Book Review | What the Dog Saw

Malcolm Gladwell is one of the few authors in the business literature domain who has truly mastered the art of storytelling. His 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. Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell’s last book was a testimony to this point.

Gladwell tends to stick with issues in the public domain than unearth new mysteries altogether. What sets him apart is his ingenious knack for revealing interesting yet little-known facets which others fail to see.

‘What the Dog Saw’ is a compilation of his favorite essays he 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 since none of the eighteen ad agencies he had applied to considered him deserving!

Malcolm Gladwell on writingGladwell 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 covers the gritty struggle of Jim Wigan. Wigan went up against ‘Heinz’ with his own ketchup brand. The result was anticlimactic as tasting experts branded his product more of a sauce than a ketchup.

He 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 having 150 IQ to rule stock markets. In ‘Blowing up’, he lets the author of ‘Antifragile‘, Nassim Nicholas Taleb do the talking. Being a conformist to ‘the black swans’ (unexpected events) philosophy, 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. This may surprise you, but, oddly, he 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.

He conducts a threadbare investigation of Enron scam in ‘Open Secrets’. Enron’s obsession with off-balance sheet financing in the form of SPEs (Special Purpose Entities) eventually brought about its collapse. It was the blatant risk-taking culture of Enron, Gladwell reveals, that drove Enron over the cliff.

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).

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, we often panic.

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, 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.

People like Cezanne and Mark Twain bloomed late because they were experimental geniuses, says Gladwell. Their creativity followed a long trial and error path. Prodigies like Picasso, on the other hand, were conceptual geniuses. They were always clear where they wanted to end up in their lives.

Gladwell brackets criminal profilers along with astrologers and psychics in ‘Dangerous Minds’. He calls profiling as a mere party trick and rubbishes the conventional view which looks at profiling as a science.

He 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.”

‘What the Dog Saw’ is a testimony to Gladwell’s knack for 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 his brilliant storytelling skills and wit.


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