The one-sentence summary
Concentrate on astute observation and clear expression, and remember that there is always another point of view.
This is not a book on one theme – it is a compendium of his best essays for the New Yorker magazine over the last ten years or so, organised into three sections: i) Obsessives, pioneers, and other varieties of minor genius; ii) Theories, predictions and diagnoses; iii) Personality, character & intelligence.
The title refers to his take on how Cesar Millan, aka the Dog Whisperer, does what he does. Gladwell is more interested in the dog’s perspective, and it transpires that the dog’s response is mainly to his body language.
He teases out scores of curiosities, including:
- Most things are not interesting
- Perfection is plural: everybody has different version of it
- Heinz Ketchup remains unchanged and unbeatable because it covers every one of the five tastes we crave – salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami – all in one product (umami is a proteiny, full-bodied taste).
- The Clairol strapline “Does she or doesn’t she?”, followed by L’Oreal’s “Because I’m worth it” plots the course of female liberation in the 20th century.
- Progress often comes in advance of understanding, as with the invention of the contraceptive pill.
- A puzzle is not the same as a mystery. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. How Enron collapsed is actually a mystery.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
The wisdom keeps coming:
- Stop managing problems and start ending them.
- Solving issues means connecting the dots and spotting the sequence. Many people just can’t do it. They just see ink blots like the Rorschach Test (he was the 20th century Swiss psychiatrist who invented it).
- Claiming retrospectively that something was coherent or made sense all along is a case of creeping determinism (x apparently determined y, but it didn’t really). This affects many business case histories, and much journalism.
- Choking is loss of instinct (a tennis player reverts to thinking about each shot and loses the game). Panic is reversion to instinct (a diver grabs instinctively for a companion’s air supply without realising they can share and both be fine).
- Risk homeostasis is where changes intended to make a system safer actually make it worse. When ABS brakes are fitted to cars people drive faster and have more accidents, because they think they are safer.
- There is no such thing as inherent genius. There are as many late bloomers as there are child prodigies.
- If everyone has to think outside the box, maybe the box needs fixing.
WHAT YOU HAVE TO WATCH
All the essays are available for free on his website, so you don’t have to pay £20.