Sunday, January 03, 2010

December Reading: Sociological Adventures with Malcolm Gladwell

What the Dog Saw, and Other Adventures, by Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell is such a good writer; I am a little in love with him. Each of these smart essays was originally published in The New Yorker (remind me to subscribe someday!) Typically he takes a story from one field of endeavor, identifies a principle illustrated, and then applies it to one or more other fields in order to explore or explain the limits and applications of that principle. The effect is that you feel you’re learning something you could really use. He writes really artfully, and in such a way that makes me think: could I do that? (could I write those kind of stories, I mean, could I write that way? Not could I train dogs, or market kitchen gadgets, or any of the other dozens of activities he is describing. But could I explain their worlds half as well?) Many of the nonfiction books I like best reflect the work of something I don’t have, a research assistant. Alas.

One article, “The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated?” shows what happens when you take the principle “our best asset is our people” to extreme lengths (result: Enron).

Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity?” talks about the significant number of creatives who don’t seem to show much promise at first, but in supportive situations will create masterpieces. Gladwell calls them experimental innovators. They do their best work many, many years after beginning, rather than shining early and then petering out like other artists. How many more great artists might we have who never had anyone believing in them long enough to get them to that point? (I am probably not a late-blooming genius, but I think I probably am an 'experimental innovator'!)

Most Likely to Succeed: How Do We Hire When We Can’t Tell Who’s Right for the Job?” starts off with what Gladwell works up to identifying as “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.” Did you know that being a college quarterback is almost nothing like quarterbacking in the pros? The best scouts and analysts haven’t been able to figure out how to overcome that limitation, to figure out how to hire the best guys to be NFL quarterbacks. You just have to take your chances. That’s why some of the most promising picks never amount to much, while others perform beautifully. It’s a case in which there seems no way to know until you try.

Here's the thing, though. Gladwell says teaching children suffers the same limitation. The training, selection, and compensation structures we use for teachers in America result in an education system that is slightly below average, globally. Nothing matters, in education, more than good teachers. Really effective teachers can teach kids about a year and a half of material in one year, and really ineffective teachers get through about half a year’s worth. That’s a huge difference. So what can we do to get (or make) better teachers for our kids?

Consider another industry that has found a good way to respond to the quarterback problem: financial service. “No one knows beforehand what makes a high-performing financial adviser different from a low-performing one, so the field throws the door wide open.” One HR guy Gladwell interviewed says that the previous year his firm interviewed 1000 people, found 49 it liked, send these candidates to a four-month training camp, offered apprenticeships to 23, and expected about 10 of them to get to the point, within a few years, of being really effective financial advisers. The NFL might not go to such extremes to respond to their quarterback problem, but how about trying out three or four quarterbacks before gambling on who is worth the big salary? Getting more effective teachers, same thing. Lower the standards: give more people a try. Then evaluate how they do on the job.

Get the book, or read these complete articles and many more, here.

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