“Pull the goalie” — What preachers like me can learn from Malcolm Gladwell

“Pull the goalie” — What preachers like me can learn from Malcolm Gladwell

“Preaching,” said the late, great Haddon Robinson, “is like playing the violin: it’s easy to do badly.”

If you’ve tried it, you know.

I teach preaching to college students. Yet I am acutely aware that I am still a novice. Like many pastors, I often sit back in my seat after the message with that line from W.E. Sangster running through my head: “Next time, I shall preach!”

Even so, the fact is that we preachers can learn a lot from the communication habits of non-preachers, like Malcolm Gladwell in his fantastic podcast: Revisionist History .

One of my most popular blog posts (here) was on another episode of Gladwell’s podcast. But this piece is on his most recent episode, entitled: “Malcolm Gladwell’s 12 Rules for Life.”

Malcolm Gladwell; p: kris krüg


The title is misleading.  Because while Jordan Peterson offers a dozen rules for living, Gladwell has only one:

“Pull the goalie.”

Without spoiling the episode, Gladwell’s basic point is this: In order to make wise decisions when others won’t, you need at least two things:

  1. The willingness to follow data where it leads.
  2. The stubbornness to be profoundly disagreeable.

Most of us have neither.

Hence, like the majority of hockey coaches, we refuse to “pull the goalie” till the very last minute, when tradition and opinion dictate–and when it’s already too late.

You’ll have to listen to learn what Gladwell’s rule has to do with

  • hedge funds,
  • poker players,
  • home invasions, and
  • the life expectancy of NRA members.

I won’t ruin it.


My point is that preachers (like myself) could learn a lot from Gladwell’s podcast—and from this “puckish” episode particularly.

Here are seven lessons:

1. One point to rule them all

The first takeaway involves the elegance of a single, simple big idea.

Gladwell doesn’t give his hearers a list of points as I often do in sermons — because lists aren’t memorable (including this one).

Instead, he gives them one intriguing big idea: “pull the goalie.”

For as J.H Jowett argued:

No sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express [it] in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal.

While this doesn’t prohibit a good sermon from having points (I’m working on one now for Sunday), it does mean that those movements should come in service to a single, simple big idea.

2. Short but pregnant

“Pull the goalie” is just three words.

But the phrase is “pregnant” because it demands unpacking.  Its brevity gives birth to a variety of explanations and applications.

3. Enigmatic till explained

In fact, it needs unpacking because the phrase is enigmatic till explained.

Its meaning isn’t obvious (outside of hockey). In my experience, the best big ideas are often opaque at first blush.  They require elaboration, despite their “stickiness.”

“Unless you hate your father and mother…” would be case in point.

4. Counterintuitive, not counterfactual

In preaching, as in life, “boredom is a form of evil” (another Haddon Robinson quote).

Thus the value of a counterintuitive message is its ability to get people interested.  Getting someone to say “Huh…!?” means they’re listening.

“Blessed are the poor and persecuted…” does that.

But “interested” isn’t enough; the statement must also be true.

For Gladwell, the counterintuitive use of “pull the goalie” is supported by a mass of evidence from hedge funds to homicide statistics.

It’s “moneyball” for life.  And while the strangeness is designed to suck you in, the data is designed to convince you once the “Huh?” wears off. 

5. Applied specifically

While Gladwell’s research is often esoteric, he never fails to make it matter.

Hence “Pull the goalie” is applied to far more than hockey.  As he argues, it could be the difference between life and death.

(Pay attention if you own a handgun.)

6. Qualified appropriately

In some cases, the difference between a fascinating preacher and a “fired” one is the ability to say something provocative and then move to qualify it appropriately.

One must anticipate the objections of the audience and then answer them in the sermon, as opposed to waiting for a series of angry emails (or board meetings).

Jesus didn’t always do that.

But he was God.

And also, they killed him.

7.  Repeated

Unlike many of my mediocre sermons, there is no doubt about what Gladwell’s big idea is—because he repeats it with emphasis on more than one occasion.

“Pull the goalie.”

“Pull the goalie.”

“Pull the goalie.”

And by the end, it’s not some trivial bit of Canadian appropriation (though Gladwell is Canadian); it’s a rule for life–and preaching.


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Why I went back to school after finishing my PhD

After finally completing my PhD, I recently made the strange decision to do something that I thought I’d never do again–go back to “school.”

In January, I began auditing a college course in British Literature (Brit Lit. 2), with Dr. Sarah Petrovic. And I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

Actual picture of me in Brit.Lit. 2

When I told this to a fellow professor, he looked at me the way my dog does when I ask her if she’s seen my car keys.

“Huh?” [head cocked to the side]

And, to be honest, I get that. It’s unusual to take classes for no credit, and it’s even more unusual for a prof. to take an undergraduate course.

Still, the experience does allow me to make a couple points that are, I think, important.

Against Educational Prostitution

If education is viewed merely as something we must endure—perhaps with gritted teeth—in order to (one day) receive a paycheck, that’s closer to prostitution than a quest for wisdom.

It’s cheapened, no matter what the sticker price.

As Dennis Hayes argues, true learning need not be “for” anything:

If all the problems of economic and social life were solved and people did not even have to work, we would still seek knowledge. This is encapsulated in Socrates’ vision of eternal life as an endless series of conversations and debates with the greatest thinkers.

I would tweak this only slightly.

For Christians, seeking after the Beautiful, the True, and the Good is worship, whether through the mysteries of quantum mechanics, or the well worn sonnet psalms of Gerard Manley Hopkins (thanks Brit. Lit. 2!):

Glory be to God for dappled things –


All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

~Pied Beauty

As the Apostle Paul states: “all things are yours” (1 Cor. 3.21).

Which brings me to the next point:

For Lifelong Learning

There are lots of practical ways to be a lifelong learner. And these need not involve quitting your job to become a Portland barista with three masters’ degrees and a student loan debt greater than the GDP of Denmark.

Here are a few:

  1. Audit a Class

While my schedule permits this more easily than yours might, anyone can do it. Auditing a class—that is, attending the course, but not taking it for credit—costs next to nothing. You don’t have to worry about getting a good grade, and you get to learn from an expert  in a particular field. My advice would be to ask around about great teachers at a university near you, peruse the course catalogue, and then contact the registrar for info. It’s easy and inexpensive.

  1. Podcast like a Pro

I have a ten-minute drive to work each morning. That’s short. Yet even in brief spans like that (going home for lunch, back and forth from the gym), I can listen to a lot of podcasts. The key is to find the ones that stretch you. Some of my favorites are Radiolab and The Moth from NPR, Ask Science Mike for my deficient grasp of science, and preachers like Tim Keller and Matt Chandler. The podcast app on the iPhone (or Android) makes it easy. (Caveat: in a future post I’d like to talk about why I think it’s helpful to listen to and podcast people with whom you disagree. But not here.)

  1. Develop a Strategic Reading Plan

I could have simply bought the books for Brit. Lit. 2 and read them. But I wouldn’t have. I needed the accountability. A book club provides something similar. Still, if that’s not an option, then an strategic reading plan, incorporating different genres, is a great (though obvious) alternative. (Incidentally, if you’re a preacher, I highly recommend Cornelius Plantinga’s Reading for Preaching for some great insights on how to do this. While not all great readers are great preachers, all—and I mean all—great preachers are great readers.)

  1. Use Youtube (Selectively)

I have a friend with serious dyslexia, and this makes reading difficult. Still, he’s a lifelong learner, and he has found some ways around the difficulty. For him, Youtube resources like School of Life, TED talks, and the hilarious Crash Course series with John Green, offer alternatives to heavy reading. No, it’s not the same. And yes, there is a lot of nonsense in the Internet wasteland, but that’s true of bookstores and universities as well.


In the end, my own decision to “go back to school”—without the hefty price tag—has been time well spent.

It has given me no opportunity for a pay raise, no credits toward a further degree, and no fast track toward career advancement.

And that’s okay. Because while such things aren’t bad, I think John Dewey was right to say that:

Education … is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.


NB: If you do not think that educating for wisdom is a dire need within our culture, please read my prior post on the rise of Donald Trump.