Malcolm Gladwell

Become a professional golfer in just 3,600,000 easy steps

Steps on an analog clock that is… this guy is trying to test out that theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell that expertise takes 10,000 hours. And he’s trying it on golf. Here’s the recipe for expertise…

“The Dan Plan will take six hours a day, six days a week, for six years. He is keeping diligent records of his practice and progress. People who study expertise say no one has done quite what Dan is doing right now.”

That’s from this feature story on the man with the plan – Dan McLaughlin.

His website,, is tracking his progress (1,400 hours so far).

Fascinating stuff.

Putting Social Media in its place

I love Facebook. I love blogs. I understand Twitter. And for years I grappled with how to use them professionally. I read through a bunch of posts on Facebook’s blog the other day and I’m blown away by how powerful the platform is, and how much potential it has to connect people.

But it can never. ever. replace proper face-to-face relationships. And if the extent of your “online marketing” strategy is “be on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube” (and I’m sick of seeing those logos crop up on ads for obscure things as though I’m more likely to buy a car if it’s got its own Twitter account) then your strategy is dumb. It’s part of your brand. And it’s good to be contactable, and to be getting exposure, but if there’s one thing the stupid breast cancer awareness campaigns of this week, and earlier this year, show – it’s that for many people – Facebook “activism” and “marketing” have supplanted the real thing.

Malcolm Gladwell took a stab at this idea in a recent piece for the New Yorker. Some interesting quotes:

Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information.

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

He makes this point about social media “activism” and where it works, citing an example of a webtrepreneur, Sameer Bhatia, who found out he had leukemia but knew nobody with the same bone marrow type.

Bhatia needed a bone-marrow transplant, but he could not find a match among his relatives and friends. The odds were best with a donor of his ethnicity, and there were few South Asians in the national bone-marrow database. So Bhatia’s business partner sent out an e-mail explaining Bhatia’s plight to more than four hundred of their acquaintances, who forwarded the e-mail to their personal contacts; Facebook pages and YouTube videos were devoted to the Help Sameer campaign. Eventually, nearly twenty-five thousand new people were registered in the bone-marrow database, and Bhatia found a match.

But how did the campaign get so many people to sign up? By not asking too much of them. That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf. You can get thousands of people to sign up for a donor registry, because doing so is pretty easy. You have to send in a cheek swab and—in the highly unlikely event that your bone marrow is a good match for someone in need—spend a few hours at the hospital. Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.

Facebook is all about people salving their consciences by appearing to care – it sets a really low bar for participation – like posting “where you like it”…

“Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece.”

And “Social Media Evangelist” Anil Dash agrees with him. With some reservations. One of them is that there are some things, when it comes to communicating a message and bringing about change, that the virtual world just can’t supplant.

Who are the “they”? It’s not really clear. But even as someone who’s had an “evangelist” title in the past, I don’t come to refute Gladwell’s strawman argument. His point is that today’s social networks are fundamentally unable to drive the sort of social change that fueled upheavals like the civil rights movement. I agree; As I said last year, Facebook often enables politics of the sort that convinces college kids that changing their middle name on a website is a form of activism. And the idea that the uprisings in Iran were driven by Twitter or any other social media is clearly refuted by realities such as Hossein “Hoder” Derakhshan, the father of the Iranian blogosphere, being sentenced to nineteen years in prison. The traditional method sit-in and picket-in-the-streets form of protest is clearly a failure online.

There’s also a world of difference between using social media platforms to coordinate action, and using them to stage action or report on action. Facebook is terrific for organising events – social and political – and it is a wonderful way to disseminate information – but it is not a place to stage a protest or to bring about real change. Participating in “awareness raising” on Facebook can not be the only string in the activism or communication bow. It just won’t work. It doesn’t bring about change in the world – it aids the process.

That is all.

How to write like Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell is a phenomenon. His books sell like hotcakes. He’s a compelling storyteller and he uses this ability to stitch together anecdotes and essays in a cohesive way. His books are famous for pushing one big idea using several supporting examples presented in an amusing and engaging way.

Here are eight tips for writing like Gladwell. In sum:

1. “Your book is actually going to be a collection of essays drawn together by a loose thread” – You should start writing a bunch of essays about loosely connectected topics.
2. “Each of your essays is going to revolve around a single idea” – Conveniently, these idea then become a chapter.
3. “Illustrate the idea with stories about real people” – Everybody likes a story about real people (this works with media releases too).
4. “Get a professor” – find an expert who is willing to put their names to conjecture and unproven theories, present them as fact.
5. “Best to have some sad stories to illustrate your points well
” – You need to balance out all the success stories with stories of people who have failed because they haven’t embraced Gladwell’s concept.
6. “Give things names and remember Douglas Adams’ rule of capital letters” – basically give the concepts you’ve come up with names, catchy names, expressed best by the power of proper nouns.
7. “Don’t fret too much about accuracy, concentrate on telling a good story” – some of Gladwell’s work has been shown to be either based on conjecture or old wives’ tales.
8. “Don’t worry about the new, new thing” – some of Gladwell’s ideas are from papers or events more than ten years ago.

Highlighted thinking

Amazon has released a look at the passages most highlighted on the Kindle. I reckon this is pretty interesting data. This gives a little bit of insight into the thoughts of nerdy people who buy e-book readers. Do people highlight things because they are profound? Or because they agree with them? I don’t know, but worryingly on both counts – the Shack dominates the top ten, it scores five of the top ten results and nine of the top twenty…

They’re all pretty pithy philosophical mantras representing a protestant view of the world – valuing hard work, success, sacrifice, trust, relationships, and a sense of the spiritual.

Here are the top ten, and their books…

  1. Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell) – “three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.”
  2. The Shack (William P Young) – “Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”
  4. The Shack – “Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to power is to choose to limit oneself—to serve.”
  5. The Shack – “Trust is the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved. Because you do not know that I love you, you cannot trust me.”
  6. The Shack – “Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions. Most emotions are responses to perception—what you think is true about a given situation. If your perception is false, then your emotional response to it will be false too. So check your perceptions, and beyond that check the truthfulness of your paradigms—what you believe. Just because you believe something firmly doesn’t make it true. Be willing to reexamine what you believe. The more you live in the truth, the more your emotions will help you see clearly. But even then, you don’t want to trust them more than me.”
  7. The Lost Symbol – “Katherine had been fascinated by McTaggart’s book The Intention Experiment, and her global, Web-based study——aimed at discovering how human intention could affect the world.”
  8. Outliers – “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”
  9. The Shack – “To force my will on you,” Jesus replied, “is exactly what love does not do. Genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are not helpful or healthy.”
  10. Have a Little Faith: A True Story (Mitch Albom) – “Be satisfied.” That’s it? “Be grateful.” That’s it? “For what you have. For the love you receive. And for what God has given you.”

A little analysis

E-book platforms are more common in the United States than they are here – they’re not necessarily just for geeks (if it was a Venn diagram the Geek side would cover slightly more territory than the “keen reader” side (I can’t back this up with research – it’s all hearsay).

Eight of those ten quotes are from books related to Christianity. The one at #7 has probably been highlighted so that people can look up the web address later.

The two Outliers quotes are essentially outliers – but they’re both to do with success and career satisfaction, and a quest for meaning in that sphere (though arguably in all spheres in #8).

The rest represent what I think is a mix of Christianity, philosophy and psychology, #10 could be drawn from either Buddhism or Christianity with a zen like push for contentment (and thankfulness), #9, #4, #3 are about how we treat others (with the implication that we should serve them), #4 and #5 are about relationships, #4, #6 and #9 are about power dynamics, and #5 and #6 are about trust.

It’s interesting that these, and the next ten on the list, could almost be defined as being quotes about happiness and the meaning of life – and a number of them tie that to fulfilling relationships and service of others. What I haven’t told you is that quote #1 (about career success) was highlighted by 37% more people (1749) than number #2 (about grace) (1270).

Gladwell on writing

I like Malcolm Gladwell. His writing is engaging and he is able to link lots of disparate things together into a cohesive big idea. His books are interesting. I commend them to you…

This article doesn’t really. It goes close. It’s examining the phenomena that is Malcolm Gladwell.

It contains a quote from Gladwell about what writing is. I liked it.

“Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade… It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head–even if in the end you conclude that someone else’s head is not a place you’d really like to be.”

Speaking of good writing – I read through the first year and a half of my blog yesterday at work. It was not good writing. I thought about deleting it all. Just in case you’ve ever stumbled through the archives.

Free thinking

Andrew and I have continued to discuss the implications of my “open source” Christian music idea.

Clearly both sides of the argument contain truths – particularly when applied to Christian music. Songwriters want their ideas spread as widely as possible, while they also need to be paid to write if they do it full time. There’s another paradigm to consider when it comes to whether or not God “owns” work produced through spiritual gifts. Then he’d own the intellectual property, and the copyright.

It’s part of a much bigger and broader argument about open source that’s going on in the upper echelons of thoughtful journalism – and a lot of the discussion is about the future of journalism and paid media in the context of the free media offered by the web.

Malcolm Gladwell – one of my favourite authors is engaged in a debate with Wired Magazine editor, and author of a book called “Free”, Chris Anderson.

Anderson wrote his book on the premise that “ideas and information” want to be “free”… that’s a nutshell summary.

Here’s Anderson’s take on music and the Internet as quoted in Gladwell’s review of the book (which was negative)…

“In the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economic gravity will win.” To musicians who believe that their music is being pirated, Anderson is blunt. They should stop complaining, and capitalize on the added exposure that piracy provides by making money through touring, merchandise sales, and “yes, the sale of some of [their] music to people who still want CDs or prefer to buy their music online.”

It’s a great article. Here’s another interesting passage from Anderson’s book, again quoted by Gladwell…

“Anderson describes an experiment conducted by the M.I.T. behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the author of “Predictably Irrational.” Ariely offered a group of subjects a choice between two kinds of chocolate—Hershey’s Kisses, for one cent, and Lindt truffles, for fifteen cents. Three-quarters of the subjects chose the truffles. Then he redid the experiment, reducing the price of both chocolates by one cent. The Kisses were now free. What happened? The order of preference was reversed. Sixty-nine per cent of the subjects chose the Kisses. The price difference between the two chocolates was exactly the same, but that magic word “free” has the power to create a consumer stampede. Amazon has had the same experience with its offer of free shipping for orders over twenty-five dollars. The idea is to induce you to buy a second book, if your first book comes in at less than the twenty-five-dollar threshold. And that’s exactly what it does. In France, however, the offer was mistakenly set at the equivalent of twenty cents—and consumers didn’t buy the second book. “From the consumer’s perspective, there is a huge difference between cheap and free,” Anderson writes. “Give a product away, and it can go viral. Charge a single cent for it and you’re in an entirely different business. . . . The truth is that zero is one market and any other price is another.”

Gladwell’s critique cites YouTube as an example.

“Why is that? Because of the very principles of Free that Anderson so energetically celebrates. When you let people upload and download as many videos as they want, lots of them will take you up on the offer. That’s the magic of Free psychology: an estimated seventy-five billion videos will be served up by YouTube this year. Although the magic of Free technology means that the cost of serving up each video is “close enough to free to round down,” “close enough to free” multiplied by seventy-five billion is still a very large number. A recent report by Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube’s bandwidth costs in 2009 will be three hundred and sixty million dollars. In the case of YouTube, the effects of technological Free and psychological Free work against each other.”

Chris Anderson has since responded to Gladwell’s criticism on his blog. He uses blogging and bloggers getting book deals as a case study. Interesting stuff and worth a read. Seth Godin – the “guru” – has chimed in on the subject declaring Anderson right and Gladwell wrong. The Times Online’s tech blog predictably took the side of established journalism and declared Gladwell the winner.

David v Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell – author of renowned books Tipping Point and Outliers – still has his day job at the New Yorker. His most recent piece is an analysis of the underdog and an endorsement of decision making in real time. It makes for interesting reading.  Here’s a bit to whet your appetite – it’s quite long.

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.

10,000 Hours

10,000 hours. 416 and two third days. That’s how long it takes to become prodigiously good at whatever it is you do. Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote tipping point – a book focused on what it takes to get an idea to the point of zeitgeist or epidemic. I enjoyed Tipping Point, so I’m glad to hear Gladwell’s new book is out. It’s called Outliers

I plan to get a hold of it for some light holiday reading – but in the meantime there’s this idea in there that I found quite interesting. Here’s a review on the chapter in question from the simple dollar (which is a pretty useful blog in its own right).

The 10,000 Hour Rule
Here, Gladwell continues with the birthdate theme, but argues that sometimes the year is important. Gladwell gives two examples: the generation of “robber barons” (Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and so on) who were all born in the 1830s, and the generation of computer entrepreneurs (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and so on) who were all born in the 1950s. Sometimes, it requires being born in a certain period to have the opportunity for exceptionalism.
The more important (and interesting) part of the chapter, though, discusses the huge role that nearly-obsessive practice plays in making people great. Gladwell uses The Beatles and Bill Gates as examples here, showing how they both were able to take advantage of stupendous amounts of practice time to become very, very good at what they did. In each case, Gladwell estimated that it took 10,000 hours of practice for those individuals to hone their natural raw talents and become world class – roughly ten years of multiple hours of practice (3 or so on average) every single day. Gladwell offers many other examples of how this practice pays off, but that magic number of 10,000 hours pops up again and again.

I’m not sure I’ve spent 10,000 hours on anything. And I’m not sure what I’d like to spend 10,000 hours on. Any ideas?

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