I’ve just completed reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book: a collection of his essays from The New Yorker, ‘What the Dog Saw’ and found it, in a phrase of my father’s, a most bracing ‘brain-scrub’: a hugely enjoyable challenge to lazy assumptions about how the world works and simultaneously a mental work-out in making sure that the author’s elegant prose and persuasive skills didn’t disguise lazy assumptions or spurious reasoning of his own. On the whole, they didn’t, and I recommend the book hugely.
Gladwell’s great skill is to find, in desperate stories and disciplines, coherent new ways of looking at problems that plague our world, and to communicate those with a penetrating, percussive simplicity that begins to suggest new solutions, or at least new approaches towards solutions.
In this, he shares a commonality with some of my other favourite popular social scientists (Steven Berlin Johnson, Steven D. Levitt): a consilient mind, a way of thinking and of writing which I very much aspire to.
As a kind of tribute to Gladwell, and to continue my mental work-out a little longer, here is, from memory, my listing of the best essays in the book and my fortune cookie sized summary of the epistemological learnings contained in each:
The Pitchman: Ron Popeil & the Conquest of the American Kitchen
- the wonders that happen when product development, market research and sales are perfectly integrated – in this case in one body.
Blowing up: How Nassim Taleg Turned the Inevitability of Disaster into an Investment Strategy
- Black Swans (it’s a profile with that book’s author, some years before he wrote the book). How planning for rare but ultimately inevitable and extraordinary events can be more useful than planning for frequent but ordinary ones.
John Rock’s Error: What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn’t know about Women’s Health
– how historical and social context shapes scientific innovation, as much as the underlying technological breakthroughs
Open Secrets: Enron, Intelligence and the Perils of Too Much Information
& Connecting the Dots – The Paradoxes of Intelligence Reform
- on the difference between puzzles and mysteries, and why more information doesn’t mean more certainty. Better Analysis of limited information can be more valuable. Information quality and analysis quality don’t always go together.
Late Bloomers: Why Do we Equate Genius with Precocity?
The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated?
on the myth of the overnight success, and the fact that most individual success is predicated on the support (and love) of a network, and intelligent organisational/social design. The core of the ideas that would become OUTLIERS.
I’ve omitted a bunch, either because the reasoning in them is suspect, or because the ideas aren’t big enough (though the stories themselves interesting and often beautifully written), but I hope this little sprinkling of fortune cookies will get you to go out and buy the book, it will make you rethink the way you, well, think.