Bite-Sized Gladwell: A Review

I like reading Malcolm Gladwell for the same reason I like reading G. K. Chesterton or a good mystery novel. He has a way of looking at reality in a counterintuitive way that sheds fresh light on particular issues and also helps readers to adopt an attitude of curiosity about their own surroundings.

617zHlRH92LWhat the Dog Saw is a collection of Gladwell’s articles from the New Yorker that were published in the ’90s and early 2000s. The movements of the articles generally follow a few standard beats:

  • Movement 1: Here is a well-known event or common phenomenon.
  • Movement 2: Most people think about this even or phenomenon in one way.
  • Movement 3: This event or phenomenon is actually very similar to this other event or phenomenon that superficially looks very different.
  • Movement 4: As a result, we shouldn’t look at the initial event or phenomenon in the usual way. We should look at it this other way instead, which gives us greater insight into what is going on.

While not all of Gladwell’s articles follow this formula slavishly, it does pop up with surprising regularity.

For example, take the article “Most Likely to Succeed,” about the process of hiring people when you don’t know who would be best for the job. Gladwell begins with “the quarterback problem,” which is that playing quarterback on a college level is more dissimilar to playing quarterback as a pro than other positions in football. There is nothing like being an NFL quarterback. As a result, it is hard to predict whether a good college quarterback will turn out to be a good pro. The quarterback problem is like the problem of predicting whether teachers will be successful once they get into the classroom: “No one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like” (319). It is also like the problem of trying to predict whether someone will succeed as a financial advisor. In the case of financial advisors this problem has been largely solved, however, not by raising standards but by lowering them: allowing more people into the field, and judging them after they have begun their jobs rather than before. For quarterbacks, this means trying out several on the pro level rather than just looking for the best college player and paying them a lot of money before they have taken a snap. For teachers (the real focus of the article), this means starting teachers in an apprenticeship system in which they are rigorously evaluated. It also means paying good teachers a lot more than mediocre ones.

As you can see, there is variation in the formula (here Gladwell compares three seemingly dissimilar things rather than just two), but it is largely there. Reading his articles doesn’t feel formulaic, though; he is telling stories to illustrate points, and stories are always interesting. The effectiveness of his writing stands or falls, though, on whether he is accurate in his choice of two (or more) seemingly dissimilar things to compare. Is this thing really like that other thing in the way Gladwell suggests? It all seems very plausible when you are reading him, and maybe he is right much of the time, but I do have my occasional doubts.

Regardless, I enjoy reading Gladwell because he is creative and almost paradoxical in his choice of things to compare, and it is exciting to follow along as he takes something that seems counterintuitive at first and makes it appear inevitable. The great benefit of reading him is that it helps me in my own life to stay curious and not take conventional wisdom for granted.

As a final note, I read part of this book and listened to part of it as an audiobook. The audio version is read by the author, and he does a great job. And did you know he has a podcast?

The Power of Weakness and Weakness of Power: A Review

Malcolm Gladwell has become famous for writing entertaining and story-driven works of pop sociology beginning with The Tipping Point. I heard last year that he had returned to faith while writing his latest book, David and Goliath, so I was curious to read it and see if it was any different from his earlier writing. He has always attempted to draw lessons from stories, and in that way even his earlier books had a kind of sermonic quality. Would that be more evident this time around?
The book comes in three parts. In the first, Gladwell argues that “the powerful and the strong are not always what they seem” (15). For example, Goliath was bigger and stronger than David, so he had all the advantages in hand-to-hand combat. But because David chose to fight him with artillery rather than at close range, David actually wasn’t as much of an underdog as we often think. In the second, he argues that “There are such things as ‘desirable’ difficulties'” (102). In other words, “advantages” are not always as advantageous as they seem, and “disadvantages” are not always as disadvantageous as they seem. The third part is about the limits of power and how the weak are more powerful than they seem, and so combines the lessons of the first two in a way. Each part is divided into chapters that tell the stories of individuals who illustrate these arguments. 
I found the last two chapters particularly interesting in light of Gladwell’s return to faith, since one is about how a Canadian Mennonite family responded to their daughter’s murder, and the other is about how two pastors led the residents of the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in sheltering Jews during World War II. This book is just as entertaining as his other writing, and I thought its themes were particularly well-developed. Perhaps I’m reading into it too much, but I thought there was more of an inspirational quality to this book that I hadn’t seen in his earlier writing.

The Facebook Activist

I am a Facebook Activist. I change the world with my posts.

I sit at my keyboard and share my important opinions on the issues of the day. In addition to dropping my own wisdom-filled thoughts, an essential part of my job is re-sharing the slogans/pictures/infographics of others, especially on hot political topics. I must remain vigilant; if I neglect my duty for even one moment, people are liable to think the wrong things.

Many people who disagree with me have changed their minds because of my activism. I have belittled them, called them names, caricatured their opinions, or refused to engage them directly, and they have immediately seen the error of their ways.

Even though my family and friends are the only ones who read my posts, I don’t write for them. I write for The Public.

That means if my family and friends are upset or alienated by what I say, I don’t care. My message must get out.

Because I am a Facebook Activist. I change the world with my posts.

(For further reading, see this Malcolm Gladwell piece from 2010).