kottke.org posts about Malcolm Gladwell
This conversation between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell about the current state of football and the NFL is quite good, even if you maybe don’t care about sports or aren’t currently watching football. Yes, it’s a sports bro and a nerd bro coming to terms with the fact that their favorite sport is a dumpster fire, but some of their points along the way are more widely applicable. Like Gladwell’s idea about second conversations:
There is now a second conversation about baseball — the Moneyball conversation — that is interesting even to people who don’t follow the first conversation, the one that takes place on the field. Same thing for basketball. There’s an obsessive first conversation about a beautiful game, and a great second conversation about how basketball has become a mixed-up culture of personality and celebrity. Boxing had a wonderful second conversation in its glory years: It was a metaphor of social mobility. Jack Dempsey, one of the most popular boxers of all time, dropped out of school before he even got to high school; Joe Louis’s family got chased out of Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan. That underlying narrative made what happened in the ring matter. When the second conversation about boxing became about people like Don King and the financial and physical exploitation of athletes, the sport became a circus.
So what’s the second conversation about football? It’s concussions. There’s the game on the field and then there’s a conversation off the field about why nobody wants their kids to play the game on the field. How does a sport survive in the long run when the second conversation contradicts the first?
And his assertion that the clarity and size of HD televisions have made the action on the screen too real:
In terms of how we watch football, high-definition television has clearly been a two-edged sword for the NFL, hasn’t it? It makes the drama of the game come alive, because we can now see the action in so much more detail. But it also means that when Luke Kuechly is writhing in pain on the ground, we can see every emotion on his face. That’s not a trivial matter. There’s a particular emotional expression that the psychologist Paul Ekman has labeled “Action Unit 1,” which is when your inner eyebrows rise up suddenly, like a drawbridge. It’s almost impossible to do that deliberately. (Try it sometime.) But virtually all human beings do Action Unit 1 involuntarily in the presence of emotional distress. Watch babies cry: Their inner eyebrows shoot up like they are on hydraulics. And when you see that expression appear on someone else’s face, that’s what triggers your own empathy.
The point is, in an age when this kind of intimate information about other people’s emotions is available to us when we’re watching TV in our living rooms, a game as violent and painful as football becomes really hard to watch. The first time I realized this was after a hit on Wes Welker in a Broncos playoff game, in the season when he had multiple concussions (2013). I had just bought a new big-screen TV, with an incredible picture, and when the camera zoomed in on Welker, I was so shaken that I had to turn off the game. I wonder how many other people did the same thing. So, yes, we really watch football differently now.
Interesting throughout, as they say. BTW, here’s Gladwell’s 2002 piece on Paul Ekman from the New Yorker.
Opened in 1956, Southdale Center in Edina, MN was the first fully enclosed shopping mall of its kind. Designed by Victor Gruen, it became the archetype of the typical American mall. Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece about Gruen is a great read.
Southdale Mall still exists. It is situated off I-494, south of downtown Minneapolis and west of the airport — a big concrete box in a sea of parking. The anchor tenants are now J.C. Penney and Marshall Field’s, and there is an Ann Taylor and a Sunglass Hut and a Foot Locker and just about every other chain store that you’ve ever seen in a mall. It does not seem like a historic building, which is precisely why it is one. Fifty years ago, Victor Gruen designed a fully enclosed, introverted, multitiered, double-anchor-tenant shopping complex with a garden court under a skylight — and today virtually every regional shopping center in America is a fully enclosed, introverted, multitiered, double-anchor-tenant complex with a garden court under a skylight. Victor Gruen didn’t design a building; he designed an archetype. For a decade, he gave speeches about it and wrote books and met with one developer after another and waved his hands in the air excitedly, and over the past half century that archetype has been reproduced so faithfully on so many thousands of occasions that today virtually every suburban American goes shopping or wanders around or hangs out in a Southdale facsimile at least once or twice a month. Victor Gruen may well have been the most influential architect of the twentieth century. He invented the mall.
Things were changing even as that piece was published in 2004. Sprawling shopping malls are closing and new construction has slowed dramatically. Commerce moved online and to big box stores. Southdale’s still kicking though!
Steven Brill has written a book about the making of the Affordable Care Act called America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System.
America’s Bitter Pill is Steven Brill’s much-anticipated, sweeping narrative of how the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was written, how it is being implemented, and, most important, how it is changing — and failing to change — the rampant abuses in the healthcare industry. Brill probed the depths of our nation’s healthcare crisis in his trailblazing Time magazine Special Report, which won the 2014 National Magazine Award for Public Interest. Now he broadens his lens and delves deeper, pulling no punches and taking no prisoners.
Malcolm Gladwell has a review in the New Yorker this week.
Brill’s intention is to point out how and why Obamacare fell short of true reform. It did heroic work in broadening coverage and redistributing wealth from the haves to the have-nots. But, Brill says, it didn’t really restrain costs. It left incentives fundamentally misaligned. We needed major surgery. What we got was a Band-Aid.
I haven’t read his book yet, but I agree with Brill on one thing: the ACA1 did not go nearly far enough. Healthcare and health insurance are still a huge pain in the ass and still too expensive. My issues with healthcare particular to my situation are:
- As someone who is self-employed, insurance for me and my family is absurdly expensive. After the ACA was enacted, my insurance cost went up and the level of coverage went down. I’ve thought seriously about quitting my site and getting an actual job just to get good and affordable healthcare coverage.
- Doctors aren’t required to take any particular health insurance. So when I switched plans, as I had to when the ACA was enacted, finding insurance that fit our family’s particular set of doctors (regular docs, pediatrician, pediatric specialist that one of the kids has been seeing for a couple of years, OB/GYN, etc.) was almost impossible. We basically had one plan choice (not even through the ACA marketplace…see next item) or we had to start from scratch with new doctors.
- Many doctors don’t take the ACA plans. My doctor doesn’t take any of them and my kids’ doc only took a couple. And they’re explicit in accepting, say, United Healthcare’s regular plan but not their ACA plan, which underneath the hood is the exact same plan that costs the same and has the same benefits. It’s madness.
- The entire process is designed to be confusing so that insurance companies (and hospitals probably too) can make more money. I am an educated adult whose job is to read things so they make enough sense to tell others about them. That’s what I spend 8+ hours a day doing. And it took me weeks to get up to speed on all the options and pitfalls and gotchas of health insurance…and I still don’t know a whole lot about it. It is the most un-user-friendly thing I have ever encountered.
The ACA did do some great things, like making everyone eligible for health insurance and getting rid of the preexisting conditions bullshit, and that is fantastic…the “heroic work” mentioned by Gladwell. But the American healthcare system is still an absolute shambling embarrassment when you compare it to other countries around the world, even those in so-called “developing” or “third world” countries. And our political system is just not up to developing a proper plan, so I guess we’ll all just limp along as we have been. Guh.
Huh, Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Here’s the synopsis:
Three thousand years ago on a battlefield in ancient Palestine, a shepherd boy felled a mighty warrior with nothing more than a stone and a sling, and ever since then the names of David and Goliath have stood for battles between underdogs and giants. David’s victory was improbable and miraculous. He shouldn’t have won.
Or should he have?
In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell challenges how we think about obstacles and disadvantages, offering a new interpretation of what it means to be discriminated against, or cope with a disability, or lose a parent, or attend a mediocre school, or suffer from any number of other apparent setbacks.
Tyler Cowen liked it:
Take the book’s central message to be “here’s how to think more deeply about what you are seeing.” To be sure, this is not a book for econometricians, but it so unambiguously improves the quality of the usual public debates, in addition to entertaining and inspiring and informing us, I am very happy to recommend it to anyone who might be tempted.
Christopher Chabris at the Wall Street Journal was not so kind:
One thing “David and Goliath” shows is that Mr. Gladwell has not changed his own strategy, despite serious criticism of his prior work. What he presents are mostly just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior, but what his publisher sells them as, and what his readers may incorrectly take them for, are lawful, causal rules that explain how the world really works. Mr. Gladwell should acknowledge when he is speculating or working with thin evidentiary soup. Yet far from abandoning his hand or even standing pat, Mr. Gladwell has doubled down. This will surely bring more success to a Goliath of nonfiction writing, but not to his readers.
I enjoy Gladwell’s writing and am able to take it with the proper portion of salt…I read (and write about) most pop science as science fiction: good for thinking about things in novel ways but not so great for basing your cancer treatment on. I skipped Outliers but maybe I should give this one a try?
Malcolm Gladwell on economist Albert Hirschman, who embraced the roles of adversity, anxiety, and failure in creativity and success.
“The Principle of the Hiding Hand,” one of Hirschman’s many memorable essays, drew on an account of the Troy-Greenfield “folly,” and then presented an even more elaborate series of paradoxes. Hirschman had studied the enormous Karnaphuli Paper Mills, in what was then East Pakistan. The mill was built to exploit the vast bamboo forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But not long after the mill came online the bamboo unexpectedly flowered and then died, a phenomenon now known to recur every fifty years or so. Dead bamboo was useless for pulping; it fell apart as it was floated down the river. Because of ignorance and bad planning, a new, multimillion-dollar industrial plant was suddenly without the raw material it needed to function.
But what impressed Hirschman was the response to the crisis. The mill’s operators quickly found ways to bring in bamboo from villages throughout East Pakistan, building a new supply chain using the country’s many waterways. They started a research program to find faster-growing species of bamboo to replace the dead forests, and planted an experimental tract. They found other kinds of lumber that worked just as well. The result was that the plant was blessed with a far more diversified base of raw materials than had ever been imagined. If bad planning hadn’t led to the crisis at the Karnaphuli plant, the mill’s operators would never have been forced to be creative. And the plant would not have been nearly as valuable as it became.
“We may be dealing here with a general principle of action,” Hirschman wrote, “Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.”
Gladwell’s piece is based on Jeremy Adelman’s recent biography of Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher.
UMass Dartmouth is reporting that “a person being sought in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing has been identified as a student registered at UMass Dartmouth”:
I don’t know that there’s any verified report that registered student is bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but I found a blog post from August 2011 that suggests that Tsarnaev was participating in the school’s summer reading program for incoming first-year students. The students were participating in a group discussion blog while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. The post in question was written by UMass Dartmouth English teacher Shelagh Smith on the concept of thin-slicing as it pertained to the case of the West Memphis Three. The post reads, in part:
I believe that thin slicing put them in jail. It helped an entire community make a rash decision and justify their actions in convicting three teens of murder. Once the town was able to identify the bogeyman, they could rest easy again.
But it all went horribly wrong. The real murderers were never found. These young men went into prison at 18 years old. Today, they walked out at 36 years old.
Being different - being unique - is a right we’re supposed to enjoy in this country. But what we can’t control is how people view us.
So what do we do about that? Is there anything we can do about it?
In response, a commenter listing his name as “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev” posted the following about a week and a half after the original posting:
In this case it would have been hard to protect or defend these young boys if the whole town exclaimed in happiness at the arrest. Also, to go against the authorities isn’t the easiest thing to do. Don’t get me wrong though, I am appalled at the situation but I think that the town was scared and desperate to blame someone. It’s because of stories like this and such occurrences that make a positive change in this world. I’m pretty sure there won’t be anymore similar tales like this. In any case, if they do, people won’t stand quiet, i hope.
Tsarnaev also made another comment in another thread on the blog a few minutes earlier in which he offered a critique of Gladwell’s book:
While I understand and agree with most of the concepts that Gladwell explained in his book, there are several ideas of his that I cannot fathom or just choose not to believe. Yes, this book was very interesting but the idea that a person can predict whether you and your partner are going to be together in the future is honestly a little hard to believe. Sure, if you put two obvious celebrities in a room talking about how they’re going to adopt six children, that’s just not going to work out. And the idea that a more experienced doctor is more likely to be sued is likely to happen because they would have way more patients and more time in the work force. “Thin-slicing” and other concepts made me want to keep reading.
Grantland’s Bill Simmons and the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell had one of their epic email conversations the other day and posted it to Grantland. Topics included the NBA playoffs, sports journalism, LeBron, fame in the internet era, sports philosophers, and football concussions.
Do we really need 25 people crammed in baseball locker rooms fighting for the same mundane quotes? What’s our game plan for the fact that — thanks to the Internet and 24-hour sports stations — a city like Boston suddenly has four times as many sports media members as it once had? Why are we covering teams the same way we covered them in 1981, just with more people and better equipment? If I could watch any Celtics game and press conference from my house (already possible), and there was a handpicked pool of reporters (maybe three per game, with the people changing every game) responsible for pooling pregame/postgame quotes and mailing them out immediately, could I write the same story (or pretty close)? If we reduced the locker room clutter, would players relax a little more? Would their quotes improve? Would they trust the media more? Why haven’t we experimented at all? Any “improvements” in our access have been forgettable. Seriously, what pearls of wisdom are we expecting from NBA coaches during those ridiculous in-game interviews, or from athletes sitting on a podium with dozens of media members firing monotone questions at them? It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet of forgettable quotes, like the $7.99 prime rib extravaganzas at a Vegas casino or something. There’s Russell Westbrook at the podium for $7.99! Feast away! We laugh every time Gregg Popovich curmudgeonly swats Craig Sager away with four-word answers, but really, he’s performing a public service. He’s one of the few people in sports who has the balls to say, “This couldn’t be a dumber relationship right now.”
Paul Sahre and Brian Rea designed a 3-book boxed set for Malcolm Gladwell’s “intellectual adventure stories”.
“During our initial meeting with Malcolm, he referred to the three books as ‘intellectual adventure stories,’” Sahre tells Co.Design. “Brian and I really responded to that, as it suggested a specific and interesting way to think about how the books could be designed. We wanted the books to feel like first editions of Moby-Dick or Treasure Island or The Wizard of Oz.”
The tasteful gray cloth binding and foil stamping of the set and its “extremely conventional” design, as Sahre puts it (“maybe ‘comfortable’ would be a better way to describe it,” he adds) makes me think of famous children’s literature collections, like The Chronicles of Narnia. “This ‘traditional/comfortable’ design allowed for the drawings Brian was doing to venture off into the abstract and unconventional place they ended up,” Sahre continues. “More importantly, the quiet design allowed the text and the drawings room to interact and to breathe. I hope the reader doesn’t notice the design of the book at all.”
The set is available on Amazon.
In a review of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Malcolm Gladwell says that Jobs was much more of a “tweaker” than an inventor…he took ideas from others and made them better.
Jobs’s sensibility was editorial, not inventive. His gift lay in taking what was in front of him-the tablet with stylus-and ruthlessly refining it. After looking at the first commercials for the iPad, he tracked down the copywriter, James Vincent, and told him, “Your commercials suck.”
“Well, what do you want?” Vincent shot back. “You’ve not been able to tell me what you want.”
“I don’t know,” Jobs said. “You have to bring me something new. Nothing you’ve shown me is even close.”
Vincent argued back and suddenly Jobs went ballistic. “He just started screaming at me,” Vincent recalled. Vincent could be volatile himself, and the volleys escalated.
When Vincent shouted, “You’ve got to tell me what you want,” Jobs shot back, “You’ve got to show me some stuff, and I’ll know it when I see it.”
Speaking of the New Yorker, there are three articles from the current issue you folks might be interested in (subscriber-only): Malcolm Gladwell on Apple borrowing ideas from Xerox Parc, John Seabrook on Pepsi’s mission to make their offerings healthier, and Anthony Lane visits Pixar to see how the magic is made.
…is called Grantland and will feature writing from Chuck Klosterman, Dave Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell, Katie Baker, Molly Lambert, and others.
The article about Dan McLaughlin’s quest to go from zero-to-PGA Tour through 10,000 hours of deliberate practice got linked around a bunch yesterday. Several people who pointed to it made a typical mistake. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the 10,000 hours theory in his book, he did not come up with it. It is not “Gladwell’s theory” and McLaughlin is not “testing Gladwell”. The 10,000 hours theory was developed and popularized by Dr. Anders Ericsson (here for instance) — who you may have heard of from this Freakonomics piece in the NY Times Magazine — before it became a pop culture tidbit by Gladwell’s inclusion of Ericsson’s work in Outliers.
Dan McLaughlin read about the 10,000 hour theory in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers — basically that it takes someone 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become really good at something — and decided to try it for himself. He plans to practice playing golf for six hours a day, six days a week, for six years in order to have a shot at making the PGA Tour. He’s already a year in.
Here’s how they have Dan trying to learn golf: He couldn’t putt from 3 feet until he was good enough at putting from 1 foot. He couldn’t putt from 5 feet until he was good enough putting from 3 feet. He’s working away from the hole. He didn’t get off the green for five months. A putter was the only club in his bag.
Everybody asks him what he shoots for a round. He has no idea. His next drive will be his first.
In his month in Florida, he worked as far as 50 yards away from the hole. He might — might — have a full set of clubs a year from now.
You can follow Dan’s progress at his Dan Plan site. (via @choire)
There are seven main features of a Malcolm Gladwell book.
5. Give things names and remember Douglas Adams’ rule of capital letters. Capital letters make things important. For example, in The Tipping Point, Gladwell conjures up the following important concepts: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context. In Outliers, there’s The Matthew Effect and The 10,000-Hour Rule.
And totally unrelated but related, here’s an awesome photo of a 14-year-old Gladwell running the 1500 meters. (thx, nick)
Malcolm Gladwell tells us about Operation Mincemeat, a caper undertaken by British intelligence to fool the Hitler and the Nazis into thinking the Allied invasion of mainland Europe would come from through Greece and not Sicily.
It did not take long for word of the downed officer to make its way to German intelligence agents in the region. Spain was a neutral country, but much of its military was pro-German, and the Nazis found an officer in the Spanish general staff who was willing to help. A thin metal rod was inserted into the envelope; the documents were then wound around it and slid out through a gap, without disturbing the envelope’s seals. What the officer discovered was astounding. Major Martin was a courier, carrying a personal letter from Lieutenant General Archibald Nye, the vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff, in London, to General Harold Alexander, the senior British officer under Eisenhower in Tunisia. Nye’s letter spelled out what Allied intentions were in southern Europe. American and British forces planned to cross the Mediterranean from their positions in North Africa, and launch an attack on German-held Greece and Sardinia. Hitler transferred a Panzer division from France to the Peloponnese, in Greece, and the German military command sent an urgent message to the head of its forces in the region: “The measures to be taken in Sardinia and the Peloponnese have priority over any others.”
New idea for a biweekly sports magazine: Simmons & Gladwell. Two writers, off the cuff, no polish…the whole magazine is one big long rambling smartypants messy conversation. Or maybe it’s an email list where subscribers are CC’d on their emails in real-time. Anyway, in the meantime here’s the third conversation between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell (mostly) about sports. Here’s Simmons on why the NBA is so good right now:
When you consider the influx of foreigners, the extended shelf lives of quality careers, the medicine/health strides, the positive impact of the rookie salary scale, the successful drug policy and the equally successful one-year waiting period for high schoolers, for the first time since the early ’90s, you can make a case that the NBA finally has enough talent to stock every one of its teams. Recently, I watched my Celtics almost lose to Memphis and found myself thinking, “Wait a second … is Memphis secretly good, or did my wife spike my drink?” And they’re 10-14. Really, there are only two hopeless teams right now: Minnesota and New Jersey. Every other team has enough talent to beat any other team on any given night.
And Christ, Gladwell has never seen Boogie Nights? Maybe he’s a hack after all.
Using Michael Vick as a pivot, Malcolm Gladwell compares professional football with dogfighting and asks if the former is just as morally unacceptable as the latter. This is former NFL offensive lineman Kyle Turley:
I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don’t remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you’d get into a collision where everything goes off. You’re dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field-fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions-boom, boom, boom-lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.
Perhaps this is what Gladwell will be talking about at the upcoming New Yorker Festival?
Update: From Stephen Fatsis, a list of improvements for the NFL players union to consider to protect the health of the players.
N.F.L. players often get excellent medical treatment, but the primary goal is to return them to the field as quickly as possible. Players are often complicit in playing down the extent of their injuries. Fearful of losing their jobs — there are no guaranteed contracts in the N.F.L. — they return to the huddle still hurt.
And from GQ comes a profile of Bennet Omalu, one of the few doctors investigating the fate of these NFL players.
Let’s say you run a multibillion-dollar football league. And let’s say the scientific community — starting with one young pathologist in Pittsburgh and growing into a chorus of neuroscientists across the country — comes to you and says concussions are making your players crazy, crazy enough to kill themselves, and here, in these slices of brain tissue, is the proof. Do you join these scientists and try to solve the problem, or do you use your power to discredit them?
Update: Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the NFL’s handling of head trauma in a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee today.
Goodell faced his harshest criticism from Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, who called for Congress to revoke the league’s antitrust exemption because of its failure to care adequately for injured former players. “I believe you are an $8 billion organization that has failed in your responsibility to the players,” Waters said. “We all know it’s a dangerous sport. Players are always going to get injured. The only question is, are you going to pay for it? I know that you dearly want to hold on to your profits. I think it’s the responsibility of Congress to look at your antitrust exemption and take it away.”
Update: The NFL will soon require players with head injuries to receive advice from independent neurologists.
What the Dog Saw is a collection of his writing from The New Yorker. Here’s an annotated table of contents with links to all the articles and the dates on which they originally appeared in the magazine:
The Pitchman - Ron Popeil and the conquest of the American kitchen. (Oct 30, 2000)
The Ketchup Conundrum - Mustard now comes in dozens of different varieties. Why has ketchup stayed the same? (Sept 6, 2004)
Blowing Up - How Nassim Taleb turned the inevitability of disaster into an investment strategy. (Apr 22, 2002)
True Colors - Hair dye and the hidden history of postwar America. (Mar 22, 1999)
John Rock’s Error - What the inventor of the birth control pill didn’t know about women’s health. (Mar 13, 2000)
What the Dog Saw - Cesar Millan and the movements of mastery. (May 22, 2006)
Open Secrets - Enron, intelligence and the perils of too much information. (Jan 8, 2007)
Million Dollar Murray - Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage. (Feb 13, 2006)
The Picture Problem - Mammography, air power, and the limits of looking. (Dec 13, 2004)
Something Borrowed - Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life? (Nov 22, 2004)
Connecting the Dots - The paradoxes of intelligence reform. (Mar 10, 2003)
The Art of Failure - Why some people choke and others panic. (August 21, 2000)
Blowup - Who can be blamed for a disaster like the Challenger explosion? No one, and we’d better get used to it. (Jan 22, 1996)
Most Likely to Succeed - How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job. (Dec 15, 2008)
Dangerous Minds - Criminal profiling made easy. (Nov 12, 2007)
The Talent Myth - Are smart people over-rated? (Jul 22, 2002)
Late Bloomers - Why do we equate genius with precocity? (Oct 20, 2008)
The New Boy Network - What do job interviews really tell us? (May 29, 2000)
Troublemakers - What pit bulls can teach us about crime. (Feb 6, 2006)
Some really great stuff in there. Even though it’s all available online for free, this is a sure airport bestseller for years to come. (thx, kyösti)
Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in this week’s New Yorker about the psychology of overconfidence is pretty much a transcript of the speech he gave at the New Yorker Summit a couple of months ago. Gladwell’s thesis is that the overconfidence of experts caused the current financial crisis.
“I’m good at that. I must be good at this, too,” we tell ourselves, forgetting that in wars and on Wall Street there is no such thing as absolute expertise, that every step taken toward mastery brings with it an increased risk of mastery’s curse.
I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on underdogs the other day. It’s one of the many subjects that he and Bill Simmons tackle in a three-part email conversation they had recently: part one, part two, part three. Simmons says of LeBron James:
Let’s wrap things up by tackling LeBron James. As the 2009 postseason rolls on, the King has become its most compelling story, not just because of his insane numbers, that Jordan-like hunger in his eyes, even the fact that he’s still on cruise control to some degree. (Note: I would compare him to Nigel Tufnel’s amp. He alternated between “9” and “10” in the regular season, and he’s been at 10 in the playoffs, but I can’t shake the feeling that he has an “11” in store for Kobe and the Finals. An extra decibel level, if you will. In my lifetime, Jordan could go to 11. So could Bird. Shaq and Kobe could get there together, but not apart. And really, that’s it. Even Magic could get to 10 3/4 but never quite 11. It’s a whole other ball game: You aren’t just beating teams, you’re destroying their will. You never know when you’ll see another 11. I’m just glad we’re here. End of tangent.)
I have a hunch that Kobe may not even make it to the finals. They’ve got to beat the pesky and superstarless Rockets first and those Nuggets are looking good, although the long layoff could affect their momentum. Gladwell shared one of his ideas for changing the NBA draft: let the best teams pick first.
I think the only way around the problem is to put every team in the lottery. Every team’s name gets put in a hat, and you get assigned your draft position by chance. Does that, theoretically, make it harder for weaker teams to improve their chances against stronger teams? I don’t think so. First of all, the principal engine of parity in the modern era is the salary cap, not the draft. And in any case, if the reverse-order draft is such a great leveler, then why are the same teams at the bottom of both the NFL and NBA year after year? The current system perpetuates the myth that access to top picks is the primary determinant of competitiveness in pro sports, and that’s simply not true. Success is a function of the quality of the organization.
Another more radical idea is that you do a full lottery only every second year, or three out of four years, and in the off year make draft position in order of finish. Best teams pick first. How fun would that be? Every meaningless end-of-season game now becomes instantly meaningful. If you were the Minnesota Timberwolves, you would realize that unless you did something really drastic — like hire some random sports writer as your GM, or bring in Pitino to design a special-press squad — you would never climb out of the cellar again. And in a year with a can’t-miss No. 1 pick, having the best record in the regular season becomes hugely important.
Simmons and Gladwell did this once before in 2006: part one, part two.
You’ve probably already seen this, but I just finished it so I’m posting: How David Beats Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. The main thesis is that through hard work and unconventional tactics, seemingly overmatched teams/people/armies can prevail against more powerful opponents.
It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability — legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms — because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coördination.
A post on Gladwell’s blog addresses some of the criticisms people had with the piece.
Freakonomists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner probably got the ball rolling back in 2006 with their article about how people get really good at something. Malcolm Gladwell threw his hat into the ring with Outliers and the 10,000-Hour Rule. More recently, David Brooks stepped up to the plate and delivered a review of two recent books on how genius is made, not born: Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated. I even stuck my oar in briefly; the deliberate practice concept fascinates me, tangentially related as it is to relaxed concentration. From Brooks’ article:
The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.
Athletes have long been ridiculed for the cliches they use when talking about how they won, particularly during post-game interviews. You know them by heart:
We just have to keep working hard.
It just comes down to staying focused.
We gave it 110% tonight.
We worked hard in practice all week.
We never gave up.
If the writers above (and the researchers their writings are based on) are correct, maybe the jocks have it right: it all comes down to preparation, working harder, and wanting it more than the other guy. Simple…except for that pesky 10,000 hours thing.
Is everything connected with everything else? Not everyone thinks so. But that not everyone doesn’t include Benjamin Cohen. In I Dream in Malcolm Gladwell, Cohen draws an unlikely parallel between marshmallow melting and the science of pediatric nutrition.
In an age when children are born nearly every day in America, and most of them to parents who have had intercourse sometime during the year prior, physicians have become troubled that once the children are born, they seem to lack the ability to feed themselves. The two researchers have been working for years on a study that may provide insight to the problem. Infants, their studies are showing, aren’t very smart. Like melting marshmallows, it appears that breastfeeding is an unusual process difficult to understand. In this case, W- and S- believe, that process may involve both breasts and milk.
It all sounds so obvious when he puts it that way.
This is more than a week old but I just finished reading it, so stick it. Malcolm Gladwell says that the problem of finding good teachers is the same sort of problem encountered by scouts attempting to find good NFL quarterbacks.
The problem with picking quarterbacks is that [college QB] Chase Daniel’s performance can’t be predicted. The job he’s being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won’t. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft — that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance — and how well he played in the pros.
A group of researchers — Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications — as much as they appear related to teaching prowess — turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.
The upshot is that NFL quarterbacking and teaching are both jobs that need to be performed in order to find out if a certain person is good at them or not. For more, check out a follow-up post on Gladwell’s blog.
The first line of Tyler Cowen’s review of Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book:
The book is getting snarky reviews but if it were by an unknown, rather than by the famous Malcolm Gladwell, many people would be saying how interesting it is.
Bing! I can identify with the fatigue one can get after reading too much of the same sort of thing from an author (even a favorite author), but dismissing a book because of who writes it rather than what’s written is small-minded and incurious.
Can an unlikely group succeed in a counterintuitive fashion? Can underprivileged outsiders have an advantage? As evidence, Gladwell cites the story of Sidney Weinberg, a high-school dropout who rose from the mailroom at Goldman Sachs to become a senior partner in the company and one of the most connected and powerful men on Wall Street.
This is the great mystery of Weinberg’s career, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Carnegie was on to something: there are times when being an outsider is precisely what makes you a good insider. It’s not difficult to imagine, for example, that the head of Continental Can liked the fact that Weinberg was from nothing, in the same way that New York City employers preferred country boys to city boys. That C.E.O. dwelled in a world with lots of people who went to Yale and then to Wall Street; he knew that some of them were good at what they did and some of them were just well connected, and separating the able from the incompetent wasn’t always easy. Weinberg made it out of Brooklyn; how could he not be good?
I read Gladwell for the anecdotes.
Now that he has a book coming out on the subject of genius and high achievement, the New Yorker finally lets Malcolm Gladwell write about David Galenson’s work on age and innovation. (A previous effort was Gladwell’s first article to be rejected by The New Yorker.) For an overview of Galenson’s work, check out my post from August.
The most interesting bit of Gladwell’s piece is his discussion of the economics of the two different types of artist. The conceptual artist’s talent is noticed and rewarded immediately. But conceptual innovators need more help to reach their full potential.
Sharie was Ben’s wife. But she was also-to borrow a term from long ago-his patron. That word has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.
Gladwell discusses the article in a podcast and will be answering reader questions about it later in the week.
This short NY Times profile of economist David Galenson reminded me that I never shared Old Masters and Young Geniuses with you. The book was recommended to me by Malcolm Gladwell — which means that many of you can now form your opinion of it without even reading it — through a talk that he gave a couple of years ago. Gladwell also wrote an article for the New Yorker about Galenson’s work but it was rejected:
When Mr. Gladwell submitted an article about Mr. Galenson’s ideas to The New Yorker, he suffered his first rejection from the magazine. “You buy this Galenson stuff?” Mr. Gladwell recalled his editor saying to him. “What are you, crazy?”
But never mind all that, Old Masters and Young Geniuses is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in the past few years. I haven’t studied enough art history to know if Galenson’s thesis is correct, but the book presents an interesting framework for thinking about innovation and how to best harness your own creativity.
The main idea is this. Instead of people being super creative when they’re young and getting less so with age (i.e. the conventional wisdom), Galenson says that artists fall into two general categories:
1) The conceptual innovators who peak creatively early in life. They have firm ideas about what they want to accomplish and then do so, with certainty. Pablo Picasso is the archetype here; others include T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Wells. Picasso said, “I don’t seek, I find.”
2) The experimental innovators who peak later in life. They create through the painstaking process of doing, making incremental improvements to their art until they’re capable of real masterpiece. Cezanne is Galenson’s main example of an experimental innovator; others include Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, and Jackson Pollock. Cezanne remarked, “I seek in painting.”
Galenson demonstrates these differences through analysis of how often artists’ works are reproduced in textbooks, auction prices, and museum shows. The pattern is clear, although the method is less than precise in some cases and Galenson has since backed off his thesis somewhat. But the compelling part of the book is what the artists themselves say about how they work. The text is littered with quotes from painters, poets, writers, sculptors, and movie directors about how they perceived their own work and the work of their peers and predecessors. Their thoughts provide ways for contemporary creators to think about how their creativity manifests itself.
The transcript of Gladwell’s talk is a good introduction to there ideas. Galenson’s next book, And Now for Something Completely Different, appears to be available online in its entirety in a preliminary form. Much more information is available on his web site.
Ben Fry analyzes the data from an intelligence test administered to all incoming NFL players and displays the results by position. Offensive players do better than defensive players on the test, although running backs score the lowest (wide receivers and cornerbacks also don’t do well). As Michael Lewis suggested in The Blind Side, offensive tackles are the smartest players on the field, followed by the centers and then the quarterbacks.
Malcolm Gladwell talked about the Wonderlic test at the New Yorker Conference and judged it a poor indicator of future performance.
Robert McCrum, the outgoing literary editor of The Observer, recently summed up the last decade in books in ten short chapters (with accompanying timeline).
People will argue about the decisive milestones (I have come up with my own 10, which I have set out in chapters), but there will be general agreement that, in Britain, a decade of change starts with the election of New Labour in 1997. That was also the year Random House launched its website, John Updike published a short story online and Vintage started a series of reading guides to encourage new book clubs. As well as new readers, the millennium saw the emergence of a new literary generation, writers born in the Sixties and Seventies, and few of them more fascinating than Zadie Smith…
McCrum also shares a tidbit about Malcolm Gladwell’s first book which I’d never heard before.
The Tipping Point was almost a flop. It was published to mixed reviews in the US, did no serious business in the UK and was saved by — yes — word of mouth. After a dismal launch, and as a desperate last resort, Gladwell persuaded his American publisher to sponsor a US-wide lecture tour. Only then did the book ‘tip’. Eventually, it would become a literary success of its time, turn its author into a pop cultural guru and spend seven years on the New York Times bestseller list. This was one of those pivotal moments that illustrates the story of this decade.
At the WH Smith shop at Heathrow last weekend, the paperback copy of The Tipping Point was still #5 on the business bestsellers list and nearly sold out.