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ALSO BY MALCOLM GLADWELL
The Tipping Point
When I was a small child, I used to sneak into my father's study and leaf through the papers on his desk. He is a mathematician. He wrote on graph paper, in pencil — long rows of neatly written numbers and figures. I would sit on the edge of his chair and look at each page with puzzlement and wonder. It seemed miraculous, first of all, that he got paid for what seemed, at the time, like gibberish. But more important, I couldn't get over the fact that someone whom I loved so dearly did something every day, inside his own head, that I could not begin to understand.
This was actually a version of what I would later learn psychologists call the other minds problem. One-year-olds think that if they like Goldfish Crackers, then Mommy and Daddy must like Goldfish Crackers, too: they have not grasped the idea that what is inside their head is different from what is inside everyone else's head. Sooner or later, though, children come to understand that Mommy and Daddy don't necessarily like Goldfish, too, and that moment is one of the great cognitive milestones of human development. Why is a two-year-old so terrible? Because she is systematically testing the fascinating and, to her, utterly novel notion that something that gives her pleasure might not actually give someone else pleasure—and the truth is that as adults we never lose that fascination. What is the first thing that we want to know when we meet someone who is a doctor at a social occasion? It isn't "What do you do?" We know, sort of, what a doctor does. Instead, we want to know what it means to be with sick people all day long. We want to know what it feels like to be a doctor, because we're quite sure that it doesn't feel at all like what it means to sit at a computer all day long, or teach school, or sell cars. Such questions are not dumb or obvious. Curiosity about the interior life of other people's day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses, and that same impulse is what led to the writing you now hold in your hands.
All the pieces in What the Dog Saw come from the pages of The New Yorker, where I have been a staff writer since 1996. Out of the countless articles I've written over that period, these are my favorites. I've grouped them into three categories. The first section is about obsessives and what I like to call minor geniuses — not Einstein and Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela and the other towering architects of the world in which we live, but people like Ron Popeil, who sold the Chop-O-Matic, and Shirley Polykoff, who famously asked, "Does she or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure." The second section is devoted to theories, to ways of organizing experience. How should we think about homelessness, or financial scandals, or a disaster like the crash of the Challenger? The third section wonders about the predictions we make about people. How do we know whether someone is bad, or smart, or capable of doing something really well? As you will see, I'm skeptical about how accurately we can make any of those judgments.
In the best of these pieces, what we think isn't the issue. Instead, I'm more interested in describing what people who think about homelessness or ketchup or financial scandals think about homelessness or ketchup or financial scandals. I don't know what to conclude about the Challenger crash. It's gibberish to me — neatly printed indecipherable lines of numbers and figures on graph paper. But what if we look at that problem through someone else's eyes, from inside someone else's head?
You will, for example, come across an article in which I try to understand the difference between choking and panicking. The piece was inspired by John F. Kennedy Jr.'s fatal plane crash in July of 1999. He was a novice pilot in bad weather who "lost the horizon" (as pilots like to say) and went into a spiral dive. To understand what he experienced, I had a pilot take me up in the same kind of plane that Kennedy flew, in the same kind of weather, and I had him take us into a spiral dive. It wasn't a gimmick. It was a necessity. I wanted to understand what crashing a plane that way felt like, because if you want to make sense of that crash, it's simply not enough to just know what Kennedy did. "The Picture Problem" is about how to make sense of satellite images, like the pictures the Bush administration thought it had of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. I got started on that topic because I spent an afternoon with a radiologist looking at mammograms, and halfway through — completely unprompted — he mentioned that he imagined that the problems people like him had in reading breast X-rays were a lot like the problems people in the CIA had in reading satellite photos. I wanted to know what went on inside his head, and he wanted to know what went on inside the heads of CIA officers. I remember, at that moment, feeling absolutely giddy. Then there's the article after which this book is named. It's a profile of Cesar Millan, the so-called dog whisperer. Millan can calm the angriest and most troubled of animals with the touch of his hand. What goes on inside Millan's head as he does that? That was what inspired me to write the piece. But after I got halfway through my reporting, I realized there was an even better question: When Millan performs his magic, what goes on inside the dog's head? That's what we really want to know — what the dog saw.
The question I get asked most often is, Where do you get your ideas? I never do a good job of answering that. I usually say something vague about how people tell me things, or my editor, Henry, gives me a book that gets me thinking, or I say that I just plain don't remember. When I was putting together this collection, I thought I'd try to figure that out once and for all. There is, for example, a long and somewhat eccentric piece in this book on why no has ever come up with a ketchup to rival Heinz. (How do we feel when we eat ketchup?) That idea came from my friend Dave, who is in the grocery business. We have lunch every now and again, and he is the kind of person who thinks about things like that. (Dave also has some fascinating theories about melons, but that's an idea I'm saving for later.) Another article, called "True Colors," is about the women who pioneered the hair color market. I got started on that because I somehow got it in my head that it would be fun to write about shampoo. (I think I was desperate for a story.) Many interviews later, an exasperated Madison Avenue type said to me, "Why on earth are you writing about shampoo? Hair color is much more interesting." And so it is.
The trick to finding ideas 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 the 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 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. (I'll let you judge whether I'm right in that instance.)
The other trick to finding ideas is figuring out the difference between power and knowledge. Of all the people whom you'll meet in this volume, very few of them are powerful, or even famous. When I said that I'm most interested in minor geniuses, that's what I meant. You don't start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle, because it's the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world. My friend Dave, who taught me about ketchup, is a middle guy. He's worked on ketchup. That's how he knows about it. People at the top are self-conscious about what they say (and rightfully so) because they have position and privilege to protect — and self-consciousness is the enemy of "interestingness." In "The Pitchman" you'll meet Arnold Morris, who gave me the pitch for the "Dial-O-Matic" vegetable slicer one summer day in his kitchen on the Jersey Shore: "Come on over, folks. I'm going to show you the most amazing slicing machine you have ever seen in your life," he began. He picked up a package of barbecue spices and used it as a prop. "Take a look at this!" He held it in the air as if he were holding up a Tiffany vase.
He held it in the air as if he were holding up a Tiffany vase. That's where you find stories, in someone's kitchen on the Jersey Shore.
Growing up, I never wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a lawyer, and then in my last year of college, I decided I wanted to be in advertising. I applied to eighteen advertising agencies in the city of Toronto and received eighteen rejection letters, which I taped in a row on my wall. (I still have them somewhere.) I thought about graduate school, but my grades weren't quite good enough. I applied for a fellowship to go somewhere exotic for a year and was rejected. Writing was the thing I ended up doing by default, for the simple reason that it took me forever to realize that writing could be a job. Jobs were things that were serious and daunting. Writing was fun.
After college, I worked for six months at a little magazine in Indiana called the American Spectator. I moved to Washington, DC, and freelanced for a few years, and eventually caught on with the Washington Post — and from there came to The New Yorker. Along the way, writing has never ceased to be fun, and I hope that buoyant spirit is evident in these pieces. Nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something of mine or anyone else's and says, angrily, "I don't buy it." Why are they angry? Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. Not the kind of writing that you'll find in this book, anyway. 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. I've called these pieces adventures, because that's what they are intended to be. Enjoy yourself.
THEORIES, PREDICTIONS, AND DIAGNOSES
"It was like driving down an interstate looking through a soda straw."
ENRON, INTELLIGENCE, AND THE PERILS
OF TOO MUCH INFORMATION
On the afternoon of October 23, 2006, Jeffrey Skilling sat at a table at the front of a federal courtroom in Houston, Texas. He was wearing a navy blue suit and a tie. He was fifty-two years old, but looked older. Huddled around him were eight lawyers from his defense team. Outside, television-satellite trucks were parked up and down the block.
"We are here this afternoon," Judge Simeon Lake began, "for sentencing in United States of America versus Jeffrey K. Skilling, Criminal Case Number H-04-25." He addressed the defendant directly: "Mr. Skilling, you may now make a statement and present any information in mitigation."
Skilling stood up. Enron, the company he had built into an energy-trading leviathan, had collapsed into bankruptcy almost exactly five years before. In May, he had been convicted by a jury of fraud. Under a settlement agreement, almost everything he owned had been turned over to a fund to compensate former shareholders.
He spoke haltingly, stopping in midsentence. "In terms of remorse, Your Honor, I can't imagine more remorse," he said. He had "friends who have died, good men." He was innocent — "innocent of every one of these charges." He spoke for two or three minutes and sat down.
Judge Lake called on Anne Beliveaux, who worked as the senior administrative assistant in Enron's tax department for eighteen years. She was one of nine people who had asked to address the sentencing hearing.
"How would you like to be facing living off of sixteen hundred dollars a month, and that is what I'm facing," she said to Skilling. Her retirement savings had been wiped out by the Enron bankruptcy. "And, Mr. Skilling, that only is because of greed, nothing but greed. And you should be ashamed of yourself."
The next witness said that Skilling had destroyed a good company, the third witness that Enron had been undone by the misconduct of its management; another lashed out at Skilling directly. "Mr. Skilling has proven to be a liar, a thief, and a drunk," a woman named Dawn Powers Martin, a twenty-two-year veteran of Enron, told the court. "Mr. Skilling has cheated me and my daughter of our retirement dreams. Now it's his time to be robbed of his freedom to walk the earth as a free man." She turned to Skilling and said, "While you dine on Chateaubriand and champagne, my daughter and I clip grocery coupons and eat leftovers." And on and on it went.
The judge asked Skilling to rise.
"The evidence established that the defendant repeatedly lied to investors, including Enron's own employees, about various aspects of Enron's business," the judge said. He had no choice but to be harsh: Skilling would serve 292 months in prison — twenty-four years. The man who headed a firm that Fortune ranked among the "most admired" in the world had received one of the heaviest sentences ever given to a white-collar criminal. He would leave prison an old man, if he left prison at all.
"I only have one request, Your Honor," Daniel Petrocelli, Skilling's lawyer, said. "If he received ten fewer months, which shouldn't make a difference in terms of the goals of sentencing, if you do the math and you subtract fifteen percent for good time, he then qualifies under Bureau of Prisons policies to be able to serve his time at a lower facility. Just a ten-month reduction in sentence …"
It was a plea for leniency. Skilling wasn't a murderer or a rapist. He was a pillar of the Houston community, and a small adjustment in his sentence would keep him from spending the rest of his life among hardened criminals.
"No," Judge Lake said.
The national security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden's whereabouts are a puzzle. We can't find him because we don't have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source, bin Laden will remain at large.
The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn't a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much. The CIA had a position on what a post-invasion Iraq would look like, and so did the Pentagon and the State Department and Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and any number of political scientists and journalists and think tank fellows. For that matter, so did every cabdriver in Baghdad.
The distinction is not trivial. If you consider the motivation and methods behind the attacks of September 11 to be mainly a puzzle, for instance, then the logical response is to increase the collection of intelligence, recruit more spies, add to the volume of information we have about Al Qaeda. If you consider September 11 a mystery, though, you'd have to wonder whether adding to the volume of information will only make things worse. You'd want to improve the analysis within the intelligence community; you'd want more thoughtful and skeptical people with the skills to look more closely at what we already know about Al Qaeda. You'd want to send the counterterrorism team from the CIA on a golfing trip twice a month with the counterterrorism teams from the FBI and the NSA and the Defense Department, so they could get to know one another and compare notes.
If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it's the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we've been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren't very smart about making sense of what we've been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don't.
If you sat through the trial of Jeffrey Skilling, you'd think that the Enron scandal was a puzzle. The company, the prosecution said, conducted shady side deals that no one quite understood. Senior executives withheld critical information from investors. Skilling, the architect of the firm's strategy, was a liar, a thief, and a drunk. We were not told enough — the classic puzzle premise — was the central assumption of the Enron prosecution.
"This is a simple case, ladies and gentlemen," the lead prosecutor for the Department of Justice said in his closing arguments to the jury:
Because it's so simple, I'm probably going to end before my allotted time. It's black-and-white. Truth and lies. The shareholders, ladies and gentlemen … buy a share of stock, and for that they're not entitled to much but they're entitled to the truth. They're entitled for the officers and employees of the company to put their interests ahead of their own. They're entitled to be told what the financial condition of the company is. They are entitled to honesty, ladies and gentlemen.
But the prosecutor was wrong. Enron wasn't really a puzzle. It was a mystery.
In late July of 2000, Jonathan Weil, a reporter at the Dallas bureau of the Wall Street Journal, got a call from someone he knew in the investment-management business. Weil wrote the stock column called "Heard in Texas" for the paper's regional edition, and he had been closely following the big energy firms based in Houston — Dynegy, El Paso, and Enron. His caller had a suggestion. "He said, 'You really ought to check out Enron and Dynegy and see where their earnings come from,' " Weil recalled. "So I did."
Weil was interested in Enron's use of what is called mark-to-market accounting
- On Sale
- Oct 20, 2009
- Page Count
- 120 pages
- Little, Brown and Company