Malcolm Gladwell’s Gift to Detroit: A Language for Success!

The Power of Language

Two nights ago, my ten year-old son, Mark, was getting very upset over simple things. After the second meltdown, I knew something was up.

Me: “Sit down. Tell me what’s really going on?”

Mark: “I spilled my drink!”

Me: “I know that’s upsetting. But you’re having a ‘ten-mile reaction’ to a ‘two-inch problem.’ There’s something else… are you upset about something with your friends?”

Mark: “No.”

Me: “How about school… are you worried about going to a new school in the fall?”

Mark: “No.”

Me: “Does this have anything to do with Kevin?”

Mark: (Shrugs his shoulders) “I dunno.” But suddenly, the tears began to flow. Clearly, I found the real problem. Through heaves of tears, he continued, “I didn’t think about that until you just said it.”

Kevin is our 21 year-old cousin who lived with us for 18 months; he just moved out three weeks ago and Mark is devastated. He misses his “big brother” terribly! The grief catches him when he least expects it. The triggers are never apparent on the surface. But, there’s almost always a connection.

Mark fell across my lap, crying heavily into my shoulder. “Kevin always made me feel better on bad days,” Mark explained in between tears. After ten minutes, the tears tapered off. He mustered some energy to get up and go play. The rest of the evening was peaceful. No more meltdowns.

All Mark needed was the language to identify the real problem. This allowed him to manage his emotions in a productive way, to let go of some grief through tears. Otherwise, he would continue to battle a constant state of friction between his emotions and the rest of the world.

The only difference between his “before” and “after” that night…was a handful of carefully identified words.

malcolm gladwell

As soon as Malcolm Gladwell gave us the language for reform, he was instantly –and constantly—quoted! His words have laid a path for unprecedented reform within the City of Detroit. The same path can guide the state of education to brighter days, too! (Photo courtesy of

Detroit Has Been ‘Crying’ for Years!

Two weeks ago, I attended the Mackinac Policy Conference (MPC), one of the largest in the country. It is hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and supports state-wide concerns.

This year, the focus was on positioning Detroit and Michigan as national leaders in entrepreneurship and education reform. (Exactly why I was there!)

I was born and raised in Detroit; the city has never had a good reputation in my lifetime. I’m used to the uneasy reactions and misguided questions when I tell out-of-staters I’m from Detroit.

But last year, after Detroit officially declared bankruptcy, those reactions became visceral! Two weeks after the news broke, I was attending a conference on the east coast. Nearly a dozen people –independent of each other—had a similar reaction when I answered the standard question, “Where are you from?”

“Detroit,” I would answer.

Every time, the other person stepped back and looked me up-and-down in disgust… as if *I* was the one responsible for the miserable state of affairs in Detroit.

I went back to my hotel that night feeling a bit lonely and a lot ticked off! “Tomorrow, I’ll just say I’m from ‘southeast Michigan,’” I thought. But, I immediately cut myself off. “No, dammit! I’m from DETROIT!”

So, the next day, I had a new answer…

“I’m from the Good Side of Detroit!” I’d pause for a moment while they let that paradox sink in. Then, I added, “It’s an attitude, not a geographic location.” This response prompted much better conversations!

Detroit had been stuck in serious “problems” since before I was born. I obviously couldn’t hide that. But, it was a very small minority of people who caused the corruption and encouraged the proliferation of crime.

There is still a healthy spirit full of warm, hospitable, innovative, and entrepreneurial people in the Detroit-area. We have grit! And we want the rest of the world to know it!

It’s A New Day for Detroit.

At the Mackinac Policy Conference, I was blown away by the optimism for the City of Detroit. I felt it in my bones! Literally. The bankruptcy, while a very fragile situation, is opening the door for the city to reinvent itself.

Barriers are falling in ways I never dreamed possible. Deep, sensitive, racial and political wounds are beginning to heal as people unite over the hope we have for our fallen city. That’s not just my opinion. The proof is in the stats; the number of homes being renovated and sold, the increasing value of property, the number of parks that have been cleaned up and are ready for summer, the rapidly reducing emergency response time, the initiative to create 5000 summer internships for the city’s youth next summer…

All of this progress happened in just four months before the conference. (Due in large part to the leadership of Mayor Mike Duggan, facilitated by the emergency City Manager, Kevin Orr.) I predict that the next several months will see continued progress… at an unprecedented rate!


Because Detroit now has “the words” for the solution. These words were a gift from a guest speaker, the New York Times best-selling author, Malcolm Gladwell. Within an hour of his presentation, I heard him quoted or referenced in four separate conversations. Every speaker who took the stage following Gladwell made reference to at least one of his “special words.” Even the Official Action Plan of the 2014 Mackinac Policy Conference references the new language Gladwell gave to the City of Detroit.

A Language of Success

Gladwell laid out the three things Detroit must do to overcome the odds:

1. Be “disagreeable.”

We’ve all heard the saying, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got.” With a city in ruins, it will be the Disagreeables that lead the way out. They are the people who ask the bold questions. They challenge the status quo. They don’t care what others think. In fact, they have to go directly against what others think. As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, ‘A faster horse.’”The same is true for the state of education. The solution for reforming education doesn’t have to be complex. In fact, it’s been proven for more than 100 years. It’s hiding in plain sight. It will take a Disagreeable to cut through the noise and bring it to the light of day.

2. Reframe the question.

As Gladwell suggested, let’s stop focusing on the problems. Instead, let’s reframe Detroit as a land of opportunity. The reframed question is, “How can we build on these opportunities?”

Angela Duckworth, PhD, has attracted a lot of attention for her detailed research on the personality characteristics that predict a person’s success. Her conclusion? There is only one…grit! Several speakers at the MPC described the City of Detroit as having a personality “full of grit!” Detroit has been poised and ready for a reframe. The moment we had the “word” for it, the reframe began to unfold before our eyes.

In education, the question has been, “How do we raise test scores?” The only thinkgthat question has accomplished is… lower test scores. Let’s reframe the question; “How do we get students engaged in education?” (Answer: With relevance.) So, then, the real question is, “How do we make education relevant?”

Like Detroit, the education system is full of gritty teachers who are ready for a reframe. All they need is “the word.” Well, here it is… who’s in?

3. Act with urgency.

In Detroit, every day that passes is another day that a life could be lost due to crime or slow response from EMS. The current leaders of Detroit clearly understand this, which is why they’ve accomplished so much in just four months! Urgency creates energy. Energy inspires collaboration. Collaboration makes change happen.In education, every day that passes is another day that students “check out,” losing touch with their inner spirit forever. When this happens, students face dead-ends, often turning to drugs or crime. However, when gritty teachers, administrators, parents, community leaders, and employers act with urgency, they can manufacture the energy for collaboration. Change is within our grasp!

Just as it did for my son, language has the power to shrink problems from a fuzzy cloud of fog surrounding us, to something clear and manageable. Likewise, language has the power to outline solutions and unite people to achieve them!

The City of Detroit has known its problems for a long time. Now, we know exactly how to solve them!

The state of education can follow right along in Detroit’s footsteps.

Susan Kruger Signature





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