s use of “What’s So Amazing…” as the suffix to his numerous books, and Rick Warren’s phrase “Purpose Driven Life.”

3. The Power of Context: Human behavior is sensitive to and strongly influenced by its environment. As Gladwell says, “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.” He looks at the evangelist John Wesley as an example of being in the right place at the right time.

While I certainly take Gladwell’s thesis and see it is appeal, I think it ultimately strips away the possibility that other forces are also at work in the world, that not everything comes about simply because we have willed it into being or that following his three step model will get us from point A to point B. Life is more often than not framed by what I call “the cumulative effect.” The cumulative effect is the nexus point of human agency both individual and communal (past, present and future) coupled with divine providence whereby life happens not necessarily because of our effort, but because God and the communion of saints (Hebrews 11 and 12) have some skin in the game as well. This is a hard pill to swallow at times and makes the humanist project a bit more difficult to swallow if taken as an enlightenment project – the individual vs. the world mentality. However, life is rarely the culmination of just our labors be they good or ill. Sometimes… well… stuff happens.

I will track on this them later but would love some feedback on this – do you see or experience life more as a series of ‘tipping points’ or the result of the ‘cumulative effect’?

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