***David and Goliath

david-and-goliath, statue, sculpture

photo: Darrel Birkett, creative commons license

By Malcolm Gladwell – The subtitle of this book, Gladwell’s fifth, is “Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.” It’s much better that he titled the book as he did, rather than “an exploration of the inverted U-shaped curve.” Gladwell uses his well-developed skill at mixing anecdote and social science research to create a fascinating series of case studies of how, out on the far edges of that curve, powerful institutions and individuals (Goliaths) with seemingly everything going for them can be undermined or bested by seemingly weaker ones (Davids).

Gladwell maintains that people consistently misjudge these kinds of conflicts, because we don’t recognize the weaknesses of Goliaths and underestimate the possibility that Davids can do the unexpected. By the end of the book, his cases demonstrate not just how those with supposed advantages can fail, but also how they can, paradoxically, end up causing these very failures.

As in his previous books—The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers—Gladwell marshals fascinating case histories to build and extend his argument bit by bit. Often these examples illustrate the wrong-headedness of conventional wisdom. An early example is the entrenched belief that smaller class sizes improve education, while a growing body of literature suggests that the number of pupils makes no difference in the mid-range (the large number of cases under the U) and that very small classes (one tail of the U) can actually be counter-productive: They are too easily dominated by one or two students and do not present sufficient variety of viewpoints.

The book’s middle section talks about people who have overcome difficulties—dyslexia, racial prejudice—and how the experience of those difficulties actually have facilitated their success. (David Boies, the ultra-successful attorney with dyslexia, had to learn to listen very very carefully and remember very very well because reading was so difficult.)

It’s hard to know what generalized conclusions can be derived from this section. Complicating the situation are an array of individual, parental, social, and other mitigating factors, which Gladwell doesn’t address. So while overcoming severe difficulties is remotely possible (many successful entrepreneurs—perhaps a third—turn out to be dyslexic, for example), his argument seems more interesting than instructive. The exception proving the rule.

Finally, Gladwell discusses the limits of power and how people who have wanted to impose order, such as hardliners among the British in Northern Ireland or supporters of three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws, actually devised policies that produced the opposite effect than that they desired. Gladwell makes a broader point here, well worth considering in light of current events: “The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.”

Gladwell is all about extending his arguments to new territory and, in that vein, reading this section, I couldn’t help thinking about the forthcoming presidential election. Will preemptory allegations about the “rigging” of the vote undermine the election’s legitimacy and, therefore, any new administration’s ability to govern?

Reading Malcolm Gladwell is like brain yoga, an opportunity to stretch your thinking. Whether he’s perfectly “right” in some of his theorizing or whether he too carefully cherrypicks his examples to prove his case, more thinking has to be a good thing in these times.

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