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

SMUG Textbook: Trust Agents

Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust, by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith.

I got to have dinner with Chris Brogan at a conference in May in San Francisco, and from our conversation (and his blog) I was pretty sure this book would be good, but this is one of those books that had me nodding in agreement almost from the start.

I particularly liked the chapter called “Make Your Own Game,” which is about seeing your life and career as a game, and progressing from playing to “hacking” to programming, and is similar to what I call “The MacGyver Mindset.” It’s about understanding the rules of social media so you can help develop the rules for your own game, tinkering with tools and seeing how they can let you do your work in a new way, and maybe even create a whole new business.

Here’s how Brogan and Smith define what a trust agent is:

Trust agents have established themselves as being non-sales-oriented, non-high-pressure marketers. Instead, they are digital natives using the Web to be genuine and to humanize their business. They’re interested in people (prospective customers, employees, colleagues, and more), and they have realized that these tools that enable more unique, robust communication also allow more business opportunities for everyone.

Who, exactly, are trust agents? They are the power users of the new tools of the Web, educated more by way of their own experiences and experiments than from the core of their professional experiences. They speak online technology fluently. They learn by trying, so they are bold in their efforts to try new applications and devices…. Trust agents use today’s Web tools to spread their influence faster, wider and deeper than a typical company’s PR or marketing department might be capable of achieving, and with more genuine interest in people, too.

I added some emphasis on elements in the above that embody the SMUG philosophy, but would just take issue with the “digital native” descriptor. I don’t think you need to have grown up with digital tools to become a trust agent. It’s perfectly fine to be a naturalized digital citizen. But that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise excellent book that has the SMUG textbook seal of approval.