Malcolm Gladwell Books: A Semi-Complete Guide
Malcolm Gladwell is a best-selling author who is also a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine. His books are popularizations of academic behavioral science research geared towards (and perhaps bowdlerized for) the mass audience.
Gladwell has a unique ability to make mundane topics interesting. His knack for finding telling anecdotes makes his books fun to read as well as interesting. Though he may sometimes over-reach in seeking a broad cosmic significance for more narrow scientific research, his books are aways lively and make for thought-provoking reading.
Below is a summary of his works.
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
The Tipping Point was Gladwell's first book, and it's hard to overstate what a sensation it has made since it was first published. The Tipping Point is a study of how fads develop. Gladwell extends the idea of how medical epidemics develop to broader phenomena ranging from the success of Sesame Street to white flight from urban areas.
Gladwell sees fads not as examples of the irrationality of crowds, but rather as complex social interdynamics that reach critical mass for unknown reasons. One key driving force in the development of fads is the existence of people he calls "connectors". Connectors are highly networked people, who through their influence and wide range of acquaintances are able to push the adoption of trends at warp speed.
According to Gladwell, two of the other factors that lead to tipping points are "stickiness" and context. Stickiness is the quality that leads an idea or product to gain a particular hold over the popular imagination. Sesame Street, for instance, was a failure until the producers began to allow the puppets to interact with real humans.
The power of context suggests that external conditions have to be right for an idea or fad to take hold, much as soil conditions have to be right for a seed to germinate. Gladwell uses as an example the rapid decline of crime which took place in New York City after law enforcement agencies began to adopt the "Broken Windows" theory of crime prevention. Making small changes in the environment contributed to large changes in the overall crime rate.
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Blink is a study in how people are able to make rapid decisions based on incomplete information that often prove equally or more correct than more reflective decisions. Gladwell calls this "thin slicing", and suggests that it represents an evolutionary adaptation that has been refined over thousands of years of human development.
Because thin slicing is an unconscious process, it's utility can be limited. An inability to tap into the sources of their intuition leads people to out-think themselves in many situations. This unwillingness to follow unconscious urges can cloud the decision-making process.
Gladwell devotes a substantial part of the book to examples related to product marketing. He suggests that focus groups are poor representations of consumer sentiment because they remove participants from their typical decision-making environment and often ask them to make judgments that are beyond their expertise.
Blink also documents how pre-existing biases can cloud the decision-making process. He uses as an example the practice of "blind" auditions in music that have opened doors for women and minorities to gain positions in classical orchestras.
Overall, Blink is a fascinating book with loads of interesting anecdotes that support its thesis. By any standard, it's well worth your time.
Outliers: The Story of Success
Outliers is perhaps Macolm Gladwell's most controversial book because it seeks to question the typical American mythos about the roots of success. Americans like to believe that success is a product of hard work and talent, with a bit of luck thrown in for good measure. Gladwell suggests that luck plays a much larger part than we want to believe.
He sees opportunity and circumstances as the keys to unusual success. The book uses the anomaly surrounding Canadian hockey players as a jumping off point for its broader thesis. Studies have shown that hockey players born in January, February, and March have statistically a much greater chance of playing in the NHL than those born in later calender months. This is because their greater physical development gives them an edge over smaller, younger rivals.
In Outliers, Gladwell introduces the "10,000 Hour Rule", which posits that success in any endeavor is seldom achieved without at least 10,000 hours of practice and repetition. As an example, Bill Gates of Microsoft fame, had access to computer facilities that was highly unusual for its time. As a result, he had logged over 10,000 hours of programming experience by the time he entered Harvard, and was positioned to be one of the leaders of the nascent computer revolution of the late 70's and early 80's.
In general, Outliers is not as interesting as its predecessors. Perhaps this is because its intention is as much polemic as expository. Nevertheless, it's still though-provoking and well worth reading.
What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
Gladwell's newest book is What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures. It's a collection of the best of his essays for the New Yorker magazine. Most, if not all, of these essays can be found at Gladwell's own website, where he keeps an archive of all his New Yorker pieces dating back to 1996. This book is currently in pre-order, with release slated for October, 2009.
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