Tag Archives: malcolm gladwell

Self-Consciousness vs. Interestingness.

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Ever since reading What The Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell’s collection of essays, I’ve had a particular statement of his at the constant forefront of my thoughts. In his introduction, Gladwell talks about minor geniuses and why, when he’s writing an essay, he goes to the people in the middle, the people who do the actual work, instead of the people at the top. He explains that the people at the top are reticent to share information freely and are very careful about what they divulge because they have a lot more to lose, which leads Gladwell to conclude that “self-consciousness is the enemy of interestingness.”

SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS IS THE ENEMY OF INTERESTINGNESS. Does this statement resonate with anyone else as much as it does with me?

I’ve been ruminating for months on how this equation works, the equation being INTERESTINGNESS ≠ SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS. I totally get why Gladwell would draw this conclusion; I myself am very self-conscious when I talk to people I don’t know very well, and as a result, I feel the people often perceive me as boring. By that same token, I generally find myself enamored of people who seem to have a preponderance of self-consciousness, who immediately speak easily and freely about anything because they don’t give a damn if people find them impressive or not and who are always themselves regardless of who they meet or talk to; these are the type of people I want to know. There’s such a perpetuation of “political correctness,” of self-censorship so as not to offend, in American culture that makes dialogue so sterile and bland, and I think that has heightened the attractiveness and magnetism of people who don’t strictly adhere to decorum. I guess I can only speak for myself, but I think there’s a sort of exhilaration in experiencing the openness of a person that almost feels like breaking the rules, like I’m cheating the system by participating in a conversation that is unscripted and unguarded.

That said, there is also a fine line between openness and having no filter. I went to college with a great number of people who would pipe up during class discussions with whatever thought was floating around in their heads, regardless of whether or not it was fully-formed or even germane to the conversation, and their comments ended up being more disruptive than anything else. The need for gratification and affirmation is very prominent in people of my generation, I’ve noticed, and that inward focus paired with a lack of verbal filter makes people say some really stupid, and ultimately boring, things. That old adage “Do not say anything that does not improve upon silence,” comes to mind; it’s a sentiment that seems to have fallen on many a deaf ear.

So, if we’re solving for x (as in, INTERESTINGNESS=x), what is that secret sauce that we equate with interestingness? Does x=UNGUARDED? Does x=FILTER+INTELLIGENCE+OPENNESS? Or does x=SIMPLY NOT GIVING A DAMN? I’m not a mathematician, you guys, so I couldn’t say definitively. But I hope to figure it out eventually.

What do you think x equals? Do interestingness and self-consciousness necessarily have to be enemies?

Read This: What The Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell.

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For someone who never intended to be a writer, Malcolm Gladwell has done pretty well for himself as exactly that: he began as the business and science writer for The Washington Post, then made his way over to The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1996, and with the release of three wildly popular books (Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers), found himself sitting atop the New York Times Bestsellers list and emerged as perhaps the most recognizable name in contemporary American non-fiction. Not too shabby, Malcolm, not too shabby.

In What The Dog Saw and Other Adventures, Gladwell has collected his favorite essays that he’s written for The New Yorker from 1996 to present and compiled them into a single volume. As his essays span a broad range of subjects, he’s broken the book up into three sections: the first section, “Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius” focuses not on the people at the top, those with a great deal of power or fame or influence, but the people in the middle, individuals like Ron Popeil, the Chop-O-Matic salesman, or Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer, whose knowledge of their particular subject is unparalleled; the second section, “Theories, Predictions, and Diagnoses” takes a look at how we as humans think about things, from homelessness to plagiarism to the Challenger explosion, and how we should think about them; and the third section, “Personality, Character, and Intelligence,” is devoted to examining the ways that we make judgments about others, whether they’re a bad person or a qualified applicant for a job or deserving of a raise, and how those judgments may not always be fully-formed or entirely accurate.

The entire collection of essays is really strong and engaging throughout, but there were a few essays that really stood out to me. “The New Boy Network” examines the important role intuition and first impressions play in a job interview and how little they are actually able to tell us about a person’s capabilities to perform well within the context of the job, as well as how the hiring process would have to change in order to avoid hires based on the bias of personability. “True Colors” looks at the hair dye market in post-war America, and compares Clairol’s “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure” campaign, which encouraged a woman to bridge the gap between “the kind of woman she was and the kind of woman she felt she ought to be,” and L’Oreal’s “Because I’m worth it” campaign, which was originally written as a veiled statement of feminism and has since become perhaps the most well-known hair dye slogans of all time. “Something Borrowed” problematizes the damning offense of plagiarism, and asks questions about the life cycle of creative property and the difference between “borrowing that is transformative and borrowing that is merely derivative,” questions that are made all the more interesting considering that one of the cases of plagiarism Gladwell looks at involves a playwright’s “borrowing” of his own writing.

In his preface, Gladwell addresses the most commonly-asked question he gets as a writer, “Where do you get your ideas?,” by explaining:

“The trick… 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 channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one. We go to a bookstore and look at twenty novels before we pick the one that we want. 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 every day. Shampoo doesn’t seem interesting? Well, dammit, it must be, and if it isn’t, I have to believe that it will ultimately lead me to something that is.”

This curiosity, this ability to find something of interest in any subject, is perhaps what I appreciate the most about Gladwell as a writer. It seems to me a real feat of creativity to be able to take a commonplace and mundane subject like ketchup or hair dye and turn it into an essay that is undeniably fascinating and engaging. The way that Gladwell writes is miraculous, in that he’s able to bring together several seemingly disparate stories and perspectives into a single seamless narrative that is never simply about ketchup or hair dye, but rather how those commonplace and mundane subjects can explain something about who we are as humans. It’s an incredible gift he has.

So now you know why I want to be Malcolm Gladwell when I grow up. I usually end these book reviews with an “if” statement, but there are no ifs about What The Dog Saw: it’s one of the most fascinating, well-written and thought-provoking non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and I highly doubt that you will regret reading it.

12 Things in 2012.

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YOU GUYS. It’s May 2nd, which means that 1/3 of 2012 is already gone. What the what?! Crazy. 2012 thus far has been a year unlike any other for me, so when I saw Liz‘s list of twelve things she’s learned in 2012 so far, I thought hey! that might be a good way to preserve some of the magic that this year has shown me and to share some of the knowledge I’ve gleaned from January to present. Some of these things were hard-learned, some of them I learned by accident, and some I’ve always known but haven’t been able to accept their truth until now. But I’m still learning all the time, and that’s not nothing.

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01 /// That most of the American stereotypes held by Europeans are not entirely untrue.

02 /// That curiosity is one of the best qualities to have, and that there are generally great rewards when you exercise it.

03 /// That I can get by on a lot less than I thought I could.

04 /// That I will probably always be having an internal dialogue with myself about whether to cut or grow out my bangs, and that I will probably always be unhappy with whichever I choose.

05 /// That when it comes to searching for employment, it’s not what you know but who you know.

06 /// That Seattle springtime is a beautiful thing, and reminds me why I choose to call this city home.

07 /// That South Park is one of the funniest shows ever.

08 /// That sometimes it’s more important to honor your own happiness above the commitments you make.

09 /// That people and their stories are my truest passion.

10 /// That trying to overcome old habits without making a clean break from the environments that fostered them means setting yourself up for failure.

11 /// That language is a miracle, and “YES” is a way more fun word than “NO.”

12 /// That I want to be Malcolm Gladwell when I grow up.

Emotion Bad.

I went to a book club on Tuesday night. It’s kind of an unconventional book club, because instead of all reading the same book over the course of a month or some other predetermined span of time, people just bring poems to read, or read short passages from a book, as a jumping off point and then just let conversation spring organically from there. The conversation touched on everything from beer to cats to 4chan, but the brief while that we discussed empathy versus disdain was really fascinating.

Someone read from C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man and that brought the topic to empathy, and how the lack of it is one of the great flaws of our generation. From there, someone brought up Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and the Love Lab, where couple are taped having conversations and then the footage is broken down frame by frame to analyze responses at the micro level. Apparently, once this footage has been analyzed, the scientists are able to predict with startling accuracy which couples will stay together and which will break up, and the one response that translated as the kiss of death for a relationship was disdain.

Disdain. n. the feeling that someone or something is unworthy of one’s consideration or respect.

I feel so often that we’re conditioned to think that conflict is an ultimate bad, and that conflict constitutes a bad relationship. When in reality (science has proven it!), conflict in the context of a relationship is actually healthy. Healthy because it keeps emotions from getting bottled up, which is a breeding ground for disdain. And because, no matter if you raise your voices and get angry, it shows that you care enough about the other person and about your relationship to get emotional instead of just not caring.

This has so often been the bane of my existence because I’m a very emotional person, and, especially in relationships, this intense emotion in me is often perceived by my significant other as intense unhappiness. No matter how many arguments I’ve had or tears I’ve shed, I’ve never felt disdain for the person I’m with, never gotten to the point of not caring. Based on the findings of the Love Lab, it appears that my outpourings of emotion are a sign of caring a lot. Maybe too much.

In theory, I think it’s a good thing to be emotional because it’s an outward sign of inward regard. But because my emotionality is so often misunderstood as discontentment, it just seems it would be easier sometimes to be able to turn my emotions off, or even just down a couple notches, so as to fit into the societal construct of “romantic happiness.” So as to be in control of my performance, and to tailor it to the audience’s expectations: accord, harmony, sans crying and all the other typical markers of unhappiness. (Nevermind the fact that I cry the least when I’m unhappy in comparison with other more positive emotions.)

But that’s neither possible nor practical. I can no more change my emotionality than I can change my DNA: it is part of my biology. So I suppose that means I’m simply destined to be broken-hearted by men who leave me to spare me unhappiness where there is already none, and to be penalized for caring enough to be confrontational. Oh, great.