HomeThoughts and MusingsThoughtful Thursday: Malcom Gladwell Quotes and Genealogy

I can hear you saying, “Oh great, here comes another blogging theme,” but alas, no. It basically means that I have had this quote floating around in my head, have been trying to define exactly how it applies to genealogy, and haven’t had time to completely formulate my thoughts yet . So before it becomes lost in the nether regions of my brain,   I throw it out there for you to get stuck in your own head, and hopefully, reply with your own thoughts. A little interactivity is a good thing.

Check out the book for the full description of the quote’s context, but a little background:

The quote is from Malcom Gladwell’s book, Blink: the power of thinking without thinking (Gladwell, Malcolm. 2005. New York: Little, Brown and Co. ). The quote is not about genealogy, per se, but about problem-solving and decision-making.  Gladwell relates the story of a war game staged between joint US forces and a simulated rogue military commander. This war game, called Millennium Challenge, pitted two conceptual opposites against each other.

The Joint Forces had an awesome array of weaponry. intelligence, and decision-making procedures in place.  The rogue commander had experience and spontaneity. Theoretically, the deck was heavily stacked in the Joint Forces favor favor. They set up  their siege according to plan. They took (they thought) the enemy’s communication out. They amassed overwhelming amounts of boats and troops and waited for their successes to pile up. They never did. In fact, they were a dismal failure as the enemy reacted in a way they couldn’t fathom nor account for with their behavior charts, planned responses, or administrative lag.  Before they could even fire a shot, they were ambushed and suffered catastrophic losses. They were baffled.

Talking about the war game, Paul Van Riper, the “rogue commander”, commented:

“The elements of national power were diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. That gives you DIME. They would always talk about the Blue Dime [Chris’ note: Blue was the Joint Forces team.] Then there were the political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information instruments, PMESI. So they’d have these terrible conversations where it would be our DIME versus their PMESI. I wanted to gag. What are you talking about? You know, you get caught up in forms, in matrixes, in computer programs, and it just draws you in. They were so focused on the mechanics and the process that they never looked at the problem holistically. In the act of tearing something apart, you lose its meaning.”
(Gladwell p. 125)

The questions I pose are these: Have you ever been guilty of this micro-focus and rigidity in your research endeavors? Can you give an example of a time when stepping back allowed you new insight, which then allowed to focus back in on the correct details?

I’m still tossing around my answers to these and similar questions, but I find my time being spent almost exclusively lately on learning about genealogy rather than actually doing it. I am getting caught up in the processes. I feel like I need to remind myself that the desired result is not adherence to a strict regiment, but to solve a problem or series of problems. However, I also feel that the rigor of studying and being exposed to different process will ultimately provide some structure, and allow a more productive and successful “spontaneous” reaction when researching in the field.

Again – I am still formulating these ideas – this is not a finished thesis by any stretch, but I really look forward to some of your thoughts.


Thoughtful Thursday: Malcom Gladwell Quotes and Genealogy — 2 Comments

  1. Holy Dickie Marcinko!!!! Mr. Red Cell himself could have told them that. I wonder if Van Ripper has been reading the Marcinko books. Now applying that kind of out of the box thinking to genealogy will be a lot trickier than defeating the Blue Dimes with PMS (pun intended) By the way, in my humble opinion, this kind of thinking is what is causing us to loose the war on terror! I have not read Malcolm Gladwell before. For some reason, I thought I would not like his writings. I will have to reconsider – but not till after I read a couple of other must read before June 8 books.

    It seems to me that the GPS and BCG standards are a lot like the DIME & PMESI processes. But before you can really get outside the box, you have to know what is inside it – not become a slave to it but no matter what you confront in your “research” you will always have other ways of thinking to get around the brink walls. By studying genealogy as currently taught, we will learn exactly how those two areas work and how they do not work and find the best strategies that we need to apply to our research.

    It is past 3 AM and I have yet to see anything except sheep – no dreams in sight, so if this does not make sense, I apologize.

    Plus your Tolkien quote also seems to apply here as well.

  2. Hi Jackie –

    I have my ProGen group meeting in an hour or so, so I’ll try and get this in first!

    I didn’t mean to imply an “us versus them” relationship between BCG or any other standards-based organization, and genealogists in the field. The thing that interested me was the relationship between theoretical-based experience and practice-based experience, and how the former influences the latter. Again, part of the reason the quote struck me is that I am currently so wrapped up in learning processes and procedures, that there is a disconnect between what I am learning and how I might best apply some of these things.

    Part of the reason that Van Riper was successful was precisely because he WAS well-learned in the theory and history of battles and warfare. When his “modern advantages” were taken out, he was able to fall back on WWII technology to get things done. However, I think his two years (or however long it was – can’t remember for sure) in Vietnam, gave him enough practical wisdom to know which parts of theories to use, and which parts to throw out. He knew when and why to break the rules.

    So I definitely believe in the value of standards and standards-based learning. But I am really antsy to get back out and be able to focus on researching, encountering problems, and using the theoretical things we are learning to shape my practical experience similar to the way it shaped Van Riper’s.