Saturday, March 7, 2009

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell’s books are always addictive and interesting to read, but I always feel a tad let down at the end when I think about what the book was actually saying. He puts forth a simple premise that seems fairly intuitive, then supports it with fascinating case studies. The premise itself could probably be covered in an article, but it’s the case studies that make it persuasive. And Gladwell’s real strength is in his uncanny ability to find these varied stories from different fields and then make unexpected connections to support his premise.

In Outliers, Gladwell’s simple assertion is that our notion of the self-made man, the superstar who rises to the top of their profession by their own hard work and natural talent, is a bit of a myth. Yes, those geniuses of whatever field they’re in are indeed talented, and yes they do work hard, but in every case they have benefited from a multitude of other factors: the day and year they were born, who their parents were, their economic situation, and a great deal of good ol’ luck.

Again, though, it’s not this premise that’s groundbreaking; it’s Gladwell’s method of supporting it. To tell us why people are successful, he explains why most NHL hockey players are born early in the year, why many of Silicon Valley’s greats were born within a few years of each other, how being kept out of the elite New York law firms in the mid 1950s helped Jewish lawyers succeed twenty years later, how cultural customs can cause planes to crash, and why in the south a person is much more likely to be murdered by someone they know than by a stranger. It all comes back to the question of nature vs. nurture, and whether a self-made man can ever claim to be truly self-made. Gladwell’s answer is: not really.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Learners by Chip Kidd

This is Chip Kidd’s follow-up to The Cheese Monkeys, picking where the first book left off. It’s 1961 and Happy, now out of art school, lands a job at the small New England ad agency where his instructor started his career. Much of the book is about office life, and though it may be an accurate portrayal of what it was like in an advertising agency at the time, with its slapstick humor, quippy dialogue and martini lunches, I found it all corny and too clever for its own good.

Nor did I care much for the world outside the agency or Kidd’s interjections about typeface and design. It’s not that I don’t appreciate these things—working in an ad agency myself, I was expecting this to be the most appealing part of the book—I just felt like Kidd was heavy-handed with it all.

The only thing that saves the book is when Happy is contacted by a Yale professor Stanley Milgram to create a small-space ad calling for volunteers for Milgram’s now-famous experiment in which he tested how willing people are to follow orders, even if it means hurting another person. By placing Happy in this historic moment, Kidd adds interest to what is otherwise a pretty uninteresting book. Definitely a let-down after Cheese Monkeys.