Why the “Next Big Idea Club” Is a Bad Idea

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I recently learned that Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant have started a book club called the “Next Big Idea Club,” whose goal is to draw attention to new books that are “Groundbreaking, Science-Based, and Life-Changing (Actionable).” The book selections come with “video e-courses” that “highlight key concepts” (in case readers can’t figure them out for themselves), written course materials, exclusive author interviews, and an invite-only Facebook group.

In other words, the club leaders emphasize books that appear to have not only scientific basis, but clear takeaways–immediate applications to life–and then take the additional step of distilling those takeaways for the readers, thus affirming that the books should be put into action right away rather than thought upon, questioned, disputed.

And there lies about a third of the problem. I have no issue with the idea of a book club, no matter who leads it, when it involves selecting books that one loves (or finds especially interesting) and bringing them to the club members. But books deserve time and rumination; instead of being translated immediately into “actionable” takeaways, they should take up residence in the mind for a while. It is the dialogue (an approximate term) between author and reader that makes for memorable reading. The books that influence me the most have nothing immediately “actionable” about them; rather, they get me to think, they provoke me to return to the pages.

So that’s the first problem: the emphasis on the “actionable.” The second lies in the so-called scientific basis. Some of these books may well have strong scientific grounding. But science involves dogged and keen questioning–so the most scientific books will likely have the most uncertainties. With some exceptions, they will be the ones least conducive to takeaways. For a book to be both scientific and actionable at once, the scientific aspect may have to undergo simplification. The book club leaders, apparently, hasten the process of simplification by handing summaries and key points to the readers. This not only reduces the science itself but discourages scientific thinking.

The third problem lies in the priority given to “groundbreaking” books. We often don’t know right away whether a new book is groundbreaking; it takes time to put it in proper context and observe its influence and effects. Sometimes a seemingly new idea has many unknown antecedents; sometimes a seemingly grand solution fails to pan out. Rather than look for “groundbreaking” books, I would seek books that demonstrate intellect, probing, and wit: books that allow the reader to reconsider previous assumptions without latching on to false certainties.

The book club itself is nothing new; Gladwell appears to have been running it in some form for years. Kathryn Schulz wrote of his “Big Idea Club” in 2011 (in New York Magazine):

Big Idea books have been around for a long time; see The Communist Manifesto. But the Big Idea Book Club … is a recent phenomenon. Its accidental founder and president in apparent perpetuity is Malcolm Gladwell. Its membership, like the membership of most powerful groups, is largely male. Its combined sales are stratospheric; whatever these books are hawking, we can’t stop buying it.

And then, toward the end of the article:

There is no rule, process, peer group, leader, or best seller that can absolve us of the responsibility of thinking our way through life on our own two feet. What irks me most about this infinite parade of gigundo solutions isn’t their glibness or even the borderline theology (of some) and borderline Babbitry (of others) involved in promising audiences easy, happy, profitable ideas. Nope. What irks me is that when you rigidly apply grand theories to everybody, sooner or later everybody feels like nobody, whether you’re in Communist Belgrade or the local DMV. There is a reason we call such systems soul-crushing: They ignore or annihilate individual difference and inner life.

There you have it. Some ideas are big by nature, some medium-sized, some small. It would be folly to avoid an idea on account of its size. But it is dangerous to pursue or herald an idea because it is big. The bigness should give some pause. Do we really have room in this idea? Does it hold enough truth? Or has it been swept in, like so many others, only to drift out again later?

Some of the club’s selections may well be worth reading. Of the twenty that Adam Grant listed for 2018, I would be most likely to read Melissa Dahl’s Cringeworthy. I probably would not get to it until 2020 or later; I have many books waiting and generally like to read slowly. In any case, if I do read this book, it will be to consider the ideas and stories, not to apply them directly to my life. In books, it is the indirect applications–the use of words, the gestures of wisdom–that influence my life the most. The big idea? I take it in stride.

I have criticized the American emphasis on the Big Idea many times, in many places. (See, for instance, “The Folly of the Big Idea: How a Liberal Arts Education Puts Fads in Perspective,” American Educator, Winter 2012-2013). But I now come upon a new point: no matter what the size of an idea, I expect to be able to consider it in my own terms, on my own time–and not to accept someone else’s summaries or rush it into action.

Well, then, don’t join the club! someone might retort. No one is making you join. True, true, but that’s a moot point; I don’t join book clubs in general. Through my teaching, I have many opportunities to read with others; outside of work and projects, my time for reading is so scarce that I like to choose books on my own, often old books that I have read years ago or that I have been wanting to read for years. No, my own non-membership is not the point here. Rather, I argue and long for a different kind of reading: a kind that allows for liberty of thought, judges an idea by its merits, delights in verbal courage, and suspends summary and action.

I took the photo in Szeged in May.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Are 96 Percent of Managers and Executives Extraverted?

sidebarIn various places I have seen the startling assertion that 96 percent of managers and executives self-identify as extraverts (in other words, that self-identified extraverts almost fully dominate management positions). I do not believe it. I have worked in education, publishing, computer programming, and counseling; most of my bosses, from managers to executives, tended toward introversion, at least in my perception. So I wondered whether this figure accounted for all fields–and where it came from in the first place. I decided to find out. I reached the conclusion that the 96% figure needs major qualification.

I found the explicit claim–along with a cited source–in a Harvard Business Review article by Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann. A sidebar in the article states: “Whereas just 50% of the general population is extroverted, 96% of managers and executives display extroverted personalities.” The source: Deniz S. Ones and Stephan Dilchert, “How Special Are Executives?” Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2009. This paper examines determinants of executive success by analyzing the scores of a sample of 4,150 managers and executives on a personality test and a test of mental ability.

I was able to access this paper through the Columbia library database. Unfortunately it doesn’t give any information about the sample; instead, it directs the reader to an earlier paper: “see Dilchert & Ones, 2008, for sample description.”

I tracked down the second paper (Dilchert and Ones, “Personality and extrinsic career success: Predicting managerial salary at different organizational levels,” Zeitschrift für Personalpsychologie, vol. 7 [2008], 1–23.). I had to pay a fee for it, but I wasn’t going to stop now. Here’s what I found (on p. 6):

Participants were 4,150 individuals who completed a personality inventory as part of an assessment center. Of the total sample, 1,819 individuals were applicants to a managerial position and 151 individuals were considered for a promotion, and thus completed the personality inventory under selection conditions. In addition, there were 2,180 managerial job incumbents who completed the inventory for developmental purposes. All participants also completed a demographic form and provided information on their current employment status and employment history.

Wait–so the participants were taking the assessment for a job-related purpose: for employment, promotion, or development. The results were then used as data. The stakes were high, in other words (especially for those applying for employment and promotion), and their responses were initially not anonymous. This could well have influenced the responses.

Moreover, they all took it at a particular assessment center. This suggests to me that certain professions were not included: professors, academic administrators, principals, artistic directors, librarians, computer programmers (who manage their own teams), self-starting entrepreneurs, head physicians, and others.

In addition, the personality test was the Global Personality Inventory, which is geared specifically toward the workplace. Scores on this test may or may not correspond with scores on a Big Five inventory. The 2008 paper states:

The GPI is a thoroughly developed inventory backed by empirical evidence that supports its reliability and criterion-related validity for use in managerial assessment (see Schmit, Kihm, & Robie, 2000). Reliabilities for the Big Five facet scales typically have been reported to range between .65 to .88 (Schmit et al., 2000) and .58 to .88 (ePredix, 2001) in managerial samples (mean reliability across scales .73 and .75, respectively).

In neither of the papers do I see the figure of 96 percent; perhaps Grant, Gino, and Hofmann extrapolated it from the normative data and data on variability. Let us assume, though, that the figure accurately reflects the test results. It does not reflect the managerial and executive population as a whole, for three reasons:

  1. The test seems to have carried relatively high stakes (in comparison to a test administered purely for a study);
  2. The test was administered at an assessment center that may not be used by all professions and fields–thus the sample may be skewed;
  3. The instrument itself is designed specifically for the workplace; the extraversion score may not match scores on other personality tests. In particular, the questions may involve more context-specific details.

So, instead of saying that 96 percent of managers and executives display extraversion, I recommend saying, “On a Global Personality Inventory administered, at an assessment center, for employment, promotion, and professional development purposes, 96 percent of managers and executives gave responses suggestive of extraversion.”

One implication: The extent of the tilt toward extraversion in management may depend strongly on the field.

Another implication: It is important to look into claims of this sort.

Image credit: Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann, The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses,” Harvard Business Review, December 2010.

Update:  People continue to cite this misleading figure.