Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Is the intellectually-coiffeured Malcolm Gladwell's new offering to the best-sellers lists. This morning I listened to him picking through its salient selling-points on a Mayo-less Mayo show. He explained that the driving interest behind it has been the precise nature of the talent which perpetrates society's outstandingly successful individuals. 

Gladwell cited research which tracks the life trajectories of students with genius-level IQs. Perhaps surprisingly, many of these turn out to be lowish achievers as adults, especially those from comparatively poor backgrounds. 

Yet family income is often not such a straightforward biographical determinant - Gladwell uses the 'ugly duckling' story of Jewish lawyers born in the 30s to show how disadvantages can sometimes morph into advantages, in this instance because discrimination forced these underprivileged young people into more marginal areas of legal practice - which subsequently became highly lucrative - and because theirs was numerically a very small generation, which meant that competition for college places etc. was comparatively limited. 

The month as well as the year of one's birth can be of great significance it seems. Individuals born in the first quarter of the year are far more likely to be picked early on for sporting success. Gladwell used as an example a successful Czech junior soccer squad with almost no members born after September.

His findings apparently back up other research which indicates that the minimum time you need to practice at anything in order to be good at it, be it basketball, dentistry or rock stardom, is 10,000 hours, or 4 hours a day for ten years. People forget, he notes, just how long an apprenticeship people like Mozart and the Beetles had. 

However, by far the greatest talent shared by the world's most successful people is an abiding obsession, Gladwell concludes. Bill Gates used to get up in the middle of the night every night to access a computer which was free to use for a couple of hours after 2am. He'd then come home and sleep for a couple more hours before setting off for school. It is this drive, and not perhaps his innate programming gifts, that marked him out for the top. 

In the last part of the interview Gladwell explained that the single biggest explanatory factor behind airline disasters was not the weather or indeed mechanical failure, but the culture of the pilot and co-pilot. Modern airliners need four eyes to fly them, he noted, and a consistent level of open communication between the men on the flightdeck. If the co-pilot is culturally hindered from criticising his superior, there's a much greater danger of catastrophe. 

Interestingly he then cited the case of the Colombian jet which came down in John McEnroe's father's estate on Long Island when it ran out of fuel. The co-pilot - whose job it was to communicate this crisis effectively to the air traffic controllers managing the queue into JFK - singularly failed to make his case strongly enough. 

Having observed the qualitatively different way that American pilots relate to their controllers using United Airlines channel 9, I think there may be a bit more to this - because the men on the ground add yet another cultural dimension. Perhaps Johnny Foreigner is a bit too reticent at times, but maybe us culturally-open anglophones can be a little bit over-dominant towards outsiders as well. 

V recalls the time she almost missed a plane at Heathrow after she took a wrong turn on her way to the gate and was sent all the way back to passport control and the original security check. The problem here was not that she wasn't strident enough with these functionaries, she insists, it was simply that she wasn't British enough. 

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