His confident, optimistic pieces on the essence of genius, the flaws of multinational corporations and the quirks of human behaviour have been devoured by businessmen in search of a new guru. His skill lies in turning dry academic hunches into compelling tales of everyday life: He is the master of pointing out the truths under our noses even if they aren't always the whole truth.
Gladwell's latest book, What the Dog Saw , bundles together his favourite articles from the New Yorker since he joined as a staff writer in It makes for a handy crash course in the world according to Gladwell: Times are hard, good ideas are scarce: But more about that later.
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Gladwell has divided his book into three sections. The first deals with what he calls obsessives and minor geniuses; the second with flawed ways of thinking. The third focuses on how we make predictions about people: Brought together, the pieces form a dazzling record of Gladwell's art. There is depth to his research and clarity in his arguments, but it is the breadth of subjects he applies himself to that is truly impressive. He bounds along from the inventors of automatic vegetable choppers and hair dye to Cesar Millan, the American "Dog Whisperer" behind the title piece, and Nassim Taleb, the US banker who turned his nose up at the investment strategies of George Soros and Warren Buffet and made himself a pile of money.
Gladwell is more than just a people person, though. His forensic dissection of the collapse of Enron and his survey of the causes of the Challenger space shuttle disaster manage to be fresh and compelling when you could be forgiven for thinking there was nothing left to say about the events. The common theme that runs through all Gladwell's pieces is his desire to show us the world through the eyes of others — even if the other happens to be a dog.
Inevitably this becomes the world as Gladwell sees it through the eyes of others, but his cast of characters except perhaps in the case of the dog is strong enough to withstand the filter. The story of Murray Barr, which first appeared in , is a classic.
Barr is a hopeless alcoholic who lives on the streets of Reno, Nevada, and spends more weekends than not in hospital or drying out in a police cell. He is a burden on the system, but that is the fault of the system, Gladwell argues.
What the Dog Saw
Barr's routine involves getting drunk, falling over and being taken to hospital. When he is released, he starts all over again. The first to raise doubts about society's way of dealing with people such as Barr are local police officers. Over 10 years Barr's hospital bills mount up.
What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures
Barr's personal story becomes the springboard for Gladwell's argument that society finds it more palatable to manage homelessness than to end it. Surely it would be cheaper — not to say more helpful — to give people like Barr a flat of their own, he suggests, to keep a watchful eye over them rather than leave them on the streets to rack up medical bills.
He plays the idea out by examining pilot programmes that have attempted to do just this, and then muses on why society hasn't embraced the strategy. We don't do it because it doesn't seem fair. Why should someone who contributes so little to society be tossed the keys to a new home?
Morality prefers equity, and rewards for doing nothing are inequitable. He challenges your preconceptions, and takes nothing at face value, probing deeply into a series of subjects.
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Gladwell enjoys gently upsetting the status quo, like an excitable graduate student taking on established professors. Importantly, he rarely lets his personality intrude, but allows his investigation and the facts to speak for themselves. His fund, Empirica, turns over the traditional psychology of investing. For years he makes nothing — he sits and waits, joshing with his partners who all believe in him. He loses money, day after day. And then, while all around him crashes, his fund makes millions and Taleb becomes famous.
There is a brilliantly incisive study of the Enron scandal. They were always open about their investment policies, Gladwell argues, but they were just too complicated for most of us to understand. They involved SPEs special purpose entities which basically meant Enron selling bits of itself to itself in order to raise money from banks.
What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell
These SPEs involved thousands and thousands of pages of paperwork, so even the summaries are indigestible. The problem was, according to Gladwell, not that Enron was hiding information from its investors — but that it was giving them too much. Who is the real Malcolm Gladwell?