Thursday, November 20, 2008

in defense of accessibility, big ideas, and wild hair

The brown cardboard package indicating an awaited delivery from sat wedged in the mail slot begging to be freed from its bear trap. Upon recognizing my own name on the address label, I knew instantly what was inside. "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell's latest lay snugly within the cardboard casing, and I, like my 5 year old on her birthday, tore open the package like a very hungry moose, or a deserving porcupine (if you know your literature).

It is not rapture to read this book. Not in the way it is to settle into the worlds of some of the fiction I'm fond of. But it is engaging. And utterly engrossing. And as I predicted to my wife, I think I'll be done with it within the week.

Yesterday, I had it lying on my desk at work and one of the fellas came by and we had the following exchange (not verbatim. but relatively close):

Him: I heard that sucks.
Me: excuse me?
Him: I heard that sucks.
Me: oh? who said so?
Him: reviewers.
Me: hm.
Him: they say his methodology is shit and that it's not as good as Blink.
Me: I'm actually more a fan of The Tipping Point than I ever was of Blink.
Him: well that's what they say.
Me: hm.

Despite my powerfully persuasive, monosyllabic, vowelless utterings, we ended at that impasse. But I did realize that there are many who dismiss Gladwell's ideas, his logic, his whole being as not scientific enough. Or too "poppy". Some even take great pride in disproving his theories. The most famous of which is Duncan Watts, who set out to discredit the Connectors, Mavens, Salesmen trifecta that Gladwell laid out in how trends move through our world. And he does offer up intelligent, scientific proof that he created using virtual community programming models. By all accounts, when I heard about him, he got me thinking. But then I realized, I wonder if Malcolm Gladwell cares?

Which isn't a slap in the face to the theorists who seek to knock him off the pedestal on which he never (as far as I know) asked to be placed. It's more to say, my sense of Mr. Gladwell is that he's simply curious. He thinks a big thought and then seeks to figure out a new way of approaching its proof and its validity. Blink certainly isn't the only book ever written about instinct, but it might be the most accessible. And therein lies Gladwell's gift. And by gift, I don't just mean his talent, but a gift he gives to we the people. He makes complex thinking available to those who can't follow the logarithms and theorem proofs that make big ideas seem the sole property and realm of the eggheaded and singularly-focused statisticians of the world.

In the Gladwellian form, I offer up as lab rats two of my dear friends from college. To protect their identities, I will change their names from Alex and Dave to Sam and Eric, respectively.

Sam and Eric were two of the smartest guys I've ever met. Ever. Each of them clearly representing the top echelon of intellectual minds at Tufts University in the mid-1990s. Both clearly well versed, and well-studied in multiple disciplines, they each settled into their respective majors with both ease and regret at not choosing one of the other numerous potential pursuits of study. Both had, over the drinking of beers, revealed (confessed?) their near-perfection on the standardized testing circuit. Both had rejected offers to attend other Ivy League schools based on academic opportunities and scholarship offers from the good people at Tufts. Both had proven their linguistic dexterity through dizzying thesaurian conversations that amounted to wordplay-based one-upmanship. By any measure, they were smart. Dare I say, very smart.

And yet, if asked, I need not be heavily pressed to offer the opinion that Eric was the more intelligent of the two. (Oddly, I was actually much closer friends with Sam, and want desperately to change the story in his favor. But, I did just gush over his intelligence, so...meh.) The difference was very clear. While both beyond capable of passionate discourse on wide ranging subject matter, Eric had a way of making it all so tangible, so real. As if even I, a mere English major, quick-quitter of the pre-med program, soon thereafter Master of Fine Arts, even I could grasp Kant, Einstein, and Kurzweil. I didn't, entirely, of course truly grasp their theories. But Eric had a way of making it available to me in ways that Sam never could. He took big ideas and made them accessible. Not dumbed-down. Not condescending. Just, possible.

I think that's a real gauge for true intelligence. The ability not only to wrestle with big ideas, but to consider an audience and make the same information meaningful, fascinating, and understandable to them. I love this kind of intelligence because it helps the world engage in conversations and ideas they wouldn't otherwise be having because they aren't encouraged too. Because it's not their domain. Because big ideas belong to those with PhDs and labcoats and bowties.

Malcolm Gladwell, that wild-haired Canadian theorist-storyteller, serves us in the same way. His books grapple with some monster ideas: how do trends disseminate through a society? what is behind the power of our instinct? what is the context in which genius flourishes? And while I can't make a definitive pronouncement one way or another or his methodologies (they seem well laid out, thoughtful, and mostly logical to me), I offer the defense that anyone who asks the masses to consider and examine bigger ideas than they might not otherwise contemplate is always worth the price of admission. Or at least an Amazon delivery.
the thoughts and opinions expressed below are entirely my own, and are not necessarily shared by my friends, family, or employer. (though they very well might be...)