Malcolm Gladwell is one of the few authors in the business literature domain who has truly mastered the art of storytelling. Gladwell’s dexterity in taking the veil off the underlying truths while capturing the imagination of the reader is commendable. His stories are commonplace; it’s just that his view of the stories isn’t. More times than not, Gladwell tends to stick with issues in the public domain than unearth new mysteries altogether. It’s his ingenious craft of uncovering new facets of the known stories that sets him a class apart.
‘What the Dog Saw’ is a compilation of his favorite articles/essays Gladwell has contributed to The New Yorker over the years. His self-effacing demeanor shines through in the preface wherein he admits that he never wanted to be a writer in the first place; he wanted to be an advertising professional but couldn’t make it as none of the eighteen ad agencies he had applied to, considered him deserving!
Gladwell sets up ‘What the Dog Saw’ in three sections – each with a distinct theme. In the first section, Gladwell focuses on the minor geniuses – people who may not have the Einsteinian IQ but have nonetheless made it big in their own respective niches. So, to kick off, you have the story of Ron Popeil – an incredible pitchman who by his sheer genius took his family business of kitchen appliances from boardwalks to live TV. In another chapter, ‘The Ketchup Conundrum’, Gladwell exquisitely covers the struggle of Jim Wigan who, with his ‘World’s best’ Ketchup brand went up against all-powerful ‘Heinz’, only to end up with the anticlimax as tasting experts branded his product more of a sauce than a ketchup.
Author is at his incisive best in ‘John Rock’s Error’ – an essay on the inventor of the contraceptive pill who incurred the Catholic Church’s ire as he had promoted the pill as a natural way of birth-control. Gladwell summarizes in the essay,” It was neither John Rock’s error nor his Church’s. It was the fault of the haphazard nature of science, which all too often produces progress in advance of understanding.”
Gladwell also probes into the tantalizing issue of whether you indeed got to have a 150 IQ to rule stock markets. In ‘Blowing up’, he lets the author of ‘The Black Swan’ and ‘Fooled by Randomness’ – Nassim Nicholas Taleb do the talking. Being a conformist to the trading philosophy based on the existence of ‘the black swans’ (unexpected events), Taleb asserts that people and organizations that choose to ignore the existence of the ‘unpredictable’ will always be at peril. Gladwell’s last minor genius is Cesar Millan – the celebrity dog-whisperer from National Geographic – who, quite oddly, has problems connecting with humans.
One of the biggest strengths of Malcolm Gladwell is his knack for challenging preconceived notions and cherished beliefs. The second section of the book corroborates this ability of Gladwell. While he conducts a threadbare investigation of Enron scam in ‘Open Secrets’, Gladwell simultaneously enlightens you as to how a mystery is different from a puzzle. Enron’s obsession with off-balance sheet financing in the form of SPEs (Special Purpose Entities) and the consequent financial obligations to SPEs eventually brought about its collapse. Gladwell underlines that beneath it all, it was the blatant risk-taking culture of Enron that was largely responsible for what happened.
In another essay on the problem of homeless people called ‘Million Dollar Murray’, we learn that not all problems in the world are normal distribution problems, some are power-law problems and hence, deserve a different solution. This essay best outlines why Gladwell was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. He takes a social problem (homelessness), strips it of its conventionalities, explains concerned authority’s approach to the problem (bell curve approach), unearths the underlying malady (power law problem), puts forth his view (moral dilemma in this case) and to top it all, adds a humane facet to the whole issue (character of Murray Barr). Gladwell tenders new perspectives to the conventional wisdom attached with issues of plagiarism, intelligence goof-ups and post-disaster rituals in other chapters. In ‘The Art of Failure’, he exposes the underpinnings beneath our varied reactions to difficult and life-threatening circumstances. When we feel a complete loss of instinct, we choke and when we think too little and try to revert to instincts, we often panic, according to Gladwell.
The last section of the book comprises typical pop economics essays. Gladwell reveals why it’s always been hard to predict the performances of teachers, artists, sportsmen, and even those of serial killers. He questions our standard tendency to relate ‘genius’ with the precocity and exuberance of age in ‘Late Bloomers’. Picasso fits the conventional definition of a genius as he did most of his paintings at a very young age, Cezanne doesn’t because a majority of his work was produced towards the fag end of his career. Cezanne was a late bloomer. According to the author, people like Cezanne and Mark Twain bloomed late because they were experimental geniuses – their creativity followed a long trial and error path – whereas prodigies like Picasso were conceptual geniuses who were always clear where they wanted to end up in their lives. Some artists are neither prodigies nor late bloomers but are still looked upon as if they are one. Gladwell brackets criminal profilers along with astrologers and psychics in ‘Dangerous Minds’. He even brands profiling as a mere party trick and rubbishes the conventional view which looks at profiling as a science. Gladwell shines in ‘The Talent Myth’ and ‘The New-Boy Network’ – two essays that can teach us a lot about our people judgments and our obsession with IQs. Gladwell says,” The talent myth assumes that people make organizations smart. More often than not, it’s the other way around.”
Gladwell is a witty, intelligent writer and ‘What the Dog Saw’ is a testimony to his knack of exposing fresh perspectives and unearthing parts of the story that were never told. His detractors’ view about Gladwell offering generalizations notwithstanding, I would recommend this book for Gladwell’s brilliant storytelling skills in his trademark brand of social psychology.