Book Review

Malcolm GladWell Book Review: What the Dog Saw

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “What the Dog Saw” is different from his previous books.  Whereas he took a core idea and expanded it to book length in Outliers, The Tipping Point and Blink, in this book he collects a number of articles he had previously written for “The New Yorker”.

A number of times I’ve complained to Mike about how under-utilized most blog’s archives are.  When someone finds a blog they like, it seems quite rare that they dig through the archives (instead they just start  reading the most recent posts, often missing some of the best stuff there).  My feeling was along these lines after reading this book:  Gladwell has published a lot of great stuff in The New Yorker and I should really dig through it more than I have (I’d only read two of his articles before this book).

The articles themselves covers a wide range of topics, such as ketchup (and how it delivers all five of the known fundamental tastes of the human palate), dogs (and how they’ve evolved to find humans VERY interesting), hair dye (and it’s connection to the evolving women’s rights movement), problems with interviews (and how this is seen in recruiting football quarterbacks), and how to deal with homelessness (in a way that will annoy everyone across the political spectrum).

At one point in the introduction, Gladwell discusses how annoyed he gets when someone talks to him about one of his articles and says “I don’t buy it”.  He writes that his intention isn’t to give the definitive last word, but to excite people about how interesting things like ketchup and hair dye are and get them thinking about some of the ideas that surround us every day.  This is exactly what I like about his books (and why I’m glad there there’s a number of authors imitating him):  the world can use more of this style.

Joel Spolsky writes some excellent posts on “Joel on Software“.  He is a former Microsoft programmer who created a company that is set up as “the type of place he would want to work”.  He treats his programmers very well, and has built a good company based on this idea.  One chapter in this book dealt with this idea (which I’ve always thought was a good one):  a company that gives its top talent a large degree of latitude.  At the company Gladwell discussed they would identify the “stars”, then give them resources for projects, let them work on things they found interesting, and pay them generous wages to keep them.  The CEO talked in one article about an employee who had, at 29, as a gas trader at the company set up an on-line trading division.  She worked in her spare time, and 6 months later, when the CEO first heard about the project, she had 250 people working for her, servers purchased and was ripping apart some of their buildings.  The CEO responded that this was “exactly the kind of behavior that will continue to drive this company forward”.  I would be tempted to agree that this is an exciting, dynamic way to create a pretty innovative company.  That company’s name, by the way, was Enron.  In another article he presents a pretty convincing case that at Enron the complexity got away from them, rather than it being deliberate fraud.

I think there’s certain information in this book that will be of interest to anyone who likes to read about personal finance topics.  Gladwell is always good at presenting a new perspective on issues (especially on irrational beliefs and behaviours), which I think is vital for investing.  His ideas about how we interact with each other and use products should be useful for anyone interested in human interactions or business.  One chapter, Blowing Up, deals specifically with two traders and their differing approaches to investing (one who tries to outsmart the market, and one who bets that the market will outsmart traders – guess who wins?).

There’s an introduction and SOME chapter have a short update at the end (if something big has changed since the article was written), but for the most part the book is a collection of his articles, so frugal fans could probably just read through his The New Yorker archive.

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Book Review

Book Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

I first heard about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers: The Story of Success” about a month ago and was delighted that he was putting out a new book. I was wildly enthusiastic about “Blink” and “The Tipping Point” and after reading an extract online I couldn’t wait. By a happy coincidence, a friend gave me an early Christmas gift, and it was Outliers!

In “Blink” Gladwell looked at very fast cognition (things your brain processes in the blink of an eye). In “The Tipping Point” he looked at what led to ideas propagating and spreading through society (why some take off and why some die). In this book he looks at incredibly successful people (they’re the outliers) and argues that there’s more behind their success than the myth society tells us about them (that they’re naturally brilliant & gifted).

As with all of Gladwell’s work, he’s a delight to read. He takes an interesting idea, chews away at it, and presents his thoughts, building a surprising, yet plausible, model around them. In “Freakanomics” they debunked one of the big ideas he argued for in “The Tipping Point”, so that’s the one danger of Gladwell’s work: he’s very persuasive, even when he’s wrong.

The idea behind this work is that people who are great at something (we’re talking world class talent) are great primarily because of the time they’ve invested, rather than an inherent ability. A certain threshold of “raw ability” is necessary (which is lower than you’d think), but beyond that it’s often luck whether they managed to accumulate the time required to become world-class. The time investment, he argues, that’s needed is 10,000 hours, and its often circumstance that determines whether someone who has the interest to invest that amount of time is also given the opportunity.

He gives examples supporting this from violinists at an elite Berlin music academy, Canadian hockey players, high-tech entrepreneurs, and the Beatles (apparently they’re some minstrels from England achieved a bit of fame a long time ago).

Following up on the lucky circumstances, he also builds the case that even a small lucky break early on compounds as someone who has shown an “early aptitude” is given more opportunities, which leads to an increase in aptitude, in a reinforcing cycle until they accumulate the hours to become good or extraordinary at something. He argues that the reason Chinese people are often good at math is because Mandarin has a cleaner, more regular syntax for naming numbers. This gives young Chinese students a leg up when they first start learning math, and they’re able to build on this lead (and have a positive first experience with the subject).

He presents counter examples of Lewis Terman’s study of high IQ students (they tracked the top 1% of the top 1%) in California, who didn’t really amount to much as a group (and even within the group, socio-economic status was a better indicator of success than their IQ). Terman’s study rejected two boys as not smart enough to participate who went on to win Nobel prizes.

The take-aways from the book were that if you want to be really good at something, you’ve got to put in the time (along with meeting SOME requirements, you’ll never play in the NBA if you 5’3). You’re fooling yourself if you think you’ll just naturally be world class at something. The trick is to keep practising, and the people who will excel are those who find the motivation to keep at it. If you want to excel in your profession, put in the time at the activities that are important to it. If you want to learn a new skill, put in the hours of study and practising. There’s no royal road to excellence.

I highly recommend putting this book on your Christmas (or Hanukkah, or winter’s solstice) list. Its a fun, fast read.

I kept wondering if he’d mention an age limit, but he didn’t, so maybe it’s still possible for me to get cracking on my 10,000 hours and win a gold metal in Olympic gymnastics!