Book Review: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

One of my sons has the opinion that Malcolm Gladwell oversimplifies sociological issues, and he has a point.  My son would rather read the complex tomes on which Gladwell’s research is based, and that’s fine.  Gladwell does tend to generalize a lot; in fact, that’s what his books are all about: drawing general theories from a plethora of seemingly unrelated circumstances.  On the other hand, I read Gladwell in part because I don’t want to take the time to read those long complicated books.  I’m satisfied with generalizations, at least on some subjects.  I don’t agree with everything or even most of what Gladwell says, but sometimes an inner bell rings; and even when I don’t agree, he often makes me think.

I hadn’t really intended to read another Gladwell book so soon again, but this one sort of fell into my hands, so I went ahead and read it.

David and Goliath has some great sections and some so-so sections.  In some parts, though, he seems to go out of his way to make his arguments unnecessarily complicated by switching back and forth between various stories he uses as examples.  A book like this should be more straightforward, and not shifting all over the place among different points of view.

Gladwell uses the Bible story of David and Goliath as a metaphor to illustrate that power and ability are not always what they seem.  Sometimes those who at first appear more talented, strong, and able do not win, and those who appear deficient in some way can turn their seeming inadequacies into advantages.  Theorists posit that Goliath, though huge and muscular, was slow, ponderous, and almost blind due to genetic abnormalities, while David, though much smaller, was light of foot and without the encumbrance of armor.  Furthermore, David’s prowess with a sling gave him a profound tactical advantage over his sluggish opponent.

According to Gladwell, seeming weakness and a disadvantaged background can give you a tenacity that those with more privileges and an easier path do not possess.  He uses as example a coach who knew nothing about basketball leading a team of small, short girls to a state championship and Lawrence of Arabia leading the Arabs to victory over the Turks during World War I.  As I read this I thought of my own sons, all of whom are athletic, brilliant, and successful in the endeavors to which they have committed themselves.  They began, one would think, with a number of disadvantages.  We were never well off financially in their early years; we had to struggle to pay the bills.  Additionally, they were the subjects of discrimination in the Greek-language public schools they attended in Thessaloniki, and often got into fights just through the mere fact of being half-American.  However, these circumstances made them incredibly self-reliant.  One who was academically inclined won a full four-year scholarship to an Ivy League university.  Another, also mentally brilliant, honed himself into an amazingly versatile athlete.  Another chose the company he wanted to work for and got a position seemingly without effort.  If they want something they go after it with all their intellect, sinew, and spirit, no holds barred, no questions asked.

Another section of the book relates the story of a woman who is intensely interested in science.  She receives top grades in high school and has her choice of several universities.  She chooses an elite eastern university, does not do well, drops out of the science curriculum, and gets a degree in liberal arts.  Her mistake was her choice of university, says Gladwell.  In the Ivy League school she was a very small fish in a very big pond, while in her second or third choice of university she would have had less competition and more opportunity to excel.  As a comparison, I thought of when I send my stories out to magazines and anthologies.  When I send to the best ones, I am in competition with many more writers than if I send them to less-known magazines that pay less.  But here is where Gladwell and I diverge.  Just because I get rejected more often at the larger markets does not make me try them less often.  The possible rewards are worth the rejections.  Writers have to have thick skins; rejections are part of the game.  I’ll suffer hundreds – nay, thousands – of rejections to meet my goals.  Once I sent a story to a small press magazine and it snapped it up right away.  Ever after I wondered if the big magazines might have liked it just as much.  These issues are often complicated and differ with each individual circumstance.

The chapter of the book on the impressionist painters of France in the 1800s and their bypassing of the hallowed Salon where all famous artists displayed their work in favor of opening their own gallery reminded me of the current trend of self-publishing.  These painters – including some of the greatest artists of the era – could not get past the gatekeepers of their time, and so their solution was to display their paintings on their own.  So simple, so elegant, and yet so audacious.  Writers are faced with the same decision today between going through the heavily guarded and conservative traditional route or launching their own imprint on self-publishing channels.

Another section goes into near-miss situations.  People who approach death and survive often develop a debonair attitude that makes them thrill to risks.  This happened to me when I took off on the road in the 1970s across the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent.  After I survived a few close calls it seemed I no longer tried to avoid dangerous circumstances.  I often walked right into them, in fact, oblivious to the peril, because of the inner rush when I survived.

Lastly, Gladwell goes into the effectiveness of power wielded by forces such as the police and the military.  It has its limits, of course, but this long section is the one that became convoluted due to the complex mixing of examples.

All in all, it was an interesting if imbalanced book, but I still consider Outliers Gladwell’s best work.

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