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Posts Tagged ‘Malcolm Gladwell

The pertinent question is: How many conflicts has the project brought in its wake?

Hiding Hand principle?

Obstacles led to frustration, and frustration to anxiety. No one wanted to be anxious. But wasn’t anxiety the most powerful motivator—the emotion capable of driving even the most reluctant party toward some kind of solution? In the field of developmental economics, this was heretical.

When people from organizations like the World Bank descended on Third World countries, they always tried to remove obstacles to development, to reduce economic anxiety and uncertainty. They wanted to build bridges and roads and airports and dams to insure that businesses and entrepreneurs encountered as few impediments as possible to growth.

But, as Albert O.Hirschman thought about case studies like the Karnaphuli Paper Mills and the Troy-Greenfield folly, he became convinced that his profession had it backward. His profession ought to embrace anxiety, and not seek to remove it.

As he wrote in a follow-up essay to “The Strategy of Economic Development”:

“Law and order and the absence of civil strife seem to be obvious preconditions for the gradual and patient accumulation of skills, capital and investors’ confidence that must be the foundation for economic progress. We are now told, however, that the presence of war-like Indians in North America and the permanent conflict between them and the Anglo-Saxon settlers was a great advantage, because it made necessary methodical, well-planned, and gradual advances toward an interior which always remained in close logistic and cultural contact with the established communities to the East.

In Brazil, on the contrary, the back-lands were open and virtually uncontested; the result was that once an excessively vast area had been occupied in an incredibly brief time span the pioneers became isolated and regressed economically and culturally.

The entrepreneur takes risks but does not see himself as a risk-taker, because he operates under the useful delusion that what he’s attempting is not risky.

Trapped in mid-mountain, people discover the truth—and, because it is too late to turn back, they’re forced to finish the job.

“We have ended up here with an economic argument strikingly paralleling Christianity’s oft expressed preference for the repentant sinner over the righteous man who never strays from the path,” Hirschman wrote in this essay from 1967.

Success grew from failure:

And essentially the same idea, even though formulated, as one might expect, in a vastly different spirit, is found in Nietzsche’s famous maxim, “That which does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” This sentence admirably epitomizes several of the histories of economic development projects in recent decades.

As was nearly always the case with Hirschman’s writing, he made his argument without mathematical formulas or complex models. His subject was economics, but his spirit was literary.

He drew on Brecht, Kafka, Freud, Flaubert, La Rochefoucauld, Montesquieu, Montaigne, and Machiavelli, not to mention Homer—he had committed huge sections of the Odyssey to memory.

The pleasure of reading Hirschman comes not only from the originality of his conclusions but also from the delightfully idiosyncratic path he took to them.

Consider this, from the same essay (and, remember, this is an economist who’s writing):

“While we are rather willing and even eager and relieved to agree with a historian’s finding that we stumbled into the more shameful events of history, such as war, we are correspondingly unwilling to concede—we find it intolerable to imagine—that our more lofty achievements, such as economic, social or political progress, could have come about by stumbling rather than through careful planning. . . . Language itself conspires toward this sort of asymmetry: we fall into error, but do not usually speak of falling into truth.

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman” (Princeton), by the Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman, is a biography worthy of the man. Adelman brilliantly and beautifully brings Hirschman to life, giving us an unforgettable portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary intellectuals.

The great influence on Hirschman’s life was his brother-in-law, the Italian intellectual Eugenio Colorni. Colorni and Hirschman were as close as siblings, and when Colorni was killed by Fascist thugs in Rome, during the Second World War, Hirschman was inconsolable. Adelman writes:

“Colorni believed that doubt was creative because it allowed for alternative ways to see the world, and seeing alternatives could steer people out of intractable circles and self-feeding despondency. Doubt, in fact, could motivate: freedom from ideological constraints opened up political strategies, and accepting the limits of what one could know liberated agents from their dependence on the belief that one had to know everything before acting, that conviction was a precondition for action.

The phrase that Hirschman and Colorni would repeat to each other was that they hoped to “prove Hamlet wrong.” Hamlet shouldn’t have been frozen by his doubts; he should have been freed by them.

Hamlet took himself too seriously. He thought he needed to be perfect. Colorni and Hirschman didn’t. “Courage required the willingness “to always be on guard against oneself. Colorni wrote,

Doubt didn’t mean disengagement.

In the summer of 1936, Hirschman volunteered to fight in Spain on the side of the Loyalists, against General Franco’s German-backed Fascists. He was twenty-one and living in Paris, having just got back from studying at the London School of Economics. He was among the first wave of German and Italian volunteers to take the train to Barcelona. “When I heard that there was even a possibility to do something,” Hirschman said, “I went.”

Hirschman rarely spoke about what happened in Spain.

Decades later, Adelman recounts, Albert and his wife, Sarah, went to see a film about the Spanish Civil War. Afterward, Sarah asked Albert, “Was it like that?” His response was a deft non-response: “Yeah, that was a pretty good film.” On this subject, as on a few others, Sarah felt a certain reticence in her husband. Still, as Adelman remarks, “the scars on his neck and leg made it impossible for her to forget.”

Adelman interprets Hirschman’s silence as disenchantment: “The endless debate rehearsed in Berlin and Paris over left-wing tactics was more than a farce, it was a tragedy of epic proportions.

Hirschman saw the Communists move in and, in his mind, the spirit of the cause became contaminated. It broke his heart.

But Hirschman would come to recognize that action fueled by doubt allows for failures to be left behind. Spain was a tragedy, but it was also, for him, an experiment, and experiments go awry.

Hirschman liked to say that he had “a propensity to self-subversion.” He even gave one of his books that title.

He qualified and questioned and hedged as a matter of habit. He never trusted himself enough to indulge in grand theorizing. He pursued the “petite idée” to come to an understanding of reality in portions, admitting that the angle may be subjective.”

Once, when a World Bank director sent him a paper that referred to the “Hirschman Doctrine,” Hirschman replied, “Fortunately, there is no Hirschman school of economic development and I cannot point to a large pool of disciples where one might fish out someone to work with you along those lines.”

Hirschman spent his career in constant motion.

After doing graduate training in London and Italy, fighting in Spain, and spending the first part of the war in France, he left for the United States, by which point he had begun to lose track of his own movements.

“This makes my fifth emigration,” he wrote to his mother. He accepted a fellowship at Berkeley (where he met the woman he would marry, Sarah Chapiro, another émigré), did a tour of duty for the O.S.S. in North Africa and Europe, and, with the war concluded, served a stint at the Federal Reserve Board, where he grew so unhappy that he would return home to his wife and two daughters in Chevy Chase, shut the door to his study, and bury himself in Kafka.

He worked for the Marshall Plan in Washington, providing “the thinking behind the thinking,” only to be turned down for a transfer to Paris because of a failed national-security review. He was in his mid-thirties. On a whim, he packed up the family and moved to Bogotá, Colombia, where he worked on a project for the World Bank.

He crisscrossed Colombia with “pen in hand and paper handy, examining irrigation projects, talking to local bankers about their farm loans, and scribbling calculations about the costs of road building.”

Writing to her parents about the family’s decision to move to Colombia, which was then in the midst of a civil war, Sarah explained, “We both realize that you should think of the future—make plans for the children etc. But I think we both somehow feel that it is impossible to know what is best and that the present is so much more important—because if the present is solid and good it will be a surer basis for a good future than any plans that you can make.”

Most people would not have left a home in Chevy Chase and the security of a job in Washington to go to a Third World country where armed gangsters roamed the streets, because they would feel certain that Colombia was a mistake. Hirschman believed, as a matter of principle, that it was impossible to know whether Colombia would be a mistake.

As it happened, the 4 years the family spent in Bogotá were among its happiest.

Hirschman returned to Latin America again and again during his career, and what he learned there provided the raw material for his most brilliant work. His doubt was a gift, not a curse.

Hirschman published his first important book, “The Strategy of Economic Development,” in 1958. He had returned from Colombia by then and was at Yale, and the book was an attempt to make sense of his experience of watching a country try to lift itself out of poverty.

At the time, he was reading deeply in the literature of psychology and psychoanalysis, and he became fascinated with the functional uses of negative emotions: frustration, aggression, and, in particular, anxiety.

The impulse of the developmental economist in those days would have been to remove the “impediments” to growth—to swoop in and have some powerful third party deal with the “war-like Indians.” But that would have turned North America into Brazil, and the pioneers would never have been forced to develop methodical, well-planned advances in logistical contact with the East.

Developing countries required more than capital. They needed practice in making difficult economic decisions.

Economic progress was the product of successful habits—and there is no better teacher, Hirschman felt, than a little adversity.

Hirschman would rather encourage settlers and entrepreneurs at the grass-roots level—and make them learn how to cope with those impediments themselves—than run the risk that aid might infantilize its recipient.

He loved to tell the story of how, at a dinner party in a Latin American country, he struggled to track down the telephone number of a fellow-academic: “I asked whether there might be a chance that X would be listed in the telephone directory; this suggestion was shrugged off with the remark that the directory makes a point of listing only people who have either emigrated or died. . . . The economist said that X must be both much in demand and hard to reach, as several people had inquired about how to get in touch with him within the past few days. The subject was dropped as hopeless, and everybody spent a pleasant evening.”

Back in his hotel room, Hirschman looked in the phone book, found his friend’s number, and got him on the line immediately.

A few years after publishing “The Strategy of Economic Development,” Hirschman was invited by the World Bank to conduct a survey of some of its projects. He drew up his own itinerary, which, typically, involved almost an entire circuit of the globe: a power plant in El Salvador, roads in Ecuador, an irrigation project in Peru, pasture improvement in Uruguay, telecommunication in Ethiopia, power transmission in Uganda, an irrigation project in Sudan, railway modernization in Nigeria, the Damodar Valley Corporation in India, the Karnaphuli Paper Mills, an irrigation project in Thailand and another in the south of Italy.

Adelman is struck by the tone of optimism in Hirschman’s notes on his journey. The economist was interested in all the ways in which projects managed to succeed, both in spite of and because of the difficulties:

Instead of asking: what benefits has this project yielded, it would almost be more pertinent to ask: how many conflicts has it brought in its wake?

How many crises has it occasioned and passed through? And these conflicts and crises should appear both on the benefit and the cost side, or sometimes on one—sometimes on the other, depending on the outcome (which cannot be known with precision for a long time, if ever).

Only Hirschman would circle the globe and be content to conclude that he couldn’t reach a conclusion—for a long time, if ever.

He was a planner who really didn’t believe in planning. He wanted to remind other economists that a lot of the problems they tried to fix were either better off not being fixed or weren’t problems to begin with.

Late in life, Hirschman underwent surgery in Germany. When he emerged from anesthesia, he asked his surgeon, “Why are bananas bent?” The doctor shrugged. Hirschman, even then, could not resist a poke at his fellow economic planners: “Because nobody went to the jungle to adjust it and make it straight.”

While fighting for France during the Second World War, Hirschman persuaded his commander to give him false French papers and he became Albert Hermant. After the country fell to the Germans, Hirschman ended up in Marseilles, along with thousands of other refugees. There he learned that an American named Varian Fry was coming to France as part of the Emergency Rescue Committee—an American group that sought to get as many Jewish refugees out of France as possible. Hirschman met Fry at the train station and took him back to the Hotel Splendide. They hit it off instantly.

Fry had access to U.S. visas. But he needed Hirschman’s help in figuring out escape routes into Spain, procuring false passports and identity papers, and smuggling in money to fund the operation. Hirschman was invaluable. He spoke Italian like an Italian and German like a German and French like a Frenchman, and had so many fake documents—including a card attesting to membership in the “Club for People Without Clubs”—that Fry joked he was “like a criminal who has too many alibis.”

Fry nicknamed Hirschman Beamish, on account of his irrepressible charm. Beginning in 1940, the Emergency Rescue Committee helped save thousands of people from the clutches of Fascism, among them Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Alma Mahler.

Hirschman was as reluctant to talk about his time in Marseilles as he was to talk about the battles he fought in the Spanish Civil War.

As a fellow at Berkeley, in the early forties, he was placed in the International House, and the other graduate students urged him to speak about what had happened to him in Europe. “The newcomer sat there,” Adelman writes, “with his handkerchief twisted in his fingers, nervously waiting for the calls to pass.”

Hirschman moved out of the International House as soon as he could. “I couldn’t stand being considered as sort of a wonder of the world or something like that,” he later recalled. “I just wanted to be myself.”

The closest Hirschman ever came to explaining his motives was in his most famous work, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” and even then it was only by implication.

Hirschman was interested in contrasting the two strategies that people have for dealing with badly performing organizations and institutions. “Exit” is voting with your feet, expressing your displeasure by taking your business elsewhere. “Voice” is staying put and speaking up, choosing to fight for reform from within. There is no denying where his heart lay.

Early in the book, Hirschman quoted the conservative economist Milton Friedman, who argued that school vouchers should replace the current public-school system. “Parents could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible,” Friedman wrote. “In general they can now take this step only by changing their place of residence. For the rest, they can express their views only through cumbrous political channels.”

This was, Hirschman wrote, a “near perfect example of the economist’s bias in favor of exit and against voice”:

In the first place, Friedman considers withdrawal or exit as the “direct” way of expressing one’s unfavorable views of an organization. A person less well trained in economics might naively suggest that the direct way of expressing views is to express them!

Secondly, the decision to voice one’s views and efforts to make them prevail are contemptuously referred to by Friedman as a resort to “cumbrous political channels.” But what else is the political, and indeed the democratic, process than the digging, the use, and hopefully the slow improvement of these very channels?

Hirschman pointed out the ways in which “exit” failed to send a useful message to underperformers. Weren’t there cases where monopolists were relieved when their critics left?

“Those who hold power in the lazy monopoly may actually have an interest in creating some limited opportunities for exit on the part of those whose voice might be uncomfortable,” he wrote. The worst thing that ever happened to incompetent public-school districts was the growth of private schools: they siphoned off the kind of parents who would otherwise have agitated more strongly for reform.

Exit is passive. It is silent protest. And silent protest, for him, is too easy. “Proving Hamlet wrong” was about the importance of acting in the face of doubt—but also of acting in the face of fear.

Voice was courage. He went to fight Fascism in Spain. It ended in failure. When the Nazis came hunting for the Jews, he tried again. “Expanding the operation meant, increasingly, that Beamish’s work was in the streets, bars, and brothels of Marseilles, expanding the tentacles of the operation,” Adelman writes. “If the operation had a fixer, it was Beamish. It was a role he relished.”

Beamish screened the refugees, weeding out potential informers. He cajoled first the Czech, then the Polish, and, finally, the Lithuanian consuls into providing fake passports. He made deals with Marseilles mobsters and a shadowy Russian émigré to get money into France. He held secret meetings in brothels. Several times, he was nearly caught, but he charmed his way out of trouble.

When the authorities finally caught onto Hirschman, he escaped across the Pyrenees to Spain on foot, equipped with false Lithuanian papers.

On the ship to America, he played Ping-Pong and chess, and romanced a young Czech woman. As Adelman’s magnificent biography makes plain, it was hard not to fall for Albert Hirschman.

A colleague from his Marseilles days remembered him, years later, as “a handsome fellow with rather soulful eyes . . . taking everything in, his head cocked slightly to one side. One of those German intellectuals, I thought, always trying to figure everything out.” ♦

 published in The New Yorker this June 24, 2013

Note 2: Hirschman was born in Berlin in 1915, into a prosperous family of Jewish origin. His father was a surgeon, and the family lived in the embassy district, near the Tiergarten. Hirschman was slender and handsome, in the mold of Albert Camus. He dressed elegantly, danced skillfully, spoke half a dozen languages, and had a special affection for palindromes.

He was absent-minded and distracted. While lecturing, Adelman writes, “He rambled. He mumbled. Mid-sentence, he would pause, his right hand supporting his chin, his eyes drifting upward to fasten on a spot on the ceiling.” He would call his wife upon taking his car somewhere because—as he once said—“I do not know how to put it among two other cars on the sidewalk.”

“When you spoke to him,” a friend said, “it was sometimes five or ten seconds before he would show any sign of having heard you.” He was also deeply charming when he put his mind to it.

Gift of Doubt? Power of failure?

People don’t seek out challenges “They are apt to take on and plunge into new tasks because of the erroneously presumed absence of a challenge—because the task looks easier and more manageable than it will turn out to be.

Albert O. Hirschman and the power of failure.

In the mid-nineteenth century, work began on a crucial section of the railway line connecting Boston to the Hudson River.

The addition would run from Greenfield, Massachusetts, to Troy, New York, and it required tunneling through Hoosac Mountain, a nearly 5-mile impediment, that blocked passage between the Deerfield Valley and a tributary of the Hudson.

James Hayward, one of New England’s leading railroad engineers, estimated that penetrating the Hoosac would cost, at most, a very manageable $2 million.

The president of Amherst College, an accomplished geologist, said that the mountain was composed of soft rock and that tunneling would be fairly easy once the engineers had breached the surface.

“The Hoosac . . . is believed to be the only barrier between Boston and the Pacific,” the project’s promoter, Alvah Crocker, declared.

Everyone was wrong. Digging through the Hoosac turned out to be a nightmare. The project cost more than ten times the budgeted estimate.

If the people involved had known the true nature of the challenges they faced, they would never have funded the Troy-Greenfield railroad.

Had they not, the factories of northwestern Massachusetts wouldn’t have been able to ship their goods so easily to the expanding West, the cost of freight would have remained stubbornly high, and the State of Massachusetts would have been immeasurably poorer.

So is ignorance an impediment to progress or a precondition for it?

The economist Albert O. Hirschman, who died last December, loved paradoxes like this.

He was a “planner,” the kind of economist who conceives of grand infrastructure projects and bold schemes. But his eye was drawn to the many ways in which plans did not turn out the way they were supposed to—to unintended consequences and perverse outcomes and the puzzling fact that the shortest line between two points is often a dead end.

Hirschman was a planner who saw virtue in the fact that nothing went as planned. Illustration by Ricardo Martinez.

“The Principle of the Hiding Hand,” one of Hirschman many memorable essays, drew on an account of the Troy-Greenfield “folly,” and then presented an even more elaborate series of paradoxes. Hirschman had studied the enormous Karnaphuli Paper Mills, in what was then East Pakistan.

The mill was built to exploit the vast bamboo forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But not long after the mill came online, the bamboo unexpectedly flowered and then died, a phenomenon now known to recur every 50 years or so. Dead bamboo was useless for pulping; it fell apart as it was floated down the river.

Because of ignorance and bad planning, a new, multimillion-dollar industrial plant was suddenly without the raw material it needed to function.

But what impressed Hirschman was the response to the crisis.

The mill’s operators quickly found ways to bring in bamboo from villages throughout East Pakistan, building a new supply chain using the country’s many waterways.

They started a research program to find faster-growing species of bamboo to replace the dead forests, and planted an experimental tract. They found other kinds of lumber that worked just as well. The result was that the plant was blessed with a far more diversified base of raw materials than had ever been imagined.

If bad planning hadn’t led to the crisis at the Karnaphuli plant, the mill’s operators would never have been forced to be creative. And the plant would not have been nearly as valuable as it became.

“We may be dealing here with a general principle of action,” Hirschman wrote:

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. We would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming.

Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.

 published in The New Yorker this June 24, 2013

 

Brainwashing or Behavior Priming? Any difference in consequences?

Note: Re-edit of “Any differences between behavior priming and brainwashing? June 28, 2012)

Have you submitted to a scrambled-sentence test? For example, rectify these sentences:

1. him was worried she always

2. from are Florida orange temperature

3. shoes give replace old the…

How quickly do you think you can work out each scrambled sentence?

Suppose among the ten scrambled sentences there are words such as worried, Florida, old, lonely, gray, bingo, wrinkle, forgetful…scattered throughout the sentences…Is there anything common among these words?

Undergraduate students participating in these tests, behaved for a short time as old people do after the test: They invariably walked slowly, back bent…

The unconscious Big Brain was picking up on these common denominator words, behind its locked door…

The unconscious mind got the clues and was telling the body of the test-taker: “We are in an environment that is concerned about old age. We better behave accordingly…”

The unconscious mind is acting as a mental valet, taking care of minor details to act accordingly, so that we can be freed to focus on the main problem at hand…

John Bargh experimented with two groups of undergraduate students.

Group One worked scrambled sentences sprinkled with words such as aggressively, bold, rude, bother, disturb, intrude, infringe…

Group Two worked with words like respect, consideration, appreciate, patiently, yield, polite and courteous…

After the test, each student had to walk the corridor to an office to meet with the principal researcher.

A confederate researcher was to block the entrance of the door and converse with the main researcher, a long and pretty boring conversation…

Group One subjects ended the conversation and barged into the office within 5 minutes. Group Two subject waited for the conversation to end before getting in.

Group Two students could have waited for much longer if the protocol was not set for only 10 minutes of conversation…

There are these mental clinical cases called ventromedial prefrontal cortex,  a part of the brain situated behind the nose.

When this part is damaged, the individual is unable of judgment and making decision.

The patient is functional, intelligent and highly rational but lacks judgment. For example, if the patient is asked to choose between two appointment dates, he will analyse and offer all kinds of pros and cons for 30 minutes and still be unable to decide on any date…

The mental valet is not working in this case to guide and orient the patient toward more important tasks at hand…

When mentioning a brainwashed mind, you visualize someone robbing a bank or doing violent acts without his full will, or being induced to describe details of his childhood against his will…

Maybe there is a subtle factor or a catalyst that shifts behavioral priming into the qualitative condition of brainwashing

I posit that brainwashing is very much like priming a brain, but done on successive and frequent occasions, verging on a continuous situation where the mental valet is working full-time and barely able to liberate the mind to focus on more important tasks to reflect on…

Think of totalitarian regimes of communism or the Catholic Church dominion in Europe for 9 centuries of the dark Middle Age period.

People had to navigate an environment of restrictions and limitation in ideas, opinions, objects, products, hair style, fashion…

The neuropsychology Benjamin Libet demonstrated that we become conscious of a decision half a second after our body gets prepared to react to a decision.

For example, the disparate “I” in our constitution and brain parts contribute to the decision.  It is sort every single muscle has an “I”, our genetic constitution has an “I”, every section and network of neurons has an “I”.

All our “I” have to reach a working consensus before the body react and a decision can be carried out. Isn’t that how a skill is described?

Neuroscientist Patrick Haggard wrote: “When we talk of free-will, we mean the richness of the act, of our capacity of acting intelligently, of not reacting in the same manner to the same stimuli…”

You may read about the priming of the thief-program in the link of note 2.

Note 1: Article inspired from a chapter in “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell

Note 2https://adonis49.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/deterministic-or-free-will-behavior-what-is-priming-the-thief-program/

Adam Grant and Malcolm Gladwell on

What It Means to Be Original

Conformity is a dangerous thing. Conformity is about saying, ‘I don’t agree with your ideas or your values, but I’m going to follow you anyway…’”

 A book in which the word Intelligence barely appears

Malcolm Gladwell, known for his deep inquiries into how the social sciences impact our day-to-day lives, recently sat down with Adam Grant, a Wharton psychology professor whose latest book, Originals, deals with the character traits that foster creative success.

In this conversation, at 92nd Street Y, Gladwell and Grant delve into entrepreneurship, college admissions, and what makes a good president.  (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Malcolm Gladwell: Originals is essentially an argument about character. There is an ideal temperament for dealing productively with the world of ideas. It’s a book in which the word intelligence barely appears. (I like it when Intelligence does Not show up)

You’re in this very interesting tradition of trying to reorient our thinking away from the IQ fundamentalists.

If you’re right — what truly distinguishes people in complex environments is our matters of temperament — what does that mean for the various institutions that we have created in our world?

Talking politics, education, and innovation with two bestselling authors
heleo.com|By Heleo

For example, you teach at Penn, an Ivy League school, which selects people largely on the basis of their SAT score. Is there any correlation between your SAT score and the kinds of questions of temperament and character you’re talking about in this book?

Adam Grant: No.

Malcolm: Does that suggest that your own school goes about choosing students all wrong?

Adam: Yes. Don’t lead the witness or anything.

Malcolm: If I made you Admissions Director at Penn tomorrow, what happens?

Adam: The school would implode, first of all. After that, I would go back to the drawing board and say, “What are we even trying to select on?”

I’m a big fan of Barry Schwartz‘s view that the college admissions process is largely a smokescreen, and that there are at least 5 times as many students academically similar to each other who could get in and don’t.

We might as well just say, “Here’s our bar and let’s either do a lottery or let’s treat it like the medical residency matching program, where students have to rank and prioritize and then you can only get into one place that also chooses you.”

That would make students spend their time probably in more valuable ways in high school.

I’d put a lot more emphasis on originality.

I really like the George Lucas proposal for this. He wants every child to go through school thinking about a creative portfolio and at the end of high school, submit that with a college application.

Malcolm: What do you mean by a creative portfolio?

Adam: You submit something that’s your own original work. It could be a film that you made, a story that you wrote, a song that you created, something original that’s an act of creative self expression. I would love to see that added to the admissions process along with the standard SAT, essays, grades.

Malcolm: That’s about selection. It strikes me that your ideas have perhaps even more implications for what happens at the school.

Adam: You only put me in charge of Admissions. You want me to do the rest too?

Malcolm: Now I’d like you to be dean. If you are Dean of Adam Grant U, do we care more about looking for these kinds of kids at the point of admissions, or creating these kinds of kids over the course of the four years?

Adam: That seems like a false dichotomy, doesn’t it? We want both. It’s easier to influence the selection process than to know how to socialize students in college.

Malcolm: Social psychologists are telling me that they don’t know how to socialize students in college?

Adam: Yes. I don’t know that we have as much influence on the socialization process as peers do. We can control the selection process completely.

Malcolm: Wait, hold on. A teacher at a college is saying that the best way to socialize a student is at the point of admission and not what actually goes on? For your 65 grand, you’re not actually getting any experience that could be controlled by the faculty? Is that what you’re saying?

Adam: Maybe 63 grand of that is uncontrolled by the faculty.

Malcolm: Are you suggesting you’ve become highly disillusioned with the efficacy of higher education?

Adam: That assumes I was illusioned to begin with. I’m actually serious.

By the time people come to college, they make a lot of their own choices. It’s a little bit like the Judith Rich Harris arguments about parents not mattering, how pre-schoolers supposedly pay more attention to what their peers do, than what their parents do.

When you get to college, there are very few people who say, “I’m going to find out what professors think is important, and then I’m going to go follow that.” Peers have a much bigger influence.

Malcolm: Does your creative portfolio run the risk of simply creating a new kind of admissions tyranny that favors the arty kid? One reaction I had to your book was that you’re describing a kind of person, but we can’t all be originals. Or can we?

“There are lots of ways that people could think for themselves and be original, that still involves saying, ‘I believe this person’s leadership is compelling and I want to follow.’”

Adam: We can. We can do it in our own domains. I do worry about this. I wrote this op-ed about raising a creative child. I was quite taken aback to discover that every single reader of the New York Times has a gifted child.

You start to see the comments and the emails come in and you realize that the question is, how can I create a formula for not only raising a super smart, overly gritty child but now my kid has to be an original too and I want to program that as much as I can from fetus stage?

Conformity is a dangerous thing. Conformity is about saying, “I don’t agree with your ideas or your values, but I’m going to follow you anyway because something bad is going to happen to me if I stand out instead of fitting in.”

There are lots of ways that people could think for themselves and be original, that still involves saying, “I believe this person’s leadership is compelling and I want to follow.” We should see people being original in different domains of their lives.

Malcolm: This last year has been marked by an extraordinary amount of unrest on college campuses, particularly elite college campuses. Through the prism of this book, how you would like to see students think and act? Are you cheered or dismayed by what’s been going on?

Adam: It’s a little bit of both. I want to see students standing up for their beliefs and challenging systems and rules that don’t make sense to them, biases and sources of prejudice that they see.

On the other hand, some of the expressions of that have been less than constructive. I had a colleague once who used to say, “If you’re going to point out that the emperor has no clothes, you’d better be a good tailor.” There’s variance in how much preparation for tailoring was done in these situations.

Malcolm: You’re raising the bar awfully high for 19 year olds. If you’re saying that you like nonconformity, but only nonconformity that conforms to a rational constructive set of principles, then you’re not really interested in nonconformity, are you? You’ve got to take the bad part with the good part.

Adam: This is one of the problems with encouraging nonconformity: you don’t get to decide where it goes. It can be very easily taken in all sorts of directions that we might not agree with.

“One of my favorite scholars always talks about this idea that you should argue like you’re right, and listen like you’re wrong.”

That is a fantastic model for nonconformity. What we see in a lot of these college campuses is people are only arguing as if they’re right, and not being willing to change their minds or admit that they’re wrong.

Malcolm: That’s precisely what dismayed me about the reaction, now that you say it that way. That was a failure on the part of the adults in the room, not the students. At Yale it struck me, for example, as opposed to using this as an opportunity to say exactly that — “Now, let’s listen to the other side,” they just rolled over and said, “The paying customer gets what the paying customer wants,” which struck me as being a bit of a sham.

Along these same lines, when you were talking about nonconformity as being messy, you have a really fascinating chapter about Bridgewater Associates, the hedge fund run by Ray Dalio. Since your book has come out, Ray Dalio has been in the news for precisely the thing that you were talking about in your book.

Adam: It’s a culture unlike any I’ve ever seen before. They have a lot of very clear, strong principles that Ray has articulated, my favorite of which is that no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it. (Must learn to be a teacher first before daring to have a critical opinion?)

That means that if you see something that you disagree with, you are expected to share it.

In fact, you could be fired for not doing that. Even though they have a strong culture around these values and their socialization process, one of the things you’re asked about every single principle is, “Do you agree? If not, why not?”

You can go into an interview and you might be taken aback by how strong this culture is. You might make an offhand comment to your interviewer, “Gosh, that was intense.” You will get dragged right back into the people you were just speaking with to share it with them directly because they don’t believe in backstabbing there. They want you to frontstep. It’s an actual term they use there.

They’re like, “Look, this political behavior is essentially gossiping and being a slimy weasel. You might as well say it to people’s faces so they can learn from it.”

As a result, they videotape or audiotape every meeting and they want to make sure that people are radically transparent so that they can build, instead of a democracy, an idea meritocracy where the best information, as opposed to the most popular perspective, wins.

Malcolm: I know you have some qualms about that, but in the main, do you think that that culture is part of what contributes to making a successful firm?

“The only way that you beat the market is you think differently from everyone else.”

Adam: I do. They’ve done a phenomenal job avoiding group-think. They’ve been arguably the most successful hedge fund ever, in the last 40 years. They were one of the few to anticipate the financial crisis and start warning clients about it in 2007.

The only way that you beat the market is you think differently from everyone else. They’ve really created a culture where people are expected to dissent. (Though having a thought out alternative?) I would love to see more organizations operate that way.

Malcolm: There’s a big Wall Street Journal article about them. One video shows Mr. Dalio standing at a dry erase board and demonstrating how the marker ink won’t fully rub out with an eraser, according to people familiar with the video.

Mr. Dalio prods Bridgewater employees at length about why they bought the dry erase board, why it doesn’t work and how the bad decision could have been avoided.

This is the side effect of radical openness. You end up with the founder and CEO of a multibillion dollar operation talking at length, castigating his employees about their choice of dry erase boards.

Adam: No, it’s not a side effect. It’s an active ingredient.

Malcolm: This is in a quote that I wanted to read on the same matter. “One former Bridgewater employee recalls debating with other employees for as long as an hour, whether a misused apostrophe in one of Mr. Dalio’s research reports was intentional or not.” The first and perhaps not terribly productive response I have to that is that they have a lot of time on their hands.

These cultures saying, “We are willing to devote a good deal more of our energy to the social management of dissent and honesty” are only possible under certain kinds of idealized circumstances. A firm that has algorithms doing its trading in 40% margins is a place where you can do that. Can you do this if you are making cars in Detroit?

Adam: You have to do this, at least a version of it. You look at a situation like this on its face and you’re like, “Wow, these people are wasting a lot of time.”

When you see a problem happen, most of life in organizations and life in general is just situations repeating themselves over and over again. (Like that observation)

There are only so many different kinds of situations you can run into. The question is, if we ended up with a marker that doesn’t work, is that revealing of something fundamentally problematic about our decision-making process?

Could we use this as an instance to learn from a minor mistake, so that then we can avoid the major one? Bridgewater is looking for those needles in haystacks that suggest, “We have a deeper problem and we need to understand it.”

Malcolm: It’s very generous reading that.

Adam: I don’t actually think so. They hire a lot of very bright people who spend a lot of time thinking about how to navigate their culture. If this was just complete time wasted, they would have had a debate about that, and resolved it in favor of, “Let’s not talk about whiteboards and markers anymore.”

The fact that it continues to happen leads me to think that people see value in it, and at minimum that they’re learning to dissent in areas that probably aren’t ego-threatening, so that then you have the patterns built up for the time when you really need to challenge them.

Malcolm: You’re saying that those kinds of esoteric debates on relatively trivial matters are almost a rehearsal for more serious debates on questions of substance.

Most of us don’t ever practice. We’re always playing the game.”

Adam: They’re like practice before the game. Most of us don’t ever practice. We’re always playing the game.

Malcolm: Here’s my question. Are they practicing before the game or do they so exhaust us that we have no energy left for the game?

Adam: They have a very high turnover rate in the first 18 months. (And those who remains become the conformists?)

It’s not a place for everyone. After that, turnover is pretty rare. What I heard from a lot of people is, “Look, I can make lots of money anywhere. What’s unique about this place is people tell me the truth and they give me critical feedback and I get better. After living in this environment, I can’t imagine going back somewhere where people are constantly saying nice things to my face and then stabbing me in the back. I just don’t want to live that way.”

Malcolm: Do you try and live your own life that way?

Adam: I do as much as I can. When I taught my first class ever, I collected feedback forms about a month in to find out how it was going. Then I decided I wanted to have a discussion with the class about how to improve it. I had a bunch of colleagues who said, “Don’t do this because if every one individually finds out that their complaints are shared, then there’s going to be a mutiny.”

I said, “Yeah, that’s possible, but I want to learn and I want to engage the class in helping me become a better teacher.” I typed up all the comments verbatim. I emailed them to the whole class. It was especially fun to send out a comment that said, “You remind us of a Muppet.” I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me which one? I still want to know to this day.”

Malcolm: That’s radical openness.

Adam: When I then had a class session devoted to discussing the feedback, I said, “Like any good organizational psychologist, I did a content analysis of all of the critical comments. Here are the 5 major categories of concerns. Here are some idea for how to address them. What do you think?” Then we discussed it. I learned a huge amount from it.

Criticism in public was actually helpful. I thought it would be more vulnerable and more embarrassing. But being on stage, I wasn’t just getting evaluated on the quality of my class. I was also getting evaluated on how well I took the feedback. Being there in public forced me to be receptive and listen, as opposed to defensive.

I’ve done that every year since and I feel like I learned something valuable and new every year.

Malcolm: I have to go back 10 minutes, to when we started talking about how this way of looking at the world ought to change the job of letting people into college. Let’s move on to another institution. How should this change the way we pick presidents? (college presidents?)

First of all, it’s unbelievable that we have an election process that’s basically a popularity contest, instead of a competence contest.

Adam: Wow. We are not supposed to talk about any Wharton alums in public. I’m going to speak in generalities here. [Ed. Note: Donald Trump is a Wharton alum.] First of all, it’s unbelievable that we have an election process that’s basically a popularity contest, instead of a competence contest. I would be willing to vote for anyone who demonstrates effective leadership skills, decision making, forecasting, visioning, conflict resolution, various points on the ideology spectrum.

If they show me they can lead effectively, I want that person in charge of the country.

If you look at research on American presidents, the most effective ones consistently were the ones who were willing to challenge the status quo.

Look at Lincoln, for example. Lincoln was widely unpopular in his time for making some decisions that a lot of people disagreed with and yet, probably the most important thing that’s happened in this country to date. (Not before he was elected though?)

I would love to see a process where we could figure out, “Who’s able to take an original, nonconforming vision and get other people behind it?” I would also explode the two-party system. It’s a disaster.

Malcolm: One of the great curiosities about the American electoral process, and I say this as a Canadian, is that it’s essentially structured around a series of debates. You’re selected on your debating skills. Then the minute you get into the office, you stop debating. It’s very odd. We might as well see if they are good at playing golf.

Adam: We actually do a fair amount of that too.

Malcolm: Then as I thought about it, when you give your character template that you think is so useful for original thinking, which has to do with self-reflection, humility, willingness to accept criticism, thoughtfulness, et cetera, all of those things are on display in a debate.

Maybe the problem isn’t the debate. Maybe the problem is the way in which we’re interpreting behavior in a debate.

“Debates end up largely rewarding the person who is most successfully aggressive, as opposed to the person who is able to bring a new perspective to the table, or make us think differently.”

Adam: Debates end up largely rewarding the person who is most successfully aggressive, as opposed to the person who is able to bring a new perspective to the table, or make us think differently. Philip Tetlock‘s work on foxes and hedgehogs is so relevant here.

Hedgehogs know one thing well. They see the world black and white. Foxes know many things and are constantly looking at shades of gray. What Philip is always pointing out is that the candidates who are getting elected are the ones who speak like a hedgehog and who use very simple language, and are very clear about their one or two or three policies.

That’s exactly the opposite of the people who are good at predicting the future and making decisions.

The candidate I want to vote for is the one who flip-flops all the time, the one who has sentences that don’t end necessarily in any clear direction, who’s grappling through complex ideas, but we don’t really want to vote for those people because we don’t trust them to steer the country.

Malcolm: You have a chapter that deals in part with Segway and Dean Kamen. You’re really quite hard on him. You talk about the reasons why so many smart people were wrong about the Segway. Lots of brilliant people in Silicon Valley said, “This is a game-changing, extraordinary piece of technology.” It did not live up to expectations in the marketplace. Why are you holding it against Dean Kamen?

Adam: I didn’t mean to be hard on Dean. I mean to be hard, actually, on the investors who bet on the Segway. That chapter was about false positives and false negatives, and how we have lots of original ideas in the world. The problem isn’t getting more of them, but rather betting on the right ones. We need to stop rejecting Harry Potter and stop saying that Segway is going to change the world.

Malcolm: Don’t you like the spirit in which people thought? I object to calling the Segway a false positive.

The spirit in which the kind of thinking that leads you to believe in the Segway, leads you to believe in lots of other things that maybe do turn out well. In other words, you can’t turn off enthusiasm for the Segway without turning off enthusiasm for lots of other really fascinating longshots.

Adam: You can still have the enthusiasm. You can still fund the technology. You don’t have to go and say, “This is going to change the world of transportation.” You can bet on the invention without betting on the company. (How so?)

Malcolm: Elsewhere you point out the incredibly insightful observation from Dean Simonton, that what distinguishes the genius from the rest of us is not that they have a higher hit rate, but that they have more ideas than we do.

a genius by definition has more misses than we do. We have three ideas, and they have 100. They’re going to get 25 right and we’re going to get one right.

Why isn’t the Segway just an example of geniuses missing?

Adam: It is if you look at Dean Kamen’s career. He basically stopped everything else he was working on and spent several years on the Segway. I would have much rather had his brilliant brain turn toward multiple innovations. That’s where it’s a failure, because we lose his time.

“It’s like if Shakespeare said, ‘Instead of also working on this thing called Macbeth and Hamlet, I’m just going to put everything in The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ That would be such a travesty.”

Once he’s perfected the technology, he shouldn’t be spending years trying to figure out how to commercialize it.

That’s not his strength. There are lots of other people who can do that. Let him do what he does best, which is inventing. It halted his idea-generation process.

Nobody thinks it’s a great masterpiece. It’s like if Shakespeare said, “Instead of also working on this thing called Macbeth and Hamlet, I’m just going to put everything in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” That would be such a travesty.

I want to ask you a question though, because this whole idea of generating lots of ideas, you’ve been at this now for two decades plus. Talk about being an original.

You created this whole original genre where you took social science and made it interesting and accessible to people. You used it to help them turn their own beliefs upside down, and also explain the world that they live in.

Can you talk about your idea-generation process and how you know when you’re onto something good, versus bad?

Malcolm: There’s no system. Someone reminds you of something you said a few years ago. I think, “Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t have an answer to that question.” It’s not that hard.

Adam: How do you know when something is worth writing about, versus this is a fun conversation to have at a dinner party?

Malcolm: You don’t. That’s why you write bad articles, the ones that don’t work, which is fine. The hostility people have to the things that don’t work is out-of-place for this precise reason.

To go back to that Dean Simonton insight, which is so brilliant, I need to expand it properly.

Simonton says, “Suppose you and I look at all our ideas and we realize that 25% of the ideas that I have are good, and 75% are terrible. Then we compare me to Einstein. The difference between me and Einstein is not that Einstein has a 50% good idea, 50% bad idea. Einstein might have 10% good ideas and 90% bad ideas, but I have five ideas in the year and Einstein has 500.”

That’s what makes him Einstein. Well, that’s not all that makes him Einstein. Einstein both has really amazing ideas, but also a huge number of terrible ones.

When you run into something bad from someone who you thought was good, as opposed to using that as evidence that denies their greatness, genius, talent, you ought to at least entertain the possibility that the miss is proof of big talent. That is such a fantastically interesting idea to me.

It’s why when you critique someone’s work, you have to critique it with a certain amount of gentleness and consideration because you don’t know which category it’s in. Either they’ve gone crazy, and they’re not any good anymore, or this is terrible precisely because they’re geniuses and they’re turning out lots of bad stuff in addition to the great stuff.

You make this point in your book that we spend precious little time dwelling on all the bad plays Shakespeare wrote, or the terrible forgettable melodies that Mozart composed. Why don’t we dwell on their bad stuff?

If they were ordinary, if they were more mere mortals, what’s my excuse (for Not trying harder)?”

Adam: Because it destroys this myth that we carry about what a genius is. Their talent is so much greater than the rest of us, that they’re able to do near-perfect work every single time. When we start to see them churn out bad ideas, we start to wonder were we wrong about them. Were they really any good?

We look at these people and we expect them to be great. What that forces us to do is say, “Look, I can never be one of them,” and that gives us an out. We don’t have to try because they were so much better than the rest of us. If they were ordinary, if they were more mere mortals, what’s my excuse?

Malcolm: Is there some other element of geniuses that they manage to artfully conceal? Do they consciously market their achievements, such that they recognize when something’s a stinker and make sure no one sees it?

Adam: I don’t think that’s true for most of them. There’s this great study of Beethoven. Beethoven was known as a pretty perceptive self-critic. For 70 of his compositions, he wrote letters evaluating them to his friends and saying, “This one’s a dud. This one I’m really proud of.” He wrote a lot of them after he had audience feedback.

His error rate was 33%. He committed 15 false positives, thinking that pieces were going to be extraordinary, when they were pretty ordinary relative to his peers. He had eight that he thought were bad, that turned out to be great. He didn’t even know which ones to hide. A lot of us don’t.

Malcolm: Doesn’t that just mean that his criteria for evaluating what he found meaningful in his own work was different than ours?

Adam: Maybe. Certainly as centuries pass, you can’t fault him for not knowing what we appreciate about his music today. He was even off in his own time. You could say he was looking for a certain musical achievement that was independent of taste.

Let’s take someone like Thomas Edison. He was trying to commercialize innovation after innovation.

Of his 1,093 patents, six or seven turned out to have a real impact. That was not his goal. If he could have concealed it, he probably would have, if only he’d known.

Malcolm: I was interviewing some music producer. Guy was a big music producer in the ’80s of all the New Wave bands. I asked him of his whole career what accomplishment he was proudest of. He named the sixth Madness album, which is an album that no one either bought or listened to.

I realized that his definition of accomplishment was just different. It wasn’t the album that people loved or the album that people bought, or the album that showed Madness at their best.

It was the album that showed him at his best. Where he did the most creative work in making something acceptable out of something that was unacceptable. He traveled the greatest distance with the material.

I’ve often thought that when it comes to critical evaluation of work of all kinds, degree of difficulty is the one that particularly non-insiders don’t appreciate.

Sometimes I’ll read something, and because I was a reporter for so many years, I understand that what that writer did was insanely hard. Maybe the outcome reads as mediocre or not that interesting, but because you know how insanely difficult the task was, you’re in awe of the accomplishment.

You have a chapter on Edwin Land.

Edwin Land is founder of Polaroid, legendary figure in the history of photography. Polaroid was an extraordinarily influential, profitable, successful company for many years, but it didn’t last forever. Is it fair to fault companies because they don’t last forever?

Adam: No, we shouldn’t fault a company for not lasting forever. We should fault a company for being in a position to continue bringing original ideas and products into the world and failing.

Polaroid had very early access to digital technology. They could have pioneered the digital camera.

Instead of saying, “Look, we want to enrich what Polaroid stands for,” they said, “We’re all about cultural fit. We’re going to hire people who think the same way as us, which means they know silver highlight and chemicals, as opposed to zeros and ones in the digital world. We’re going to ignore this innovation, because why would anyone ever want to take a picture without printing it? It’s the print that you value, which is why we sell the film and basically give away the camera.”

“I’m not faulting the company for not surviving forever. I’m saying they had a chance to continue the greatness that they had and they blew it.”

If they had let go of that earlier, it’s possible they could have done a lot of continued great things. It’s a really unfortunate outcome for the world, because Polaroid was an innovation factory. We lost a lot of originality when they went bankrupt. I’m not faulting the company for not surviving forever. I’m saying they had a chance to continue the greatness that they had and they blew it.

Malcolm: You’re using as your unit of measurement the company. Why wouldn’t you use as your unit of measurement the economy and say, “The fact that Polaroid persists in its dogged pursuit of physical film opened the door for upstarts to come along and do digital.”

In other words, why can’t we just accept the fact that innovation occurs when people have a fantastic commitment to a set of ideas and pursue them until they’re no longer useful and someone else takes their place?

That strikes me as being a much more realistic depiction of the way human beings operate, as opposed to saying, “The leopard has to change its spots at the age of …”

Adam: If you take that life cycle perspective, that’s exactly what happens.

It falls short of what Edwin Land was creating with Polaroid. This was not an ordinary original guy. He was literally Steve Jobs’s role model. If you look at the number of patents, the diversity of innovation — he solved many problems that were thought to be impossible. He also created an organization that was able to do that at scale, which very few are.

We should aspire to create more of those because when you do it well, it’s a fragile thing.

If that goes away, maybe a lot of these startups are not going to be as great and originality is going to falter. That’s what I worry about.

This conversation was originally recorded at 92nd Street Y — the New York cultural center that convenes influencers and innovators who inspire a world of ideas.

From the arts to business to politics to science, it’s where tomorrow’s most important issues are revealed, and today’s most intriguing conversations begin.

Stating the obvious, but oh so cleverly

Malcolm Gladwell is a cerebral and jaunty writer, with an unusual gift for making the complex seem simple and for seeking common-sense explanations for many of the apparent mysteries, coincidences and problems of the everyday.

He is also an intellectual opportunist, always on the look-out for a smart phrase or new fad with which to define and explain different social phenomena.

In his first book, The Tipping Point, he studied events such as crime waves and fashion trends and settled on an arresting metaphor to explain why they happen. ‘Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread just like viruses,‘ he wrote, suggesting that we contaminate and infect one another with preferences and recommendations, until we reach a ‘tipping point’, after which a social epidemic becomes contagious and crosses a threshold to reach saturation point.

The tipping point: who does not now use this phrase to describe a moment of definitive transition? (‘Tipping point’ seems to have become this generation’s ‘paradigm shift’, a phrase popularised by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

The success of the book, which began as an article in the New Yorker, the magazine for which he works as a staff writer, propelled Gladwell into the realm of super-consultancy. He has since become a lauded pontificant and ideas progenitor on the international lecture circuit.

He is the go-to man for a corporate business elite seeking to understand the way we live, think and consume today.

It helps that with his wild, unruly curls and wide-eyed gaze, Gladwell has the look of an übergeek.

He seems to have absorbed one important lesson of the consumerist culture he deconstructs – that the image you project is paramount; in effect, he has made himself, superficially at least, into a brand.

If you didn’t know he was a writer and journalist, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he was a leading operator at Microsoft or Google. As it is, he’s a kind of literary Bill Gates, a guy so far ahead of the rest of the pack that you never quite know what he will do next.

What is an outlier?

The word may not be a neologism but I have never heard anyone use it in conversation. According to one dictionary definition, an outlier is ‘something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body’.

But Gladwell uses the word with more metaphorical flexibility. For him, an outlier is a truly exceptional individual who, in his or her field of expertise, is so superior that he defines his own category of success. Bill Gates is an outlier and so are Steve Jobs of Apple, Robert Oppenheimer and many others Gladwell speaks to or writes about as he seeks to offer a more complete understanding of success.

The trouble with the book is that Gladwell is ultimately engaged in a long argument with nobody but himself. Throughout, he defines his position against a floating, ubiquitous, omnipotent ‘we’; a Greek chorus of predictable opposition and received opinion. ‘There is something profoundly wrong with the way we look at success,’ he writes.

‘We cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.’ And so he goes on.

These assumptions can be irritating, since who is this naive, unquestioning, plural intelligence identified as ‘we’?

Do we in wider society really believe that outstanding success, in whichever field, is achieved without extraordinary dedication, talent and fortuitous circumstance, as Gladwell would have it?

Do we really take no account of the sociopolitical context into which someone was born and through which they emerged when we attempt to quantify outlandish achievement?

Do we really believe that genius is simply born rather than formed? Gladwell wants his readers to take away from this book ‘the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are’.

But I don’t know anyone who would dispute this.

The world for Gladwell is a text that he reads as closely as he can in seeking to decode and interpret it. He is adept at identifying underlying trends from which he extrapolates to form hypotheses, presenting them as if they were general laws of social behaviour.

But his work has little philosophical rigour. He’s not an epistemologist; his interest is in what we think, rather than in the how and why of knowledge itself.

There is also a certain one-dimensional Americanness at work: many of his examples and case studies are American and he spends rather too much time in New York, at one point even riffing at length about the founder of the literary agency that represents him.

The book would have been more interesting if he’d roamed wider and travelled more, if it had been more internationalist in ambition and outlook.

However, it’s still fun to follow Gladwell on his meandering intellectual journeys, even if the conclusions he arrives at here are so obviously self-evident as to be banal. Even when he is not at his best he is worth taking seriously.

He has a lucid, aphoristic style. His case studies are well chosen, such as when he writes about the birth dates of elite ice hockey players and discovers a pattern: most are born in the first three months of the year.

His range is wide, and he writes as well in Outliers about sport as he does about corporate law firms in New York or aviation. Little is beneath his notice.

One last thing, as Gladwell might say. There’s perhaps another way of reading Outliers and that’s as a quest for self-understanding, since the author himself is obviously an outlier. In seeking to find out more about how other people like him came to be who they are and to occupy the exalted positions they do, he’s also indirectly seeking to learn more about himself, about how he came to be who he is: the smartest guy at the New Yorker, with the big ideas and the lucrative book deals.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. His book The Last Game: Love, Death and Football will be published in April 2009.

Note: I have reviewed extensively most of Gladwell books, (to my knowledge) and I enjoyed the read and the ideas.

How to Raise a Creative Child.

Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new

Step One: Back Off

THEY learn to read at age 2, play Bach at 4, breeze through calculus at 6, and speak foreign languages fluently by 8. Their classmates shudder with envy; their parents rejoice at winning the lottery.

But to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, their careers tend to end not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Consider the nation’s most prestigious award for scientifically gifted high school students, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, called the Super Bowl of science by one American president.

From its inception in 1942 until 1994, the search recognized more than 2000 precocious teenagers as finalists. But just 1 percent ended up making the National Academy of Sciences, and just eight have won Nobel Prizes.

For every Lisa Randall who revolutionizes theoretical physics, there are many dozens who fall far short of their potential.

Child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world

We assume that they must lack the social and emotional skills to function in society. When you look at the evidence, though, this explanation doesn’t suffice: Less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. A vast majority are well adjusted — as winning at a cocktail party as in the spelling bee.

What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original.

They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.

The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own.

Research suggests that the most creative children are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet, and in response, many learn to keep their original ideas to themselves. In the language of the critic William Deresiewicz, they become the excellent sheep.

Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities by shining in their jobs without making waves.

They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken medical system or lawyers who defend clients on unfair charges but do not try to transform the laws themselves.

So what does it take to raise a creative child?

One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.

Even then, though, parents didn’t shove their values down their children’s throats. When psychologists compared America’s most creative architects with a group of highly skilled but unoriginal peers, there was something unique about the parents of the creative architects: “Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”

Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.

When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. They weren’t drill sergeants or slave drivers. They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children. When their children showed interest and enthusiasm in a skill, the parents supported them.

Top concert pianists didn’t have elite teachers from the time they could walk; their first lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning fun.

Mozart showed interest in music before taking lessons, not the other way around. Mary Lou Williams learned to play the piano on her own; Itzhak Perlman began teaching himself the violin after being rejected from music school.

Even the best athletes didn’t start out any better than their peers.

When Dr. Bloom’s team interviewed tennis players who were ranked in the top 10 in the world, they were not, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, doing push-ups since they were a fetus. Few of them faced intense pressure to perfect the game as Andre Agassi did. A majority of the tennis stars remembered one thing about their first coaches: They made tennis enjoyable.

SINCE Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “10,000-hour rule” suggesting that success depends on the time we spend in deliberate practice, debate has raged about how the hours necessary to become an expert vary by field and person.

In arguing about that, we’ve overlooked two questions that matter just as much.

First, can’t practice itself blind us to ways to improve our area of study?

Research reveals that the more we practice, the more we become entrenched — trapped in familiar ways of thinking. Expert bridge players struggled more than novices to adapt when the rules were changed; expert accountants were worse than novices at applying a new tax law.

Second, what motivates people to practice a skill for thousands of hours? The most reliable answer is passion — discovered through natural curiosity or nurtured through early enjoyable experiences with an activity or many activities.

Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience.

In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad.

In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.

No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight.

“The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition,” Albert Einstein reflected. His mother enrolled him in violin lessons starting at age 5, but he wasn’t intrigued. His love of music only blossomed as a teenager, after he stopped taking lessons and stumbled upon Mozart’s sonatas. “Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty,” he said.

Hear that, Tiger Moms and Lombardi Dads? You can’t program a child to become creative. Try to engineer a certain kind of success, and the best you’ll get is an ambitious robot. If you want your children to bring original ideas into the world, you need to let them pursue their passions, not yours.

“Too bad, or Too good to be true?” Orphaned children

Losing a parent in childhood has the potential of driving people into extreme behaviors that “psychologically healthy” kids tend not to cross.

For example, 3 folds the numbers of prisoners have lost a parent before reaching 16 of age.

Illustrious geniuses such as inventors, poets, writers, statesmen… 45% of them had been orphaned .  Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Swift, Gibbon, Thackeray…

Marvin Eisenstadt selected 699 of these illustrious personalities who had credible biographies, and he spent 10 years analyzing these personalities.

Do you know that:

1. Twelve of the 44 US presidents have lost a parent in childhood? Most of them were of the early presidents such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson… because of low life expectancy in those periods.  Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been orphaned too.

2. British prime ministers who exclusively came from upper classes, 67% of them lost a parent early on. This is twice the rate of parental loss in the upper classes in those times. A study by Lucille Iremonger.

“it appears that gifted and prodigy children are likely to emerge in highly supportive family conditions. In contrast, geniuses have a perverse tendency of growing up in more adverse conditions

Apparently, courage and consistency in carrying out a project is an acquired attitude, resulting from “remote misses” occurrences that failed to handicap you, physically or mentally. It means that if frequent bombing save you from being a “near miss” casualty, you eventually conquer your fear and start feeling invulnerable, a feeling of exhilaration that death cannot touch you any time soon.

If you had the opportunity of going through  a few tough episodes, you discover that “It’s not that tough after all”

These orphaned kids break “out of the community Frame

The diverse frames we are locked in are shattered when childhood frame ceases to exist.

Note 1: Read Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath”

Note 2: It would be an excellent idea to study whether separated parents in childhood have the same effect on the kids

Note 3: For every remote miss person who becomes stronger to face the difficulties of life, there are countless near misses who are crushed and remain disabled to function properly as normal people do.

The Gift of Doubt, Albert O. Hirschman and the power of failure.

In the mid-nineteenth century, work began on a crucial section of the railway line connecting Boston to the Hudson River. The addition would run from Greenfield, Massachusetts, to Troy, New York, and it required tunneling through Hoosac Mountain, a nearly five-mile thick impediment, that blocked passage between the Deerfield Valley and a tributary of the Hudson.

James Hayward, one of New England’s leading railroad engineers, estimated that penetrating the Hoosac would cost, at most, a very manageable $2 million.

The president of Amherst College, an accomplished geologist, said that the mountain was composed of soft rock and that tunneling would be fairly easy once the engineers had breached the surface. “The Hoosac . . . is believed to be the only barrier between Boston and the Pacific,” the project’s promoter, Alvah Crocker, declared.

 published in The New Yorker this June 24, 2013:

Everyone was wrong. Digging through the Hoosac turned out to be a nightmare. The project cost more than ten times the budgeted estimate.

If the people involved had known the true nature of the challenges they faced, they would never have funded the Troy-Greenfield railroad. But, had they not, the factories of northwestern Massachusetts wouldn’t have been able to ship their goods so easily to the expanding West, the cost of freight would have remained stubbornly high, and the State of Massachusetts would have been immeasurably poorer. So is ignorance an impediment to progress or a precondition for it?

The economist Albert O. Hirschman, who died last December, loved paradoxes like this. He was a “planner,” the kind of economist who conceives of grand infrastructure projects and bold schemes. But his eye was drawn to the many ways in which plans did not turn out the way they were supposed to—to unintended consequences and perverse outcomes and the puzzling fact that the shortest line between two points is often a dead end.

Hirschman was a planner who saw virtue in the fact that nothing went as planned. Illustration by Ricardo Martinez.

Hirschman was a planner who saw virtue in the fact that nothing went as planned. Illustration by Ricardo Martinez.

“The Principle of the Hiding Hand,” one of Hirschman’s many memorable essays, drew on an account of the Troy-Greenfield “folly,” and then presented an even more elaborate series of paradoxes. Hirschman had studied the enormous Karnaphuli Paper Mills, in what was then East Pakistan.

The mill was built to exploit the vast bamboo forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But not long after the mill came online, the bamboo unexpectedly flowered and then died, a phenomenon now known to recur every 50 years or so. Dead bamboo was useless for pulping; it fell apart as it was floated down the river.

Because of ignorance and bad planning, a new, multimillion-dollar industrial plant was suddenly without the raw material it needed to function.

But what impressed Hirschman was the response to the crisis.

The mill’s operators quickly found ways to bring in bamboo from villages throughout East Pakistan, building a new supply chain using the country’s many waterways. They started a research program to find faster-growing species of bamboo to replace the dead forests, and planted an experimental tract. They found other kinds of lumber that worked just as well. The result was that the plant was blessed with a far more diversified base of raw materials than had ever been imagined.

If bad planning hadn’t led to the crisis at the Karnaphuli plant, the mill’s operators would never have been forced to be creative. And the plant would not have been nearly as valuable as it became.

“We may be dealing here with a general principle of action,” Hirschman wrote:

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. We would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming.

Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.

And from there Hirschman’s analysis took flight. People don’t seek out challenges “They are “apt to take on and plunge into new tasks because of the erroneously presumed absence of a challenge—because the task looks easier and more manageable than it will turn out to be.

This was the Hiding Hand principle—a play on Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. The entrepreneur takes risks but does not see himself as a risk-taker, because he operates under the useful delusion that what he’s attempting is not risky. Then, trapped in mid-mountain, people discover the truth—and, because it is too late to turn back, they’re forced to finish the job.

“We have ended up here with an economic argument strikingly paralleling Christianity’s oft expressed preference for the repentant sinner over the righteous man who never strays from the path,” Hirschman wrote in this essay from 1967. Success grew from failure:

And essentially the same idea, even though formulated, as one might expect, in a vastly different spirit, is found in Nietzsche’s famous maxim, “That which does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” This sentence admirably epitomizes several of the histories of economic development projects in recent decades.

As was nearly always the case with Hirschman’s writing, he made his argument without mathematical formulas or complex models. His subject was economics, but his spirit was literary. He drew on Brecht, Kafka, Freud, Flaubert, La Rochefoucauld, Montesquieu, Montaigne, and Machiavelli, not to mention Homer—he had committed huge sections of the Odyssey to memory.

The pleasure of reading Hirschman comes not only from the originality of his conclusions but also from the delightfully idiosyncratic path he took to them. Consider this, from the same essay (and, remember, this is an economist who’s writing):

“While we are rather willing and even eager and relieved to agree with a historian’s finding that we stumbled into the more shameful events of history, such as war, we are correspondingly unwilling to concede—in fact we find it intolerable to imagine—that our more lofty achievements, such as economic, social or political progress, could have come about by stumbling rather than through careful planning. . . . Language itself conspires toward this sort of asymmetry: we fall into error, but do not usually speak of falling into truth.

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman” (Princeton), by the Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman, is a biography worthy of the man. Adelman brilliantly and beautifully brings Hirschman to life, giving us an unforgettable portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary intellectuals.

Hirschman was born in Berlin in 1915, into a prosperous family of Jewish origin. His father was a surgeon, and the family lived in the embassy district, near the Tiergarten. Hirschman was slender and handsome, in the mold of Albert Camus. He dressed elegantly, danced skillfully, spoke half a dozen languages, and had a special affection for palindromes.

He was absent-minded and distracted. While lecturing, Adelman writes, “He rambled. He mumbled. Mid-sentence, he would pause, his right hand supporting his chin, his eyes drifting upward to fasten on a spot on the ceiling.” He would call his wife upon taking his car somewhere because—as he once said—“I do not know how to put it among two other cars on the sidewalk.” “When you spoke to him,” a friend said, “it was sometimes five or ten seconds before he would show any sign of having heard you.” He was also deeply charming when he put his mind to it.

The great influence on Hirschman’s life was his brother-in-law, the Italian intellectual Eugenio Colorni. Colorni and Hirschman were as close as siblings, and when Colorni was killed by Fascist thugs in Rome, during the Second World War, Hirschman was inconsolable. Adelman writes:

“Colorni believed that doubt was creative because it allowed for alternative ways to see the world, and seeing alternatives could steer people out of intractable circles and self-feeding despondency. Doubt, in fact, could motivate: freedom from ideological constraints opened up political strategies, and accepting the limits of what one could know liberated agents from their dependence on the belief that one had to know everything before acting, that conviction was a precondition for action.

The phrase that Hirschman and Colorni would repeat to each other was that they hoped to “prove Hamlet wrong.” Hamlet shouldn’t have been frozen by his doubts; he should have been freed by them. Hamlet took himself too seriously. He thought he needed to be perfect. Colorni and Hirschman didn’t. Courage, Colorni wrote, required the willingness “to always be on guard against oneself.”

Doubt didn’t mean disengagement.

In the summer of 1936, Hirschman volunteered to fight in Spain on the side of the Loyalists, against General Franco’s German-backed Fascists. He was twenty-one and living in Paris, having just got back from studying at the London School of Economics. He was among the first wave of German and Italian volunteers to take the train to Barcelona. “When I heard that there was even a possibility to do something,” Hirschman said, “I went.”

Hirschman rarely spoke about what happened in Spain. Decades later, Adelman recounts, Albert and his wife, Sarah, went to see a film about the Spanish Civil War. Afterward, Sarah asked Albert, “Was it like that?” His response was a deft non-response: “Yeah, that was a pretty good film.” On this subject, as on a few others, Sarah felt a certain reticence in her husband. Still, as Adelman remarks, “the scars on his neck and leg made it impossible for her to forget.”

Adelman interprets Hirschman’s silence as disenchantment: “The endless debate rehearsed in Berlin and Paris over left-wing tactics was more than a farce, it was a tragedy of epic proportions.

Hirschman saw the Communists move in and, in his mind, the spirit of the cause became contaminated. It broke his heart. But Hirschman would come to recognize that action fueled by doubt allows for failures to be left behind. Spain was a tragedy, but it was also, for him, an experiment, and experiments go awry.

Hirschman liked to say that he had “a propensity to self-subversion.” He even gave one of his books that title. He qualified and questioned and hedged as a matter of habit. He never trusted himself enough to indulge in grand theorizing. He pursued the “petite idée,” the attempt, as he said, “to come to an understanding of reality in portions, admitting that the angle may be subjective.”

Once, when a World Bank director sent him a paper that referred to the “Hirschman Doctrine,” Hirschman replied, “Unfortunately (or, I rather tend to think, fortunately), there is no Hirschman school of economic development and I cannot point to a large pool of disciples where one might fish out someone to work with you along those lines.”

Hirschman spent his career in constant motion.

After doing graduate training in London and Italy, fighting in Spain, and spending the first part of the war in France, he left for the United States, by which point he had begun to lose track of his own movements. “This makes my fourth—or is it fifth?—emigration,” he wrote to his mother. He accepted a fellowship at Berkeley (where he met the woman he would marry, Sarah Chapiro, another émigré), did a tour of duty for the O.S.S. in North Africa and Europe, and, with the war concluded, served a stint at the Federal Reserve Board, where he grew so unhappy that he would return home to his wife and two daughters in Chevy Chase, shut the door to his study, and bury himself in Kafka.

He worked for the Marshall Plan in Washington, providing, Adelman says, “the thinking behind the thinking,” only to be turned down for a transfer to Paris because of a failed national-security review. He was in his mid-thirties. On a whim, he packed up the family and moved to Bogotá, Colombia, where he worked on a project for the World Bank.

He crisscrossed Colombia with, Adelman writes, “pen in hand and paper handy, examining irrigation projects, talking to local bankers about their farm loans, and scribbling calculations about the costs of road building.”

Writing to her parents about the family’s decision to move to Colombia, which was then in the midst of a civil war, Sarah explained, “We both realize that you should think of the future—make plans for the children etc. But I think we both somehow feel that it is impossible to know what is best and that the present is so much more important—because if the present is solid and good it will be a surer basis for a good future than any plans that you can make.”

Most people would not have left a home in Chevy Chase and the security of a job in Washington to go to a Third World country where armed gangsters roamed the streets, because they would feel certain that Colombia was a mistake. Hirschman believed, as a matter of principle, that it was impossible to know whether Colombia would be a mistake.

As it happened, the 4 years the family spent in Bogotá were among its happiest. Hirschman returned to Latin America again and again during his career, and what he learned there provided the raw material for his most brilliant work. His doubt was a gift, not a curse.

Hirschman published his first important book, “The Strategy of Economic Development,” in 1958. He had returned from Colombia by then and was at Yale, and the book was an attempt to make sense of his experience of watching a country try to lift itself out of poverty.

At the time, he was reading deeply in the literature of psychology and psychoanalysis, and he became fascinated with the functional uses of negative emotions: frustration, aggression, and, in particular, anxiety. Obstacles led to frustration, and frustration to anxiety. No one wanted to be anxious. But wasn’t anxiety the most powerful motivator—the emotion capable of driving even the most reluctant party toward some kind of solution?

In the field of developmental economics, this was heretical. When people from organizations like the World Bank descended on Third World countries, they always tried to remove obstacles to development, to reduce economic anxiety and uncertainty. They wanted to build bridges and roads and airports and dams to insure that businesses and entrepreneurs encountered as few impediments as possible to growth. But, as Hirschman thought about case studies like the Karnaphuli Paper Mills and the Troy-Greenfield folly, he became convinced that his profession had it backward. His profession ought to embrace anxiety, and not seek to remove it.

As he wrote in a follow-up essay to “The Strategy of Economic Development”:

“Law and order and the absence of civil strife seem to be obvious preconditions for the gradual and patient accumulation of skills, capital and investors’ confidence that must be the foundation for economic progress. We are now told, however, that the presence of war-like Indians in North America and the permanent conflict between them and the Anglo-Saxon settlers was a great advantage, because it made necessary methodical, well-planned, and gradual advances toward an interior which always remained in close logistic and cultural contact with the established communities to the East.

In Brazil, on the contrary, the back-lands were open and virtually uncontested; the result was that once an excessively vast area had been occupied in an incredibly brief time span the pioneers became isolated and regressed economically and culturally.

The impulse of the developmental economist in those days would have been to remove the “impediments” to growth—to swoop in and have some powerful third party deal with the “war-like Indians.” But that would have turned North America into Brazil, and the pioneers would never have been forced to develop methodical, well-planned advances in logistical contact with the East.

Developing countries required more than capital.

They needed practice in making difficult economic decisions. Economic progress was the product of successful habits—and there is no better teacher, Hirschman felt, than a little adversity.

Hirschman would rather encourage settlers and entrepreneurs at the grass-roots level—and make them learn how to cope with those impediments themselves—than run the risk that aid might infantilize its recipient. He loved to tell the story of how, at a dinner party in a Latin American country, he struggled to track down the telephone number of a fellow-academic: “I asked whether there might be a chance that X would be listed in the telephone directory; this suggestion was shrugged off with the remark that the directory makes a point of listing only people who have either emigrated or died. . . . The economist said that X must be both much in demand and hard to reach, as several people had inquired about how to get in touch with him within the past few days. The subject was dropped as hopeless, and everybody spent a pleasant evening.”

Back in his hotel room, Hirschman looked in the phone book, found his friend’s number, and got him on the line immediately.

A few years after publishing “The Strategy of Economic Development,” Hirschman was invited by the World Bank to conduct a survey of some of its projects. He drew up his own itinerary, which, typically, involved almost an entire circuit of the globe: a power plant in El Salvador, roads in Ecuador, an irrigation project in Peru, pasture improvement in Uruguay, telecommunication in Ethiopia, power transmission in Uganda, an irrigation project in Sudan, railway modernization in Nigeria, the Damodar Valley Corporation in India, the Karnaphuli Paper Mills, an irrigation project in Thailand and another in the south of Italy.

Adelman is struck by the tone of optimism in Hirschman’s notes on his journey. The economist was interested in all the ways in which projects managed to succeed, both in spite of and because of the difficulties:

Instead of asking: what benefits [has] this project yielded, it would almost be more pertinent to ask: how many conflicts has it brought in its wake? How many crises has it occasioned and passed through? And these conflicts and crises should appear both on the benefit and the cost side, or sometimes on one—sometimes on the other, depending on the outcome (which cannot be known with precision for a long time, if ever).

Only Hirschman would circle the globe and be content to conclude that he couldn’t reach a conclusion—for a long time, if ever. He was a planner who really didn’t believe in planning. He wanted to remind other economists that a lot of the problems they tried to fix were either better off not being fixed or weren’t problems to begin with.

Late in life, Hirschman underwent surgery in Germany. When he emerged from anesthesia, he asked his surgeon, “Why are bananas bent?” The doctor shrugged. Hirschman, even then, could not resist a poke at his fellow economic planners: “Because nobody went to the jungle to adjust it and make it straight.”

While fighting for France during the Second World War, Hirschman persuaded his commander to give him false French papers and he became Albert Hermant. After the country fell to the Germans, Hirschman ended up in Marseilles, along with thousands of other refugees. There he learned that an American named Varian Fry was coming to France as part of the Emergency Rescue Committee—an American group that sought to get as many Jewish refugees out of France as possible. Hirschman met Fry at the train station and took him back to the Hotel Splendide. They hit it off instantly.

Fry had access to U.S. visas. But he needed Hirschman’s help in figuring out escape routes into Spain, procuring false passports and identity papers, and smuggling in money to fund the operation. Hirschman was invaluable. He spoke Italian like an Italian and German like a German and French like a Frenchman, and had so many fake documents—including a card attesting to membership in the “Club for People Without Clubs”—that Fry joked he was “like a criminal who has too many alibis.”

Fry nicknamed Hirschman Beamish, on account of his irrepressible charm. Beginning in 1940, the Emergency Rescue Committee helped save thousands of people from the clutches of Fascism, among them Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Alma Mahler.

Hirschman was as reluctant to talk about his time in Marseilles as he was to talk about the battles he fought in the Spanish Civil War. As a fellow at Berkeley, in the early forties, he was placed in the International House, and the other graduate students urged him to speak about what had happened to him in Europe. “The newcomer sat there,” Adelman writes, “with his handkerchief twisted in his fingers, nervously waiting for the calls to pass.” Hirschman moved out of the International House as soon as he could. “I couldn’t stand being considered as sort of a wonder of the world or something like that,” he later recalled. “I just wanted to be myself.”

The closest Hirschman ever came to explaining his motives was in his most famous work, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” and even then it was only by implication. Hirschman was interested in contrasting the two strategies that people have for dealing with badly performing organizations and institutions. “Exit” is voting with your feet, expressing your displeasure by taking your business elsewhere. “Voice” is staying put and speaking up, choosing to fight for reform from within. There is no denying where his heart lay.

Early in the book, Hirschman quoted the conservative economist Milton Friedman, who argued that school vouchers should replace the current public-school system. “Parents could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible,” Friedman wrote. “In general they can now take this step only by changing their place of residence. For the rest, they can express their views only through cumbrous political channels.”

This was, Hirschman wrote, a “near perfect example of the economist’s bias in favor of exit and against voice”:

In the first place, Friedman considers withdrawal or exit as the “direct” way of expressing one’s unfavorable views of an organization. A person less well trained in economics might naively suggest that the direct way of expressing views is to express them! Secondly, the decision to voice one’s views and efforts to make them prevail are contemptuously referred to by Friedman as a resort to “cumbrous political channels.” But what else is the political, and indeed the democratic, process than the digging, the use, and hopefully the slow improvement of these very channels?

Hirschman pointed out the ways in which “exit” failed to send a useful message to underperformers. Weren’t there cases where monopolists were relieved when their critics left? “Those who hold power in the lazy monopoly may actually have an interest in creating some limited opportunities for exit on the part of those whose voice might be uncomfortable,” he wrote. The worst thing that ever happened to incompetent public-school districts was the growth of private schools: they siphoned off the kind of parents who would otherwise have agitated more strongly for reform.

Beneath Hirschman’s elegant sentences, you can hear a deeper argument. Exit is passive. It is silent protest. And silent protest, for him, is too easy. “Proving Hamlet wrong” was about the importance of acting in the face of doubt—but also of acting in the face of fear. Voice was courage. He went to fight Fascism in Spain. It ended in failure. When the Nazis came hunting for the Jews, he tried again. “Expanding the operation meant, increasingly, that Beamish’s work was in the streets, bars, and brothels of Marseilles, expanding the tentacles of the operation,” Adelman writes. “If the operation had a fixer, it was Beamish. It was a role he relished.”

Beamish screened the refugees, weeding out potential informers. He cajoled first the Czech, then the Polish, and, finally, the Lithuanian consuls into providing fake passports. He made deals with Marseilles mobsters and a shadowy Russian émigré to get money into France. He held secret meetings in brothels. Several times, he was nearly caught, but he charmed his way out of trouble.

When the authorities finally caught onto Hirschman, he escaped across the Pyrenees to Spain on foot, equipped with false Lithuanian papers. On the ship to America, he played Ping-Pong and chess, and romanced a young Czech woman. As Adelman’s magnificent biography makes plain, it was hard not to fall for Albert Hirschman. A colleague from his Marseilles days remembered him, years later, as “a handsome fellow with rather soulful eyes . . . taking everything in, his head cocked slightly to one side. One of those German intellectuals, I thought, always trying to figure everything out.” ♦

It is Attitude, not ability: Doing math, physics, chemistry…

The proper attitude is to persist in solving a problem.

It doesn’t matter how difficult or complex is a problem: The more you try solving and figuring out various perspectives to tackling the difficulty, angles, and methods…the closer you are in resolving the problem.

With focus and perseverance, acquired in childhood, you reach this critical instant of eureka “Yah! I get it”

I recall that I never had the patience to sit down and solve math or physics exercises and problems. The easy exercises bored me and the difficult problems didn’t receive much focus and attention and energy to try harder: I would jump to the solution section if available…

Sure I understood the concepts and how to proceed, but what counted is exam time were the limited time, the patience to go on …

If your attitude was lousy during the entire semester, it isn’t going to change and make any difference at exam sessions: You are frantic, out of patience, and your mind wants to fly away and give up quickly on challenging problems…

I recall taking relativity and quantum mechanics courses. There were not books available for solutions of problems.  What I could find were books on the history and philosophy of the materials.  I would thoroughly read all these voluminous books, but the main question remained: “Can you solve the problems in the allotted time at exam sessions?

Maybe if I located solving manuals for exercises and problems I might have barely passed these courses from the first time. With this attitude of mine, I would have never been a mathematician or an efficient physicist…

Now, if you give me a 100-item questionnaire to fill, you can bet that no less than 20 questions would be left blank. And if I am required to fill every single question, the blank spaces would shine with utter cynicism and blunt falsehood

In cultures that pragmatically place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work, people are best in solving math problems...

Pragmatic cultures means to actually do and finish any task handed to you, whether you like the task or not…

And the reward? To be recognized by the community as a hard-working members you can be counted on to pursue difficult tasks and responsibilities…

No one who can rise before dawn, 360 days a year, can fail to make his family rich…” This is an idiom in south China around the Pearl River Delta of rice paddies…

These Far Asian cultures are renown for answering every question in lengthy questionnaire. Kind of if you want to know the details of an individual, all you have to do is to provide him with a questionnaire…

Math proficiency in Far Asian culture is high, in spite of lower IQ scores and other aptitude tests. But again, IQ tests are biased by western culture and idiosyncratic mentality

I recall a few of my cousins who were bright in math and in any course they have taken, even history, geography, literature…They would sit down for hours, strong with a pen, a notebook and a ruler…and solve every exercise and problem at the end of every chapter…and every manual with exercises and problems…

I know they could solve the hardest of math or physics problems, but they built this attitude of resolving every minor and simple exercises, as meticulously and clearly as any other harder problem…

You built-in the attitude and let ability and talent follow you throughout your life, and gathering and reaping success and awards on the way…

The Knowledge Is Power program (KIPP Academy) in the south Bronx believes that sustained learning, even in summer time, is the best responses to increasing students’ proficiency in any topic as the new scholar year starts.

School starts at 7.55 am and ends at 5 pm and extends till 7 pm for students engaged in theater, orchestra…

Every day, students have to attend a 90-minutes math course, 90 minutes of English, 25 minutes in reflective thinking (taking all the time necessary to solving a problem, and not just math…). The motto is smile, sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track with your eyes…(SSLANT)

Note: Topic was inspired by a chapter in one of Malcolm Gladwell books


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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