Malcolm Gladwell on the Power of Story 

5. General

Malcolm Gladwell on the Power of Story 

Welcome to the fifty-seventh edition of ‘3-2-1 by Story Rules‘.

A newsletter recommending good examples of storytelling across:

  • 3 tweets
  • 2 articles, and
  • 1 long-form content piece

𝕏 3 Tweets of the week

Source: X

Provocative, but interesting point of view.

Source: X

For me, the era of good music peaked with AR Rahman in the 1990s!

Source: X

One of humanity’s oldest debates – growth vs. redistribution. Tough to find the right balance.

📄 2 Articles of the week

a. ‘Why writing by hand beats typing for thinking and learning’ by Jonathan Lambert (NPR)

I’m a fan of writing by hand and this article shows why everyone should be.

It results in better understanding and retention:

In kids, studies show that tracing out ABCs, as opposed to typing them, leads to better and longer-lasting recognition and understanding of letters. Writing by hand also improves memory and recall of words, laying down the foundations of literacy and learning. In adults, taking notes by hand during a lecture, instead of typing, can lead to better conceptual understanding of material.

Handwriting engages more coordination in the brain:

both handwriting and typing involve moving our hands and fingers to create words on a page. But handwriting, it turns out, requires a lot more fine-tuned coordination between the motor and visual systems. This seems to more deeply engage the brain in ways that support learning.

“Handwriting is probably among the most complex motor skills that the brain is capable of,” says Marieke Longcamp, a cognitive neuroscientist at Aix-Marseille Université.

To type “tap” your fingers don’t have to trace out the form of the letters — they just make three relatively simple and uniform movements. In comparison, it takes a lot more brainpower, as well as cross-talk between brain areas, to write than type.

When I write long-form content, I prefer to write my first draft on paper – it slows me down and the thoughts come out better formed:

For adults, one of the main benefits of writing by hand is that it simply forces us to slow down.

During a meeting or lecture, it’s possible to type what you’re hearing verbatim. But often, “you’re not actually processing that information — you’re just typing in the blind,” says van der Meer. “If you take notes by hand, you can’t write everything down,” she says.

The relative slowness of the medium forces you to process the information, writing key words or phrases and using drawing or arrows to work through ideas, she says. “You make the information your own,” she says, which helps it stick in the brain.

You don’t have to ditch that iPencil or Remarkable Tablet though!

So far, research suggests that scribbling with a stylus on a screen activates the same brain pathways as etching ink on paper. It’s the movement that counts, he says, not its final form.

b. ‘Revenge Of The Humanities’ by Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson (author of ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ among other bestsellers) is the Editorial Director at Google Labs and a key driver behind Google’s AI tool, Notebook LM. This new technology, which I’m excited to try out, is available in India now.

Think of Notebook LM as a ChatGPT for a specific list of sources. If you want to create a report or document from multiple sources, you can upload all of them into one ‘notebook’ and then ask questions to the ChatGPT-like interface. It will respond from your chosen sources and (this is mindblowing) give you the exact citation for every statement in its response. It promises to be a revolutionary tool for researchers and non-fiction writers.

Steven posits that the ability to ask prompts in clear persuasive prose will become key:

The simple fact of the matter is that interacting with the most significant technology of our time—language models like GPT-4 and Gemini—is far closer to interacting with a human, compared to how we have historically interacted with machines. If you want the model to do something, you just tell it what you want it to do, in clear, persuasive prose. People who have command of clear and persuasive prose have a competitive advantage right now in the tech sector, or really in any sector that is starting to embrace AI.

I loved the quip by Mr. Karpathy:

This is, of course, a variation on Andrej Karpathy’s quip from more than a year ago: “The hottest new programming language is English.” But it’s more than that, I think. The core skills are not just about straight prompt engineering; they’re not just about figuring out the most efficient wording to get the model to do what you want.

Steven’s core argument – this kind of tech innovation can actually enhance the significance of an education in the humanities:

But I do think it is undeniable that the rise of AI has ushered humanities-based skills into the very center of the tech world right now. In his last product introduction before his death, Steve Jobs talked about Apple residing at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology; he literally showed an image of street signs marking that crossroads. But the truth is back then most of the travelers on the liberal arts avenue were designers. There wasn’t as much need for philosophers or ethicists or even writers in building the advanced consumer technology of that era. But now those skills have a new relevance.

🎧 1 long-form listen of the week

a. ‘Malcolm Gladwell: Becoming Malcolm’ on the No Small Endeavour Podcast

This episode is a masterclass in storytelling and interviewing. The interview is happening in Nashville, Tennessee and the host, Lee Camp, tees up Malcolm Gladwell to share a ‘Nashville story’ to start things off.

Notice how succinctly Malcolm shares the anecdote, while ensuring you can see the entire story play out in front of your eyes:

Malcolm: I think it’s July. It’s probably 90* some odd, super humid. And I decide it’s too hot to go running with my t-shirt. So I just wear a pair of shorts. Which you can do, right?

So I go off and I climb that big road, I’m going around Percy Warner Park, and it’s a little late, it starts to get a little dark, but I think, I’m fine… but I get lost. Not just mildly lost, like completely, a hundred percent, I have no idea where I am. I can’t see any lights. I don’t know what I’m going to do. So I, I’m drenched in sweat. And I’m just wearing a pair of shorts. And I stand by the side of the road and I hitchhike. Big, beefy guys in like, Ford F-150s, don’t stop. Take one look at me and just not, no part of it.

Finally, a girl. And I say a girl because she was probably in her early twenties. A little battered Honda Accord. Stops, rolled down the window. “Can I help you, sir? And I said, first of all, you should not be picking me up. Are you nuts? Like, what are you doing? It’s like, strange dude in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. I get in and I said, “Why did you do that?”

And she said, “Well, I was coming from Bible study. And today we studied the story of the Good Samaritan.”

*He means 90 degree Fahrenheit, which around 32 degree celsius. I know.

At a young age, Malcolm realised the importance of explaining things clearly to others!

My father and my brothers were incapable of explaining things. So my father would just go, “Um…” And then, my brother, Jeff, who I love dearly, just would talk endlessly and not get anywhere. And as a kid, this drove me crazy.

So, you know how you’re constantly playing games as a kid, and there’s always a moment where you’ve got to teach your cousin how to play hearts. And so, my father would be incapable, and my brother would give this incredibly long explanation that would go nowhere, and then finally, in frustration, I would just say, “Okay, everyone shut up. This is how you play hearts.” And the mistakes people make in explaining things, this used to drive me– I can remember, as like an 8-year-old, being driven crazy by this. The thing you start with is, what is the point of the game? Start with that.

So, I think that was where my career as a journalist was born. I was like, I grew up in a household where 60% of the members of our house, my household, could not explain the simplest thing to anybody else.

Lee and Malcolm reflect on the power of stories over abstract language:

Lee: …since the Enlightenment, moral philosophy typically has much more focused on rules and principles. Just tell us the right thing to do. Rules and principles. But prior to the Enlightenment, a lot of ancient moral traditions, they focus very much more on story, because storytelling was fundamentally a morally formative practice in helping people think about their sense of self, about what they saw as beautiful and true and good. And obviously this wasn’t moralistic storytelling, but it was story as a moral practice. And it seems to me that that’s the kind of storytelling you like to do. That is, that you’re trying to tell stories that invite us to a different sense of self or a different way of seeing the world, that is then an invitation to be changed in some way. Do you resonate with that or does that seem to be right?

Malcolm: Yeah. So, going back to that story I told about, my Nashville story. So, does the girl stop if at her Bible study they talked about how we have a moral obligation to help those less fortunate than us? That’s one option. That’s what they could have studied if they were just interested in rules and principles. But they didn’t. They studied a story, a very concrete story, about, you know, a member of a despised minority who goes out of his way, he disrupts his routine, and puts himself to a lot of trouble to help somebody he doesn’t know, right? Very concrete story. It’s in her head. She’s driving down a road, and what does she see? Someone in distress by the side of the road. And she has to put herself in some kind of jeopardy to stop and help. And she has that story in her head, so she does it. Like, that’s what a story can do. I don’t think she stops if it’s just an abstract thing. But, there was some kind of… in the specifics of the story of the Good Samaritan, there is something really powerful, um, that moves people in a way that the abstract discussion does not.

Malcolm discusses another powerful example from his Revisionist History podcast about the power of human stories to illustrate abstract principles:

Malcolm: And I go and meet this guy who’s a ER doc at the University of Chicago. Grew up in the south side of Chicago. Black guy. Who chose to practice emergency medicine in the same neighborhood he grew up in, which is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country. And he was describing the experience of, on any given day, he will see someone brought in on a stretcher who’s been shot, who’s someone he knew. And there’s a moment in the conversation where he talks about– I asked him how many friends he’s had who had been killed. And he actually had this– he said, “Do you mean, like, people I was close enough to that they were in my phone? Like, I’d been texting with them?” I go, “Yeah.” And he goes, “Fifteen.

And the whole conversation is… and I had framed it in the– the episode is framed by this comment that this, uh…I had done, a couple of seasons ago, this whole thing about the Jesuits, thinking like a Jesuit. And this one Jesuit had said to me, “Sin is the failure to bother to care.” and the whole episode is all about, what does it mean to bother to care? Now, ‘sin is the failure to bother to care’, is the abstract rule. This guy, Abdullah Price’s decision to forego a much easier, more lucrative life, practicing as an ER doc in a suburb someplace, to go back and practice in his own neighborhood, and run the risk of this traumatic thing where it’s kids he knows coming in, right? That’s a story.

It’s real, about his choices, and it’s just emotionally moving… and it makes that principle come to life, right?

That’s all from this week’s edition.

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

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