Notes on What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

Direct quotations from the book and John Kendall's reading notes


page xii: The title of the whole book comes from an article Gladwell wrote for The New Yorker on Cesar Millan, "the Dog Whisperer." At first the author wanted to know what was going on in Millan's head, as he successfully trained uncooperative canines. But he realized that the better question was: "When Millan performs his magic, what goes on inside the dog's head? That's what we really want to know—what the dog saw."

p. xv: I liked his philosophy about writing, at the conclusion of the introduction: "nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something of mine or anyone else's and says, angrily, 'I don't buy it.' Why are they angry? Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. . . It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone's else's head—even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be."

WHAT THE DOG SAW is organized thematically into three categories: "Part One contains stories about what Gladwell calls "minor geniuses," people like Ron Popeil, the pitchman who by himself conceived, created, and sold the Showtime rotisserie oven to millions on TV, breaking every rule of the modern economy." (quoted from Gladwell's web site)

p. 22-23 Much as my wife and I used to make fun of the Veg-o-Matic tv commercials on Sat. afternoon, Gladwell did construct an interesting story about Ron Popeil and his incredible knowledge of human nature. "the Veg-o-Matic repsented a perfect marriage between the medium (television) and the message (the gadget). The Veg-o-Matic was, in the relevant sense, utterly transparent." Gladwell also described how Popeil made the product the star. "If Michael Jordan sells McDonalds, Michael Jordan is the star. But if Ron sold them, the hamburgers would be the star." As a relative of Popeil told Gladwell: "My cousins could sell you an empty box."

p. 47-48 I was interested in his use of the term "amplitude" when discussing why we have a dozen or more different kinds of mustard, but only one basic flavor of ketchup ("The Ketchup Conundrum") "After breaking the ketchup down into its component parts, the testers assessed the critical dimension of 'amplitude," the word sensory experts use to describe flavors that are well blended and balanced, that 'bloom' in the mouth. 'The difference between high and low amplitude is the difference between my son and a great pianist play 'Ode to Joy' on the piano, Edgar Chambers says. 'They are playing the same notes, but they blend better with the great pianist.'"

p. 148 The section on Cesar Milan was fascinating, in terms of how much one person can observe about the behavior of another creature, while others are so oblivious. Although teachers are not educating students the way humans train dogs, they are some non-insulting parallels.

Part Two demonstrates theories, or ways of organizing experience. For example, "Million-Dollar Murray" explores the problem of homelessness — how to solve it, and whether solving it for the most extreme and costly cases makes sense as policy. In this particular piece, Gladwell looks at a controversial program that gives the chronic homeless the keys to their own apartments and access to special services while keeping less extreme cases on the street to manage on their own." (quoted from Gladwell's web site)

p. 222 The "Something Borrowed" chapter examined how a promising playwright, Bryony Lavery, sabotaged her career through charges of plagiarism. Lavery wrote her play "Frozen," based on a number of books on serial killers, but especially on the work of psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis, yet did not cite her anywhere. Since Gladwell had interviewed Lewis and Lavery had then used material from the New Yorker article, he was indirectly involved. He concludes, after twenty pages of following the story through (it broke in the New York Times and essentially ruined Lavery's career), that it was a slipperier slope than he first thought, and gave a rich "grey" (as in not black or white) examination of the situation, which has great relevance for 21st century education, and how we teach kids how to accredit sources.

p. 263-266 "The Art of Failure: Why Some People Choke and Others Panic" also had considerable relevance to watching kids freeze on a test, or have panic attacks. He distinguishes "choking" or panicking by describing "implicit learning", where you respond subconsciously to an action, with "explicit learning," where you learn something in an orderly, step-by-step fashion. In moments of stress, the explicit system sometimes takes over, reverting your brain to an earlier system of impulses (as when a professional baseball player reverts to throwing like a Little Leaguer)

In Part Three, Gladwell examines the predictions we make about people. "How do we know whether someone is bad, or smart, or capable of doing something really well?" he asks. He writes about how educators evaluate young teachers, how the FBI profiles criminals, how job interviewers form snap judgments. " (quoted from Gladwell's web site)

p. 291 In "Blowup" Gladwell examines the Challenger space shuttle disaster. "What accidents like the Challenger should teach us is that we have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life. At some point in the future—for the most mundane of reasons, and with the very best of intentions—a NASA spacecraft will again go down in flames. We should at least admit this to ourselves now. And if we cannot—if the possibility is too much to bear—then our only option is to start thinking about getting rid of things like space shuttles altogether."

p. 295 "Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity?" was very relevant for teachers who have invested patience in students without seeing immediate results. He contrasts a number of famous prodigies like Orson Welles, T. S. Eliot, and Picasso, with slower developing talents such as the painter Cezanne (p. 299-313).

p. 314-335 Administrators and department chairs might be interested in "Most Likely to Succeed: How Do We Hire When We Can't Tell Who's Right for the Job?". Gladwell uses the hot prospect college football quarterback Chase Daniel , and uses the way scouts predict how well players in college will do in the pros. Quarterbacks are notoriously hare to gauge, because so many of the conditions most relevant to the pros don't exist regularly in college games.

p. 357 "The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated?" also resonated within me for a school setting and how we assess kids. I thought of Steve Loy's admonition to "forget about kids over the summer," and try to always see only the current student in front of you in September, not what you remember from before, or what other faculty may have said about the student. I loved his concluding lines, on p. 374: "They were there looking for people who had the talent to think outside the box. It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing."

p. 375 "The New-Boy Network: What Do Job Interviews Really Tell Us?" is another intriguing essay about assessing people's abilities (or not being able to do so). Gladwell follows Nolan Myers as he interviews for computer programming positions towards the end of his college career. p. 393: "There is a real skill and art in presenting yourself to potential employers," Myers observed. "And so what we did in this class was talk about the kinds of things that employers are looking for—what are they looking for in terms of personality. One of the most important things is that you have to come across as confident in what you are doing and in who you are. How do you do that? Speak clearly and smile."

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