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TED Talk Tuesday: Malcolm Gladwell on Spaghetti Sauce and Happiness

Cornerstone Editors

This post is part of our monthly TED Talk Tuesday series, spotlighting can't-miss TED Talks and their key takeaways. You can learn more about our partnership with TED here.

Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and best-selling author, has a reputation for turning conventional wisdom on its head. He "searches for the counterintuitive in what we all take to be the mundane" and never fails to uncover a radical new way to experience and interpret our daily lives.

In his TED Talk, Gladwell explores the story of the man who refused to believe in a "perfect" spaghetti sauce, and how his research impacts our broader understanding of choice and happiness. While the talk centers on the food industry, the larger discoveries about human behavior are poignantly relevant for leaders who want to build workplaces where people are happy and fulfilled.

Watch the video below and read on for three key takeaways from his talk:

"People don't know what they want."

Conventional wisdom would hold that if you want to understand what people want, the best thing to do is ask them. This thinking plays out in the workplace constantly: companies offer certain benefits based on what the workforce wants, and managers organize succession planning around an employee's desire. But here's the kicker: People are rarely right about what actually makes them happy.

Howard Moskovitz, the psychophysicist at the center of Gladwell's talk, discovered this when polling people on spaghetti sauce, soda and coffee. But we've seen examples of similar misalignment when it comes to job satisfaction: People say they value one thing, but in reality, it's another thing that influences their happiness the most. The takeaway for HR leaders? Look to people analytics for answers, not anecdotes.

"Mustard exists on a horizontal plane."

Gladwell explains that the mustard industry used to consist of two mustards, both yellow: French's and Gulden's. Then Grey Poupon came along with dijon mustard in a fancy glass jar and a French name for a few dollars more. People loved Grey Poupon, and everyone's takeaway from its rise in popularity was that people will be happier if you give something more elite—something to aspire to. Moskovitz destroyed this idea of a "mustard hierarchy," and demonstrated that, in fact, there are only different kinds of mustards that suit different kinds of people.

A similar theory can be applied to the idea of a career path. People strive to rise the ranks, to achieve higher levels of responsibility and power, when, in fact, this pressure to climb the career ladder often means we "grow out" of our dream jobs. As Arthur Brooks writes in The New York Times, "Happy engineers become stressed-out supervisors. Writers find themselves in charge of other writers and haranguing them over deadlines." Instead, Brooks offers, why don't we rise to our level of happiness? For HR, this translates to understanding that not everyone is suited to be a manager—there are different career ladders for different people, and that's okay.

"When we pursue universal principles... we aren't just making an error; we are actually doing ourselves a massive disservice."

Moskovitz' biggest impact on the food industry was the finding that there isn't one perfect spaghetti sauce, or perfect Pepsi. And that's because humans are complicated individuals—no one, universal thing will work for everyone. Gladwell calls this embrace of variability one of the greatest revolutions in science over the last 15 years.

It's an insight into human behavior and happiness that HR professionals would be smart to take to heart. Your workforce is made up of individuals, and you will need to shape the culture, benefits, rewards and opportunities to fit a diverse range of needs and desires. Instead of trying to create a penultimate company or hire only the "perfect" employees, strive to create a balanced environment in which multiple personalities and talents can thrive.

Photo: Creative Commons

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