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.


SMUG Textbooks

Despite the decidedly social media nature of SMUG (“social media” is part of our name, after all), I’m still a big believer in books. They enable authors to make an extended argument and deal with a topic in more depth than the blog format allows.

I’ve written several book reviews here on SMUG, but it’s time for me to catch up, based on several more I’ve read or listened to via And I thought it would be helpful to develop a more comprehensive list of books that receive the SMUG Seal of Approval. As soon as I’ve finished adding related reviews and links to this post, I will be using it as the basis for a remodeled SMUG Bookstore.

Of course, everything about SMUG is voluntary, and tuition is free, so I can’t really say these are “required reading” for SMUGgles. As I get the reviews done, I will add links to the list of SMUG textbooks below. And if you have recommendations of books I’ve missed that you think would be helpful, please add them in the comments.

Personal Productivity

Social Media Theory and Philosophy

Business and Innovation

  • The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen
  • The Innovator’s Solution, by Clayton Christensen
  • Our Iceberg is Melting, by John Kotter
  • Death by Meeting, by Patrick Lencioni
  • Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne
  • Free: The Future of a Radical Price, by Chris Anderson. You can download this for free if you have an account.
  • Seeing What’s Next, by Clayton Christensen
  • Rules to Break and Laws to Follow, by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers
  • The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki
  • Selling the Dream, by Guy Kawasaki

The Gladwell Grouping

Malcolm Gladwell’s books defy easy categorization, but he has a wonderful writing style and has a thought-provoking approach to all sorts of topics. If he wrote it, you should read it.

The Seth Section

Like Gladwell, Seth Godin deserves a section of his own. These are all somewhat related to marketing, particularly as it is understood as designing delivery of your products or services in a way that enhances customer satisfaction and word-of-mouth.

  • Tribes, by Seth Godin
  • Purple Cow, by Seth Godin
  • Free Prize Inside, by Seth Godin
  • Meatball Sundae, by Seth Godin
  • The Dip, by Seth Godin
  • Small is the New Big, by Seth Godin

Required Reading: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

As your Chancellor, from time to time I offer book reviews. And most of my reviews are really book recommendations. In other words, I don’t write a review unless it’s a book I think you would find worthwhile.

With Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, we reach another level: beyond review or even recommendation.

It’s a Requirement.

You really need to read this book. I downloaded it last week through Audible and listened to it while doing some work around the house and yard. It’s absolutely riveting.

Gladwell’s subtitle for the book is, “The Story of Success.” His aim is to look at wildly successful people and to evaluate what sets them apart…what makes them “outliers.”

He disappoints the rugged individualist by showing how cultural history and accidents of birth (even the month of the year we are born) play huge roles in our opportunities for success.

And with his elucidation of the 10,000 hour rule, he dispels the myth that there is such a thing as a “natural talent” that can be extraordinarily successful without sustained practice and skill development.

Along the way, Gladwell provides surprising, interesting (and compelling) answers to perplexing questions, such as:

  • Why are Asians so much better at math than westerners are?
  • Why did Korean Airlines have such an abysmal safety record?
  • Why were the mountains of Kentucky home to so many notorious family feuds?
  • Why do so many of the most successful corporate lawyers in New York City have amazingly similar biographies (born in the 1930s to Jewish parents who worked in the garment industry) and how did those factors contribute to their success?

Outliers is both humbling and motivating. It’s humbling because it reminds all of us that for any success we have, we can trust that factors and background beyond our control (and perhaps even seemingly random, like the month in which we were born), have played a role. And it’s motivating because the 10,000-hour rule emphasizes that hard work is an indispensable ingredient for success, though it offers no guarantees.

Gladwell is a fantastic storyteller, as he demonstrated in The Tipping Point and Blink, both previously reviewed (or rather recommended) here. Any of his books would make excellent Christmas presents.

By definition, the vast majority of us won’t be outliers. But everyone reading this post has access to a computer with power far beyond what Bill Gates had as junior high school kid in 1968. He and Steve Jobs were born at the right time, and had extraordinary access to computers as youngsters that enabled them to put in their 10,000 hours and be in position to take advantage of (and help create) the personal computer revolution. But because of the legacy they have left, we have amazing opportunities our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.

In the scope of human history, we’re all outliers. Based on our SMUG enrollment figures, it’s highly likely that within 24 hours of this post being published it will have been read by at least one person on virtually every continent except Antarctica.

Fifty years ago, no one had that kind of power – not even the richest or most powerful rulers on earth.

But today, if you’re reading this post, you do.

I’m not suggesting that you spend 10,000 hours learning and practicing social media skills. But in just a few minutes a day you can work through the entire SMUG curriculum, taking advantage of the Jobs/Gates computer revolution, the Internet and Google to develop a whole new set of skills that you can use practically in your work and in your avocational pursuits.

I hope you will make becoming proficient in social media one of your New Year’s resolutions. (And for tips on keeping your resolutions, see this post.) If SMUG can help in your learning, I’d be honored to have that opportunity.

But meanwhile, get Outliers and read it. It will change the way think about success and its causes.

Update 12/29/08: Seth Godin has a thoughtful take on the 10,000 hour rule and its application in newer or niche markets.

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Snap Judgment on Gladwell

In an earlier post, I did a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, about social epidemics and how they spread. If you’re looking for provocative thinking that will challenge how you view reality, particularly in the social sciences, you could do a lot worse than reading Gladwell, either on his blog or in one of his books.

Fast Company has a good profile, including one of the best lines about market research that I’ve read: “I think we would all be better off if focus groups ceased to exist.” (That point is substantiated in Blink by the story of All in the Family and the Mary Tyler Moore show, which the focus groups hated.)

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking looks at rapid cognition, both in its positive and negative manifestations, and how sometimes too much data gives the illusion of a better choice, when in reality the essential information is much simpler and often comes by way of the unconscious. His stories include:

  • How art experts sensed a fraudulent statue almost instantaneously, when scientists examining it for months with sophisticated technology were fooled.
  • How a “love lab” expert can analyze an hour of a couple’s interaction and predict with 95 percent accuracy which ones will divorce within 15 years (and with 90 percent accuracy based on just 15 minutes of tape.)
  • How the immense planning of the US military was defeated in a war simulation by a shoot-from-the-hip sparring partner in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

I’m going to focus on a couple of medical applications, though:

  • How listening to snippets of surgeons’ interaction with patients can predict which ones will be sued for malpractice (Hint: those who weren’t sued spent, on average, 3 minutes more in conversation with patients…and their tone of voice was more pleasant and engaging). The skill level or training of the surgeon had nothing to do with it…and this difference was spotted by listening to just 40 seconds of conversation for each surgeon.
  • How Cook County Hospital improved service and survival among ED patients with chest pain by boiling the factors to be considered in determining whether to admit the patient down to four:
  1. Is the ECG abnormal?
  2. Is the patient having unstable angina?
  3. Is there fluid in the patient’s lungs?
  4. Is the systolic blood pressure below 100?

The Goldman algorithm using these four factors was tested against physicians doing their best by using all of the tests and data available, and the algorithm was 70 percent better at spotting people who weren’t having a heart attack. It was also better at identifying those who were having a hear attack. The doctors left to their own devices guessed right between 75 and 89 percent of the time; the algorithm was 95 percent accurate.

Sometimes more information gives the illusion of a better decision, when the reality is there are a few factors that really matter. The extra information may just be clutter.

And, to tie the two together, if you can make the judgment that a patient isn’t having a heart attack based on just a few questions and one test, that frees up time for deeper interactions with the patient about what is wrong. Then maybe you will be less likely to get sued.

Book Review: The Tipping Point

Yesterday I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

I enthusiastically recommend this interesting look at how epidemics reach epidemic proportions, and how it sometimes just takes a little nudge at the right point to immensely change the results. The book is full of real-life case studies that illustrate what Gladwell calls the three rules of epidemics: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context.

The Tipping Point

The Law of the Few: Certain kinds of people — Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen — play an immensely disproportionate role in spreading a social “virus.” Mavens identify what’s hot or cool, and are the ones who are “in the know.” As Gladwell puts it, they’re not just the kind of people read Consumer Reports; they’re the ones who write to Consumer Reports to correct what they see as errors in product evaluation. Connectors just know more people than the rest of us, often several times more than average, and so when they adopt an idea they will communicate it much more rapidly than others. Salesmen “persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups.”

The Stickiness Factor: Is the message memorable? Does it engage people? The classic example is the Gold Box in Columbia Record Club’s print advertising, which enabled new members to get any record of their choice free. This simple addition to the membership form in Parade and TV Guide increased sales by four times as much as a simultaneous test that used traditional prime time “awareness” advertising. The Gold Box team won in a rout, even though they spent a quarter of the amount on broadcast ad time as the team using traditional methods.

The Power of Context: The classic example of this is the precipitous decline in crime rates in New York City, which was far more rapid than could be attributed to demographics, crime rates or any other trends that would have pointed to a gradual decline. The key that “tipped” the positive epidemic, and ended the negative one, was zero-tolerance of fare beating or graffiti in the subway system.

The Tipping Point is, in essence, an epidemic that has already tipped; it’s been a #1 national bestseller. I know I’m not an early adopter, but if this post helps to play a Salesman role for you, encouraging you to check it out, I will consider it “mission accomplished.” You also may want to check out and subscribe to his blog.

The book gives a thought-provoking framework for people interested in starting word-of-mouth epidemics or attacking harmful epidemics. It’s interesting, though, that Gladwell doesn’t seem to think the context creation approach used in making subways safe is applicable to drug abuse or teen smoking. For instance, he notes a Baltimore needle exchange program for heroin addicts and apparently doesn’t see that as creating a more permissive/lawless environment similar to the fare-beating or graffiti. Likewise, smoking bans in restaurants and bars create contexts in which smoking is not socially acceptable, and the research on that seems to indicate it significantly reduces smoking. But maybe Gladwell sees drug addictions as just too “sticky” for context to matter as much.

For more on this book, you can check out Gladwell’s overview. I know that because of The Tipping Point, I’m going to be checking out his other book, Blink.