Why Stuff Happens!

March 6, 2014

Malcolm Gladwell is a terrific author. His books include The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Outliers:  The Story of Success, and David  and Goliath:  Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

Mr. Gladwell represents the very popular face of a relative new discipline, behavioral economics. Per Wikipedia (and this definition may be narrow):  “[b]ehavioral economics and the related field, behavioral finance, study the effects of social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and the consequences for market pricesreturns, and the resource allocation.” In English? Why stuff happens, and how we make it happen!

My favorite Gladwell stories—and there are many in his books and in his long-form essays in The New Yorker—are about luck. Two, both in Outliers, resonate very strongly with me.

The first story reports on why National Hockey League rosters have so many players with birthdays falling in the first few months of the year. Spoiler alert:  don’t read the footnote if you want to learn the answer from Mr. Gladwell, who tells it better than I ever can.[1]

The other great story focuses on Bill Gates. Mr. Gladwell explains how Mr. Gates—the founder of a major computer company—might have been someone else if he was a year or two older or younger, if he wasn’t born in Seattle, and into a prominent family with highly motivated/motivating parents.[2]

Not everyone loves Mr. Gladwell. Christopher Chabris, in The Trouble with Malcolm Gladwell in Slate, follows up on a long piece in the Wall Street Journal titled Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters, and Why That is Unfortunate. And then there’s Alexis Sobel Fitts’ piece, The Gladwellian Debate, in the Columbia Journalism Review. And, finally (at least here), there is Mr. Gladwell’s rejoinder in Slate, Christopher Chabris Should Calm Down.

I find the subject fascinating, and I remain a Gladwell fan, for whatever that’s worth. Be one or not, but I hope you find the subject interesting and thought-provoking.

P.S. Other fine authors in the field include Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner in Economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow), Cass Sunstein (attorney and professor of law at the University of Chicago, first-term Obama administration official, and author of Nudge:  Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness), and Dan Ariely (professor at Duke and author of Predictably Irrational). All have written additional books, and these books are all excellent and very readable!

[1] Pro hockey players come from Canada, mostly. When children are very young, top players get selected for special teams, get more training and better coaching, and get brought along. Most players never reach make professional teams, but all of the advantages matter and those who make pro teams have generally gotten those advantages. And what does this have to do with birthdays? The selection process for special training uses a calendar year, and children born in January-February are as much as 10-15% older than those born late in the year. And this matters!

[2] Showing Up for Life:  Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime by Bill Gates Sr., a delightful man and a big deal in his own right, also focuses on the importance of luck.


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