Thinking about the process of being an artist and a writer: Lessons from David Galenson's Old Masters and Young Geniuses

David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity is the rare academic book that’s also useful for artists—most academic books are as useful for artists as syphilis is for prostitutes (the metaphor is intentionally gross, as it’s designed to express the artist’s reaction to turgid academic books).* This long quote encapsulates Galenson’s main point:

There have been two very different types of artist in the modern era. These two types are distinguished not by their importance, for both are prominently represented among the greatest artists of the era. They are distinguished instead by the methods by which they arrive at their major contributions. In each case their method results from a specific conception of artistic goals, and each method is associated with specific practices in creating art. I call one of these methods aesthetically motivated experimentation, and the other conceptual execution.

Artists who have produced experimental innovations have been motivated by aesthetic criteria: they have aimed at presenting visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goals.

In contrast, artists who have made conceptual innovations have been motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can usually be stated precisely, before its production, either as a desired image or as a desired process for the work’s execution. Conceptual artists consequently often make detailed preparatory sketches or plans for their paintings. Their execution of their painting is often systematic, since they may think of it as primarily making a preconceived image, and often simply a process of transferring an image they have already created from one surface to another. Conceptual innovators appear suddenly, as a new idea immediately produces a result quite different not only from other artists’ work, but also from the artist’s own previous work. Because it is the idea that is the contribution, conceptual innovations can usually be implemented immediately and completely, and therefore are often embodied in individual breakthrough works that become recognized as the first statement of the innovation.

Malcolm Gladwell steals much of Galenson’s work for his article “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?” I say “steals” because Gladwell’s treatment doesn’t go very far beyond Galenson’s. That might be overwrought, but I still find it mostly true. Gladwell, however, does cite Galenson, which is how I found Old Masters.

I tend more towards the experimental mode: I rarely feel that I’ve succeeded, per se, although I am committed to finishing works—largely because I’ve discovered that finishing is essential to any artist, and one way to separate posers, of whom there are many, from people with real potential is to see if they have something they can show: a story, a picture, a song, whatever—no matter how bad. Then see if they produce something else. I also often repeat themes about growing up, the possibility of real friendship (especially between men and women), the power and estrangement of metaphor, and how to have an artistic temperament that nonetheless is rigorous and interested in understanding the world. I think so, anyway, although it’s naturally hard to judge one’s own works: perhaps someone else would derive different ideas.

I do, however, “tend to make specific preparatory sketches or plans” when I write, more so than I used to, but I’m not bound by them and those plans tend to be discarded about midway through a novel. Some writers apparently make very elaborate plans that they then simply execute, and I am not one, and I do feel very much like I am in “a process of searching” and of discovery, with the discovery being quite pleasurable. In most of my novels, I want to tell a story—I am not as interested in being able to express or communicate “specific ideas or emotions.” Emotions are the reader’s responsibility. Most of the time I start with characters and/or situations and want to see what might happen when those characters or situations develop. Writers who seem highly conceptual and not very interested in narrative, like Joyce, Pynchon, Morrison, and DeLillo are in turn not very interesting to me; they seem bloodless and dull, whatever their virtuosity with language. Unfortunately, they also occupy the academic high ground at the moment, perhaps because their methods and output lend themselves more easily to abstruse literary articles.

Writers like Robertson Davies, Elmore Leonard, (parts of) Tom Wolfe, and (parts of) Francine Prose are of much more interest. Someone like Philip Roth falls in the middle, but to me many of his novels become dull when their characters get bogged down in family or identity or political dilemmas (think of Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater). In addition, there are very few writers whose entire oeuvres I like (Davies is an exception); most of the time I like particular books, or one or two books. Umberto Eco’s novels The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum have not been matched, not even close, by anything else he’s done; ditto for Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, or Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Empire Falls. Martin Amis seems to me to be at the peak of his powers with Money, and nothing else he’s written that I’ve read has the same appeal.

Galenson also sees conceptual innovators as tending to peak when they’re younger. I wonder if this is also related to something Doris Lessing discussed in her Nobel Lecture:

Let us now jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: “Is she good-looking?” If this is a man: “Charismatic? Handsome?” We joke, but it is not a joke.

This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of hype begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening. He, she, is flattered, pleased. But ask in a year’s time what he or she is thinking: “This is the worst thing that could have happened to me.”

Some much-publicised new writers haven’t written again, or haven’t written what they wanted to, meant to. And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: “Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold on to it, don’t let it go.”

Perhaps this happens chiefly because the feted young writers are conceptual innovators who have run out of concepts they wish to explore. If I have eventual fame and critical praise—not likely, and not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, but the idea arose in the course of writing this—I don’t think it would affect me very much. I would still probably spend a lot of time reading and writing, and going running, and so on. I don’t think I’d want to buy a boat, or believe the flattering lies I’d sometimes hear, or perceive myself as literature’s New Jesus.

It’s also possible that artistic innovators are becoming relatively older than they once were, thanks to increases in the artistic search space. Benjamin Jones sees this happening in scientific and technical leaders in “Age and Great Invention:”

Great achievements in knowledge are produced by older innovators today than they were a century ago. Using data on Nobel Prize winners and great inventors, I find that the mean age at which noted innovations are produced has increased by 6 years over the 20th Century. I estimate shifts in life-cycle productivity and show that innovators have become especially unproductive at younger ages. Meanwhile, the later start to the career is not compensated for by increasing productivity beyond early middle age.

It’s also not clear or obvious to me about the extent to which cultures and societies affect artistic and technical innovations. I do suspect the Internet allows these to spread more rapidly, but beyond that somewhat obvious point I don’t have any other useful, or possibly useful, observations. There’s a strong artistic culture of borrowing and adapting ideas that pays off, especially for Galenson’s conceptual innovators, and it may also pay off for his experimental innovators, who can more easily access works and ideas to react against in creating their own works. It does seem like artists are very good at “questioning, experimenting, observing, associating and networking,” to use Steve Lohr’s phrase, with that last one being associated with broader fame and the dissemination of one’s ideas to others. Galeson even mentions this:

Rapid borrowing and utilization of new artistic devices, across ever wider geographic areas, has become increasingly common in recent decades, in which conceptual approaches to art have predominated. One indication of this progressive globalization of modern art is that art historians are finding that they are no longer able to divide their subject as neatly along geographic lines as in the past.

But I suspect I don’t like conceptual visual art very much: most of it looks facile and superficial to me—exactly the claims that Galenson said tend to be made against such art. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was particularly disappointing: a lot of supposed artists there were trying to be sexually shocking, but they still have nothing on what one can find online. A lot of their stuff also simply seemed random. An iMac or a C-class never seem random. Perhaps modern artists only have to please a small coterie of art insiders, while industrial designers have to please people who want to see and use beautiful, not random.

Another note on art and age: Many people who are programmers / hackers make their greatest technical contributions when they’re young—think of Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds (who created the operating system that bears his name in 1991, while he was a 22-year-old student), Mark Zuckerberg, or the general cult of the young hacker genius. This might be because computer programming is a relatively young field, and it’s still relatively easy for people without a lot of formal training to make major contributions to it at an early age. There are also other effects related to Moore’s Law, the Internet, and so on, but I still find the young age of many major contributors intriguing. It’s possible that people in their 40s or older have made major contributions that I’m simply not aware of, and that the press has an obsession with youth that means I’m drawing on unrepresentative sample because the examples I can come up with are only the salient ones.

Galenson shouldn’t be considered the final word in artistic methods or outcomes, and he knows that his binary is not absolute (“it may be useful to consider the experimental-conceptual distinction not simply as a binary categorization, but rather as a quantitative difference. In this view there is a continuum, with extreme practitioners of either type at the far ends, and moderate practitioners of the two categories arrayed along the intermediate positions of the scale”). Nonetheless, Galenson offers a useful framework for considering how different people with different sorts of artistic temperaments tend to work. I would also add that he can only categorize artists who have actually finished work. Those who start many works and finish none presumably never achieve the fame that would be necessary for him to discuss.

Many artists probably don’t need or want a meta-awareness of their processes. Still, I don’t think anyone who is any kind of artist fails to think at all about how they do what they do, or how their processes might affect their outcomes. Some, however, publicly say that they just follow their feelings, or that they go into a kind of trance. When artists say things like that, they’re probably being partially truthful, but they could start asking: where do feelings come from, and how do I translate feelings that begin as chemicals or electrical impulses in the brain to colors or words? What’s the nature of the artistic trance? But they don’t ask those questions, or, if they do, they don’t share the answer publicly. That’s okay, but it strikes me as deliberate mystification (they’d probably see my relatively high level of awareness as false, as a set of intellectual pretenses masquerading as method).

Nor is one kind of artist necessarily better than the other: notice that I have said I have tendencies towards being experimental more than conceptual, but that doesn’t mean I would denigrate conceptual artists.

Other interesting moments from Old Masters:

“[A]rtistic innovations are not made by isolated geniuses, but are usually based on the lessons of teachers and the collaboration of colleagues.”

“What appears to be necessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought that inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.”

“Experimental movie directors typically stress the importance of telling a story, with a clear narrative. They generally consider visual images the most important element of a movie, with the script and sound track used to support the images. Many experimental directors specifically state that their primary goal is to entertain the audience, and they often take commercial success to be a sign of their achievement of that goal. Experimental directors typically aim to make the technical aspects of their movies unobtrusive, for they usually believe that the purpose of technique is to create an illusion of reality.”


* Galenson also wrote Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, which might be interesting to visual artists; I haven’t read it, because I don’t find paintings and other non-cinematic forms of visual art compelling for consumption, let alone production.

Thinking about the process of being an artist and a writer: Lessons from David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses

David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity is the rare academic book that’s also useful for artists—most academic books are as useful for artists as syphilis is for prostitutes (the metaphor is intentionally gross, as it’s designed to express the artist’s reaction to turgid academic books).* This long quote encapsulates Galenson’s main point:

There have been two very different types of artist in the modern era. These two types are distinguished not by their importance, for both are prominently represented among the greatest artists of the era. They are distinguished instead by the methods by which they arrive at their major contributions. In each case their method results from a specific conception of artistic goals, and each method is associated with specific practices in creating art. I call one of these methods aesthetically motivated experimentation, and the other conceptual execution.

Artists who have produced experimental innovations have been motivated by aesthetic criteria: they have aimed at presenting visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goals.

In contrast, artists who have made conceptual innovations have been motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can usually be stated precisely, before its production, either as a desired image or as a desired process for the work’s execution. Conceptual artists consequently often make detailed preparatory sketches or plans for their paintings. Their execution of their painting is often systematic, since they may think of it as primarily making a preconceived image, and often simply a process of transferring an image they have already created from one surface to another. Conceptual innovators appear suddenly, as a new idea immediately produces a result quite different not only from other artists’ work, but also from the artist’s own previous work. Because it is the idea that is the contribution, conceptual innovations can usually be implemented immediately and completely, and therefore are often embodied in individual breakthrough works that become recognized as the first statement of the innovation.

Malcolm Gladwell steals much of Galenson’s work for his article “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?” I say “steals” because Gladwell’s treatment doesn’t go very far beyond Galenson’s. That might be overwrought, but I still find it mostly true. Gladwell, however, does cite Galenson, which is how I found Old Masters.

I tend more towards the experimental mode: I rarely feel that I’ve succeeded, per se, although I am committed to finishing works—largely because I’ve discovered that finishing is essential to any artist, and one way to separate posers, of whom there are many, from people with real potential is to see if they have something they can show: a story, a picture, a song, whatever—no matter how bad. Then see if they produce something else. I also often repeat themes about growing up, the possibility of real friendship (especially between men and women), the power and estrangement of metaphor, and how to have an artistic temperament that nonetheless is rigorous and interested in understanding the world. I think so, anyway, although it’s naturally hard to judge one’s own works: perhaps someone else would derive different ideas.

I do, however, “tend to make specific preparatory sketches or plans” when I write, more so than I used to, but I’m not bound by them and those plans tend to be discarded about midway through a novel. Some writers apparently make very elaborate plans that they then simply execute, and I am not one, and I do feel very much like I am in “a process of searching” and of discovery, with the discovery being quite pleasurable. In most of my novels, I want to tell a story—I am not as interested in being able to express or communicate “specific ideas or emotions.” Emotions are the reader’s responsibility. Most of the time I start with characters and/or situations and want to see what might happen when those characters or situations develop. Writers who seem highly conceptual and not very interested in narrative, like Joyce, Pynchon, Morrison, and DeLillo are in turn not very interesting to me; they seem bloodless and dull, whatever their virtuosity with language. Unfortunately, they also occupy the academic high ground at the moment, perhaps because their methods and output lend themselves more easily to abstruse literary articles.

Writers like Robertson Davies, Elmore Leonard, (parts of) Tom Wolfe, and (parts of) Francine Prose are of much more interest. Someone like Philip Roth falls in the middle, but to me many of his novels become dull when their characters get bogged down in family or identity or political dilemmas (think of Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater). In addition, there are very few writers whose entire oeuvres I like (Davies is an exception); most of the time I like particular books, or one or two books. Umberto Eco’s novels The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum have not been matched, not even close, by anything else he’s done; ditto for Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, or Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Empire Falls. Martin Amis seems to me to be at the peak of his powers with Money, and nothing else he’s written that I’ve read has the same appeal.

Galenson also sees conceptual innovators as tending to peak when they’re younger. I wonder if this is also related to something Doris Lessing discussed in her Nobel Lecture:

Let us now jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: “Is she good-looking?” If this is a man: “Charismatic? Handsome?” We joke, but it is not a joke.

This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of hype begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening. He, she, is flattered, pleased. But ask in a year’s time what he or she is thinking: “This is the worst thing that could have happened to me.”

Some much-publicised new writers haven’t written again, or haven’t written what they wanted to, meant to. And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: “Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold on to it, don’t let it go.”

Perhaps this happens chiefly because the feted young writers are conceptual innovators who have run out of concepts they wish to explore. If I have eventual fame and critical praise—not likely, and not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, but the idea arose in the course of writing this—I don’t think it would affect me very much. I would still probably spend a lot of time reading and writing, and going running, and so on. I don’t think I’d want to buy a boat, or believe the flattering lies I’d sometimes hear, or perceive myself as literature’s New Jesus.

It’s also possible that artistic innovators are becoming relatively older than they once were, thanks to increases in the artistic search space. Benjamin Jones sees this happening in scientific and technical leaders in “Age and Great Invention:”

Great achievements in knowledge are produced by older innovators today than they were a century ago. Using data on Nobel Prize winners and great inventors, I find that the mean age at which noted innovations are produced has increased by 6 years over the 20th Century. I estimate shifts in life-cycle productivity and show that innovators have become especially unproductive at younger ages. Meanwhile, the later start to the career is not compensated for by increasing productivity beyond early middle age.

It’s also not clear or obvious to me about the extent to which cultures and societies affect artistic and technical innovations. I do suspect the Internet allows these to spread more rapidly, but beyond that somewhat obvious point I don’t have any other useful, or possibly useful, observations. There’s a strong artistic culture of borrowing and adapting ideas that pays off, especially for Galenson’s conceptual innovators, and it may also pay off for his experimental innovators, who can more easily access works and ideas to react against in creating their own works. It does seem like artists are very good at “questioning, experimenting, observing, associating and networking,” to use Steve Lohr’s phrase, with that last one being associated with broader fame and the dissemination of one’s ideas to others. Galeson even mentions this:

Rapid borrowing and utilization of new artistic devices, across ever wider geographic areas, has become increasingly common in recent decades, in which conceptual approaches to art have predominated. One indication of this progressive globalization of modern art is that art historians are finding that they are no longer able to divide their subject as neatly along geographic lines as in the past.

But I suspect I don’t like conceptual visual art very much: most of it looks facile and superficial to me—exactly the claims that Galenson said tend to be made against such art. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was particularly disappointing: a lot of supposed artists there were trying to be sexually shocking, but they still have nothing on what one can find online. A lot of their stuff also simply seemed random. An iMac or a C-class never seem random. Perhaps modern artists only have to please a small coterie of art insiders, while industrial designers have to please people who want to see and use beautiful, not random.

Another note on art and age: Many people who are programmers / hackers make their greatest technical contributions when they’re young—think of Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds (who created the operating system that bears his name in 1991, while he was a 22-year-old student), Mark Zuckerberg, or the general cult of the young hacker genius. This might be because computer programming is a relatively young field, and it’s still relatively easy for people without a lot of formal training to make major contributions to it at an early age. There are also other effects related to Moore’s Law, the Internet, and so on, but I still find the young age of many major contributors intriguing. It’s possible that people in their 40s or older have made major contributions that I’m simply not aware of, and that the press has an obsession with youth that means I’m drawing on unrepresentative sample because the examples I can come up with are only the salient ones.

Galenson shouldn’t be considered the final word in artistic methods or outcomes, and he knows that his binary is not absolute (“it may be useful to consider the experimental-conceptual distinction not simply as a binary categorization, but rather as a quantitative difference. In this view there is a continuum, with extreme practitioners of either type at the far ends, and moderate practitioners of the two categories arrayed along the intermediate positions of the scale”). Nonetheless, Galenson offers a useful framework for considering how different people with different sorts of artistic temperaments tend to work. I would also add that he can only categorize artists who have actually finished work. Those who start many works and finish none presumably never achieve the fame that would be necessary for him to discuss.

Many artists probably don’t need or want a meta-awareness of their processes. Still, I don’t think anyone who is any kind of artist fails to think at all about how they do what they do, or how their processes might affect their outcomes. Some, however, publicly say that they just follow their feelings, or that they go into a kind of trance. When artists say things like that, they’re probably being partially truthful, but they could start asking: where do feelings come from, and how do I translate feelings that begin as chemicals or electrical impulses in the brain to colors or words? What’s the nature of the artistic trance? But they don’t ask those questions, or, if they do, they don’t share the answer publicly. That’s okay, but it strikes me as deliberate mystification (they’d probably see my relatively high level of awareness as false, as a set of intellectual pretenses masquerading as method).

Nor is one kind of artist necessarily better than the other: notice that I have said I have tendencies towards being experimental more than conceptual, but that doesn’t mean I would denigrate conceptual artists.

Other interesting moments from Old Masters:

“[A]rtistic innovations are not made by isolated geniuses, but are usually based on the lessons of teachers and the collaboration of colleagues.”

“What appears to be necessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought that inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.”

“Experimental movie directors typically stress the importance of telling a story, with a clear narrative. They generally consider visual images the most important element of a movie, with the script and sound track used to support the images. Many experimental directors specifically state that their primary goal is to entertain the audience, and they often take commercial success to be a sign of their achievement of that goal. Experimental directors typically aim to make the technical aspects of their movies unobtrusive, for they usually believe that the purpose of technique is to create an illusion of reality.”


* Galenson also wrote Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, which might be interesting to visual artists; I haven’t read it, because I don’t find paintings and other non-cinematic forms of visual art compelling for consumption, let alone production.

Malcolm Gladwell on Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird

I have two fundamental problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker concerning To Kill a Mockingbird: one is philosophical/moral, and the other aesthetic. The philosophical/moral problem is that incrementalism is not necessarily an invalid approach to major social injustice. Gladwell says:

Old-style Southern liberalism—gradual and paternalistic—crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality. Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.

That’s true: but it doesn’t mean that the James Folsom approach—who was progressive by southern standards in the first of the twentieth century—wasn’t an improvement over what came later as part of the unjustified backlash. Gradual change can set the stage for radical change, as it did with the Civil Rights movement, and pragmatism is sometimes more effective than attempting to radically alter social, economic or political life.

The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy describes the philosopher Richard Rorty this way: “Rorty is a self-proclaimed romantic bourgeois liberal, a believer in piecemeal reforms advancing economic justice and increasing the freedoms that citizens are able to enjoy.” Rorty gives a convincing defense of those piecemeal reforms in his various books, and I’m not wholly convinced of Gladwell’s interpretation that To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic for that reason.

And this idea applies to more than politics. Megan McArdle just posted a piece on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacke that ended, “As it says in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bernanke did the best he could with what he had. It was not perfect. But looking around at the mostly employed people on the streets, I’m glad he was there.” From what I understand of the recent financial crisis, I basically agree with her assessment: Bernacke and the other players in Washington did the best they could given the information they had at the time, which is based on pieces like The Final Days of Merrill Lynch in The Atlantic and Inside The Crisis: Larry Summers and the White House economic team in the New Yorker.

The second problem is aesthetic: like Nabokov, I don’t think novels need to play the role of social arbiter or champion. A novel that is sufficiently abhorrent—like one that actively praises segregation in the fashion that Soviet novels would advance inaptly named social realism, or one that shills for retrograde religious ideals—would probably be bad by virtue of their social commentary, but I think To Kill a Mockingbird is subtler than that, and to me the novel’s most interesting component is the development of Scout as a person. That’s inherently tied up with morality and politics, of course, but how and whether the novel succeeds in that respect ought to be the major consideration in evaluating a novel.

In other words, once the novel passes the relatively low bar of not being actively abhorrent, it should be judged on other principles than whether it conforms to what appear to be a person or age’s moral norms.

Outliers and Blink — Malcolm Gladwell

The Gladwell coda and its problems can be seen in this passage from the introduction to Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking: “The task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” I add the emphasis because Gladwell is not actually making a very strong claim: he’s essentially arguing for maybe. In that respect he certainly succeeds, though if you’re not reading closely you might miss the caveat.

In finding rules for determining how, of all the situations in the world, which respond to a “blink” decision and which will fail with that approach, Gladwell can’t do much more than find some examples, leaving a vast space unmapped. I don’t necessarily mean this as negative criticism: it is, rather, a description of the Gladwell technique that can very easily morph into a weakness if one is not aware of it going into his books. I treat his output as a single unit because there is far more unifying them in terms of style and content than not: they all collect anecdotes and research studies and combine them to form ideas that seem intuitive once you hear them and yet skew towards the quirky. His recent articles for the New Yorker use the same technique. He then divides these subjects into loosely linked chapters.

Gladwell gives examples of where what we claim to want or think want doesn’t match what we actually do, or what we actually seek out. As he says in Blink, “We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.” He’s right, and he’s probably a bit too quick to accept explanations that have been published in peer-reviewed journals, rather than examining them with the skepticism appropriate to any effort to prove cause and effect. To me, however, the storytelling claim borders on obvious, but I like the succinct formulation he gives as well as the examples, which seem to back up his idea, though one could just as easily, say, cite the Bible, or any number of mythological and religious explanations for the cosmos that developed before science got started in earnest a few centuries back. In Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth, Glen Robert Gill writes that

Frye’s encounter … with the work of Oswald Spengler, a philosopher who observed mythic patterns in history, was ‘the first of several epiphanic experiences which turned vague personal ambitions into one great vision…

One might say something similar of Gladwell, who observes patterns that are not quite mythic but take on an almost mythic scope of destiny in parts of his book, which balances on the idea that we’re shaped or even determined by culture and experience and yet still have to work incredibly hard to achieve mastery. He is never overcome by that tension, but it’s a persistent background hum: if it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery, then what can we say of Bill Gates, Bill Joy, and Flom, all of whom had opportunity to work incredibly hard? And what do we say of people who expand the scope of their opportunity to make it greater than it was? To that Gladwell has few answers, and it seems one of the overlooked sections in his drive to create narrative coherence—which might be another word for “mythic pattern”—out of what appears to be chaos.

Gladwell also has a clever shtick: if you discount his specific examples, the general principle might still hold, and if you discount his general principle, the specific examples might still be of interest. For example, a section in Outliers: The Story of Success about why Asian countries tend have students who score better on the math portions of international exams explains that seemingly innate ability as a cultural gift because Asian countries have traditionally built and maintained rice paddies, where you have to work at them virtually every day to get rice, while Western countries tended to farm, where you worked like a dog during planting and harvesting season but otherwise lounged. The point you’re supposed to take is that Asians aren’t innately good at math, which I buy, but that they tend to work harder at it in many cases, which I also buy. The problem is that I’m not so convinced that rice paddy work is necessarily the catalyst for this: what if some other cultural or political marker is the actual truth? Gladwell doesn’t sufficiently rule out alternate causes.

Even if one accepts the rice paddies explanation, Gladwell doesn’t go on to the other obvious inferences. Shouldn’t students in Asian countries excel not just at math, but at virtually every topic in school? They do, or they seem to. But then one should ask why, historically, most Asian countries with the exception of Japan haven’t industrialized at the rate of Western countries; if they’ve been exposed to Western technologies for centuries and are so industrious, why has the world taken the larger shape it has? Those questions lead one in the direction of Jared Diamond’s famous Gun, Germs, and Steel (answer: colonialism; oppression; luck) and Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms (answer: evolutionary cultural (and perhaps biological) success), but Gladwell doesn’t go there: he stays in the “Asians are good at math” rice paddies idea rather than exploring the limits and consequences of what he says.

In other words, the situation is more complex than it’s presented. Gladwell’s specific examples might not hold to explain the general principle. But that principle might still stand. And it’s got a great tagline in this case: “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.” That might be true, or mostly true, or true enough that believing it is much more likely to make your family rich than not believing it.

In Outliers, Gladwell puts a different spin on the bigger pictures, writing that:

The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are in variably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways that others cannot.

Let’s unpack that idea for a moment. If you stretch Gladwell’s comment in one direction, he’s completely right: people who are successful by conventional materialistic or intellectual measures benefit from being born into the industrialized world. If I’d been born into the dwindling stock of indigenous peoples, I’d be highly unlikely to be writing this at the moment. Furthermore, if I’d been born five hundred years ago, I’d almost certainly not be writing this because I’d probably be a peasant hoeing tubers or something to that effect. At the same time that Gladwell writes about how cultural advantages allows people to succeed, however, he doesn’t emphasize the people who don’t succeed despite all the cultural advantages in the world: the people who are born rich and privileged and end up drug addicts or moochers or whatever. Why do some people show great resilience in terrible circumstances while others fail to thrive in opulence? If I had definitive answers to that question, I’d have solved many of the worlds questions, but I think this paragraph nonetheless demonstrates that “hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies” are not the whole story. Gladwell doesn’t say they are: but he implies it strongly enough that it’d be easy to come away with that impression. It matters where we grow up, as he argues, but what could matter more is how far we go with what we’re dealt.

Gladwell can also contradict himself. On page 42 of Outliers, he says “You can’t be poor [and have time for the 10,000 hours it takes to master complex skills], because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough.” On page 117, he tells the story of Joe Flom, a poor boy who grows up to be a name partner at one of the world’s most prestigious and wealthy firms. He says of Flom’s background that “After school, he pushed a hand truck in the garment district. He did two years of night school at City College in upper Manhattan—working during the days to make ends meet—signed up for the army, served his time, and applied to Harvard Law School.” So which is it: if you’re poor, you don’t have time to practice and you’re likely to remain poor, or it’s possible to work your way up? Neither and both, of course, because the world isn’t as definitive as either version would have you believe.

These problems do not make Gladwell worthless, and if you’re aware of them you can still learn to think better while not succumbing to potentially fatuous stories. I’ve cited his story about the conception and execution of the Herman Miller Aeron chair several times. But I suspect most of Gladwell’s millions of readers aren’t reading with the critical eye they need; they’re being taken in, repeating whatever he says, and thinking they’ve got gold. Not everyone is so taken—Megan McArdle notes some problems with Gladwell stories too, as she writes here—but I suspect many are.

I would put Gladwell in the same category as Geoffrey Miller and his books The Mating Mind and Spent, or as Freakonomics: read them, but with care, and without being ready to accept everything they claim. Of course, that basically describes what educator-types call “critical reading” anyway, but some books demand it more than others because of the extravagance of their claims against the paucity of their evidence.

One other thing I wonder about is the story of Gladwell’s success: his books have been bestsellers for years, which indicates that 1) bestsellers have random properties or are simply random, which I suspect to be the reason behind Harry Potter’s success, or 2) he taps into some non-obvious social need or desire. In his case, if the answer is number two, maybe people like his books because he’s good at connecting abstract data to stories; popular television shows are, well, popular, while math journals tend to find a niche audience. People like stories, and when you combine ideas with stories, the ideas are often more memorable. I don’t think Gladwell’s books will endure, however, and he might be an example of the tendency I posited in Literary fiction and the current marketplace: nonfiction has a shorter shelf life than fiction because it’s easier for the state of the art to advance.

In the end, however, I’m a hypocrite too: the paragraph above indulges in the same Gladwell-like speculation that I’m criticizing. But I also take more care to make the uncertainties in the stories I tell clear, rather than covering them up. When you read Gladwell—and it appears that you or someone you know will—don’t necessarily believe it all and look for the potential holes in the arguments. Still, you’ll find many rich anecdotes and strange new ways of looking at the world. With those rewards, the risk of Gladwell is relatively low, especially because reading him is so easy. For all his problems, Gladwell is very good at extending the range, if not the precision, of your intellectual vision.

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