Sunday, May 2, 2010

Outliers, Blink, and the Tipping Point

I finished Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers a few weeks ago. I have also read his previous two works, the Tipping Point and Blink. Gladwell is the exact type of writer that I find frustrating--his works are basically a repackaging of the blatantly obvious, and yet they are a complete blast to read.

The Tipping Point, his first publication, outlines the sociological blueprint for the multiplier effect of social phenomena. Basically, small changes can have huge impacts on society; things such as how information is disseminated via marketing campaigns (whether commercial or public policy). He details several components of how a message can grow--from the types of people required (individuals who are socially connected, people who gather information, and salesmen who can push the message) to the message itself (context and longevity).

Blink discusses how people make sudden initial judgments, and how too much information may actually hurt people's decision-making process. "Gut feelings" account for a lot more than people think, and over-analyzing may actually do more harm than good.

Outliers concerns measuring an individual's success, and that innate ability and hard work are just as important as luck and background, particularly when it comes to those who have incredible success in their field.

Looking these over, I don't really see any new ideas. The Tipping Point kind of gives form to a rather mundane topic; the book could be easily summarized as "A small idea can become big by having the right connections and the right message." However, he does a pretty good job of defining what those connections are and what kind of message is correct, because some of his ideas aren't particularly intuitive.

Blink has a more simple thesis--gut feelings are more successful than we think. He relies a lot more on academic study here, so his ideas are supported fairly well with his writing. However, I find it to be the blandest of the three books. His informal journalist style of writing doesn't mesh well with what he's trying to explain, so it seems more like a hodgepodge of studies and anecdotes.

Outliers is probably the most disappointing, because the adage "it's not what you know, it's who you know" pretty much sums it all up. Of course, it's not all that; he does emphasize that hard work plays a part, but for many people the time and effort for all that hard work requires chance and advantageous background. Bill Gates, for example, worked hard to get to where he was, but it was also because he was given a unique opportunity when he was a teenager--having free time and free money to play around with experimental computers at a nearby university that allowed him to do all that hard work. That last part was equal part chance and background as much as it was the work itself.

So I'm not all that impressed with any of the books, really. Gladwell takes a concept that is generally accepted by the population, standardizes it into a few axioms, then provides anecdotal evidence to back it up. As a result the books are normally a lot of fun to read, but I'm not sure they contribute much to how people think about society.

For example, in Outliers, he has an entire chapter devoted to cockpit conversations and how different cultures respond differently to emergencies. I was endlessly fascinated by this chapter because it was well-written, but ultimately the message he was trying to get across what only a tiny fraction in importance to his overall thesis. It was an entertaining chapter, but the central idea warranted perhaps a tenth of the effort he put into it. And Outliers is the only book of the three where I don't think he is quite correct in his overall thesis.

And that seems like how all of these books are--entertainment with some social value. Ultimately, I can't recommend these books as academic pursuits; however, they're still a lot of fun to read, and it's far from void of any academic value, so I can recommend them with that value alone.

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