Sunday, October 19, 2008

Who would you be?

One of my favourite authors is Malcolm Gladwell. He writes non-fiction; so far primarily within social sciences - psycology and sociology mainly. He has written three books: The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005) and Outliers (not out until later this month). He is also a journalist for The New Yorker.

Blink, the only one I have read so far was incredible [postscript: just finished The Tipping Point and Outliers see end of this blog for a brief update]. Gladwell describes the book on his website to be...

"a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good."

Although the above doesn't give much away, it hopefully provides an idea of the subject material he writes about. Within Blink alone, he draws on numerous fascinating examples to illustrate his ideas- each of which could be a story in themselves. He is very gracious- although a very original thinker himself, he never looks for praise or recognition of this, merely lifts other authors, scientists, artists etc. up on a pedestal and manages to convey just how interesting and incredible their findings are. He has a rare ability to explain complicated ideas and theories to the layman, perhaps only second, in my eyes to Richard Dawkins, who I am sure I will blog about soon.

My motivation for bringing his work up was a recent article he wrote for The New Yorker, entitled "Late Bloomers". If you have 5-10 minutes to spare, click on the link and have a read.

The article investigates society's habit of equating genius with precocity. it is often recalled how Mozart was composing music at the age of five and wrote his "breakthrough" Piano Concerto No.9 in E-flat Major at the
age of twenty-one. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, at the age of twenty-six (how inspiring yet how depressing), need I say more? He drew upon the work of an economist called David Galenson, who approached this subject scientifically... I will not spoil except to say that his conclusions are very interesting.

Having forwarded the article to a few friends, it sparked up the question: "If you could be any figure in history, who would you be and why?"

What a great question! Although... strictly speaking it is two questions, Cilla Black never realised this so I doubt others will kick up a fuss. It just occured to me... while we are on such a digression- what a brilliant question for Blind Date- I think you could interpret alot from someones answer to this.

I struggled to provide an answer, after all, how can one compare both between generations, often millenia, and between subject fields as varied as philosophy, science, literature, art, sport, etc... after being denied the request to provide multiple answers, each pertaining to a different field in a similar manner to the Nobel prizes, I initially reluctantly and later affirmatively gave my answer... Charles Darwin.

At first sight, perhaps not the most exciting of answers, but lacking a better way to approach the question, I chose to ask myself: what single figure in human history has contributed the most to humanity overall?

He answered one of the greatest questions that will ever be asked of a human being: where did we all come from? With the acquired detachment of four or five generations and with the distortion of hindsight, it is hard to comprehend the
challenge that Darwin faced. In addition, It is also hard to comprehend the breath and depth of his findings- it impacted virtually every area of academia- specifically theology. Without such a discovery I imagine our lives, particularly within politics and leadership would be very different.

so.. that's my answer. who would you be?

postscript: The Tipping Point was, like Blink, very interesting. Unfortunately I found Outliers a bit stale. I recognised the formula used in Blink and The Tipping Point but this time it seemed a touch contrived. It still had moments of intrigue but the overall message was not as interesting as prior books- it essentially tells us that amazingly successful people are borne not from innate natural talent, but the combination of enough talent, good luck and lots and lots of hard work. Good but not great.

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