I keep trying to find great movies to watch with my 8 and 5-year-old sons that are fun for all of us. The Princess Bride is one of the best. It’s a great movie for adults and it even has Peter Falk as the narrator grandfather to keep the kids engaged.
Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best writers of our generation. That’s not to say he’s always right. As he likes to say, “I hope you find my work entertaining even when it’s wrong.” Gladwell has done some amazing stuff as a magazine writer, book writer, speaker, and even podcast host. If you want to watch some amazing talks, check out: The Spaghetti Sauce Talk and The Coke and Pepsi Talk. But who are the people that Malcolm Gladwell thinks are the best writers and speakers?
The Spaghetti Sauce Talk:
The Coke and Pepsi Talk:
On Great Writers
From the Longform Podcast interview with Malcolm Gladwell (starting at 28:18. Transcript provided by Longform)
My great hero as a writer is Michael Lewis. I just think Michael Lewis, believe it or not, is the most underrated writer of my generation. I think he is the one who will be read 50 years from now. And I think what he does is so extraordinary, from a kind of degree of difficulty standpoint. The Big Short is a gripping book, fascinating, utterly gripping book about derivatives. It blows me away how insanely hard that book was to do, and it’s brilliant. The Blind Side, I think, it might be the most perfect book I’ve read in 25 years. I don’t think there’s a single word in that that I would change. I just think it has everything. But he uses no science, right? Very little.
It’s all story. But he does more work in his stories, makes much more profound points than I do by dragging in all these sociologists and psychologists. He’s proved to me that, if you can tell a story properly, you don’t need this kind of scaffolding. You can just tell the story. And so, I’ve been trying, not entirely successfully, but trying to move in that direction over the last couple books.
I don’t think people realize how hard it is to do a single narrative book. That’s one of the things I admire about Michael Lewis. He seems to be able to do it effortlessly. I don’t even think I could pull it off. Maybe it’s because I’ve never found an individual whose story is rich enough. But, maybe I’m just not as good at developing a single story. I just think that’s kind of beyond me a little bit. … I would lose faith in my ability to keep the reader engaged. I’m much too nervous a writer. Whereas the amount of self-confidence you feel in Michael Lewis’s work, or Janet Malcolm’s work … she’s so extraordinarily sure of her gift, she’s not in any hurry to start and she knows you’ll stick with her because she knows she will deliver. To use a sports metaphor, Janet Malcolm and Michael Lewis are the people who are quite happy to take the last shot. I’m going to pass.
In addition to being a compelling author, Gladwell also makes phenomenal speeches. My favorite Malcolm Gladwell speeches were given about 10 years ago: The Spaghetti Sauce Talk and The Coke and Pepsi Talk. Both of these are brilliant examples of storytelling and really show the difference between reading an article and giving a performance.
In his interview with Tim Ferris (starting at about 28 minutes), Gladwell talked about how difficult it is to give a great speech. It’s not about reading an article in front of a group, it takes a lot more work than that. Then Ferriss asks Gladwell, “Is there anyone in the world of speaking alive or dead who is the Michael Lewis for you.” Below is Gladwell’s answer. Note that I used YouTube’s transcript function and tried editing it so it makes sense on the page:
I once went to a birthday party for an old friend of mine, Anne Applebaum, in England. Now first of all the English are way better at giving speeches than we are. And secondly, we were talking about the creme de la creme of English speech givers. Like serious Cambridge and Oxford debating society kind of people.
Niall Ferguson, the historian, gave a birthday toast which is just the best toast I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean it was like so much better than anything I had ever heard — like on another level. I was like oh my god that’s good. And part of what made it genius was he really gave you the impression he was making it up on the spot. Now he might actually have done that. He may be so good he could do that.
The conceit was that it was totally spontaneous. It was so cleverly done and so hilarious. And one of the ways it was so charming was the ways in which he was wrong. Part of the joke was he was going to make this elaborate hilarious argument about Anne who was turning fifty. And half of the stuff that he was going to say was not right. He spun a theory about the weekend and about her birthday and about her friends that was like hilarious because it was not accurate. And he did it with such panache. First of all that would never have occurred to me to make stuff up in such a dramatic way. But also I can’t do off-the-cuff. Ever since then I just worship the guy. I just think I think he walks on water.
I had Niall as a professor when I was at NYU for business school and he was just amazing. His books (like The Ascent of Money) and television programs (like The Ascent of Money) are really amazing. If you want to see him giving more of a speech like Malcolm mentioned, though a lot less funny, you can watch his speech at the Sydney Opera House.
I really like numbers. I understand that not everyone likes numbers as much as I do and that’s OK. I still like you.
Radiolab did an awesome podcast on Numbers a few years ago. There’s a lot of great stuff in there and it’s accessible even to people that are afraid of math. One of the most interesting bits is how our natural sense of numbers is different from formal math. Come to think of it, that may be why some people have a problem with math.
The core idea is something they refer to as natural counting. We’ve all been conditioned by math classes to think of counting as 1,2,3, etc. However, in the natural state, people act differently. On the show, they told of an experiment with an Amazon tribe where people do not count and don’t have numbers beyond five. They showed the tribesmen a line. On one side they placed 1 object and on the other side, they placed 9 objects. The experimenter asked, “What number is exactly between 1 and 9?” The response was “3.” The reasoning works like this:
- First person has 1 stick
- Middle person has 3 sticks (3 times as many as the first person)
- Last person has 9 sticks (3 times as many as the second person
So the second — the one in the middle has 3 sticks.
Let’s look at another example. Imagine you’re giving out bonuses at work and you have a pool of $500,000 and you want to fairly distribute the pool. You could give everyone the same amount of money. But what if someone made $1 million and 4 people made $100,000. You could give everyone $100,000 as a bonus. But that doesn’t feel fair. To be fair you’d give everyone about the same percentage of their salary as a bonus — which in this case would be about a 36% bonus for everyone.
Another non-intuitive concept on Radiolab is Benford’s law. Benford’s law says that in the real world, you’ll see the number 1 appear many times more as the first digit than the number 9. This happens for naturally occurring phenomena like money in your bank account, size of countries or views on YouTube.
Radiolab has a great story on how this is used in the real world. Say someone was trying to commit a fraud on tax returns. They would be trying to create “random” numbers by having the first digit of each number evenly distributed (equal numbers of 1,2,3, etc.) But Benford’s law says that you should have more 1’s as the first digit than 9’s. So if numbers end up looking more random than they would be in the real world, that’s a sure sign of fraud.
So why does this happen? For the same reason that we saw above, things like to grow by percentages rather than units. Think about the bonus example. Say things are growing by 10%. If you start with the number 1 the next numbers are 1.1, 1.21, 1.33. 1.46, 1.61, 1.77, 1.94. That’s 8 numbers that start with a 1. For 9, you have 9 and 9.9 so that’s only 2 numbers that start with a 9 (and then you’re back to another number that starts with a 1).
So why is this important? Even though we think about the world in 1, 2, 3’s, it’s actually more about the changes from where we are now. It’s 10%, another 10%, another 10%, etc. By understanding the world in these terms it’s more intuitive and more useful.
I’ve been very impressed recently at how some big brands have been using sponsorship dollars to do some really awesome things. Some examples:
- OK Go: Has done creative sponsorship dealsto to make some incredible videos. Some of my favorites are: Morton’s Salt (One Moment), State Farm (This Too Shall Pass) and Chevy (Needing/Getting). Interestingly enough, State Farm paid EMI to allow fans to embed videos on their own pages — something EMI had prevented before. Frontman Damien Kulash wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times about on EMI preventing embedding.
- Microsoft: Yes Microsoft has an amazing video on helping women get into STEM fields. It’s inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. This Microsoft post on Women Inventors is pretty cool as well.
- GE: What if Millie Dresselhaus were treated like a celebrity? The video is amazing. Dresselhaus was the first woman to secure a full professorship at MIT and was awarded the National Medal of Science, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (bestowed by President Barack Obama), the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, the Enrico Fermi prize and dozens of honorary doctorates. She died earlier this year right after the commercial came out. GE also did an interesting but less fun video of a world where women scientists always a trending tropic.
Grace Hopper may be the most important Computer Science alum from Yale but I’d never seen a video of her. Here she is on Letterman.
A couple of Steve Jobs Videos you may not have seen. In 1983 Steve Jobs gave a talk on how computing will change once computers got small enough to be embedded around the home and office. While everyone has seen the Macintosh 1984 commercial, I had never realized that Jobs gave an intro to it during a 1983 Keynote.
You can see the original Sesame Street pitch reel which includes the Muppets acting as part of the pitch. I also found a compilation of my favorite bit, the man falling down stairs with baked goods. There’s also some very interesting and old videos of the Muppets before Sesame Street like TV Ads, Kermit meeting puppets of David Brinkly and Chet Hutley, and Cookie Monster’s predecessor staring in an IBM training video.
Square One is a math based TV show for 8-12 year olds created by the Sesame Workshop. I remember it fondly as one of my favorite educational programs as a kid. I was able to find some episodes online recently.