Thursday, 12 February 2009

Malcolm Gladwell

Writing interesting non-fiction is hard to do. Malcolm Gladwell's three books have stuck to the top of bestseller lists because of his ability to tell fascinating, offbeat anecdotes, and to weave them artfully into a narrative thread.

If this entry looks too long to read, you can skip to the bottom for links to a video and a magazine article.

'The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference' looked at ideas whose time had come, how those ideas spread, who spread them, and what made them special. In a particularly interesting section, "The Law of the Few", he describes three personality types: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. Connectors maintain large, loose social networks; they "span many different worlds" through their contacts. Mavens deal with information: asking questions, ferreting out answers, volunteering weird solutions; "someone who wants to solve other people's problems, generally by solving his own." (You may know someone like this.) Salesmen deliver agreements through sheer force of charisma. All three of these types are instrumental in disseminating new ideas. Gladwell goes on to demonstrate how phenomenons like 'Sesame Street' have a "Stickiness Factor", and how context can heavily influence mass behaviour.

On his New Zealand tour promoting 'Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking', Gladwell raised a challenge before appearing on the screen: based upon his voice, his bona fides and his name, what might he look like?

- Obama's cousin, Sideshow Bob.

His point--that we front-load our experiences by comparing a situation with many past situations, very rapidly--is what he calls "thin-slicing". In the blink of an eye we draw on vast reserves of knowledge and react, or rather, judge, and he puts forward the theory that this gut reaction is remarkably accurate. In just a few seconds a person's initial response to a situation can be statistically similar to one made after the experience of months or years.
Of course, in his example the audience's thin-slicing was wrong, and showed the flip-side: prejudice and conservatism. (It falls to evolutionary psychologists to explain those characteristics.)

His latest, and my favourite, book is called 'Outliers: The Story of Success'. Here he unpacks the back stories of geniuses, sports stars, and other singular figures held up as icons of human achievement.
The classic tale of Bill Gates is of a college dropout who built a corporation from a garage business. Pleasing as this 1980's telling of the American Dream may be, Gladwell, reveals a more nuanced story.
Gates' father, an attorney, sent his son to one of the few high schools in America with a computer (this was the late 1960's), which Gates spent up to 15 hours a day programming. Having exhausted its capabilities, he was given access to a corporate mainframe in Seattle. After graduating with nearly perfect SAT scores and serving as a page in Congress, Gates continued to program at Harvard. Because the college did not have a programming degree, he took a leave of absence to start a business with a friend: they created BASIC for the Altair, which was then widely pirated, and later bought DOS and sold it to IBM.
Gladwell demonstrates two ideas: that high achievers had huge support from friends and relatives, and had more than 10,000 hours' experience in their field. Olympic athletes, nuclear physicists, The Beatles: all were carried for many years by people and institutions, and all logged the magic 10,000 hours.

Aside from his books, Gladwell has written extensively for the New Yorker and the American Spectator. The following New Yorker article is about a company trying to predict hit Hollywood movies, an industry where, as he quotes William Goldman, "Nobody knows anything."

I've been following Malcolm Gladwell since 'Blink' in 2005, and find that he pops up in odd places. His TED talk below features a profile on a pasta-sauce guru.

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