Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gladwell - What the dog saw

“He held it in the air as if he were holding a Tiffany vase,” (Gladwell, 2011, xx) – quote and clue to the bottom line of Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, What the dog saw (2011). His others (the Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers) were written as books while What the dog saw is a collection of articles he published in the New Yorker. The chapters were written separately without the intention to publish them together, yet they are woven together in ways that reflect Gladwell’s customary and unique insight.

The purpose of the title, What the dog saw, remained a mystery through six chapters, eventually emerging to make the point that bad dogs are not really as bad as we think. “Bad dogs” are really only victims of bad masters, or non-masters as the case may be. Cesar Millan, the trainer profiled in the story, was the one who exasperated owners called when their dogs were so far gone that they feared having to get rid of them. What Cesar did upon encountering these animals was to separate them from their owners, establish boundaries for what was expected of them, and then he began to teach them the comfort of expectation while freeing them to be good, obedient, and loving animals. Gladwell didn’t only describe Cesar’s discipline in dog training but also his dance (figurative) of symmetry, expression, and balance. Thus, “what the dog saw” was a metaphor for how relationships with dogs, as well as humans, need to be artistic, purposeful, and authentic. Working with dogs requires a frame of discipline that establishes the human as the master, the one in control, both in terms of setting expectation but also in providing loving reward when the dog behaves in reasonable and affectionate ways – just like the “man’s best friend” view that we visualize but fail to actualize when the balance of discipline is absent.

The other chapters convey many stories about how perceptions cloud our vision of reality. Whether it was “Million Dollar Murray,” a story of how solving the problem of homelessness in America may be simpler than we think, or the story of how Enron was a mystery rather than a puzzle, Gladwell nudges his readers to examine the quality of their thinking so that more accurate judgments are possible. In a very contemporary example, Gladwell proposed that the decade-long mystery of finding Osama bin Laden was no mystery at all. Osama bin Laden was “hiding” in the open, obscured only by missing pieces of information that would eventually solve the puzzle of his whereabouts. Gladwell’s point is that mysteries are situations where there is no real answer and to continue to seek more information is useless. On the other hand, puzzles are solved by identifying the right information that fits the gap in the knowledge-base; the need is not more information but higher quality information and the discernment to recognize it.

“He held it in the air as if he were holding a Tiffany vase” reflects the fascination for simple things that teach lessons for life. Simple things that most of the rest of us miss! In this particular collection of stories, Gladwell identifies people who have profoundly impacted our lives but who are people of minor genius. They are minor because they don’t inhabit the upper echelons of organizations but, instead, inhabit the middle places. They are the ones who actually do the work. They are free of the restraint of high-level leaders who are encumbered by the need to protect their positions and privilege. The middle people are the people who create and market things like the “Dial-O-Matic” vegetable slicer, or who challenge our idea of mustard with “Pardon me. Would you have any Grey Poupon?“ or they coin a phrase like “Does she or doesn’t she?” in order to take hair-coloring from the salon into everyone’s bathroom. Imagination, creativity, and initiative come from seeing things in a different way – a way that others neglected to take the time to see.

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