What the Dog Saw

"Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. Not the kind of writing you’ll find in this book, anyway. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head – even if in the end you conclude that someone else’s head is not a place you’d really like to be."

- What the Dog Saw, page xxi

What the Dog Saw directly and transparently categorizes itself as a collection of Gladwell’s favorite (by his own admission) stories published in the New Yorker. Instead of chapters, the book is organized in three sections: obsessives and minor geniuses, theories and ways of organizing experience and predictions we make about people. The stories themselves stand alone and are individually entertaining and thought provoking. What struck me most, however, was how the stories, as varied and unique as they appeared, were tied together so effortlessly. Upon reflection, it feels like Gladwell is gently nudging the reader along a path of discovery. Beginning with relatively unknown people who pioneered their way to success when others did not, to situations and experiences that challenge our white elephant beliefs to questioning why we place such high stakes on the opinions we have of others and the unsteady foundation we make these predictions upon.

The stories are provocative, at times ultimately moving the reader to ponder the everyday box they have created for themselves and whether the box provides a credible perimeter or should be thrown out in favor of something a little more unconventional but valid and true.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Looking from the outside in… no more

"But what if we look at that problem through someone else’s eyes, from inside someone else’s head?"
- What the Dog Saw, page xvii

At work and in life, we find safety and security in adopting the role of objective observer. But what does this really tell us about what is happening in front of our eyes? What can we possibly learn from this practice? Gladwell would have us believe interesting adventures occur when we try to appreciate a situation through the eyes of those directly involved. Following the namesake of the book, it’s a lot more interesting to ponder the actions of Cesar Millan the great Dog Whisperer through the eyes of the dog he is taming than the audience that has paid for his attendance. Now that is an interesting perspective to try and get your thoughts around.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Beware of Creeping Determinism

"…in our zeal to correct what we believe to be the problems of the past, we end up creating new problems for the future"
- What the Dog Saw, page 256

We want to be able to predict what will happen in the future based on what we think we know from the past, but our review mirror is flawed. Our brain continually fills in the gaps and rescripts past events to make sense of the world around us. It may simply be sensory overload, but our brain seems hardwired to slowly and silently rewrite the past. This hubris may prevent us from really learning from our past mistakes. It can also cause unnecessary blame when we take the view that an event (or tragedy) could have been predicted when in fact the opposite is true. It is easy to say, but much harder to put into practice. Even if only once out of every 10 attempts, there is an opportunity to really question our recollection of the past and recognize that some things just can’t be predicted. There is too much peripheral noise, and validating our present position by re-scripting the past is only an exercise in creative storytelling and will not positively influence our future.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

What’s in a first impression?

"A prediction in a field where prediction is not possible, is no more than a prejudice"
- What the Dog Saw, page 335

For those with people management accountability, please be forewarned. There are a few sacred cows in the third section of this book. While the first way to action the insights from this book is to reflect on our past, the second way is to firmly ground ourselves in the present and determine whether that insignificant spark that caught our attention is really a valid indicator of that person’s future success. First impressions can be extremely powerful, influential and carry us on the road to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is the tool, process or stats I am about to invest time in understanding, really going to measure what I think it will, and is that “thing” a true measure or predictor of what I hope to that person will accomplish in the future? We take things for granted because our parents and their parents and their parents told them to be true. As Gladwell says, we hear what we expect to hear. When we conduct interviews with teachers, future employees, nannies and investment bankers, that interview may be “hopelessly biased in favour of nice”. Perhaps it is time to be a little less nice, look beyond the initial chemistry that guides our first impression and find a narrowly defined approach that measures one aspect that is related to one output I would like to see in the future. Stay small but relevant.

I have read a few of Malcom Gladwell’s other books and truly love his style of writing. I would firmly describe myself as a fan. When preparing to write this summary, I was a little intimidated; so, I researched a few reviews online to make sure I was on the correct path. What I found fascinated me. There were many exceedingly positive reviews from the Sunday Times, Boston Globe and New York Times, but I also found a few less than flattering evaluations. These reviews poked holes in the content and questioned the validity of some of the perspectives provided, but from my view that is so far from the point. Quite frankly, who cares if the technical details are not 100% accurate or if the option presented isn’t the most cost-effective. The book creates a platform to think about things differently. Differently doesn’t mean correctly or accurately or cost-effective or best. It is just different. It is from the unseemly perspective of different that we arrive at innovation, change and improvement.

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Erin Gordon

ABOUT Erin Gordon

I am an avid advocate of the essential role people play in delivering outstanding business results. As a career HR professional with over 10 years experience managing HR functions within the private sector, it is the identification and development of talent and collaboration of talent across all facets of a business that leads to innovation and excellence...
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