Monday, October 15, 2012

What the Dog Saw And Other Adventures

by Malcolm Gladwell

A collection of Gladwell’s articles from “The New Yorker” – musings on what makes people tick, why some ideas fail, and how well we can predict a person’s success in a particular field, profiles of leaders, “obsessives,” and quirky geniuses.  As with all of Gladwell’s books, he turns every story into a human-interest story, every idea into a lesson about what humans believe in their innermost souls.  So the tireless Ron Popeil (of Ronco fame) and Cesar Milan and the female copy writers behind hair dye ad campaigns have in common not just “obsessiveness” and passion, but also a knowledge about what makes the world tick that makes their success seem inevitable.  He investigates the unusual approach to the stock market of Nassim Taleb (of Black Swan fame, although the profile predates that best-seller), the Enron collapse, the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster, not by rehashing old stories but by looking at them through the eyes of his subjects.

This is the main point shared by the various stories: can we learn from those who see things differently?  What is Cesar Milan thinking when he trains a dog?  (He seems to be thinking you’re not a very intelligent person if you fawn over a dog after it misbehaves.)  More to the point, what is the dog thinking?  (Here is someone who will tell me what to do, at last.)  What were the Enron executives thinking?  (As it turns out, they were victims of what Carol Dweck called the “fixed” mindset in her very good book Mindset).   Why don’t we manage hopeless cases of alcoholism and homelessness better, by setting them up to succeed rather than picking them up and hospitalizing them every time they fall?  (Because we don’t find the idea fair, although it would be cheaper.)  Not everything in the book is pure genius.  The section on what it takes to be a good teacher, while well-intentioned, is so ignorant of the subject (he swallows what the “experts” tell him without question) that I wondered what else he might have missed that I don’t know enough about to catch.  But even when Gladwell’s conclusions are a bit off, the book still beguiles.  Gladwell’s moody, affable, warm prose is a huge help, but his real skill is in social psychology, of making even the most discussed events (such as Enron and Challenger) fresh by looking at them as a human story: not populated by villains and victims but by flawed people who fall into patterns and make mistakes and start getting lax about the future because things have worked out in the past.  By turning dry news stories into compelling tales of everyday life that can teach us about what we like and don’t like (why doesn’t ketchup come in varieties?), Gladwell makes us think about cause and effect, and may just make us think about why we do the things we do.

four stars

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