Tag Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

What it takes to be a champion

By Malcolm Gladwell

We all want to try our hardest, every time. But we can’t. Tyler Cowen, the author of “An Economist Gets Lunch,” argued recently that, out of the dozens of restaurants in Washington, D.C., that aspire to be first class, only five to ten really are at any given time. A restaurant can be great for its first three to six months—as the chefs and the owners strive to make the best possible impression on diners and reviewers. But, “once these places become popular, their obsession with quality slacks off,” Cowen writes. “They become socializing scenes. . . . Their audiences become automatic.”

The political economist Albert O. Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty” begins with the same premise. Hirschman was interested in the way consumers cope with the decline of institutions—comparing the strategy of “exit” (if your local public school is lousy, you send your child to a private school) with that of “voice” (if your local public school is lousy, you show up at school-board meetings and complain). Classical economists and libertarians, he observes, understand exit but are contemptuous of voice. Politics, by contrast, is overwhelmingly (sometimes to its detriment) focussed on voice, and regards exit as akin to “desertion, defection and treason.” The book is one of the masterpieces of contemporary political thought. But Hirschman, like Cowen, spends little time saying why there’s a gap between how good institutions are and how good they could be. The book, as he writes in the opening chapter,

assumes not only that slack has somehow come into the world and exists in given amounts, but that it is continuously being generated as a result of some sort of entropy characteristic of human, surplus-producing societies. “There’s a slacker born every minute” could be its motto. Firms and other organizations are conceived to be permanently and randomly subject to decline and decay, that is, to a gradual loss of rationality, efficiency, and surplus-producing energy, no matter how well the institutional framework within which they function is designed.

This notion of slack is part of what we take as normal and natural about the world. Of the last generation of great Washington restaurants, Cowen writes, “The Source, Zengo, Sei, Palena, Oyamel, Hook, Equinox and Central Michel Richard . . . all had their moments of glory.” Peaking at the moment, he says, are Little Serow, Rasika West, and Mintwood Place. A dedicated foodie like him, who thrives on the innovation and novelty of the restaurant scene, needs the Source, Zengo, and Sei to stop trying so hard, in order to give Little Serow, Rasika West, and Mintwood Place a chance to shine. Social and economic mobility, in any system, is essentially slack arbitrage: hard work is a successful strategy for those at the bottom because those at the top no longer work so hard. By custom, we disparage the idleness of the idle rich. We should encourage it. It is our best chance of taking their place.

Gladwell on what’s wrong with the NBA

In Grantland, Malcolm Gladwell (the patron saint of jordoncooper.com) writes,

And let’s not forget Mikhail Prokhorov. How does he feel about buying into the financial sinkhole that is professional basketball? The blog NetsDaily recently dug up the following quotation from a 2010 interview Prokhorov did with the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti:

"We have a team, we’re building the arena, we’ve hired professional management, we have the option to buy into another large project, the building of an office center. For me, this is a project with explosive profit potential. The capitalization of the team will be $700 million after we move to Brooklyn. It will earn approximately 30 [million]. And the arena will be worth around $1 billion."

Let us recap. At the very moment the commissioner of the NBA is holding up the New Jersey Nets as a case study of basketball’s impoverishment, the former owner of the team is crowing about 10 percent returns and the new owner is boasting of "explosive" profits. After the end of last season, one imagines that David Stern gathered together the league’s membership for a crash course on lockout etiquette: stash the yacht in St. Bart’s until things blow over, dress off the rack, insist on the ’93 and ’94 Cháteau Lafite Rothschilds, not the earlier, flashier, vintages. For rich white men to plead poverty, a certain self-discipline is necessary. Good idea, except next time he should remember to invite the Nets.

Gladwell says in this piece that owning a NBA franchise is not an investment but rather a luxury good.

The rationale for the NBA lockout, from the owner’s perspective, goes something like this. Basketball is a business. Businesses are supposed to make money. And when profits are falling, as they are now for basketball teams, a business is obliged to cut costs — which in this case means the amount of money paid to players. In response, the players’ association has said two things. First, basketball teams actually do make money. And second, if they don’t, it’s not the players’ fault. When the two sides get together, this is what they fight about. But both arguments miss the point. The issue isn’t how much money the business of basketball makes. The issue is that basketball isn’t a business in the first place — and for things that aren’t businesses how much money is, or isn’t, made is largely irrelevant.

Basketball teams, of course, look like businesses. They have employees and customers and offices and a product, and they tend to be owned, in the manner of most American businesses, by rich white men. But scratch the surface and the similarities disappear. Pro sports teams don’t operate in a free market, the way real businesses do. Their employees are 25 years old and make millions of dollars a year. Their customers are obsessively loyal and emotionally engaged in their fortunes to the point that — were the business in question, say, discount retailing or lawn products — it would be considered psychologically unhealthy. They get to control their labor through the draft in a way that would be the envy of other private sector owners, at least since the Civil War. And they are treated by governments with unmatched generosity. Congress gives professional baseball an antitrust exemption. Since 2000, there have been eight basketball stadiums either built or renovated for NBA teams at a cost of $2 billion — and $1.75 billion of that came from public funds. And did you know that under the federal tax code the NFL is classified as a nonprofit organization?  Big genial Roger Goodell, he of the almost $4 billion in television contracts, makes like he’s the United Way.

But most of all professional sports owners don’t have to behave like businessmen. For every disciplined and rational operator like the Patriots’ Robert Kraft or Mark Cuban, there is also someone like Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. Snyder was a brilliant entrepreneur, who at the age of 36 sold Snyder Communications — the marketing company he built from scratch — for an estimated $2 billion. He has subsequently run the Redskins like a petulant 14-year-old fantasy owner. Snyder Communications was a business. The Redskins are a toy. The former he ran to solely maximize profit. The latter he runs for his psychic benefit — as a reward for all the years he spent being disciplined and rational. And it is one of the surreal qualities of professional sports that they are as welcoming and lucrative for those owners who chose to behave like 14-year-olds as they are of those owners who chose to behave like grown-ups.

The Financial Times recently interviewed Diego Della Valle, the chief executive of the Italian luxury goods manufacturer Tod’s. Della Valle owns the celebrated Italian football club Fiorentina. "I ask if the decision to buy the club was made from the heart, or for business reasons," the Financial Times interviewer writes. Della Valle replies: "With football, business reasons don’t exist." Exactly.

Column: Looking at some bigger issues

Tomorrow I woke up to a steady stream of email and tweets coming into my Blackberry about my first column appearing today in The StarPhoenix.  It’s an introductory column so there wasn’t a lot of original research put into it (I knew the topic pretty well).  While today the column appeared on A3, it is moving to the Forum for it’s regular rotation.  As a friend joked, “You’ve been demoted and pushed back already.  In a month you’ll be in the Classified ads.”

Writing for print is a lot different than writing online.  Word Limits and a lack of hyperlinks.  Regular readers of this site know I tend to ramble on and on and on.  I can turn something better said on Twitter into 1000 words with no problem and that’s not a virtue.  That has been dealt with by giving a limit on the number of words which means that literally hundreds of passive unnecessary words will be stripped from the article before you get a chance to read it.  As Martha Stewart says, “That’s a good thing.”

The second issue is the lack of footnotes and hyperlinks to document what I say.  That is a big issue for me because while I have strong opinions, I like to believe they come from fact and an honest search for the truth.  For right now, each column will be greeted with a background sidebar here.  It will have links to sources, more information, and even dissenting opinions that I used to create the column.  While you will make up your own mind regardless of what I say, hopefully this will make that a little easier.

Some of the email and comments I got in this morning asked about my political leanings.  I don’t know which way I lean.  I don’t know if I am right wing or left wing anymore and to be honest, I grow tired of populist politicians.  I grew up as a Red Tory but I lost my partisanship (and I think my party) along the way.  I wish I could be to the left or the right of where I am as I think it would make for quicker writing, the ability to dismiss my critics with a label, and I am pretty sure both Heather Mallick and Ezra Levant both make more money than I do.  I do enjoy politics.  On my staff and among my friends I have partisans on both sides of where I am at.  It makes for great discussions but in the end I find myself somewhere in the middle.  Like I said, I care more about policy then I do politics.  More than a political ideology, I have been influenced by several thinkers, James Howard Kunstler, Steven Johnson, Malcolm Gladwell, David Simon/Ed Burns and Thomas Homer-Dixon. While they all look at the world in a different way, the one thing they have in common is their ability to dissect and take apart an issue in their search for understanding.  That’s what I hope to do.

Before it gets swallowed up by the PostMedia server where many articles go to die, I’ll archive it here.

The StarPhoenix's old mastheadThe StarPhoenix is introducing a new columnist, Jordon Cooper. He writes about urban issues, public policy and its impact on the lives of those at the margins of society. He wasn’t born in Saskatoon but was raised here. He is the residential coordinator for The Salvation Army Community Services. His column will usually appear on the Forum page.

I was in Starbucks trying to figure out how they make their coffee so hot and still have it remain liquid when I got the offer to write this column for The StarPhoenix. When discussing my first column, it was suggested I introduce myself to the masses, something that is more awkward to do than one would think. I guess I could have refused but it’s not as if I have a volume of columns or vast fame to fall back on. My name recognition is even lower than that guy who runs the Saskatchewan Liberal party.

Some quick research shows that I moved here in 1984 from Calgary and with the exception of one year, I have lived here. It pains me to write this, but I do make Sarah Palin look well-travelled (and I didn’t even have to protect the United States from Soviet attack). For the last five years I have been employed by The Salvation Army Community Services. I have worked at a couple of different positions there and am currently the men’s residential co-ordinator, which means that I coordinate the team of people who keep the men’s shelter open and functioning. They are also the staff who provide front-line support and monitoring of The Salvation Army’s halfway house – which is not nearly as exciting as it seems. From midnight until the Ministry of Social Services awakens from its nightly slumber at 8 a.m., they provide emergency support to those in crisis.

During that time we have seen some crazy things: Dial-a-dopes, a couple having sex in the middle of Avenue C South when it was -30 C; letting one guy bring his half-dog, half-toothless coyote into the shelter to get her and her owner off the street (the centre has no policy that prohibits toothless coyotes from staying here). There have been the stories that stick with you; the prostitutes beaten up by johns who come in during the night – they aren’t looking for medical help but for assistance in getting their money back (outside of our mandate); the teen girls working the streets during school break because of a lack of food; a mother prostituting out her mentally impaired daughter, listening on one end of the phone to a girl being beaten by her mother and her boyfriend on the other end. There is also the insane loss in human potential that comes from children using drugs at a young age and seeing their emotional development stop forever.

When I go home at the end of the day, I often have more questions than answers about the system and how it affects the people who rely on it. It’s not just the social safety net that I have questions about; it is the larger context of the city we call home and the planet that shapes us. As Thomas Friedman put it in the June 7 New York Times, we are at a point “when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornadoes plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all – and ask ourselves: what were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/ climate/natural resource/ population red lines all at once?” While I silently grumble as I fill my car with fuel and I notice that my beloved three-cheese Kraft Dinner is a little more expensive this week than it was last week, the changes that we are seeing globally have a much more dramatic impact on those who have no margins in their lives and that’s going to be the most significant challenge we have as a society going forward. Handle it right, and we see a vast opportunity for prosperity for all of us. Handle it incorrectly, and we start to look more and more like a Detroit or a Buffalo, N.Y.

In the end, I want to talk about policy, not politics. I enjoy the theatre we call question period as much as anyone, but others do a good job of talking about that. I want to tackle some of the big-picture changes that will affect our daily lives and what we can do about them.

For a decade now I have been exploring different ideas online. Writing online makes it easier to point to other ideas and sources. The problem with print is that you can click all you want on the paper edition of The StarPhoenix and it isn’t taking you anywhere. If you want to read more, check my sources for yourself or discuss anything I write further, you can track it down at www.jordoncooper.com or find me at twitter.com/ jordoncooper.

June 20th, 2011

Finally, for those of you who have been used to me posting here for almost a decade, things will remain the same.  There will just be 800 words heading to The StarPhoenix every Monday.

How different are dog fighting and professional football?

Chargers vs. Dolphins - Used under Licence by Creative Commons

Malcolm Gladwell asks some uncomfortable questions about America’s Game.

At the core of the C.T.E. research is a critical question: is the kind of injury being uncovered by McKee and Omalu incidental to the game of football or inherent in it? Part of what makes dogfighting so repulsive is the understanding that violence and injury cannot be removed from the sport. It’s a feature of the sport that dogs almost always get hurt. Something like stock-car racing, by contrast, is dangerous, but not unavoidably so.

After you are done reading that article, check out a series of articles on ESPN on what happened to Pittsburgh Steeler legend, Mike Webster.

Former All-Pro Pittsburgh Steeler Center, Mike Webster When he was finished, Webster had broken most of his fingers, suffered permanent damage to five vertebrae, and effectively ruined his knees, right shoulder and right heel. More troubling were the constant headaches that began to dog him in his last few seasons with the Steelers. The record books dutifully note his 245 regular-season games, but there were nearly 100 more, taking his 19 playoff games and more than 75 preseason games into account. Factor in the grueling training camps in Latrobe, Pa., and practices throughout the season, and it’s probable that Webster endured more than 25,000 violent collisions.

Webster’s oldest son, Colin, tells the story of the doctor, who, upon examining an MRI of Webster’s, asked if he had been in a car accident.

"Yeah," the old center said, "about 350,000 car accidents."

Despite this, Webster was never treated by team doctors for a concussion, according to medical records submitted in the case. The Steelers’ trainers, too, note he never complained of concussion symptoms. Still, it is probable, based on discussions with doctors and former players, that Webster suffered a significant number of head injuries during his career that today would be classified as concussions.

Happy Canada Day

To celebrate I’ll quote Malcolm Gladwell talking about what he learned about the United States.

In history class, in seventh grade (or as we like to say in Canada, grade seven) we learned the story of the American Revolution — from the British perspective. Turns out you were all a bunch of ungrateful tax cheats. And you weren’t very nice to the Loyalists. What I miss most about Canada is getting the truth about the United States.

Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us by Seth Godin

I decided to pick up Seth Godin’s book Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us.  I don’t generally read business or leadership books any more but I have enjoyed Seth Godin’s books in the past so I decided to grab a copy while I was in Indigo.

Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us by Seth GodinA tribe is a group of people connected around an idea, dream or a vision (it was also a great video game in it’s time but that’s off the topic).   Note that I didn’t say vision statement.  Everyone has a vision statement.  Marketing campaigns for Old Spice have vision statements.  Godin is talking about a group of true believers.  Think Apple fanatics or followers of Barack Obama.  The vision needs to be passionate and paint a picture of the future. Believing in that vision of the future is critical to getting things done and innovating.  Since the vision of the future is often different than what most people see it as (or hope it will be), it puts the members of the tribe out of the mainstream and at odds with the status quo.  Godin (and the western church) refers to them as heretics.   These heretics undermine established systems, question the way things are and constantly push everyone around them now towards into what they believe the future will be like and what’s needed in that future. 

In other words they are are pain to be around because in many organizations because they chafe against the established norms.  The heretics don’t appreciate most systems or established organizational procedures or structures.  In these ways the book echoes what Malcolm Gladwell is talking about in Outliers.  It is often harder for those inside organizations (and therefore harder to buck the system they are familiar with) to bring out (or even see) the change needed to innovate.

Apple Inc. logo Heretics don’t need the blessing of the sanctioning body (corporate headquarters or a denomination) to lead.  The vision of the future and passion for the community around it is what gives them permission to lead.  They care more about the idea than the market.  In many ways it reminded me of an article I read about Steve Wozniak talking about the Mac.  He took the lack of market penetration as a sign of the Mac’s supremacy.  Apple didn’t need the adoration of the market to make a computer, they needed the adoration of the tribe, those who got what a superior computer was all about.

Tribes are easier to start today because communication barriers have drop.  With the web it is easier to create a wider geographical tribe (Resonate, Emergent Village, or even something like what Robert Scoble is doing with Fast Company.tv – he is a one person network).  The ease that it takes to spread an idea is exponentially easier than it was a generation or even a decade ago.  Not only that but if you look at something like Wikipedia, it is easier to bring people together around an idea irregardless of geography.  It’s more than communication, it’s also about the community that grows around the idea.  Nurturing that may well determine whether or not an idea thrives or dies. 

Software companies have slit their own throats but upsetting their developers (which are occasional competitors).  Sometimes the good of the idea may be at odds with the good of the tribe.  Learning to balance, resolve, or address this tension is a leaders hardest task at times.

I generally give away books on leadership but this one I plan to tuck away to read again another day.  My tribe deserves that.  That and I have something big to start.