I have been a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s work ever since reading The Tipping Point several years ago. About a week ago, I bought and started reading “What the Dog Saw and other adventures“, a book that’s largely a collection of his work in The New Yorker. It’s a book that you can basically approach episodically, story by story, but the further I get into it, the harder it’s becoming to put down.

Malcolm is a master story teller, plain and simple. He takes seemingly mundane topics like ketchup or hair dye and turns them into intriguing stories with history, intrigue and a bit of mystery to them. I feel like I’m talking to one of my smartest friends when I read his books, and walk away from each encounter feeling a little smarter and look at the world through slightly different lenses than before.

One of the points Gladwell makes in a story largely about Enron is the difference between a puzzle and a mystery. Puzzles, he says, depend on finding all the pieces to get to the bottom of the matter and arrive at a solution. Mysteries, however, often require more in-depth analysis and experience to put all the information together, including the insight to know what information is irrelevant and merely clouds the issue at hand.

This made me think about the large difference between listening and hearing- we can all access noise and information coming at us, but the real trick is taking this information and being able to hear the deeper messages, the heartbeat- find the thread that leads you to a greater understanding of the whole. For example, when someone tells you a story, you can take it on face value, or you can look at it as a clue that reveals a bit about how the person thinks, acts, and reacts in different situations. Each story we tell reveals a little bit more about how we perceive the world, and as we get older, our ability to use our collection of facts and stories to help people better understand us, and to help them better understand themselves increases.

Malcolm was one of the New Kings of NonFiction Ira Glass spoke to along with Susan Olean and Chuck Klosterman on a CD called An Evening with Ira Glass and the New Kings of NonFiction. (This is truly an amazing piece of audio, and well worth the $10 price.) I was struck by Malcolm’s discussion of how he works, how he would interview someone, and how you can see this in his work in What The Dog Saw. Malcolm takes the information he gathers and weaves it in to a narrative that contains a greater context, making every story bigger than the sum of its parts. That’s his particular genius- placing a context around disparate facts and constructing a case or point of view than makes you think.

Here’s a brief video of him on WNYC discussing plagiarism, and I think you’ll see a bit of what I mean here- Malcolm is not a surface thinker, but likes to place things into a larger framework of what’s really important:

When I read Gladwell’s stories, I’m endlessly inspired to listen a bit differently, to hear with a new set of ears, and to look carefully for those threads of deeper meaning that let me take the surface information, and work the clues and insights into something new. Like he says in the video above, musicians are very generous with identifying their influences and what inspires them, authors not always as much. I can say that what I take away from each of these stories as I read them are small insights that when applied to my projects, will hopefully make them shine a bit brighter, by understanding the interconnectedness of it all.

Contest and a Prize

After a recent recommendation by my friend, Chris Brogan, Miriam from Little Brown Publishing offered to send me a Malcolm Gladwell prize pack to give away on the site, and I could not be any more happy to do it. The prize is a set of Malcolm’s books- The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw, a wonderful set of books I think everyone should own, in part, because I do already.

Between now and December 7th, 2009, leave a comment here, or link back to this post on Twitter or from your own site, and tell me one thing you’ve learned this past year that’s changed the way you think about something. Sharing ideas and insights is what Malcolm does best, and I think this is a great way to share with each other in this spirit. On December 7th, I’ll put all the names in a hat and draw a winner, and we’ll send you out this gift pack of great books, just in time for the holidays.

And I’ll keep you posted as I work my way through this great collection of essays about the ideas that are changing the way I think as well.