Every once in a while, you come across one of those books. You know the one: It challenges you; it delights you; it has you consider something vital in a deeper way. You find yourself recommending it to people, gifting it to people, telling strangers on the subway about it.
For Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of famed volumes like The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, that book was one he read in the summer of 1996. He consumed the whole thing in one sitting at NYU's Bobst library. Then, since he lacked borrowing privileges at the library, he photocopied the whole thing. As he confesses in the new forward to the book, "I still have that bundle of pirated pages on my bookshelf."
What is this marvelous tome that Gladwell says "basically gave me my view of the world"?
It's called The Person and the Situation by Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross.
"This is an ambitious book," Gladwell says in the foreword. "It might be, in fact, one of the most ambitious books that I (or I imagine you) will ever read ... It argues that when we perceive the actions and intentions of others, we tend to make mistakes. We see things that aren't there and we make predictions that we ought not to make: We privilege the 'person' and we discount the influence of the 'situation.' It speaks, in short, to the very broadest questions of human perception."
Gladwell goes on to say, "I found this idea so disturbing and subversive that I think I have been wrestling with it ever since."
"Subversive" is an interesting word choice. But if you think about it, the concept he's describing is actually subversive in a culture that idolizes individualism. We tend to think the way someone got to where he or she is (Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg, or Tony Robbins, for example) was by force of that individual. We rarely take into account things like the decade in which that person was raised; the family in which they grew up; the teachers they had; the larger social issues swirling around them when they were young; the lucky break they got in their first job.
Gladwell specializes in exactly these kinds of matters -- contextualizing things to help us understand that we are all embedded in something greater. While our individual choices do make a large difference in our lives, they're not the only predictor of success or failure or when you get a job or whether you get elected or whom you marry.
Similarly, as Gladwell points out, we tend to attribute things to people that simply aren't true. We think we know why other people do the things they do ("perceive the actions and intentions of others"), yet we are frequently wrong.
For example, Gladwell described doing a short talk about pro quarterbacks. He argued that the concept of ranking quarterbacks is actually "nonsense" given the sheer number of other factors that go into a quarterback's points scored (the quality of the coach, the skill level of the teammates, calls by the refs, etc.). He says ranking quarterbacks is not really possible, and that in attempting to do so we are committing a fundamental attribution error.
"That's a trivial example, I know," he says on the quarterback example. "But that's my point. The genius of this book is that it will insinuate itself into the way you think about virtually everything -- even Peyton Manning and Brett Farve."
The fact is, anything that helps you understand yourself and the wider context you live in is helpful. We all tend to have tunnel vision in our everyday lives. We think we know why our boss made a certain decision; or what our romantic partner is thinking; or how our presentation will go; or why someone didn't text us back.
But we are often unaware of the bigger picture. Books like The Person and the Situation help us see that there are a lot of factors beyond our control--but that rather than this being discouraging, it can be exciting.
It's also illuminating to have it so clearly proved that what we thought was going on (or was our fault or responsibility) is actually part of a much larger picture. As Gladwell says, "Social psychology stands at the intersection between our eyes and the world in front of us, and helps us understand the difference between what we think we see and what is actually out there."
As if you didn't need more of an incentive to read it, Gladwell says the book actually has more in common with an adventure story than a textbook:
"There is, on virtually every page, an insight or a little gem of research or an observation that will take you by surprise, and I defy you to predict, with any accuracy, where any chapter is ultimately headed."
Here's to not knowing precisely where things are headed, and to the books that help light the way.