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July 18, 2015

“What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures”

by Anne Paddock

A lot of my process is informed by the notion that two mildly good stories put together sometimes equal one really good story.

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell was published in 2009, although the 19 non-fiction essays included in the book were originally published in The New Yorker magazine where the author has been a staff writer since 1996.

Divided into three parts with three themes: obsessives, theories (ways of organizing experience), and the predictions we make about people, What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures is one of the most interesting contemporary collections of stories that anyone over the age of 40 can relate to without having to refer to Wikipedia for an explanation of events, characters, products, and businesses.

In Part One:  Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius, Gladwell tells the reader – through six essays – of the importance of knowledge, as opposed to power (both of which exist in every organization and business). According to Gladwell, knowledge always makes for an interesting story:

You don’t start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle, because it’s the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world…People at the top are self-conscious about what they say and rightfully so) because they have position and privilege to protect – and self-consciousness is the enemy of interestingness.

What_The_Dog_SawGladwell goes on to explain the extraordinary success of a small oven called the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ (The Pitchman) and women’s hair color (True Colors) with his laser eye analysis on the people with knowledge – those who made things happen through salesmanship, clever advertising, target marketing, and an astute understanding of people’s wants and needs – which is the key to most success stories.

In the essay What the Dog Saw, Gladwell writes of a dog trainer who had a lightbulb moment when he realized to be successful at something whether it be dog training or marriage, you have to figure out what the other person wants, and deliver. It’s really that simple.

Gladwell often approaches a story from several different angles to make a point. Instead of writing about how knowledge translates to success, he often shows how a lack of knowledge can lead to failure. In John Rock’s Error, the reader is told the story of the inventor of the birth control pill who didn’t realize the true importance of this controversial invention was not in preventing pregnancy but in preventing illness and death – all because of what he didn’t know about women’s health. And, in The Ketchup Conundrum, the reader learns why no one has come up with a ketchup to rival Heinz, despite countless efforts.

One of the most relevant essays of life amid the financial turmoil of the markets is Blowing Up. Here, Gladwell introduces the reader to two investors with vast knowledge – both obsessive and smart (in their respective ways) – but with very different character traits. Hence, the tolerance for risk and ultimately failure or success vary greatly.

In Part Two: Theories, Predictions, and Diagnoses, Gladwell emphasizes the importance of looking at things in a different way. To do this, he takes a topic and places it into a larger context within other industries to make a point or simply entertain the reader.

In Open Secrets, the Enron debacle is compared to the problems faced by US intelligence agencies. Enron produced an enormous amount of information that most people either didn’t read or were incapable of understanding while the US intelligence agencies collect an enormous amount of intelligence but aren’t always able to differentiate between what is important and what isn’t. The bottom line: without knowledge, it doesn’t matter how much information is available. Giving an uneducated person a balance sheet, income statement, along with the corresponding accounting notes and then wondering why he/she can’t pinpoint fraud is tantamount to gathering information on suspected terrorist groups and not knowing what to react upon. The information is there but the reader has to know what to look for.

And, what happens when we have the knowledge that comes with experience but don’t use it? Could the Challenger disaster in 1986 been prevented if the experience gained by another disaster, specifically the Three Mile Island nuclear power accident in 1979, been applied? asks Gladwell.  At the heart of the issue is how problems are evaluated and since each problem is uniquely different, the question is hard to answer, especially when the culture of an industry impacts decision-making.

In The Picture Problem, Gladwell takes two unrelated industries – radiologists reading mammograms and intelligence officers making sense of satellite pictures – to show the difficulty of interpretation. Some things are just not what they appear while other things appear to be something they aren’t. The saying “It’s as clear as mud” comes to mind.

This paradox is also presented in Connecting the Dots in which Gladwell examines how Israel missed all the signs leading up to the Yom Kippur War in which Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in October, 1973, and how the US missed all the signs leading up to the attacks on September 11, 2001. To explain how people miss these signs, which seem so glaring in retrospect, Gladwell shows how other industries and incidents – the staff at a psychiatric hospital, Pearl Harbor, the Bag of Pigs – all suffered from the same malady – misinterpretation of information, failure to link, or simply ignorance.

To fully understand success, failure must not be ignored and so in The Art of Failure, Gladwell explains why some people panic and others choke and the difference between the two. A fascinating essay that ties together professional tennis and John Kennedy’s plane crash off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in July, 1999, The Art of Failure makes the distinction between having the knowledge and experience necessary for success and not applying it (choking) versus panicking due to the lack of knowledge and experience.

When a British playwright named Bryony Lavery was accused of plagiarism (of Gladwell’s work no less), Gladwell took it upon himself to question what plagiarism really is by examining the difference between copyright laws and intellectual property rights, as it relates both to literature and the music industry. If there was ever an argument for grey matter, Something Borrowed is it.

What happens when we have the knowledge to solve a problem but instead choose to manage the problem? In Million-Dollar Murray, Gladwell tells the reader of Murray Barr, an alcoholic ex-Marine who lived on the streets of Reno. Murray was costing the city more than a million dollars a year because the city chose to react to his problems rather than treat him for his problems – which broached the question: How do we walk the line between helping people and allowing them to help themselves, especially when large amounts of public money are involved.

In Part Three:  Personality, Character, and Intelligence, Gladwell focuses more on the dangers of generalizations and the importance of trying to get people to think differently. In both Dangerous Minds and Troublemakers, profiling is front and center. Quite simply, the author puts forth the hypothesis: criminal profiling doesn’t work because generalizations aren’t stable day-to-day. There are groups – Italians, pit bulls, black men – that have what Gladwell refers to as a “category” problem: they are assumed to be either in the mafia, dangerous, or criminals. But, statistics tell a different story – one that is fascinating to read.

Most Likely to Succeed and The Talent Myth are essays in which Gladwell questions how the fair-haired ones are chosen. He compares two unlikely industries (in Most Likely to Succeed): professional football and teaching – and concludes the predictors are inaccurate prior to showtime whether it be the football field or the classroom. Intuition – which is also a big part of The New Boy Network – is a much better indicator of who will succeed in a chosen profession, as opposed to talent or education. Gladwell points out that one of the glaring problems of companies like Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco that ultimately failed, is that they were “looking for people who had the talent to think outside the box. It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing.”

Gladwell has often written of our society as one that likes to measure things and categorize people. So when a middle-aged lawyer quits his job and decides to become a writer – and eventually publishes a successful book, we are all baffled because isn’t talent supposed to be evident at birth? Not so, says Gladwell in Late Bloomers.  There are prodigies but there are also very talented people who need time to develop their talent and whose success rides on someone believing and supporting them. It is these people who fascinate Gladwell because the question beckons “how many have we missed?”

Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a bad school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher.

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