Malcolm Gladwell has developed a reputation of challenging conventional wisdom and introducing a new way of looking at cultural issues. He does not diMalcolm Gladwell has developed a reputation of challenging conventional wisdom and introducing a new way of looking at cultural issues. He does not disappoint in his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell uses a myriad of stories to illustrate that the powerful are not as powerful as they seem, and the weak are not as weak as they appear. The book begins, as the title indicates, with a detailed and novel view of the mythic battle of David and Goliath. It is assumed that Goliath, who was at least 7 feet tall and several hundred pounds, is the obvious favorite to win the battle against David, the small adolescent. Through the use of research and historical investigation Malcolm Gladwell paints a convincing story of David being the actual favored one with his sling hurling deadly stones at a distance whereas Goliath with his heavy armor and potential sight impairment was a sitting duck. The specific thing that made David appear as the underdog, his size and his age and his profession as a shepherd, where the same variables that created his upper hand. Goliath had strength; David had speed and surprise.
Gladwell continues to weave story after story through David and Goliath depicting unique and often unheard of stories to reveal what appears as a strength can be a weakness and vice a versa. One of the most intriguing stories he tells is of a middle age woman who was passionate about science growing up. She choose to attend an Ivy League University, and due to the competitive environment and the difficulty of the courses she dropped her science major. Gladwell states, “[it] is not just how smart you are. It’s how smart you feel relative to the other people in the classroom.” He goes on to argue that it would have better for this individual to have attended her second choice, a non-Ivy League University, where she would have likely graduated in the top quartile of her class with a science degree. This path would have allowed her to pursue her passion and become the scientist she always dreamed of. In a society that glamorizes getting the “best education” his point flies in the face of conventional wisdom.
One major lesson to be taken from David and Goliath is that weakness, setbacks, and failure can, though not always, be a means of growth and strength that can come about by no other way. Gladwell depicts the life of Gary Cohn, president of Goldman Sachs, whose dyslexia and subsequent challenges in life and school shaped his character. “My upbringing allowed me to be comfortable with failure… [and] I wouldn’t be where I am today without my dyslexia. I never would have taken that first chance [of trying to get a job on Wall Street].” Very few parents wish the hard things they have gone through upon their children, but as Gladwell argues, those same difficulties have shaped and enabled them to accomplish unique and grand feats. Gladwell puts it well when he says, “Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”
The main critics of Gladwell cite his use of stories to back up a point when there are plenty of other stories to contradict his intended message. The real question is whether Gladwell objectively used facts to build a case from the ground up or simply took an interesting story and figured out a lesson to derive from it subjectively. It is easy to cherry pick data and stories to prove a theorem. Statistics can be boring, and stories sell. Granted, Malcolm Gladwell does have statistics sprinkled throughout his stories to back the point he is arguing, but his main persuasive tactic is emotional appeal and narrative. The stories are fascinating but the principles Gladwell derives should not be swallowed whole. It is doubtful that David and Goliath is intended to argue that certain principles will always apply and that everything we understand is backwards, but rather what we think is true is not always true and underdogs and the weak can be stronger than meets the eye....more