Malcolm Gladwell, Atul Gawande on Connection

Several writers at The New Yorker understand how important the force of human connection is to help people thrive.  I’ve previously written about Ken Auletta’s masterpiece “The Howell Doctrine,” and, of course, there’s Jim Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.  Two other writers at The New Yorker have made significant contributions on this topic.

In Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, we learn that disconnection (the failure to communicate and connect) is the primary cause of aircraft accidents and a major contributor to medical errors.  Gawande, a surgeon, prescribes checklists to help improve performance as the work we do becomes increasingly complex.  Here’s one example.  Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital learned that surgical teams performed better when, prior to surgery, each member of the team introduced him or herself and shared any foreseeable concerns.  When surgical teams did this, lower status members were more likely to speak up if they saw mistakes being made.  This became a step on Gawande’s checklist he and his team developed for the World Health Organization.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success, connection is a theme throughout.  In the introduction, we learn that several research studies found residents of the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania were healthier and lived longer solely because they were a more relationally connected community.  In the next chapter, we learn that 10,000 hours of intentional practice is required with coaching (i.e. connection) to achieve expert level performance.  Although Gladwell doesn’t explicitly make this point, the support of family and friends is necessary to persevere through the inevitable difficulties of  practicing for 10,000 hours, which is 10 years of practicing for 20 hours a week.

In a chapter on geniuses, Gladwell concludes they are often not very successful because they fail to connect with other human beings and it renders them less effective at getting things done.  Similar to Gawande’s book, we learn that the key to airline safety is to reduce human error by making sure pilots, co-pilots and air traffic controllers are connected in both a rational and emotional sense.  Gladwell describes how the crash of a Columbian Airlines flight a few years ago because it ran out of fuel was attributable to a failure of communication between the co-pilot, pilot and air traffic controller at JFK Airport in New York.  The problem was that the plane’s co-pilot used “mitigating speech” to be respectful to those he perceived as having great status and authority.  When he needed to communicate the urgency of the situation he should have been screaming like a New York cab driver to make his point clear.

Finally, we learn from Gladwell about the success of the KIPP charter schools in low income urban neighborhoods.  Eighty percent of KIPP students go on to attend college.  KIPP students learn a protocal called “SSLANT” which stands for smile, sit up, listen, ask questions, nod when being spoken to, and track with our eyes.”  All of these behaviors help kids connect with others.  Brilliant, isn’t it.  KIPP teaches its students academic competence and relationship competence.  It was so inspiring to read how KIPP was giving these kids hope for a bright future, I wanted to stand up and cheer.

I very highly recommend both of these books.  They are utterly fascinating and well written, so much so that I couldn’t put them down.

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