Sunday, January 13, 2013

Inspirations (9 of 25) - Malcolm Gladwell


There are some that inspire in a very obvious manner.  Through powerful language or forceful actions, those people can set the tunes and make you dance to them.  There are others that make you listen to music that they listen to and find your inspiration to dance!  Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and author of four brilliant non-fiction books, falls squarely in the latter category.  He is an inspiration of mine because he has made me mull over things that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise and has made me open my eyes to things that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

When I started to develop an interest in reading non-fiction, someone told me about Gladwell’s “Tipping Point.”  I read it out of curiosity.  When I finished the book, I didn’t feel like I had read anything special.  Sure, it had some interesting insights and lateral thoughts, my favorite being the one on graffiti in the New York public transportation system (It was about how the clean-up of the graffiti had a positive effect on reducing crimes since graffiti was a symbol of disorder that had found its way to our subconscious).  But I just said to myself, “That book was cool.  I’ll move on…”  I then happened upon a review of the book wherein the reviewer compared “Tipping Point” and another book of Gladwell’s – “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking” – and how the latter was more focused on the self as opposed to “Tipping Point” which set its sights on the society around us.  I instantly knew that “Blink,” if well-written, would appeal to my sensibilities a lot more than “Tipping Point” did.  Well-written, it certainly was!  

“Blink” epitomized the intellectual curiosity of Gladwell in an amazing fashion.  While people driven solely by logical, linear thought will have a tough time appreciating the brilliance of “Blink,” those who are simply curious about why they do what they do will find “Blink” to be a treasure.  The thing about the book is that it actually makes us ask more questions than give us answers.  One of my favorite parts of the book is the story of an experienced firefighter who was in a burning house but was amidst fellow firefighters who couldn’t identify the source of the fire.  In a split second, he led the team immediately out of the room he was in, realizing that the source of the fire was actually in the basement.  In the blink of an eye, he connected the heat in the room with the absence of a visible source and concluded that the fire must be emanating from the basement.  The firefighter’s experience meant that his system was so intricately wired and so finely tuned.  As I was reading this section, I kept saying to myself that I must develop expertise in at least one area – be it in my vocation or my hobbies – where I enjoy the magic that a well-wired system can weave.  As I mentioned earlier, Gladwell didn’t pontificate about any of this; instead, he just made me ponder.

If “Blink” made me look inward, “Outliers” made me look up…to not only those outliers that transcend the ordinary but also the “ordinary” – be it the people or the environmental factors - that play a huge role in the lives of the outliers.  While we have all read fairytales about successful people whose guts, positive values and strength of character are all highlighted, it was “Outliers” that made me look beyond the obvious when it comes to successful people.  Be it the focus on spouses of late bloomers who have stood by them as they bloomed into something special to the benefits that kids who belong to the affluent strata of the society have (through things such as summer camps), the book places more importance on what extraneous factors successful people were blessed with than the innate abilities that they were endowed with.  In this aspect, “Outliers” made me realize that as I set goals for myself that I respect all the means that enable me to get to my ends.  

But “Outliers” was not just a collection of success stories.  It was also about why certain values in some settings are just off the charts.  For instance, there’s a very intriguing chapter on plane crashes in Korean airlines.  This chapter contains some unforgettable transcripts of conversations between pilots and ground personnel that caution us to the pitfalls of hierarchical systems and blind subordination, things that the second-in-line officers of Korean airlines exhibited with tragic consequences.  Gladwell writes about the concept of “power distance index,” a metric that reflects the virtual “distance” that exists between superiors and subordinates.  While we chuck up this to cultural differences (for instance, the US is a low power-distance index country while some Asian countries such as Korea or India are high power distance index nations), there is a time and a place for highly obedient subordination and the cockpit of a plane is not one!  Again, I would have never associated plane crashes with anything other than bad luck, bad weather or technical failure until Gladwell pointed it out!
After having read “Outliers” and “Blink,” I looked forward to Gladwell’s “What the Dog Saw” with a bit of trepidation since I knew that it was going to be tough for a book to match the brilliance of those two.  While “What the Dog Saw” – a collection of his articles that have appeared over the years in “The New Yorker” – is not in the same league, it was still a very engaging read because it further highlighted to me the sheer joys of delving into minutiae.  Nothing is too insignificant to evoke Gladwell’s curiosity and the book bears sparkling testimony to that.  In the book, several questions were asked, some answered, but everything was relished with the wide eyed wonder of a kid.  What is the difference between a puzzle and a mystery?  Should plagiarism of all sorts be taboo?  What separates choking from panicking?  All these and many more are explored in this book.  

My favorite chapter in the book was the last mentioned one: what separates choking from panicking?  Gladwell’s example of choking was Jana Novotna’s snatching-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory act against Steffi Graf in the final of Wimbledon ’93, a match that I vividly remembered watching on TV, sitting at the edge of my seat.  As I was reading this part, I was so glad that Gladwell helped me dissect the disintegration of Novotna as I witnessed her 20 years ago slide from a 4-1 lead in the final set to lose the game 4-6 to Graf.  Gladwell lucidly explains that while choking is failure of the most basic of instincts and involves thinking too much, panicking is the polar opposite – reverting to the most basic of instincts and thinking very little.  A scuba diver snatching his friend’s oxygen mask under water was the moment of “panic” that Gladwell wrote about.  Reading this chapter made me realize that I have mixed up the two terms quite often.  It also made me realize that I should be acutely aware – in times of stress or distress – whether I am choking or panicking, react accordingly and hopefully, avoid both!  Again, Gladwell didn’t say out loud, “Don’t choke or panic.  It’s bad for you!”  He just gave me the tools to help me introspect.

Looking back at my reading experiences, his books have essentially given me a plethora of small pleasures that I hope you got while reading one or more of his works.  And who knows, Gladwell might actually have made your mind go to places entirely different than mine.  That’s perfectly fine!  As I alluded to earlier, Gladwell just takes horses to uncharted waters; it’s up to them to drink in the pleasures!

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