Malcolm Gladwell came to speak... (26 Oct 2005)

... at Google today (and we got free copies of “Blink” - don't you love Google.) It looks like his next book will probably have one of the themes that he talked on today.

The first was conceptual innovation vs experimental innovation. Conceptual innovation is the eureka moment - a new idea which is just very good. Picasso is his example. Picasso made most of his ground breaking stuff when he was young, he planned it, it was a new idea and he faded out as he got older.

Experimental innovation is the kind which takes a very long time to develop. First example: C├ęzanne. As opposed to Picasso he was unremarkable for decades. If you study his paintings from when he was 40 (Gladwell says) you would not predict that he would be world class in his 60s.

Second example: Fleetwood Mac. Their first hit album was Rumours and it was their 16th album. Their long suffering record company supported them through 15 duff albums before getting some money back. (Can you imagine that happening today?)

And that last comment seems to be Gladwell's hook for the book - we're missing too much experimental innovation because, as a society, we're geared towards conceptual breakthroughs

Next topic; targeting elite kids. Gladwell, he claims, was one of the top three junior runners in Canada at age 14. You wouldn't know it to look at him and, although the Canadian government sent him to special running training etc, he didn't turn out to be a great runner at age 21 etc.

Gladwell says that selecting at a young age is a terrible thing to do because performance in a given area (physical or mental) is a terrible predictor of success in that field when they get older. He seems to have a lot of studies to back this up. Education, he believes, should be more egalitarian.

One interesting study he quoted was the relation between going to Harvard and earning more later in life. Harvard claims that going there is great for future income (and it would have to be because Harvard costs a lot) but it turns out that the biggest predictor for earning lots is applying to Harvard. You don't have to get in, you just have to be the sort of person who believes that they can and are willing to try it.

Well there you go. I await the next book, Malcolm.

Update: There's a recent text, by Gladwell, from the New Yorker about Harvard's entry system.