I always look forward to a new book by Malcolm Gladwell; he consistently provides readers with awe-inspiring stories, profound insights and provocative ideas. Though some chapters piqued my interest more than others, overall "David and Goliath" successfully engages with its meditations on the archetypal battle between underdogs and top dogs.
Gladwell begins with a recap of the legendary tale of David and Golliath, introducing his main theme: some perceived disadvantages have unsung advantages while perceived advantages encompass overlooked disadvantages. An early chapter about a gritty middle school girl's basketball team contains intimations of a self-help manual but, when the author moves to an explanation of why being a being a big fish in a small pond predicts high achievement better than being a little fish in a big pond, it becomes clear that Gladwell's interest extends beyond simple templates for success.
The book probes into the nature of the underdog and tells the stories of fascinating and amazingly accomplished people: lawyer David Boies, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad and leukaemia researcher Jay Freireich to name a few. It shows that stereotypical handicaps like learning disabilities and deprived childhoods can require a person to adapt to the world in ways that later give him/her the upper hand in professional life. Contrarily, those who have sailed through childhood enjoying every good fortune often become less well-equipped to deal with life’s inevitable challenges.
This book begins with the classic tale of David versus Goliath. Traditionally interpreted as courage triumphing over great odds, Gladwell shows that this actually wasn't the case. Instead, it was in all likelihood Goliath who was in trouble. As anyone who's played Total War games knows, archers beat infantry and David was an archer with his sling. If he missed, he could just outrun Goliath, turn around and shoot again. Rinse and repeat until Goliath is dead. The huge, mighty, fearsome fighter Goliath was deadly, but there as a limit to his power. Which is essentially the theme of this book. Power, and in particular negative power, has limitations.
In particular Gladwell dwells on the counter-intuitive "inverted U" that underlies a lot of relationships. For example, adding punishment decreases crime, but is there a point at which applying too much punishment increases crime? Or being bombed is bad, but being nearly bombed can actually bolster one's moral as you realize you can survive something awful. Having smaller classes is good, but at some point smaller classes become worse for education. Going to an Ivy league school is good for some, but many more would benefit from not going to a top-level school. Gladwell also discusses how difficulties and challenges generate opportunities for some individuals to flourish. The harsh reality of losing a parent makes a minority of children even stronger, or at least more successful, than if they had never lost a parent.
This counter-intuitive kind of thinking is classic Gladwell, and it makes for an interesting yet informative read. There are a couple of issues I have with the book. First, there's more anecdotes and less science than in his previous books. Second, while he mentions it, he generally glosses over the reality that for most children, hardships cause more harm than good. Even if some diamonds emerge from that pressure, it's a costly path to success (which is why it can generate tough survivors who flourish later in life). For every business tycoon who comes from a rough start, there's a whole lot more kids who weren't able to get past that rough start and end up staying in rough shape for life. Those issues aside, this remains a good book. It's well-written and easy to get through. There are some footnotes that get in the way, and there's actually quite a lot of good information in the appendixes that I wish made it into the text. But it's up to the reader how much they want to pay attention to these items, so they don't necessarily take away from the reading experience. There's a lot of interesting lessons to take away from this book. Perhaps my favorite one is how to successfully coach a "different" basketball team. When I read about it, it immediately struck me as obvious in hindsight, but again, that's the joy of this book and Gladwell in particular. Making the hidden obvious is his specialty, which makes it obvious to me that this is a good book worth recommending. 4 to 4.5 stars out of 5.
on August 19, 2014
I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell and his way of digging deeper into the data to find correlations so many of us miss. This book shows us how bigger is not always better, esp. if you have an opponent who's smart enough to detect your weaknesses. The Bible story of David & Goliath is not nearly as impressive when Gladwell explains how warfare worked back then, and you realize that it was customary for the missile-slingers to go after the heavily-armoured and armed soldiers like Goliath. There's another great chapter on how getting in the best school isn't always best for the student; and how the inverted U-curve demonstrates that there's point where classroom sizes are too small, and where they're too large; kids are best served in the classrooms in-between, regardless of how fancy and financed the "better" schools with much smaller classrooms are.
I never get tired of Malcolm Gladwell.
This latest literary offering of Gladwell challenges the reader to take a second look at situations before accepting the inevitable. Counter-intuitiveness or going against the norm is the guiding principle proclaimed in this collection of personal testimonies about people who dared to think outside the box in typical David vs. Goliath situations. When facing a dire health issue, or an infinitely stronger opponent, or a lack of resources to stave off disaster, or just plain down on one's luck there is a natural tendency for many of us to flee rather than fight and overcome. To challenge that disposition of cowardly despair in the midst of impossible odds, Gladwell has us revisit the biblical tale of David and Goliath on a couple of different levels. Each one points out that fear of an opponent or obstacle is often baseless when seen in the light of reality and relativeness. Goliath, as that indomitable giant, really was a weakling ready to be knocked down to size through the ingenious resourcefulness of a shepherd boy trusting in his sling and God. Everything about this story goes against conventional thinking, which is where Gladwell believes more of us should find ourselves when in trouble: turning a problem into a solution by going where no-one else has gone before. In the subsequent chapters, the reader is introduced to a photographer, a cancer specialist, a lawyer, and a human-rights activist who overcame daunting challenges - some personal, others environmental - by learning to stand up to seemingly impossible odds. Each had to overcome a fear that they would be defeated in their quest to overcome a learning disability, or a violent temper, or limited support for a cause. As Gladwell shows, big and powerful does not always win the day. These stories are inspirational in how they follow through to that moment of triumph when an unique strategy turns the problem on its head and makes believers out of skeptics. Timing and creativity are everything when it comes to making a little bit of sustaining love overcome a whole pile of destructive power.
Gladwell is an easy to read author, and very thoughtful about life in the book. It enables the reader to challenge the standard conceptions that dominate life in a very interesting way. As I found success in my life I knew that there was more to my attitude than just being curious and detail oriented. Gladwell educates uses stories to help the the reader to understand the basis of causality and suggest a new viewpoint on assessing situations. This is a great read!
on December 30, 2013
There is nothing worse than seeing a live performance of your favorite recording artist and sensing that the magic is in the past.
This book's premise could have been fully explored in a 30 page article. I believe that Mr. Gladwell needed to write this book to fulfill contractual obligations rather than because he was overly inspired by the subject matter. It happens.
It was not tightly written nor particularly well reasoned. There was much repetition, seemingly to fill space. It reads like a second draft.
I loved Outliers and was therefore hoping that the thesis articulated in the story of David and Goliath would be deeply and richly explored. I was disappointed and half way through, I considered putting it down. I didn't; hoping that my trust in the author would be redeemed. Not this time.
on December 8, 2013
The book presented interesting anecdotal ideas but I was left wanting more details on how to apply the ideas. As well, the book mostly lacked data evidence for the ideas presented.
For the price of the book, I wanted a bit more. In particular, how often does David defeat Goliath in the real (modern) world?
I have read and reviewed all of Malcolm Gladwell's previous books and consider him to be among the most talented and energetic of journalists, with most of his work featured in The New Yorker. He also has superb storyteller skills. His "discoveries" tend to be well-known to those knowledgeable about the given subject. In The Tipping Point, for example, he discusses a phenomenon previous characterized by Michael Kami as a "trigger point" and later by Andrew Grove as an "inflection point." Or consider "the secret of success" that he discusses in The Outliers. For decades, Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University have been conducting research on peak performance. He duly acknowledges sources such as Ericsson and should be praised for attracting greater attention to the subjects he discusses. That is Gladwell's great value.
However, in his latest book, David and Goliath, he demonstrates faulty reasoning, such as what Christopher Chabris characterizes as "the fallacy of the unexamined premise." He also has problems with causal relationships and this is not the first time that Gladwell confuses "because" with "despite." For example, consider his assertion that attorney David Boies's great success is largely explained by the fact that he is dyslexic. Overcoming learning disabilities may have been - for Boies as well as countless others -- what Warren Bennis and David Thomas characterize as a "crucible" that strengthens and enlightens those who emerge from it.
In this context, I am reminded of the fact that one of the world's most renowned authorities on ADHD, Edward ("Ned") Hallowell, is an author of countless books and articles on the subject, a child and adult psychiatrist, and a New York Times bestselling author. Also, he is a graduate of Harvard College and Tulane Medical School as well as the founder of The Hallowell Centers in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and New York City. Are these great achievements because or despite the fact that Hallowell is ADHD?
In his latest book, Gladwell relies too heavily on insufficient evidence or, worst yet, only on evidence that supports his premise. Yes, peak performers such as Boies, Richard Branson, Brian Glazer, David Neeleman, and Charles Schwab overcame severe learning disabilities and yes, 12 of 44 U.S. Presidents (including the first and the current) lost their father at an early age. There is no shortage of examples of women as well as men who have a "story of success" despite all manner of physical, social, and/or economic limitations.
Gladwell is at his best when sharing what he has learned after exploring subjects of special interest to him. As indicated, I admire his skills as a journalist and storyteller. What I view as his defective reasoning skills detract from the presentation of some (not all) if the material in David and Goliath, hence the Four Star rating.
This is an interesting book. I did feel that Gladwell might be stretching his analogy a bit too much in some areas to make his arguments fit his thesis. However, overall, I appreciate the different perspectives he offered on how to evaluate the world.
on November 5, 2015
A fascinating and insightful discourse on the misconceptions arising out of perceived advantage and how an apparent disadvantage can be turned into an advantage with determination and a bit of luck. The book is aptly titled after the most iconic example of a mismatch but Gladwell pillories the belief that David was at a disadvantage and how, in fact, poor old Goliath didn't have a chance. Gladwell, in his typical humorous and pithy fashion, give one example after another of unlikely people with severe handicaps turning those disadvantages into brilliant success. A delightful read which should give hope to the disadvantaged who may not be disadvantaged at all.