Saturday, January 15, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell Wants Your to Wear a Mental Straitjacket

I like Malcolm Gladwell. I've bought all his books. And I will continue to do so. I know some critics don't like him. But I think he does a good job, his job, translating scholarly research into readable prose. Here's a recent bit he has allowed to be videoed:

I disagree with the above. Or more correctly, I think some people should follow the above advice, but I won't and I feel that a substantial minority of us should disregard this advice. I made my career by being a generalist. I worked with a lot of highly trained technical people, mostly with PhDs. But I found that while they were immensely useful in their narrow specialization, they were mostly fish out of water when it came to problems and ideas outside their narrow expertise. My function in the company was to deal with problems that the specialists couldn't solve. I did a good job and was seen as quite valuable to the company. They would trot me out with their PhDs and confer on me an "honorific" PhD in front of customers. I didn't have a PhD. I was the odd guy out with a philosophy degree in a company of engineers and computer scientists.

His argument that if your job is to sell soap you should ignore everything but "selling soap". But that is silly and/or tautological. How do you know whether something is relevant to selling soap unless you explore it. There has to be a fruitful tension between focusing on getting the job done and poking your head up from time to time to see if there is a tool, a technique, or an idea that can be fruitfully used to advance your current task. So, "selling soap" may require you to take a course in human psychology or take time off from "selling" to do a focus group on how consumers view soap to talking to early adopters to find out why some new aspect of "soap" is exciting them and not yet the broader public.

His call to "zero in" can be useful to some, but I'm going to defend the "jack of all trades" role. Somebody has to hold "the big picture". That requires you to be able to cross disciplines. That requires you to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone in a narrow speciality. Gladwell is ignoring this important reality.

Messy brains are good. There is value in knowing many things. There is real power in having the "big picture". An amazing about of "new creations" are simply re-applying a technique or insight from one field in another field. Gladwell is completely ignoring this fact.

And what he calls "messy" is the ability to recognize ideas in different fields that can be productively brought together to create a new, bigger "whole".

Some people need to be "messy brains" while others need to be narrow specialists. We need a panoply of "types" to have a productive, creative society. Anybody calling for a "one size fits all" society is marching us off jackboot style into some dismal future.

So... while I like Gladwell, I reject the above. It may be useful for those who are scatter-brained and notorious procrastinators. But otherwise it really isn't that useful as an "insight".

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