The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Thursday, September 30, 2010

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I'm a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan, so I couldn't resist buying What the Dog Saw a collection of his favorite articles from The New Yorker. These short pieces were perfect for me as I headed back to school after surgery. I didn't have a lot of time or energy left over at the end of the day, and there were several days when I didn't have time to read at all...but these were perfect little single-serving-sized pieces. I could read one in just 30 minutes or so and then choose another a few days later. I dabbled. I read which ever one caught my fancy on that particular day..."Hair Dye and the Hidden History of Postwar America"..."Why Some People Choke and Others Panic"..."What Pit Bulls Can Teach Us About Crime"...There were some truly interesting articles...And while I didn't enjoy these little tastes of Gladwell as much as his longer works, I was nevertheless fascinated and entertained.

I walked away with some interesting "What the Dog Saw", an article about Cesar Milan, I learned that dogs study and respond to human movements in a way that no other animals (including primates) do. There's an experiment where researchers hid a treat under one of two cups. When they brought dogs into the room, they found the dogs looked to the humans for cues as to where the treat was hidden. If the human looked at one cup or nodded in that direction, the dog would pick that one every time. Chimps, on the other hand, did not. They looked to other chimps for help and guidance but not humans. Fascinating, right?

I also learned about the power-law theory of homelessness in "Million Dollar Murray"...basically, homelessness doesn't follow a normal distribution (bell curve). Eighty percent of homeless people are off the streets really quickly, most within a single day...and they never return to the shelters or streets again. About 10 percent are "episodic users", meaning they come to the shelters for a few weeks at a time and return periodically especially in winter, but the last 10 percent are chronically homeless. And it is this chronic 10 percent that costs the health-care and social services industries the most money. One man, Murray Barr, in Reno, Nevada was homeless for ten years. When you total up his medical expenses they come to close to a million dollars! This totally changes how we think about and deal with the problem of becomes about solving a few hard cases...not dealing with thousands. Incidentally...the power-law theory applies to lots of other issues as well.

I could go on and on and on about all the interesting bits and pieces I gleaned from this collection...which takes me back to something Gladwell said in his intro. He's addressing the question he's asked most often: Where do you get your ideas? And he says, "The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I say trick but what I really mean is challenge, because it's a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through the channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one...We filter and rank and judge...We have to. There's just so much out there...but if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct everyday."

I think that's true not just of writers...but of those of us who aspire to be well-educated, life-long while I'm walking away from What the Dog Saw with some incredible info stashed away, the thing that I want to remember most is that "everyone and everything has a story." I want to stay curious, ask questions, wonder...look for connections...and fight the instinct to dismiss and reject and ignore.

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