Chances are you’re going to get caught in a heated cocktail-party conversation in the next few weeks about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell is lucratively good at raising a very general question and presenting a slightly counterintuitive answer—just counterintuitive enough to not seem obvious. He wraps up the package neatly with selective stories, data, and research. Witness the mega-success of his books Outliers, The Tipping Point, Blink, and What the Dog Saw.
The New Yorker staff writer is so good at it that is deeply divisive, with some people swearing by his inventive, askew viewpoints and others feeling duped and manipulated by the formulaic maneuvers. Fights are going to start. If you haven’t read the book, don’t want to, and you’re caught off guard by someone demanding your opinion, we’ve got you covered. How good are his claims and how persuasive is Gladwell? Judge for yourself.
Goliath Is the Weak One
David-Goliath fights make good underdog stories, but “we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong” is Gladwell’s big argument. He claims that Davids are only considered underdogs because we can’t see their strengths, like agility and accuracy, and Goliaths are the ones who are weak, as they are huge targets who are clumsy and slow. Some disadvantages are actually advantages; underdogs that “win” are never as outclassed as they initially seem.
Don’t Play By Goliath’s Rules
Gladwell argues that a David can beat a Goliath by not playing by Goliath’s rules. In warfare, that means using guerilla tactics. In basketball, that means playing a full-court press defense. The full-court press, usually a desperate late-game gambit, involves defending a team aggressively for the entire length of the court, as opposed to a more conventional half-court approach. A successful press hinges on athleticism and effort, and the tactic can be used to out-hustle a more talented opponent. He cites as examples the Kentucky University teams under coach Rick Pitino and a Bay-Area 12-year-old girls team that improbably contended for a championship.
Dyslexia Is a ‘Desirable Difficulty’
“Desirable difficulties” are disadvantages that force an individual to adapt and be better prepared against future difficulties. After noticing the disproportionately high number of entrepreneurs that were dyslexic, Gladwell posits that dyslexia can act as a “desirable difficulty.” Trial lawyer David Boies, film producer Brian Grazer, and Goldman Sachs president Gary D. Cohn are all incredibly successful in their respective fields not despite their disability, but because of it. Gladwell argues that they are successful because they had to overcompensate when they were young for their difficulty reading. Dyslexia trained them to think unconventionally and to solve problems.
MLK Was a David
Gladwell applies his theory of Davids and Goliaths to the civil rights movement, arguing that Martin Luther King and other leaders were successful underdogs because they refused to engage with Goliath on Goliath’s terms. Gladwell deconstructs one of the most famous photographs of the movement: Bill Hudson’s image of Walter Gadsden, a Parker High School student who was grabbed by a police officer while a German Shepherd lunged at his stomach. Gladwell argues that while there had been police brutality in Birmingham, this particular photograph is not an example of it. Gladwell claims that the officer was trying to restrain his dogs while Gadsden was the aggressor. The picture, however, galvanized public opinion and led to widespread support of the protesters in Birmingham. Gladwell says that had always been the plan, and on that day the leaders of the civil rights movement were trying to get just such a photograph.
The “Big Fish in a Little Pond” Advantage
The conventional wisdom is that some universities are better academically than others. Gladwell argues that the quality of the school is less a predictor of individual success than individual merit is. The best students from mediocre schools almost always prove more successful than good students from the elite schools. This is because being a big fish in a little pond has significant advantages. Little ponds encourage individuality and innovation while also providing support and community. Being surrounded by the best students in a big pond can be discouraging much in the same way that being surrounded by happy people can exacerbate depression. This is why, Gladwell posits, happier countries have higher suicide rates than unhappy countries.
Advantages Have a Tipping Point
For both Davids and Goliaths, advantages are rarely linearly related to success. That is, something beneficial is not beneficial ad infinitum. Most advantages have a middle point where they are most effective. Too much can be just as harmful as too little. Gladwell cites class size and income as factors that are universally considered advantages; but past a certain point and they become disadvantages. The optimal amount of students in a class is approximately 25; more than that, and students get less individual attention. However, less than 25 students in a class is too intimate for autonomy and too small to foster discussion. Likewise, Gladwell argues, parenting is most difficult for the very poor or very rich. The middle class are comfortable enough that they do not have to work at the expense of their parenting, but not so wealthy that their money makes it impossible to set limits.