Jan 5 2009

Book Short: Two New Ones from Veteran Writers

Book Short:  Two New Ones from Veteran Writers

I’m feeling very New York this week.  I just read both Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, and Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America, by Tom Friedman.  Both are great, and if you like the respective authors’ prior works, are must reads.

In Outliers, Gladwell’s simple premise is that talents are both carefully cultivated and subject to accidents of fate as much as they are genetic.  I guess that’s not such a brilliant premise when you look at it like that.  But as with his other two books, The Tipping Point (about how trends and social movements start and spread) and Blink (about how the mind makes judgments), his examples are fascinating, well researched, and very well written.  Here are a couple quick nuggets, noting that I don’t have the book in front of me, so my numbers might be slightly off:

  • Of the 200 wealthiest people in human history, 9 were Americans born within 5 years of each other in the 1830s – far from a normal distribution for wealth holders/creators
  • Most Silicon Valley titans were both within 2 years of each other in 1954-1955
  • 40% of great hockey players are born in Q1; 30% in Q2; 20% in Q3; and 10% in Q4, as the “cutoff date” for most youth leagues is January 1, so the biggest/oldest kids end up performing the best, getting the best coaches and most attention that propels them throughout their careers

Also, as with his other books, it’s hard to necessarily draw great and sweeping conclusions or create lots of social policy, both of which are quite tempting, as a result of the data.  Scholarly, comprehensive research it might not be, but boy does he make you think twice about, well, lots of things.

In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Tom Friedman makes a convincing case that two wrongs can make a right, or more to the point, that fixing two wrongs at the same time is a good way of fixing each one more than otherwise would be possible.  What I like best about this book is that it’s not just another liberal journalist trashing America — Friedman’s whole premise here (not to mention language) is fiercely optimistic and patriotic, that if we as a country take a sweeping global leadership role in containing CO2 emissions, we will both save the planet and revive our economy, sustaining our global economic leadership position into the next century at a time when others are decrying the end of the American empire.

His examples are real and vivid.  Like Gladwell, one never knows how unbiased or comprehensive Friedman is, but he covers some of these topics very poignantly:

  • The very strong negative correlation between control of oil supply and democracy/freedom
  • A comprehensive vision for the energy world of the future that’s very cool, apparently has already been piloted somewhere, and feels like it’s actually doable
  • The startling numbers, even if you sort of know them already, about the sheer number of people who will be sharing our planet and consuming more and more resources in the coming decades
  • How too many years of being a privileged nation has led to politics he brilliantly calls “dumb as we wanna be”

Friedman calls his mood sober optimism — that’s a good description.  It’s a very timely book as many Americans hold out hope for the new administration’s ability to lead the country in a positive direction and also restore American’s damaged image in the world come January 20. I have to confess that I still haven’t read Friedman’s The Earth Is Flat, although I read him in the New York Times enough and have seen enough excerpts (and lived in business enough the last 5 years!) to get the point.  And actually, Hot, Flat, and Crowded has enough of the “Flat” part in it that even if you haven’t read The Earth is Flat, you’ll get more than just the gist of it.