Talking to Strangers – another good read by Malcolm Gladwell

I just finished reading “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell and highly recommend it. Gladwell is one of my favorite non-fiction authors and has penned multiple best sellers such as “Outliers,” “Blink,” and “The Tipping Point.” His style is to season examples with a touch of data and analysis, without infringing on the story.

“Talking to Strangers” shares numerous examples and data that we humans tend not to read strangers very well. The main reason is we “default to truth.” In other words, we give more benefit of the doubt to strangers than we should. A healthy dose of skepticism would help in this regard. Without giving too many of his examples away, here are few to think about.

  • Neville Chamberlain wanted to meet Adolph Hitler to see if he could be trusted at his word. It should be noted that Chamberlain was not the only person to meet Hitler and misread him. The ones who saw Hitler more clearly never met him.
  • Amanda Knox was convicted of a crime she did not commit on very flimsy evidence, primarily because she did not react to the news of her roommate’s murder as the Italian police expected her to. Her manner convinced them she had something to hide.
  • Bernie Madoff did not come across as someone who was running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. When investigators met him they could not believe he was so doing. Yet, a man who had not met Madoff named Nat Simons handed the case to the investigators years before they paid attention – he saw too may red flags and dug deeper.
  • Fidel Castro had seven double agents working in the CIA that went unnoticed for years until the US allies caught a key Cuban agent in Europe. The CIA dismissed what would have been red flags rationalizing that the lie detector was picking up a false positive, for example.
  • Brock Turner was convicted of raping a co-ed at Stanford, primarily on the evidence that two Swedish grad students came upon him having sex with a comatose women near a dumpster. Gladwell notes meeting a stranger at a college party is bad enough, but made far worse when both have been drinking.
  • The Penn State president and Athletic Directors could not believe coach Jerry Sandusky was a prolific pedophile. People gravitated to all the good he had done without heeding the first witness to have observed something. The witness was not forceful enough to follow-up and make sure something was done.
  • Sandra Bland was arrested on a very minor traffic offense in a conversation that went awry when it needed not. There were too many incidences where the conversation could have been diffused, yet was not. She was taking a job at Prairie State University in Texas and her Illinois license plates gave Officer Brian Encinia pause. She committed suicide in her jail cell.

Gladwell highlights a study that concluded through tests that we tend to think people who are innocent, but nervous or anxious, as guilty and tend to give a free pass to the good bluffer who is guilty. The folks inbetween, we tend to judge a little better. Given the above CIA and other intelligence, judicial and police examples, those who say they are better at judging are not as good as they think.

One of the examples noted a computer algorithm looking at criminal history was far better than a judge who met the person at setting bail or releasing the offender. The judges released too many that should have had higher bail. Another noted the use of torture was not a good elictor of truth, as when people are tortured, they go into trauma and cannot recall the truth very well.

Like all Gladwell books, “Talking to Strangers” is a quick read. Yet, I hope you will walk away with a few nuggets of knowledge as I did.

 

The hard work is essential

Watching the college basketball tournament during March Madness, it is the hard work that wins ballgames. As my high school coach often said, you can have a bad shooting game, but defense and rebounding can never take a day off.

This is also a metaphor for life. Hard work pays dividends, even if it does not get notoriety. In basketball, making it difficult for your opponent to score requires determination, focus and hustle. The same goes for rebounding. Holding your opponent to one shot and giving your team more than one by good rebounding, makes a huge difference.

In life, being prepared by doing your homework, anticipating questions, learning and maintaining machinery or software, planning your efforts and asking questions puts you and your team in position to succeed. As legendary golfer Gary Player once said, “I have found the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

In “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he notes four attributes of highly successful people or groups. They are talented or smart enough, they are given opportunity, and they recognize and seize such opportunity. The fourth one is they practice, a lot. He noted about 10,000 hours of practice as a key threshhold.

So, think of that last differentiator. Maybe your talent or smarts are average, but you can be much better if you practice. And, that takes effort and hard work. Maybe your opportunities are fewer, but I have found opportunities come to busy and capable people. If you are not busy, learn something, study and make yourself better.

Getting back to basketball, I was not the best shooter or big scorer on the team. If I led a team in scoring, we were not very good. So, I worked my fanny off on playing defense, boxing out and rebounding, and being a good passer to our better shooters. Being a good teammate and playing to your strengths are essential. In basketball, there are five people and only one ball. Play well together. The best five players don’t win; the team playing the best wins.

Work hard. Put the time in. Play to your strengths. And, be willing to pass the ball.

Opportunity missed

One of my favorite quotes about opportunity is “Opportunity is missed because it is often dressed up as hard work.” To me, this speaks volumes. Too many look for easy answers, when success comes from doing some heavy lifting.

Along these lines, in his book “Outliers,” two of Malcolm Gladwell’s four traits of successful people involve opportunity. I should mention the other two are being smart or talented enough and putting in 10,000 hours or more of practice. But, the two pertinent to this discussion are recognizing opportunity and seizing opportunity.

A quick example illustrates this point. By the time he was age 21, Bill Gates was one of the top programmers in the world. Why? He had the opportunity to work on the mainframe computer after 1 am at the University of Washington. As Gladwell points out, it was recognizing this opportunity and getting up or staying up to program while others slept or had fun. He was learning.

Gladwell points out that even the smartest of people sometimes overlook opportunity. In a genius grant project, money was given to watch these geniuses flourish, but many of them were not successful. The reason is they missed opportunity. The ones who were successful either saw opportunity or had someone who brokered opportunity for them.

Some very smart people fail to see that they are in competition for people’s time, interest and money. By waiting until something is perfected or their schedule frees, that opportunity may be gone.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from this brief discussion. First, don’t be frightened of hard work. A man will never be shot while washing the dishes.

Second, keep your head up, network, ask questions and just be involved in your surroundings. Connect dots by looking for or asking about things you see in someone’s office or something you saw online.

Third, be prepared for these moments. Do your research on companies and people that you are meeting with. This will help in making those connections.

Fourth, seize opportunities. If you are driving and see an interesting shop – stop the car and pull in. This is a metaphor for business, volunteer or investment opportunities. Since the average person has had eleven jobs by the time they’re forty, take a chance on something that interests you. But, honor that interest and invest your time in it. These life experiences will build your wisdom.

Opportunities abound. Look for them. Seize them. Work them.

The more I practice the less I suck

The above phrase was uttered by Joe Walsh, the legendary guitarist with The Eagles and as a solo artist. Walsh was a guest on Daryl Hall’s show “Live at Daryl’s House,” where Hall has a studio in his mountain house and the crew and guest jam together, then cook and eat a meal. It is worth the watch (see a link below).

After jamming on Funk 49, Rocky Mountain Way, and Life’s Been Good along with a few of Hall’s songs, the group sat down for a meal which they prepared with a guest chef. As they spoke of how they got started in the music business, Walsh regaled them with his story.

In essence, Walsh spoke of an early band where “we all sucked.” This brought lots of nods and smiles. Then, he said The Beatles came out and they learned to cover The Beatles’ songs. He said if you knew the songs, you could get gigs and they began to play more. But, they also had to practice more beforehand. Eventually, they got closer to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice, which ironically referenced The Beatles in his book “Outliers.” Gladwell noted The Beatles were sent to Hamburg to learn to play better in front of an audience with seven shows a night, six days a week.

And, he then uttered the above line. The more I practiced, the less I sucked. This succinct lesson applies to far more than playing music or singing. It could be related to golf, tennis, free throws, research, business analysis, teaching, presentations, general medicine, surgery, investing, etc. It could be as basic as driving a car or learning to cook or bake.

If we put in the time, we will suck less. Doing something once, does not make you proficient. It means you did it once. It takes practice to get better at something. Thanks Joe for your music and advice. You no longer suck.

http://www.livefromdarylshouse.com/

 

 

David and Goliath – Interesting View froms Malcolm Gladwell

I have often quoted Malcolm Gladwell, who is the best-selling author of books called “Blink,” “Outliers ”  and “The Tipping Point.” His latest book is also excellent and in keeping with his style of an outside looking in perspective – “David and Goliath.” Its subtitle elaborates further on its theme – “Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.”

“David and Goliath” helps us question how often and why underdogs are and can be successful. He starts with the biblical tale of how David slew the giant infantryman, Goliath, as one of the most celebrated underdogs. But, as Gladwell points out, David was not necessarily an underdog. David was an expert with a sling and had a history of bringing down large animals who threatened livestock. A sling was one of the artilleries of the day. When King Saul wanted David to wear armor to fight Goliath, he responded that he was not used to fighting in that way and did not care to put on the armor.

Goliath was likely around 6’8″ or larger, quite the imposing figure. He was insulted by the little boy coming down to fight him, but it may have been more than that. Based on observations made by Gladwell from the scriptures about an escort helping Goliath with his weapons, Goliath’s size and other comments the giant man made, Goliath may not have been able to see very well. So, David, whose accuracy with a sling was not unusual for someone who often used one, actually had an advantage over Goliath provided he fought him his way. He would only lose that advantage if he came in too close. Once released by sling, David’s stone traveled at significant speed and with its usual accuracy to Goliath’s peril.

Gladwell uses many other examples in his book about success of perceived underdogs. He highlights several times how people compensate for shortcomings and actually position themselves for success. A good example was the high percentage of dyslexic people who have been successful – David Boies, Charles Schwab, Gary Cohn, Richard Branson, etc. He notes how each compensated for their dyslexia by being terrific listeners, great involvers, and more daring people to get ahead. They also found their way into positions which would not obligate them to spend more time with their weaknesses, but would take advantage of their talents.

Boies became a great trial lawyer, but would have been a horrible corporate lawyer. Why? Because a corporate lawyer needed to read subtleties in printed contracts and documents, while a trial lawyer did not. Being a trial lawyer took advantage of his listening skills and ability to condense a case down into its simplest terms for a jury to understand. His listening skills were paramount as he could pick up on a slight hesitation from an expert witness as a sign of uncertainty. He was renowned for using the opposition’s expert witnesses to benefit his clients. He also prepared his witnesses to use the same inflection on answers to avoid the same trap. Ironically, none of the successful dyslexics would wish their dyslexia on their children, as it makes life hard.

Gladwell’s gift is to help people challenge normative thinking and show that what people believe to be true is not necessarily so. Several times he notes where efforts to accomplish something by a larger, stronger force, has the opposite effect, actually galvanizing the underdog for future success. In one enlightening example, he discussed the Battle of Britain, where the Germans mercilessly bombed London and surrounding areas. Yet, the conclusion by some psychological experts, the Germans would have been better off by not bombing London at all. Why? Outside of those who lost their lives and those who were close to the bombing, the great many who survived each bombing actually became more resolved. The survivalist nature of “I am still here,” had a profound impact. It was the British citizens saying to the Nazis, “is that all you got?” The world owes a huge debt to the British people for standing up against great odds by themselves until others would join in. Their resolve was only bolstered by overcoming the underdog status and still be standing after the bombs were dropped.

There are numerous other examples, but I wanted to give you a taste of the book. Gladwell’s books are a great blend of observation and storytelling with some data mixed in. His observations are grounded in his experience of always being an outsider. When I have seen him interviewed, he notes how different he looks as the son of a Jamaican mother and British father who grew up in Toronto. He said we were always outsiders, so we never accepted the status quo. His books are also a quick read. It is also hard for me to pick a favorite. Start with one and, if you like it, give another one a chance. You will be better for it, as he makes you think.

 

To make art look effortless…takes a lot of effort

While watching a documentary called “Six by Sondheim” on the career of Stephen Sondheim, the famous Broadway musical play composer, he said something I found very applicable to anything worth doing well. Sondheim said “To make art look effortless, takes a lot of effort.” Here is a link to more on the documentary, which is worth seeing.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/12/09/sondheim-on-sondheim-american-musical-theater-in-six-songs.html

During the documentary, Sondheim notes that he learned a lesson from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein about not to overwrite a song. The song can say something very profound, yet it needs to have a beginning, middle and end, and not get ahead of the audience. They need to hear and listen to the lyrics. Sondheim’s gift is to write lyrics that come out of the preceding and abet ensuing dialogue. He would actually comb through dialogue for words to highlight in the songs. His songs resonate with this context whether it is in  “Send in the Clowns” or “I’m Still Here” or just about anything from “Westside Story” where he wrote the lyrics in concert with Leonard Bernstein’s music.

However, if you step back and look at his quote, you can see its applicability with anything worth doing well. In business, if you prepare for a big meeting to give the factual impression you are on top of things where facts and appropriate anecdotes come easily, it takes a lot of effort. When I have done my homework and anticipated the questions we might get asked, it is much easier to respond. Someone may ask “how do you know that?” or “where did you get that tidbit from?” It is equal elements of perspiration and preparation. Plus, experience builds upon your experience. So, a good meeting may come from a cumulative set of experiences over time.

In sports, exceptional athletes spend 95% of their time to prepare for 5% action. They practice to improve so that when they do play a game, they are making it look effortless. The famous golfer Gary Player once responded to a question about a “lucky golf shot” he had hit earlier in the day. Player said “I find that the more I practice, the luckier I get.” But, the same could be said about any successful athlete. During Sunday night’s football game, the announcers spoke of the methodical practice habits of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. He can alter who he would throw the ball to under pressure as good as any quarterback, sometimes throwing to his third choice. A key reason is he would practice this very thing.

In his book “Outliers” about successful people, Malcolm Gladwell notes through numerous examples the following observation. Successful people have four traits:

they are smart enough, but need not be the smartest;

– they are given opportunity;

– they recognize opportunity and take advantage of it; and

– they work hard – he cites practicing a craft for at least 10,000 hours.

He said Bill Gates was one of the best programmers in the world by the time he was 21.  Why? He was given the opportunity to write programs online at the University of Washington after 1 am in the middle of the night. But, as Gladwell points out, he got up out of bed and went to program all night, so he seized the opportunity. And, through his efforts, he made programming effortless and took it to a new level.

“To make art look effortless, takes a lot of effort.” Sondheim’s words ring so true. So, prepare for that test. Prepare for that interview. Prepare for that athletic contest. Prepare for that recital. Prepare for that drawing. In the end, you will be the one who is rewarded as you have done your best. And, someone may take notice.