By Joshua Rosenfeld
Was Enron’s fall a mystery or a puzzle? Do athletes choke or panic? How are college quarterbacks similar to teachers? From Enron’s shady operations, to tennis star Jana Novotna’s Wimbledon collapse, and to quarterback Chase Daniel’s career as a Missouri Tiger, Malcolm Gladwell tackles countless eclectic, thought-provoking themes in his book, What the Dog Saw.
By the same author as Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, What the Dog Saw is a compilation of articles Gladwell wrote as a staff writer for The New Yorker. Chapters range from the “Ketchup Conundrum” (why there are many flavors of mustard but only one flavor of ketchup) to “True Colors” (the history of hair dye) to “The Talent Myth” (why companies that recruit smart people aren’t always successful).
What the Dog Saw is grounded in the anecdote—the most powerful tool in Gladwell’s rhetorical arsenal and the most defining feature of his writing style. Through the use of short stories, Gladwell—like an omnipresent narrator—compellingly recreates his subjects’ experiences, complete with fascinating details and riveting dialogue.
Gladwell’s unique style makes abstruse topics graspable and brings seemingly dull topics to life. For example, in one chapter, rather than tell the complex story of the stock market, he tells the intriguing stories of two investors: Victor Niederhoffer and Nassim Taleb.
The two employ opposing strategies: the former sells options, and the latter buys them. Essentially, Niederhoffer “bets” that stock prices will increase, while Taleb “bets” that they will decrease. Consequently, when one incurs profits, the other incurs losses.
On a day-to-day basis, stock prices generally increase, and Niederhoffer profits. Nonetheless, one unexpected event, like the dot-com bubble or the European debt crisis, would cause stock prices to drastically fall. As a result, Niederhoffer would lose a lot of money and Taleb would profit.
In other words, Niederhoffer maintains small, daily gains but accepts the slim possibility of a huge loss; on the other hand, Taleb accepts small, daily losses but maintains the slim possibility of a huge gain.
Gladwell paints their personalities through insightful, sometimes comical, details. Gladwell writes that Niederhoffer, when trying out for Harvard’s squash team, proclaimed he would be the best in the sport; soon after, he won the US Open squash championship.
Gladwell also delineates the evolution of their respective investing strategies. After being diagnosed with throat cancer—in spite of the minuscule odds— Taleb learned that anything is possible. Accordingly, Taleb realized that it would only take one unexpected disaster, like the attack on the World Trade Center, for panic to ensue, for stocks prices to plummet, and for Taleb to profit.
What the Dog Saw is filled with innumerable stories of Niederhoffers and Talebs in a wide spectrum of professions, settings, and time-periods. Gladwell’s unparalleled ability to preserve anecdotes and his knack for weaving seemingly unrelated themes make What the Dog Saw an extremely worthwhile read for readers of all interests. After each chapter, readers will undoubtedly say to themselves, “Wow. I never thought of that before.”