Book Review: “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell
Whenever Malcolm Gladwell releases a new book, it’s a literary event.
Consider his stellar body of work, so far. He’s authored: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), and What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009).
Each of his previous books was a marvelous symbiosis of insight and originality, conveyed in a wonderfully entertaining and easy-to-read style, a sort of pseudo-intellectualism for the everyman. Indeed, Gladwell has become a one-man orchestra of instigation and provocation. He’s a master of remolding our minds, taking so-called conventional wisdom and flipping it upside down and turning it inside out, and then connecting all dots together in ways we never imagined. Each previous volume packed a wallup of a punch, forcing us to re-evaluate what we believe and think about familiar subjects in new ways. SEE FOOTNOTE BELOW
And so it is with his latest release, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.
This time, Gladwell challenges the popular assertion that many underdogs are really at a competitive disadvantage. No, he insists. Instead, those who enter conflicts with shortcomings are forced to confront challenges in new ways. In the end, these are the kinds of things that advance societies and foster human progress. Indeed, whether the field is business, politics, art, or sports, motivated underdogs very often tend to outperform our expectations. Accordingly, Gladwell suggests that we should all be shifting our attitudes about underdogs and learn ways to emulate their characteristics, choices, and tactics.
Typical of Gladwell’s persuasiveness, he cherry picks the perfect examples to prove his point. Once again, he also demonstrates a penchant for cutting across diverse territory, and channeling his suppositions into a common thread. For instance, he cites noted high-profile attorney David Boies as the quintessential underdog in his field. Unable to read at the pace normally required to practice law due to his dyslexia (he didn’t learn to read until the third grade), Boies found other ways to learn and assimilate complex legal language. Accordingly he became one of the very best attorneys at “thinking on his feet.” In short, Boies used his competitive disadvantage and turned it into a positive.
Other examples of underdogs overcoming the odds cited by Gladwell include a high school basketball team that was hopelessly outclassed in size, talent, and experience. Everyone thought they didn’t stand a chance. But the coach used that to his advantage. Since the team had absolutely no way of competing by using conventional methods and strategies, players did unconventional things to disrupt their opponents. The result was a winning season and championship team.
Underdogs come in all scopes and sizes. While Gladwell specifically highlights individuals who model the old tale (true or not) of David slaying Goliath, I was reminded that these precepts also apply to nations and history. Consider that military tactics used by both sides during the American Revolution, when the rag-tag colonial army led by George Washington used guerrilla tactics in battle against the Redcoats. English Army practices of the late 18th century were to stand abreast in a long line, fire muskets, and then drop to the ground and reload while the next line of soldiers fired in kind. This man fortress might work against another lesser man fortress. But it’s no match for a street fight. The out-manned and outgunned American revolutionaries ran through fields and forests haphazardly, becoming impossible to target, while picking off the red-coated Englishmen and Huns like ducks in shooting gallery. In essence, they didn’t “fight fair.” But they won.
Oddly enough, those same tactics were used against the American nation some two-hundred years later in a place called Vietnam. Numerically and technologically, the North Vietnamese seemed no match for the world’s most powerful military force. But guerrilla tactics and tenacious persistence fueled by jungle supply lines proved a winning strategy against seemingly overwhelming opposition. B-52s were no match for little malnourished men with faces the color of tea.
Indeed, history — and everything it encompasses from wars to business to sporting events — is a long chain link of one underdog’s victory after another. Accordingly, Gladwell notes that being an underdog isn’t necessarily the disadvantage that one presumes. In fact, might it actually be preferable to enter conflict at a competitive disadvantage? As strange as this sounds, in some case, the answer is a resounding — yes.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the chapter on the French art scene during the mid-1800s. The master painters we know of today including Pissarro, Cezanne, Renoire, Monet, and others who inadvertently founded the Impressionist art movement all failed in their attempts to gain admission to Paris’ most prestigious gallery, called the Salon. Their works insulted and ostracized by the traditionalists, instead they opened up their own gallery and in doing so revolutionized art forever.
It’s certainly a fun journey to read about. Along the way, while meandering through a maze of interconnected stories and anecdotes, both past and present, Gladwell manages to also provide some shocking, potentially game-changing, evidence that what we believe may not really be true. Two subjects jumped off the pages and are certain to merit future debate.
First, Gladwell demonstrates that the quality of education (at any level) has no correlation to class size. Yet conventional wisdom insists that students perform better in small classes. Class size is always a hot topic in elections and in school board meetings, where just about every elected official promises to work for “more teachers” and “smaller class sizes.” But the evidence doesn’t necessarily show that reducing class size does anything to improve the quality of education. Shocking as this sounds, at some point, small classes actually have the reverse effect. I’ll leave it to readers to pick up the book and learn more on their own.
The other shocker (for me) was the impact of Affirmative Action program for minorities. Gladwell asserts that preferential treatment of minorities in gaining admittance to elite universities doesn’t help them in life. In fact, placing a student who is not ready for a quantum leap in education may actually harm a what is a potentially promising student. His reasoning is, good students feel inferior and lose confidence when placed so-called genius students. So, they drop out or turn to other fields of study, when the fact was — they were simply good students, but not great.
Similarly, we learn that the “elite” college and universities actually don’t produce better students than lower-ranked schools, and may actually do great harm to some students who otherwise would excel in academia. I was much less surprised by this fact, already convinced that Ivy League schools are vastly overrated. Then again, I’m biased since I attended a state school (my SAT scores weren’t nigh enough to get into Rice).
The genius of Gladwell is that he always challenges us and what we think. He brings to light subjects which might not seem terribly interesting or relevant to our lives, but then shows how important these things really are and then provides the best evidence for judging performance.
David and Goliath is by no means Gladwell’s best work of the five books he’s now completed. It’s arguably even his weakest effort, to date. But just as when it comes to great writing and profound revelation, we once again learn that the mediocrity from some far outshines the best efforts of others. This is clearly the case with Gladwell’s immense contributions to society, which consistently merits our attention, contemplation, and discussion.
FOOTNOTE: The best example of Gladwell connecting some odd dots was his bold assertion that the 1973 court case Roe v. Wade (which legalized abortion in the United States) resulted in significant declines in crime some 15-20 years later. Since the majority of crimes are committed by disenfranchised and unsupervised teenagers, Gladwell proved that less of these children being born (due to more abortions) meant less criminals and crimes many years later.