Thursday, May 26, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell

Well I'm sure you all know that he's a famous author, but, honestly (like always), I did not connect the dots between all the interesting articles he's written for the New Yorker with the same person (him)!

I went to his website recently, and I found article after article that I LOVED, but since I don't pay attention, I didn't realize they were all written by the same one person! (This is also similar to what happened to me with Dubner and Lowenstein...)

In any case, today I want to highlight several interesting articles Gladwell's written:

  1. High Prices: How to think about prescription drugs
    In this article, Gladwell basically argues that while drug prices are high in the U.S., consumption of drugs is what is really driving increases in pharmaceutical drug costs. We need to regulate ourselves and not simply blame the "greedy drug companies" for our health cost problems. (Obviously, the article is more complex than this, but check it out)!

  2. The Talent Myth: Are smart people overrated?
    Gladwell uses the example of Enron and McKinsey to show that better talent doesn't necessarily result in better outcomes. In some cases, organizational structures and processes can be set up whereby ordinary people can be heroes and normal people can create an amazing business.

    One example given is Procter & Gamble:

    "Procter & Gamble doesn't have a star system, either. How could it? Would the top M.B.A. graduates of Harvard and Stanford move to Cincinnati to work on detergent when they could make three times as much reinventing the world in Houston? ... But Procter & Gamble has dominated the consumer-products field for close to a century, because it has a carefully conceived managerial system, and a rigorous marketing methodology "

  3. Examined Life: What Stanley H. Kaplan taught us about the SAT
    Gladwell analyzes Kaplan (of Kaplan Test Prep) and examines Kaplan's contributions to the aptitude assessment world. The SAT, which was designed as a measure of "innate ability", was created in part to "normalize" out differences in environment and determine true individual ability, regardless of schooling (some schools are more generous with A's than others, right?) or ambition.

    He shows that the SAT was used to put those who "attempt to educate themselves beyond their intelligence" back into their proper places. Kaplan disproves the capability of the SAT to truly measure anything innate and by doing so, "killed it".

    Practice and effort does matter.

  4. The Pima Paradox: Can we learn to lose weight from one of the most obese people in the world?
    Ordinary problem, novel source of insight.

  5. Something Borrowed: Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?
    Here the question examined is, what exactly constitutes plagiarism?

    In this article, Gladwell discusses a profile he wrote for the New Yorker, wholesale parts of which are then lifted out and incorporated into a Broadway play on the same topic. The topic? A psychiatrist who studies serial killers.

  6. Physical Genius: What Wayne Gretzky, Yo-Yo Ma and a brain surgeon have in common
    Gladwell takes a look at "physical geniuses" -- those of us who through amazing levels of determination and imagination, are able to achieve unbelievable acts of physical dexterity. For example:

    "In the hands of an ordinary neurosurgeon, the operation--down to that last bit of blindfolded acrobatics--might have taken several hours. It took Charlie Wilson twenty-five minutes."

    How did these people develop these skills? Are they naturally inclined towards physical greatness? Or is there something more?

  7. The Art of Failure: Why some people choke and others panic

    What causes some people to succeed where others are not able?

These articles are pretty fun reading -- because they all explore explanations for the extraordinary among us or why something ordinary on the surface might be just as powerful as something that seems incredible.

For the full list of articles, go to this link:

Not Lost in Translation

The neat thing about this author is while he does not position himself as an expert in any of the social or economic theories he espouses, he has the ability to translate dry academic research into something accessible by normal people. I think that's an amazing ability, especially if you consider the amazing amount of research done every day by think tanks, universities, etc.

And most of those learnings are just not accessible to the general public! This is due to a number of factors including:
  • Dry, scientific language.
    Articles written in academic journals are not intended to entertain. They are written to explain the thesis of a study, the apparatus by which the study was conducted and finally the end-result/takeaways from the study. For the average layperson, struggling through multitudes of graphs and statistical measures is pretty difficult (especially if there are other fun things to do, like watch The OC.)

  • $$$
    Its pretty expensive to subscribe or get access to an academic journal unless you are a member of an university department or a student.

    For example a one-year full hard copy subscription to NBER working papers is $2,525 for normal people. (For universities, it is $1,475. Individual articles are $5 a piece.)

    The journal of Health Psychology is $75 if you are a member of the American Psychological Association (APA). For a nonmember its $92. If you do not have an advanced psychology degree, it costs $43 a year to join the APA (as a student, but how many of us are still students?) or $32 a year (as a high school teacher, again how many of us are high school teachers?). And these are prices for just ONE journal.

    For Science, the cost is $135 per year.

    I suppose, its all worth it if you are really interested -- the problem is, is the average citizen interested? that interested? And I also suppose that these research institutions need to cover their costs-- its not cheap to do research! You have to get funding anyway you can, right??

What else did Gladwell write?
  • The Tipping Point (2002)
    Arguably his most famous book, the idea is that "little changes can have big effects; when small numbers of people start behaving differently, that behavior can ripple outward until a critical mass or "tipping point" is reached, changing the world".

    The phrase has been adopted en masse by the business world. I still haven't read his book, but how often do you hear that catchphrases nowadays?

  • Blink (2005)
    Apparently inspired by Gladwell's run-in with the police (after he grew out his hair into an afro), Gladwell became interested in investigating the concept of decisions made on the fly or the concept of "thinking without thinking." In Gladwell's case, he experienced distinctly different treatment when he had short hair versus when he had an afro.

Other resources
Here are some more resources on Gladwell and where he's been seen and heard over the past couple years: