Sunday, January 13, 2013

Paper Backtime: Gladwell's Greatest Hits

In the early part of the 21st century, Malcom Gladwell has been a pioneer in teaching us how to get beneath the surface and re-examine what we think about a lot of things, but mostly about expertise and what makes someone or something great.

The Tipping Point examined the exhaustive connectivity and machinations that goes into explosive change. Blink showed how we all rely on our instincts, that have been built on a foundation of life experience. And Outliers deconstructs individual achievement and brilliance, and breaks it all down to the root cause: extremely hard work amid favorable circumstances.

I refer to Gladwell's Outliers and "10,000 hours" rule often. I can claim it as a TV producer and a parent, though situations continue to come up in both areas that I'm completely unprepared for. And despite certain levels of achievement in martial arts and Mario Kart, I am still in a Gladwellian sense, a novice.

What The Dog Saw is a compilation of Gladwell's essays over the years for The New Yorker, a follow up to his three other books, and no doubt re-released in book form to capitalize upon his previous literary successes.

Inside are a number of extrapolated deep thoughts. Here are some of the chapter titles:

The Ketchup Conundrum: Mustard Now Comes in Dozens of Varieties. Why has Ketchup Stayed the Same?

John Rock's Error: What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn't Know About Women's Health.

Blowup: Who Can Be Blamed for a Disaster like The Challenger Explosion? No One, and We'd Better Get Used to It.

Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity?

The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated?

The last two are the best examples of Gladwell's premise as a whole. Being smart or being precocious are not necessarily indicators of anything. It is the hard work, perseverance, and most importantly the ability to tinker with your approach that makes all the difference.

I don't know too much about Gladwell's resume, but I do know he became a staff writer for The New Yorker at 32 years old and published his first book, The Tipping Point, at 36. So he wasn't exactly an overnight sensation. He had to work on and fine-tune his craft for years, and then he needed the vehicle for the audience to receive his message.

He was able to look at things a different way and pull in his audience, often drawing parallels between two completely different subjects and find a common link. Like mammography and military infrared weapon location. Or plagiarism and music sampling. Or spotting terrorists and faking mental illness. Or pit bulls and the New York City crime rate. He's got a million of them.

My favorite chapter is The Art Of Failure: Why Some People Choke and Others Panic. This essay (no chapter is more than 29 pages) breaks down the difference between Jana Novotna's infamous Wimbledon meltdown to JFK Jr's piloting crash in the Atlantic.

"Choking" is the pressure of the moment causing you to seize up and forget your years of learned experience, while "panicking" is a result of poor judgment based on inexperience. Jana Novotna knew how to serve, yet double-faulted three times when the Wimbledon title was on her racket. Conversely, JFK Jr had no idea what to do on a foggy night when he lost his horizon in his small plane.

It's a perfect example of why we can't paint everything, even failure, with such a broad brush. All you have to do is dig a little deeper.

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