Malcolm Gladwell has done it again in that he's written an interesting book about the human condition. To be fair, it's not really a book per se. It is a collection of previously published New Yorker articles. Since I don't read the New Yorker, they were new to me. If you're a regular follower, this will probably be a book of deja vu.
The book is split into three broad sections: 1. Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius 2. Theories, Predictions, and Diagnoses 3. Personality, Character, and Intelligence. Each section has several essays that generally discuss the themes, and they cover a lot of varied ground. Some of the essays, like the one of Ron Popeil (Ronco Food guy from TV) were quite interesting. Others, like the article on ketchup, where a little less interesting. It's not so much that some articles were better written than others, but that the subject material is so varied that you're bound to like certain topics/ideas more than others (there are other kinds of ketchup on the shelves, saw them today- spicy and mexican to name two, plus I kind of think of steak sauce, some salsas, and BBQ sauce as alternate forms of ketchup).
Overall, the book had less impact than some of his previous work (e.g., Tipping Point) where he took one idea and really developed it. Still, as light reading, this book is a good buy. The essays are self-contained, so it's pretty easy to pick it up, read for a while, then put it down again without worried about losing track of an argument or line of thought. The wide range of topics make it likely that most readers will enjoy at least some, but probably not all, of the essays. So if you like Gladwell's other books, and are looking for something similarly amusing, but a little lighter, than this is probably going to be a good (if not great) book for you.
One man's opinion, Malcolm Gladwell is at his best when writing essays for magazines (notably The New Yorker) or when writing Outliers: The Story of Success, his most recently published book. (I do not share others' enthusiasm for his earlier books, The Tipping Point and Blink.) In Outliers, he provides a rigorous and comprehensive examination of the breakthrough research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State. One of the major research projects focuses on individuals who have "attained their superior performance by instruction and extended practice: highly skilled performers in the arts, such as music, painting and writing, sports, such as swimming, running and golf and games, such as bridge and chess." Geoff Colvin (in Talent Is Overrated) and Daniel Coyle (in The Talent Code) also discuss the same research.
In this volume, we have 19 of Gladwell's essays, all of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. They are organized within three Parts: Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius (e.g. "The Pitchman: Ron Popeil and the Conquest of the American Kitchen"); Theories, Predictions, and Diagnoses (e.g. "Million-Dollar Murray: Why Problems Like Homelessness May Be Easier to Solve Than Manage"); and Personality, Character, and Intelligence (e.g. "Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy"). In the Preface, Gladwell observes, "Curiosity about the inner life of other people's day-to-day work is one of the most funfamental of human impulses, and that same impulse is what led to the writing you now hold in your hands."
The title of the book is also the title of one of the essays in which Gladwell provides a profile of "The Dog Whisperer," Cesar Millan, the owner of the Dog Psychology Center in South-Central Los Angeles whose television program is now featured on the National Geographic channel. Although a long-time dog owner, I did not know - until reading this article - that dogs are really interested in humans. Interested, observes anthropologist Brian Hare, "to the point of obsession. To a dog, you are a giant walking tennis ball." Apparently to an extent no other animal can, a dog can "read" humans like the proverbial open book. What they "see" determines how they will react. The key to Millan's effectiveness with dogs is his understanding of their need for exercise, discipline, and affection. What he calls an "epiphany" occurred when he realized that they have their own psychology. For him, he realized this, it was "the most important moment in his life, because it was the moment when he understood that to succeed in the world he could not be just a dog whisperer. He needed to be a people whisperer." According to Gladwell, "A dog cares, deeply, which way your body is leaning. Forward or backward? Forward can be seen as aggressive; backward - even a quarter of an inch - means nonthreatening. It means you've relinquished what ethologists call an intentional movement to proceed forward." Ethologist Patricia McConnell and the author of The Other End of the Leash adds, "I believe they pay a tremendous amount of attention to how relaxed our face is and how relaxed our facial muscles are, because that's a big cue for them with each other."
Gladwell seems to have an insatiable curiosity about individuals, situations, and locations that may be, at least unitially, of little interest to others...until he shares what he has learned about them. Ketchup, for example. It is essential to my enjoyment of burgers, meatloaf, and french fries and yet I assumed that all ketchup is the same. Not so! In "The Ketchup Conundrum," Gladwell explains that tomato ketchup "is a nineteenth-century creation - the union of the English tradition of fruit and vegetable sauces and the growing American infatuation with the tomato. But what we know today as ketchup emerged outof a debate that raged in the first years of the last century over benzoate, a preservative widely used in the late-nineteenth century condiments." When I first read this essay in 2004, I was tempted to stop at this point. A debate about benzoate? A condiment controversy? Who cares? It is to Gladwell's credit that he rewarded my continuing to read the article by providing some truly interesting information about a subject in which I had little (if any) prior interest.
The next article in the anthology, "Blowing Up: How Nassim Taleb Turned the Inevitability of Disaster Into an Investment Strategy,"an article first published in 2002. Over a period of many months, Gladwell spent a great deal of time with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, founder and CEO of a hedge fund, Empirica Capital. "Taleb likes to quote David Hume: `No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.'...[Taleb] has constructed a trading philosophy predicated entirely on the existence of black swans, on the possibilty of some random, unexpected event sweeping the markets. He never sells options, then. He only buys them. He's never the one who can lose a great deal of money if GM stock suddenly plunges. Nor does her ever bet on the market moving in one direction or anitger. That would require Traleb to assume that he understands the market, and he doesn't." Years later, he wrote a book he called The Black Swan and during the subsequent financial crisis of 2008-2009 "made a staggering amount of money for his fund."
In this article and in all of the others, Gladwell demonstrates the skills of a world-class cultural anthropologist as he seeks out information from a wide variety of sources, interviews authorities on the given subject, observes behavior of those involved in the given activities, and then explains to the extent possible - in layman's terms - what the meaning and significance of what he has learned. Each article is a gem. Together in one volume, they are a treasure.
I found most of the essays included in this latest collection of Gladwell's musings on the creative and inventive sides of human nature to be very informative and entertaining. Equal time is given to describing the unique lives of the modern inventor and designer and some of the fascinating aspects of their respective careers. There is an open invitation in this book to read about, mull over and respond to some of the great notions that have changed the modern consumer world. For me, Gladwell's description of the Ron Popeil story behind the introduction of the Showtime Rotisserie and his explanation as to the immutable balance of flavours in the mustard-ketchup rivalry are absolutely priceless. These are two vastly different lines of products that most of us have grown up with but don't truly understand the reason behind their enduring impact on our lives. Then there is the incredible story of how John Rock, the developer of the birth control pill, ran afoul with church teachings on contraception because he couldn't blend its natural applications with its spiritual implications. Other subjects in this book include how a money manager made a fortune riding the commodity markets through a major downturn and how several women transformed the cosmetic world through the introduction of hair dyes. In each of these short studies, Gladwell seems to be asking the big question as to how individuals arrive at knowing what it will take to be uniquely successful. Like in "Tipping Point" that critical mass or breakthrough comes in various shapes and sizes: while one may be a matter of randomness and sheer luck, another can be the result of ideal timing, natural genius or a combination thereof. Each of Gladwell's anecdotes underscores the point that eventual success comes to those who are willing to handle the immediate "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune", whether it be from dog bites, parental rejection, or financial failure, on their way to becoming successful. Most of the characters demonstratred the crucial element of presence or confidence that got them through the tough times as they grappled with their big ideas and the many challenges that went with them. When Gladwell dedicates a part of this work to looking at those seemingly monstrous problems that challenge the human race, he does offer us the hope that many are solvable by creatively working around and through them. I recommend this title to anyone who wants to be intellectually inspired by the lives of some very ordinary people who converted some very extraordinarily simple ideas into big fortunes.
This is a collection of essays about the ordinary. Why is is that supermarket contains numerous brands of mustard, in all different styles, while most of the ketchup sold is good old Heinz? Gladwell tells that story, as well as the story behind the Ronco Vego-0-Matic, and many others, in this collection of essays which were originally published as magazine articles. Gladwell's enthusiasm, intelligence and writing style make this book a pleasure to read. The short story format makes this a good book for the bathroom, or for an airplane, or to keep with you whenever you have some free time.