Book Review: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

One of the reasons we love Malcolm Gladwell’s books is the way he uses the art of storytelling to contradict common assumptions about the way things work.

In this aspect, his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, is full of well-researched, counterintuitive arguments that demonstrate patterns and connect the dots between seemingly unrelated events. In short, it does not disappoint.gladwell_david-and-goliath

As we’ve come to expect from a writer of his caliber, Gladwell grips you from the start, with the timeless story of David, the Israelite, and Goliath, the Philistine, and why the duel between them revealed the folly of our assumptions about power.

Gladwell argues that we “continue to make that error today, in ways that have consequences for everything, from how we educate our children, to how we fight crime and disorder.”

“Why,” he says, “do we automatically assume that someone who is smaller, or poorer, or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage?” Especially when history shows us that underdogs win more often than we think. “That’s because underdog strategies are hard,” he notes.

“To play by David’s rules, you have to be desperate,” he says. “You have to be so bad that you have no choice.” With stories from basketball to Lawrence of Arabia, he demonstrates how prestige and belonging to elite institutions (think MBAs), can actually limit our options. And how being an underdog and a misfit can give you the freedom to try things no one else has ever dreamt of.

He goes on to demonstrate, with some surprising statistics, how too small a class size and too much family wealth can, both be disadvantageous to children, and why it’s wrong to assume that being bigger, and stronger, and richer, is always in our best interest.

I found particularly fascinating the story of how the Impressionists succeeded by choosing to be the Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own creation. You’ll learn why, the more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities.

So, if you did not make it through to the IITs (or Harvard, Yale or MIT), take heart. It’s better to be a Big Fish in a Very Welcoming Small Pond than a Little Fish in a Very Big and Scary Pond, says Gladwell. And going to that less competitive college might be the best thing you’ll ever do for your self-confidence and your career.

While it might seem counterintuitive to talent hunters, statistics show that hiring the best students from “mediocre” schools would be better than going after good students from the very best schools. “We have a definition in our heads of what an advantage is – and the definition isn’t right,” says Gladwell. “It’s the Little Pond that maximizes your chances to do whatever you want.”

We have a definition in our heads of what an advantage is – and the definition isn’t right. ~ @Gladwell Click To Tweet

My favourite part, however, was when, using the fact that an extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs (including British billionaire, Richard Branson) are dyslexic, he asks the controversial question, “Can dyslexia turn out to be a desirable difficulty?” Could it be that they succeeded, in part, because of their disorder?

Can dyslexia turn out to be a desirable difficulty? ~ @Gladwell, David and Goliath Click To Tweet

When something, like your sense of sight, is taken away from you, your brain compensates by sharpening your other senses. In the same way, could dyslexics learn to compensate for their reading difficulty by becoming better listeners and learning to understand the nuances of human communication better than their peers? That does seem to be the case. As Gladwell states, “What is learned out of necessity is inevitably more powerful than the learning that comes easily.”

What is learned out of necessity is inevitably more powerful than the learning that comes easily. ~ @Gladwell Click To Tweet

But the dyslexics who succeed also seem to have a special brand of stubbornness coupled with a highly developed ability to deal with failure, and the tendency to not care a damn for the approval of others – qualities that many a successful entrepreneur shares. These are the coping strategies they developed in a world that looks down on those who cannot keep up academically, but that gave them an advantage in the world of business, where disruption is greatly valued.

Personally, I like to see these so-called disorders, that the psychiatric profession is so quick to diagnose nowadays, as “gifts” that help us see the world in ways that others can’t. I used to think it was just me (and a bunch of other people who believe in a more inclusive world) that thought this way, so Gladwell’s argument that being “differently-abled” can be turned into an advantage delights me.

I believe that we will, one day, see the same argument put to people with autism. The evidence is already there. We just need someone like Gladwell to dig it up for us.

In the vein of what doesn’t kill you make you stronger, his next chapter speaks of the acquired, uncommon courage of those who survive either an event like the bombing of London by the Germans, or of losing a parent in childhood.

It reminded me of the courage of the people of Mumbai who are known for going back to work the day after a bombing by terrorists. With so many “remote misses” to create a feeling of invincibility, no other city in India can claim such nonchalance in the face of terror.

It’s his chapter on Wyatt Walker that I find the most unsettling, where he defends Walker’s use of children in Birmingham’s civil rights marches. “Our definition of what is right is, as often as not, simply the way that people in positions of privilege close the door on those on the outside,” states Gladwell.

Since Birmingham, child soldiers have been used by mercenaries like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone in their battle against the Goliaths they were fighting, with disastrous consequences for the children involved (if you want to understand what happened to the children drafted into the RUF, I recommend you watch the Leonardo DiCaprio starrer, Blood Diamond).

So, no, I don’t think Birmingham is really the right kind of example to make in the David vs Goliath battles, no matter how worthy the cause.

Weaving a common thread through the stories of crime in America, and the war between the Irish and Prostestants in Northern Ireland, Gladwell goes on to show how “the excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.”

Gladwell wraps up the book with the beautiful and heartwarming story of Andre´ Trocme´ and the village of Le Chambon in France that protected Jews in defiance of the Nazi invaders. As he notes so eloquently, “The powerful are not as powerful as they seem – nor the weak as weak.”

The powerful are not as powerful as they seem – nor the weak as weak. ~ @Gladwell, David and Goliath Click To Tweet
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