SMUG Textbook: What the Dog Saw

Malcolm Gladwell is a great writer, which is why he has his own section among the SMUG textbooks. His latest book, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, is unlike the others I’ve reviewed in that it’s not “about” a single topic. It’s rather a compilation of his previously published columns in The New Yorker.

I listened to What the Dog Saw over the Thanksgiving weekend, and here are a few snippets of his provocative thinking:

It’s almost impossible to predict which college quarterbacks will make it in the NFL because there is nothing “like” being an NFL quarterback. The defensive players are so much faster in the NFL, and therefore the offensive schemes must be so different, that success in college isn’t a good predictor of pro prowess. A college star can be a complete bust. This, Gladwell says, is “The Quarterback problem.”

There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.

Thus, Gladwell observes, advanced teaching certificates (or Master’s degrees) don’t correlate at all with student outcomes. And yet, there is enormous variability in teacher performance: the best teachers can get through a year and a half of content in one year, while those at the bottom end of the curve only cover a half-year’s worth of material. Gladwell suggests that the reason why “book smarts” don’t guarantee good outcomes is that there’s nothing “like” being a teacher. And he has some interesting ideas for how teacher hiring and compensation could be changed if we were really serious about striving for excellence in our education system.

Among Gladwell’s strengths is that he questions commonly accepted truisms and brings research data to bear on the issues. In another of the essays, he looks at proponents of the so-called “War for Talent” and asks, “Are smart people overrated?

The management of Enron, in other words, did exactly what the consultants at McKinsey said that companies ought to do in order to succeed in the modern economy. It hired and rewarded the very best and the very brightest—and it is now in bankruptcy. The reasons for its collapse are complex, needless to say. But what if Enron failed not in spite of its talent mind-set but because of it? What if smart people are overrated?

The broader failing of McKinsey and its acolytes at Enron is their assumption that an organization’s intelligence is simply a function of the intelligence of its employees. They believe in stars, because they don’t believe in systems. In a way, that’s understandable, because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don’t write great novels, and a committee didn’t come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don’t just create; they execute and compete and coördinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.

I would just add from personal experience that I work in just such an organization, at Mayo Clinic. Don’t get me wrong: we have a lot of really smart people working at Mayo. But it’s the way we work together in teams, and the systems that enable us to do so, that set Mayo apart. As Gladwell says, the system is the star.

In other essays, Gladwell examines FBI profiling, the Popeil family of pitchmen, why Grey Poupon mustard was able to make inroads into the French’s mustard market while Heinz continues to dominate ketchup, and several other interesting issues. You can read much of Gladwell’s New Yorker archive here (including the one Seth Godin and I disagree with), but I strongly suggest you go ahead and buy the book. It will be one of the best investments you’ll make in improving your critical thinking skills.