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Sunday, November 17, 2013

David and Goliath


No wonder he's put in so many disclaimers throughout the book --- He's not advocating for adversity. He does not condone an unhappy childhood with parental loss. He does not think it's a good thing to be born with dyslexia. Reading the character sketches in this book, it is easy to feel incredulous and misled. You can't possibly claim that it's better not to be able to read than to be able to read! Indeed he doesn't, but then the stories of successful businessmen with dyslexia are so compelling. He can explain (citing a Canadian psychiatrist) why people of London did not succumb to the bombings in WW2, but one could argue that this was only because the bombs were not big enough, as the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (intentional civilian targets) achieved the psychological effect German conventional bombs couldn't. A lot has to do with a lot of other factors.

Gladwell is the first to admit that these success stories are irreproducible. The vast majority of people are crushed by adversity, but a few special ones rise up and become better, tougher, more fearless, and more resilient. Who can argue with that? In the end the ideas are not so subversive, so revolutionary, so earth-shaking --- perhaps because Gladwell himself had a very normal and happy childhood. Just because a selected or gifted few become better through pain and suffering, doesn't mean the vast majority are not crushed.

Still it makes me feel a little bit good. Even if most of the messages in any Gladwell book cannot be adopted in life, they tickle my brain like bubbly drink with a hint of sweetness. Actually there is at least one usable message in the book --- If the rules of the game are stacked against you, don't play by the rules. Change the game. This sounds suspiciously like the quote from Mad Men: "If you don't like what they say, change the conversation." In politics as in advertising, this is an old trick in psychology known as "framing." Basically, reality is neither good nor bad, the only difference is in one's psychological framing, and any frame can be reframed. This is basically what Gladwell does so well --- he changes the frame all the time until your brain is tingling all over.

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