Commodity -vs- Community: The Acceptance & Art of Being ‘Disagreeable’

I recently stumbled upon a YouTube video of Malcom Gladwell speaking at a software conference.  I have been a fan of Malcolm Gladwell for a number of years now.  I have read every book he has written.  When I come across new Malcolm Gladwell material I gobble it up.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s presentation he tells a story of a man named Malcolm McLean, who could very easily be called the father of global shipping.  Malcolm McLean changed the way shipping of goods occurred by designing a system which revolutionized the shipping industry.  He did this through his sheer will to solve a problem he believed could be solved despite the public and professional scorn of people saying, “It can’t be done!”

Malcolm McLean
Malcolm McLean

The story of Malcolm McLean, in and of itself, is fascinating.  What captured my attention even more so than the story was Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation of the character traits of an entrepreneur.  He suggests that there are three common characteristics in someone that is a successful entrepreneur – they are imaginative (innovative and creative), conscientious (disciplined and focused) and ‘disagreeable’.  I understood the need for being imaginative and conscientious.  Those two character traits were self-explanatory to me.  It was the explanation of disagreeable, as a character trait, which fascinated me and offered some insight into who I am as a person.

Malcolm Gladwell explained that disagreeable is defined by psychologists as a character trait of some individuals who don’t seem to require the need for approval of their peers in order to act in accordance with what they believe is correct.  Most people are more inclined to seek approval and compromise their own personal convictions so as to not upset the balance between themselves and those around them.  The idea of whether someone is disagreeable has nothing to do with compromising morals or ethics.  This is about standing up to social pressures that may be telling you something CAN’T be done simply because it HASN’T been done to date.  Think of all the innovation that may not have been achieved if it weren’t for the resolve of key individuals throughout history exercising their personal trait of being disagreeable.

You must have the strength and the resolve and the courage to pursue that idea even when the rest of the world thinks you are insane.” (Malcom Gladwell)

As I listened to Malcom Gladwell speak it struck me that he was helping to define part of who I am.  I am ‘disagreeable’.  I have always been disagreeable.  Some would suggest that I may be too disagreeable at times.  Where I have been particularly disagreeable professionally is on the topic of community building.  Since my earliest days in the real estate business I consistently challenged the idea that what was being produced was inferior to what could be produced.  Before I really even knew what I was talking about I challenged what was being done.  As I have learned more I have found that my resolve has never changed or waivered – rather, my understanding of what the problems are with how our built environment is delivered has become more fine-tuned so that I now understand the problems much clearer, as well as where the solutions may inevitably come from in order to exact the necessary corrections.


Part of my hypothesis regarding the contrast between where we are and where we need to be headed revolves around the idea that the priorities surrounding our built environment are misaligned.  The general attitude seems to view our built environment as merely a commodity – an asset class meant to be bought and sold like corn, soy beans or peanuts.  In my opinion, having this attitude warps our perspective and makes it extremely difficult to recognize the true nature of how our built environment needs to be viewed.

Instead of viewing our built environment as a commodity it must be seen as the creation of community.  The reason being is that the habitat we create for ourselves has a lot to say about who we are as a society, not to mention the impact that it has on shaping us as people.  When the output is thought of as community building both the ground rules and the priorities for what we do and how we do it are realigned and put into a more proper order and perspective.


To me, thinking in this fashion would seem to be nothing more than common sense. Yet I seem to constantly be questioned professionally, as to my sanity, because this is how I see the world.  I see the business of real estate and development as more than just generating houses and hotels for placement on a Monopoly board.  I view a mindset such as this as irresponsible.  Every item that is constructed, as part of our built environment, has a role to play that is more than just something to be identified within a given asset class to later be packaged and sold.  What sort of contribution is being made towards the creation of community if that is the attitude to be taken?  A community yields something greater, in its whole, than the nature in the sum of its individual parts.  A commodity, on the other hand, is meant to be viewed as separate in order for it to be sold for its individual parts.  I, for one, do not believe that community should be compromised so that it can be processed as a commodity.

While my sanity may constantly be called into question because I think this way, I now better understand that there is both a term and definition for it.  If that means that I have to slip myself into a category with the likes of Malcolm McLean as I pursue a better path for yielding community I am perfectly fine with that.  Moving forward, go ahead and label me as ‘disagreeable’ when it comes to distinguishing between commodity and community!

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