Top positive review
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Entertaining and educating book
on October 5, 2013
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.