This book uncovers the hidden rules that shape the balance between the weak and the mighty and the powerful and the dispossessed. In it the author challenges how we think about obstacles and disadvantages, offering a new interpretation of what it means to be discriminated against, or cope with a disability, or lose a parent, or attend a mediocre school, or suffer from any number of other apparent setbacks. He begins with the real story of what happened between the giant and the shepherd boy (David and Goliath) those many years ago. From there, the book examines Northern Ireland's Troubles, the minds of cancer researchers and civil rights leaders, murder and the high costs of revenge, and the dynamics of successful and unsuccessful classrooms, all to demonstrate how much of what is beautiful and important in the world arises from what looks like suffering and adversity. -- From book jacket.
The book begins with Gladwell's detailed re-telling of the biblical story of David and Goliath. The way that Gladwell tells it, in fact, it sounds as if Goliath (slow witted, vision challenged, etc.) never really had a chance against the little shepherd boy who was an absolute sharpshooter with a rock and sling. From there, Gladwell offers nine chapters filled with stories of individuals, companies, nations, doctors, and politicians who overcame overwhelming odds against foes who often failed to take them seriously until it was way too late. Gladwell breaks the book down into three main sections. Part One covers "the advantages of disadvantages;" Part Two, offers the "theory of desirable difficulty;" and Part Three, discusses "the limits of Power."
Bottom Line: there is hope for us all if we are content to refine our weaknesses into unexpected strengths that give us the edge over our more complacent, (even competent) opponents or opposition. What seem to be advantages can be turned against an opponent by a challenger so desperate that anything goes. Those surviving the near misses of certain death or destruction often feel so invulnerable as a result that they are able to pull off victory against the greatest of odds because they feel almost "protected" by their first brush with the end. What seem to be disadvantages in life (such as severe dyslexia) can open up new avenues to success as they force the disadvantaged to adapt.
All of this is, of course, wonderful theory that is "proved" by the author's anecdotal evidence...and we all know what that is really worth. But "David and Goliath" will make you think out of the box, even if only for the few hours it takes you to read the book. And that's always a good thing.
Similar to how his last book, Outliers: The Story of Success, is more than just how people succeed, this one is more than how the underdog beats the giant. We mythologize the Davids and the Goliaths of this world although in doing so we grossly underestimate the underdog's inherent advantage and the giant's masked weaknesses.
Towards the middle of the book, through the subjects of the Civil Rights Movement and the British occupation of Ireland, my attention noticeably waned. The material relates to the underdog's advantage and the inverted U-shaped curve, but the connection wasn't as clear as in the earlier chapters.
This and other Gladwell books have been challenged for their lack of a balanced consideration of the important social issues he addresses. For example, he provides compelling anecdotes about the successes of individuals with dyslexia and children raised in poverty, he scarcely acknowledges the far greater number with similar challenges that fail to overcome these deficits inherent. He does note that dyslexic individuals who have become multi-millionaires universally state that they would never “wish” dyslexia on their children, but that is only a modest tip of the hat towards balance.
Gladwell defends his work as intended to provide the basis for a conversation rather than a definitive statement of a general truth. However, he fails to make that point in this and his other writings.
Most of the vignettes presented here are interesting, and some are emotionally moving. However, the potpourri of topics insures that most readers will find some less interesting or well treated than others. Having spent a professional lifetime as a university professor, for example, I found his treatment of success in a major university to be rather shallow, and his failure to explain how the successful dyslexics managed to matriculate and earn a university degree to be dissatisfying. Gladwell’s challenge of established beliefs is well-worth considering, but readers need to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism.
And so it continues, through stories of an Indian middle school girls’ high school basketball coach whose team of nerds won with the full-court press because the experienced players couldn’t break it, a high school teacher who preferred a slightly larger class because a smaller one drowned out voices, and a would-be science major whose preference for Brown over the University of Maryland placed her in classes where her perceived inferiority converted her to an arts major. The Indian coach is the amateur equivalent, of course, of Rick Pitino, who Gladwell points out was a freshman spectator when Digger Phelps’ undersized and overmatched Fordham team came into Amherst and beat the powerhouse UMass team led by Julius Erving. The student choosing between Brown and the University of Maryland had a choice that Gladwell convincingly presents as equivalent to that faced by Impressionist artists in mid-19th Century France, when they needed the Salon for success but were not the Salon’s usual artists.
But then things go awry. Gladwell begins Part Two of the book by examining the prevalence of dyslexia among successful entrepreneurs as well as the great producer Brian Glazer and the famous trial lawyer David Boies. Again, so far, so good. Until he begins to address the loss of parents during childhood. Here Gladwell’s reliance on second-hand sources begins to betray him. He cites an ‘informal survey of famous poets and writers like Keats, Wordsworth, Swift, Edward Gibbon, and Thackeray’ which purports to explain their success by the death of a parent. The educated observer has to ask: how does the great historian Gibbon fit with the others, all of whom wrote fiction? He doesn’t. He was selected deliberately as someone who fits the data.
Then Gladwell continues to claim that ‘Sixty-seven percent of the prime ministers [of England from 1800 to 1938] lost a parent before the age of sixteen. […] The same pattern can be found among American presidents. Twelve of the first forty-four U.S. presidents […] lost their fathers while they were young.’ Two problems emerge with this comparison: first, he only addresses fathers with the U.S. presidents. We have no idea about mothers. Second, twelve out of forty-four is 27.3 percent. That is VASTLY different from 67 percent. It is barely more than a quarter being compared with two-thirds. No qualitative facility with language can make up for the abuse of statistics that Gladwell is here passing off on his readers. And yet I do not know whether Gladwell himself understands this. He is, after all, deliberately passing on second-hand information.
In the next chapter he purports to show how the Civil Rights movement as led by Martin Luther King and Wyatt Walker in Alabama overcame a lack of support from the African-American community in Birmingham. Here again he relies on second-hand sources, most notably the historian Taylor Branch, rather than the greatest of all primary sources, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great book Why We Can’t Wait. The narrative conflicts, most likely because it is overly reliant on the memories of Wyatt Walker, whom Gladwell himself presents as somewhat erratic. In presenting the Birmingham issue as the product of Bull Connor’s failure to recognize that less than twenty demonstrators were being shadowed by thousands of spectators, he makes Connor appear stupid–which he was not–and distorts what I believe to be fact and historical accuracy. King had hundreds if not thousands of demonstrators. There may have been some spectators. It was probably as difficult then as it is now to differentiate between the two crowds.
Nor is this the first time he distorts history, using secondary sources, to make it conform to what he wishes to portray as a moral message. As Gladwell says, ‘WIlliam Polk writes in Violent Politics, a history of unconventional warfare, Washington “devoted his energies to creating a British-type army, the Continental Line. As a result, he was defeated time after time and almost lost the war.’ This is a complete misunderstanding of Washington’s achievement in the Revolutionary War. What Washington did was to master and brilliantly execute the Fabian Strategy, a strategy designed to exhaust the resources of an invader who does not know the soil. The Fabian Strategy does entail losses. It is a strategy designed to win a war of attrition. I’ve described it in depth in Volume 3 of Essays on the Classics! Gladwell doesn’t know that. Instead he is preaching the virtues of nonconformity, using an alleged Washington failure, and inciting others based on historical inaccuracy. This is deeply problematic to me.
The end result is the audacious, even outrageous claim that ‘we need to remember that 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.’ No doubt there is some element of ‘might equals right’ in any moral code, and that element is abusive. But if this is the sole justification for glorifying the fact that Gary Cohn, another dyslexic, lied to get his initial entry into banking and used that lie to rise to the top then it is extremely problematic. It is the equivalent of justifying Antonio Bastardo’s use of steroids to obtain the 25th spot on the roster of the Philadelphia Phillies. The guy who plays by the rules and also does not have advantages gets screwed by an immoral act. Gladwell makes the immoral act sound like an act of outright genius and something we should all look up to and emulate. I have no respect for that kind of thinking.
In short, Gladwell’s moral claims are dubious, and there are problems in the book with selection of data, use and interpretation of statistics, and historical accuracy. This is a work of sloppy scholarship that is disturbingly, even dangerously persuasive. And it is a total disappointment because the topic is meaningful, the introduction is brilliant, and the subject matter needs to be addressed seriously. It’s really too bad.
Gladwell's premise is that we misperceive who is at an advantage and disadvantage. David wasn't an "underdog," a stone and sling in the hands of a mobile warrior had a huge advantage from a distance over a slow-moving giant (who was possibly blind) with a spear.
People can create advantage from disadvantage by altering their paradigm. He uses the full-court press in basketball (hailing Pitino, even) as an example. (I love to harp on peoples' paradigms as weaknesses, and this is my favorite example (not mentioned by Gladwell) of an item reinvented and made better by approaching from a different paradigm.)
Gladwell also points to research showing that millionaires--successful people-- have disproportionately faced handicaps, such as dislexia or losing a parent at an early age. He illustrates using a few examples, including the president of Goldman Sachs, who credit dyslexia to their future success. A "desirable difficulty" creates a willpower or stubborness that later serves the otherwise handicapped. However, Gladwell notes that the socially dysfunctional--namely prisoners-- are also disproportionately represented by dyslexics and people who lost parents at an early age. So, what does that tell us? Certain events in childhood can lead to polar outcomes, and it depends on luck, grace, and other circumstances? Did I need to read the book to know that? Do I not already know enough people who ended up in opposite ends of the spectrum to note this phenonmenon?
I appreciate Gladwell for trying to popularize economics, psychology, and statistics into "adventure stories" for the common reader. But repeated accusations that he cherry-picked his studies are problematic. You can't draw broad conclusions from a few anecdotes, especially when contradictory evidence is ignored.
You will learn about all sorts of historical trivia that Gladwell wants to draw your attention to. How Martin Luther King Jr. eagerly hoped children he'd recruited to march in Birmingham would be savagely attacked by dogs, and was quite happy when they were jailed in inhumane conditions. How the Three Strikes law in California was counterproductive in reducing crime, and how that relates to the British's failed occupation of Northern Ireland. How French Huguenots harbored Jews and behaved as true Christians in the midst of WWII and went unpunished, standing up to the Nazi/Vichy Goliath. But as reviewers have noted, other villages that stood up (not mentioned by Gladwell) were destroyed. Perhaps the full-court press isn't as widely shelved as the reader is led to believe.
I give this book 3 stars. There was a lot of historical trivia that I learned and found useful. His main premise, that we shouldn't count people out based on our preconceived biases and paradigms, doesn't strike me as very interesting. If it strikes you as novel, then you are Gladwell's target audience.
This book is a little different because Gladwell is looking at case studies, rather than global research findings. In some instances, these cases are the exception to the rule while in others they're more of a global truth. This made me a bit uneasy at times, because I know that most people view case studies as universal truths rather than as isolated instances and less probable outcomes.
Nevertheless, Gladwell is clear about the intent of the book: to show instances where being an underdog is sometimes an advantage and that a powerful position is not always the best place to be. There are some great stories and lessons in this book, and I enjoyed hearing about them. My favorite was the chapter on Wilma Derksen where the author talks about "a woman who walks away from the promise of power and finds the strength to forgive" and how this can turn the world upside down.
True to his usual style, Gladwell delivers an engaging group of stories and examples. Seeing an underdog triumph inspires all of us, and gaining some insight into how or why this happens doesn't take away anything. In fact, it only adds to the hope that we can all achieve and overcome.
Anyway, I'm a big fan of his other works so this won't keep me from reading books by him in the future. I'll just say that this one wasn't what I was hoping it would be.
It's interesting to me that he uses quite a few references from the Bible, both Old and New Testament as introductions to a concept, which is a follow through of the biblical story used in the title.
He starts with battling giants as the title suggests, and points out the disadvantages of being large, slow, and myopic as the figure Goliath was purported to be by some sources. And analyzes the advantages of David, a young shepherd boy with no armor or experience in warfare, yet had the advantages of speed, skill, and maneuverability. These two tropes set the stage for the series of topics and case studies that he uses to support his point.
He touches on various topics such as choice of college, guerilla warfare, the 1960's Civil Rights movement, classroom size, California's Three Strike Rule, successful dyslexics, and children who've lost a parent at a young age.
This is not a book on empirical research in social science, but it is typical Malcolm Gladwell who challenges his readers to check their assumptions and prejudices at the opening of the book and look at the world in a more expansive way.
We listened to this as an audiobook, read by the author. He does a superb job of orally presenting his work. It was like sitting through a fascinating lecture.
While I found both the content and the conclusions interesting, this book felt a bit less focused than Tipping Point or Blink in my opinion. I felt like the different examples and studies didn’t fit together as smoothly as they could have to illustrate his points. Many of the points he makes either felt like common sense deductions or like too much of a stretch. Learning about the impact of class size was interesting, but it never quite tied into the usage of propaganda during the Civil Rights movement. I learned a lot and enjoyed it, but it’s not my favorite.
BOTTOM LINE: I think I would enjoy just about anything Gladwell writes, but this one ranks farther down on the list for me. I would start with one of his earlier books if you’re new to his work.
Malcolm Gladwell has a great thing going, and I can't fault him for making the most of what he's got. His current title, David and Goliath, is now at 16 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, following in the groove set by its four best-selling predecessors. His name is well known, and references to his take on the workings of the world crop up frequently in certain kinds of conversations and settings.
Maybe I'm just envious because I've never had anything on the best-seller list, but I think his formula is wearing a bit thin. Would this book have made it to the top if it had been his first? I'm inclined to doubt it. It just doesn't pack the intuitive punch of Blink or exert the logical appeal of The Tipping Point.
Gladwell's collection of biographical narratives interpreted in the light of a common theme is engaging, making the point again and again that adversity can confer advantage and that the actions of an individual can have incalculable consequences. Nevertheless, the "David and Goliath" conceit feels tacked on, as if a catchy title and a familiar motif counted for more in the Marketing Department than a well-integrated organizing concept. And it probably does.
What this book is actually about, it seems to me, is not the little guy against the big guy but the meaning and use of power, the authority of personal conviction, and the ways in which weakness and strength can be mistaken for each other and indeed can become reversed. But that would be a far less tidy notion to present, never mind being difficult to pin down in a popular phrase that sells copies.
The eye-opening character of Gladwell's observations commands attention, and the explanatory potency of his theories impresses, as it is designed to do. But I can't escape the feeling that the drive to churn out best-sellers takes precedence over the treatment of the content, which is veering toward the sensationalistic at the expense of coherency.
The book is really about unanticipated outcomes, then analyzing why this is the case. Catastrophic panic was anticipated in London at the outset of the Battle of Britain, yet citizens were calm and defiant in spite of daily bombings. Attempts to crack down on Catholic malcontents in Northern Ireland by British soldiers led to a 30 year struggle when it was thought overwhelming brutality would cow them quickly. After tens of billions spent on California's 3-strikes law where a 3rd crime, no matter how minor, would result in harsh penalties ranging from 25-years to life was proven to have no discernable effect on violent crime, but did lead to instances such a first-degree murderer serving an 8-year prison term (first offense) while his cell mate was in for at least 25 because he was caught stealing candy (third offense).
One of the more interesting chapters had to do with learning disabilities -- dyslexia in particular. We generally regard this as a major handicap that can prevent otherwise bright kids from excelling in school. Gladwell cites figures that suggest, however, that perhaps 40% of some of the most successful people atop the most successful companies are dyslexic. Overcoming the obstacle that makes reading difficult resulted in them compensating by honing other talents and skills; particularly memory and persuasion. It would have been irresponsible had Gladwell been remiss to mention a large percentage of the prison population (maybe as large as 70%) also suffer learning disabilities but didn't rise to the challenge in an admirable way. He doesn't give that statistic equal time, though -- he is just more impressed by those who successfully overcame their handicap.
Despite not sticking with the theme of the book very well; Gladwell does present some interesting data and some of the stories even relate to each other. But in the end, I was not motivated to go slay a giant, which was sort of my expectation for this book.