Friday, January 16, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell's Theories

When it comes to non-fiction I'm afraid that I'm often a very suspicious reader, questioning authors' pronouncements, refusing to take them at face value. I guess that's the reference librarian in me. Reading non-fiction is a lot of work! But there's something about Gladwell. He's a most interesting thinker and the kind of person you'd really like to meet and talk with at length. I first became familiar with him through his book The Tipping Point, which was of interest to me as a former real estate broker living in an area where property values became so falsely inflated that they had nowhere to go but down. I wondered when investors would realize that they were spending half a million bucks for a condo worth $200,000 max. Lucky sellers.

I then listened to Blink; The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and was fascinated with Gladwell's theory that gut feeling, coupled with knowledge of a specific subject, will lead a person to make what might appear to be a snap judgement but which, in fact, is a spot on determination. It's not often that non-fiction is so entertaining. I believe that the success of Blink has to do with the wonderful examples Gladwell chooses to elucidate his theory; the discovery of an enormous art fraud at the Getty museum or taste tests of Pepsi and Coke. While one can always take exception with some of the premises of this book, the psychology of body language and use of nuance to avoid conflict were immediately recognizable to me and have certainly played out in my life.

When I got my copy of Outliers; the Story of Success, I had piles of new fiction all over the house and worried that I couldn't get to it. I asked Don to begin the Gladwell and help me get a feel for it. He started with chapter 7 because it spoke to the ex-air traffic controller in him and by the time he'd explained it to me I had to put down my fiction and pick up Outliers. Gladwell does back up his theories with charts and studies that indicate that the Horatio Alger story, while a lovely fairytale, is likely just that. Successful people are also lucky people and sometimes their success is simply a matter of being at the right place at the right time and being willing to work damn hard. He profiles the life of Bill Gates to prove his point. Family planners take note, month of birth appears to be a big influence in a child's advancement in sports and education.

He may be accused of generalizing, but Gladwell does illustrate how country of origin/cultural upbringing can have long term social repercussions. Listening to cockpit transcripts between pilots, co-pilots and air traffic controlers during incidents of high stress (including some fatal crashes) Gladwell shows how a tendancy to nuance, over developed respect for authority and reticence to "rock the boat" contribute to disastrous breakdowns in communication. Korean Airlines once suffered from the highest percentage of crashes until it recognized the problem and made a concerted effort to train its people and turnaround its safety record. New York City air traffic controllers have the reputation for being the rudest most obnoxious in the business, but guess what? They also have the highest safety record. At least in aircraft safety it appears that it's a fine thing to say what you mean!

Back to fiction now. We have a long holiday weekend and when I'm not glued to the inaugural festivities I'll be reading Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, probably finishing just in time to chat with him at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival:

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