Books : reviews

Malcolm Gladwell.
The Tipping Point.
Abacus. 2000

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 28 November 2001

A fashion craze erupts from nowhere. A low-level disease suddenly turns into an epidemic. Cleaning up graffiti produces a dramatic drop in crime rates. An obscure book abruptly turns into a best-seller. Why? How is it that little things can make such a big difference? And can we exploit this effect to make planned big differences with relatively little effort, to manipulate the Tipping Points?

Gladwell discusses a range of fascinating phenomena -- the 1995 Hush Puppies craze, cleaning up the New York subway, a San Diego breast cancer campaign, the designed successes of Sesame Street and Blue's Clues, the bestselling Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Gore-Tex's use of the rule of 150, and more. He also pulls in some interesting results about human psychology, and shows how very sensitive our reactions are to our environment. The experiment of the Good Samaritan seminarians in a hurry, and the test that suggests that the physical act of nodding can cause a state of agreement, are particularly intriguing.

He comes up with three factors that crucially affect whether something will take off, whether it passes the Tipping Point. The Law of the Few states that a few key individuals -- great communicators -- act as catalysts in passing the message along to very many others. The Stickiness Factor is crucial for success: a small change in the message can have a big effect on how well it "sticks" in people's minds. The Power of Context says that the environment in which we hear the message has a critical role, too.

Often the required tinkering with the message or context is not obvious. The careful design of the children's TV show Blue's Clues, with its initially counter-intuitive components such as repetition -- is a compelling example. This isn't some magical result pulled out of a hat -- lots of experimentation, monitoring and feedback are needed to get the details just right. But even when a company gets it right initially -- the marvelously successful Airwalk footwear campaign is an example -- these counter-intuitive requirements can make it easy to lose sight of the original successful approach.

Gladwell's argument is convincing. He finishes off with an exploration of the problem of teen smoking, why the current campaigns are not working, and suggests some Tipping Point techniques that might work better. Power-hungry politicians looking for big flashy programmes, and moral crusaders looking to stamp out entire behaviours, will not find much here to work with. But people satisfied with making a real difference on only a modest budget should come away with much food for thought, and some pragmatic advice on where to start.

Malcolm Gladwell.
Blink: the power of thinking without thinking.
Penguin. 2005

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 24 December 2008

This is about how we can jump to conclusions very quickly and accurately: how and why this works, when it goes dreadfully wrong, and how we can improve our ability to get it right.

Essentially, it's very useful for us to be able to make snap judgements in a rapidly changing and potentially dangerous world: we don't want to have to cogitate for hours about whether that movement is a tiger or not; we want to spot it and jump straight away. That same ability can be useful in other situations: spotting fake artwork, spotting people lying, selling cars, whatever. Gladwell goes through lots of examples of how and why this ability is a good thing, and how and when we should trust it. Because he also carefully explains why it doesn't always work: again, it's safer to jump out of the way of non-existent tigers than to be too blasé about real ones. So we rely on stereotypes; when those stereotypes don't mesh with reality, we can go badly wrong. But there is hope: we can learn to resist thoughtless behaviours based on incorrect stereotypes, and we can learn to tune our systems for better stereotypes. This learning takes effort: art experts effortlessly spot fakes, after decades of experience.

Although he refers to Gigerenzer's "fast and frugal" heuristics, he doesn't go into how they work in any depth. But this is nicely written, with lots of memorable examples, and gives a good insight into our subconscious cognitive powers. Not as deep as The Tipping Point, but certainly thought-provoking.

Malcolm Gladwell.
Outliers: the story of success.
Penguin. 2008

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 5 August 2009

In Outliers, Gladwell tackles the problem of geniuses and millionaires: how some people are fantastic successes, whilst the majority languish in mediocrity. He demonstrates compellingly that although talent plays a role, so does sheer hard work, the right environment and culture, and simply being in the right place at the right time.

He starts off by looking at top athletes, hockey players, and footballers, most of whom are born in the first quarter of the year. This isn't astrology, this is simply that the cutoff for the various leagues and teams is the start of the calendar year: if you are born on the 1st of January, you are in the same team as someone nearly a year younger born on 31st December. Since coaching starts young (5 or 6), this is a big difference: the older children in their year are bigger, stronger, more mature, simply by virtue of being older, so are picked for special coaching, so get even better, and so on. An initial advantage is multiplied enormously.

It's not just being born at the right point of the year: which year you were born also matters. Many of the computer millionaires were born within a few years of each other: at just the right time to latch onto the personal computer movement. Many successful Jewish lawyers were born around the same time, too: just the right time to latch onto the new market of corporate takeovers (being Jewish was also an advantage: they were discriminated against by the "white bread" firms, so were poised to take over the new market that the old firms initial found "ungentlemanly").

Hard work is also important. Gladwell shows that even the natural geniuses still put in at least the 10,000 hours of practice needed to become a master. Whether it is programming, composing music, performing, or practising law, 10,000 hours seems to the the magic number. And that's a lot of work. There are no "overnight successes".

Another important factor is culture. Gladwell weaves a compelling story linking paddy field rice cultivation ethos with ability at mathematics. We might have heard of the "Protestant Work Ethic", but that's nothing compared to the "Paddy Field Work Ethic" described here. It's backbreaking work, with enormously long hours. But Gladwell points out that, despite this, it is meaningful work: there is a clear relationship between effort and reward; the work is complex, requiring a range of skills, planning and intelligence; and there is a great degree of autonomy. People will put a lot of effort into meaningful work. And once there is a culture of effort, it spills over into other areas, such as studying. Mathematics is a subject that rewards effort, so those from a culture that expects effort can excel.

There are lots of other great examples here, about how culture, circumstance and timing affect opportunity. The message is that to succeed you require talent and hard work and the right circumstances and luck. It is a hopeful message; it isn't necessary to be naturally the best: enough talent will do, if you have the other components too. But also, it isn't sufficient to be naturally the best: without those other components, you won't have enough to succeed.

Lots of food for thought here, especially about education.

Malcolm Gladwell.
What the Dog Saw: and other adventures.
Penguin. 2009

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 2 May 2011

This is a collection of essays originally published in The New Yorker. They range over everything, including the mirroring of the rise of female equality in hair colour advertising slogans, dog whispering, the difference between puzzles and mysteries, the perfect tomato ketchup, the difference between panicking and choking, pit bull attacks, and a very thought-provoking piece on plagiarism and creativity. Some of the best pieces are the "but it's more complicated than that" style: showing how certain problems, decisions, accidents, disasters, and so on are in truth very complicated in our modern complex world; although the solution may look obvious in hindsight, before the event no-one could feasibly have known of the problem, it being hidden in a vast number of false positives and other obscuring data.

Lots of nice bite-size pieces, many of which I would be happy to see expanded into full book treatments. Indeed, a small amount of the material in one essay here is the subject matter of Blink.