Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fragments: Malcolm Gladwell's Creation Myth

Malcolm Gladwell's "Creation Myth", an article on innovation, concentrates on how the computer mouse became a household object and the design of laser printers. However, my favorite quote from the article has to do with fecundity.

The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn't necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. ... "Quality," [the psychologist Dean] Simonton writes is "a probabilistic function of quantity."

Read the full article in the May 16th issue of the New Yorker. (It appears Malcolm Gladwell puts his New Yorker articles on his website eventually, but this article is somewhat recent and doesn't appear yet.)

I'm not sure I entirely agree with Dean Simonton. When I was in graduate school, I discussed ideas with a fellow student. I found ideas easy, not all of them panned out, but I had to prune my ideas to find something that would work. He felt that he'd come up with three ideas the entire time he was in graduate school and he made each one of those three ideas count. In the end, I think quantity can lead to quality, but I don't think it's the only way.

As a whole, this is a fun read and I thought I would quote Malcolm's comparisons of Engelbert to the Soviet Union, Xerox to America, and Apple to Israel, but that ended up not being my favorite quote in the article. And, it's got the additional pleasure of an anecdote of creating a "wireless" network by flashing red lasers through the fog over the Foothill Expressway.

Do you believe in quality or quantity or both?


  1. Intriguing and thought-provoking.

    I can easily think of a handful of examples that both prove and disprove this theory, though. People who constantly write and yet the end product is consistently dreadful, and those who write very little (by comparison) and yet those pieces are gems. Then, of course, there are those whose work does show a marked improvement over time and the course of many, many pieces/attempts at writing.

    Personally, I think you've got to practice, practice, practice if you want to be good at something. You can have a modicum of talent and succeed brilliantly over time, but even if you're incredibly talented, if you are also lazy and don't practice, your work will never reach the level it could attain otherwise.

    I think there is also something to be discussed here regarding the definition of "success"-- Are we talking money? Copies of books sold? People packing the concert hall? Or some other way of defining success?

    In the end, I'm the little ant, and not the grasshopper. Working, working. And someday, some winter, I may find success in my endeavors.

    More interesting articles/food for thought, plz. :)

  2. @Rebecca, I agree that practice is necessary. I don't see it as sufficient. Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, discusses practice and the 1000 hours rule.

    My view of not sufficient is why I think some people can constantly write and not see improvement. I can use myself as an example. I play the Hammered Dulcimer, mostly as a hobby. I practice to improve my repertoire so I can play in Irish sessions. As a result, I increase the number of songs i know, but not the quality of my playing. As a hobby, that is sufficient for me. (I'd rather spend my energy on improving my writing).

  3. I enjoy Gladwell. He's a competent writer and a rigorous researcher. However, most of his talents seem to feed the creation of sensational claim after sensational claim, and few actually bear out or bear accuracy. Quality as a product of quantity is a silly argument, unless Harper Lee, Ken Kesey and umpteen other writers who only released one or a few great books and then disappeared are ignored outright.

    Gladwell previously glommed onto another popular claim, that one had to spend 10,000 hours at writing or write 1,000,000 words to become competent with the language. This seems to feed into that old claim. Certainly producing a great deal of work with a critical eye might leave one more likely to produce better work later. That it's all luck and the good ones just pop out of your gross output? A preposterous claim for a whole field.

  4. Hi @John, great comment. Joel Spolsky used to write a blog on software development and towards the end of his blogging he remarked on a tendency of writers to find a sensational anecdote and use that to postulate arguments, however without true research these don't hold up. Your response makes me wonder a little about Gladwell's writing. He's got very addictive anecdotes, which I think is part of the pleasure of reading him.

  5. Sensational non-fiction is a big field these days. It gets clicks, buzz and sales. The scientist who says he's really not sure what the meaning of the universe is gets kicked to the side. The intelligent design guy and the militant atheist make millions. Gladwell has ridden a lot of pop-trends. He argued football is the same as dogfighting, that To Kill a Mockingbird was bad, etc. He may actually be addicted to anecdotes. He does have a knack for finding fun ones.