I am a latecomer to the ranks of Malcolm Gladwell fans so forgive me if I am a bit overly enthusiastic. I found a copy of the audio version of David and Goliath on my desk just before Thanksgiving. I wasn’t sure if I had ordered it or my husband had but I needed something for the long drive home, on the day before Thanksgiving, when the weather had turned bad, so I popped it into the CD player. I was entranced by the end of the drive. (Graciously, I allowed my husband to have it first since he had ordered it, but then I listened to it morning and night on my drive until I’d finished it.)
“David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants. By “giants,” I mean powerful opponents of all kinds – from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression. Each chapter tells the story of a different person – famous or unknown, ordinary or brilliant – who has faced an outsize challenge…”
Gladwell begins the book with the titular story of David and Goliath but explains it a bit differently than you might expect. David and Goliath has long been told as a story where the puny underdog wins against the vastly stronger and more dangerous giant through a miracle.
Gladwell contends that “ . . . we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.”
Goliath was a giant warrior, well prepared for close hand to hand combat with mighty weapons. He didn’t expect a small and agile shepherd boy to fell him from a distance with a slingshot then dash in for the kill once he was down.
Gladwell uses stories from distant history mixed with modern history. He compares some seemingly disparate stories and shows us how the outcome can be explained by similarities you might not realize, as in the stories of Vivek Ranadive, who ran a successful software company, and decided to coach his daughter’s junior basketball team, and Lawrence of Arabia. In these two stories, not having the same advantages as someone else forces each protagonist to approach his challenge in a totally fresh way.
“Ranadive coached a team of girls who had no talent in a sport he knew nothing about. He was an underdog and a misfit, and that gave him the freedom to try things no one else even dreamt of.”
Likewise, T.E. Lawrence was a poet, not a military man, but he used what he had.
“There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources – and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former.”
Gladwell covers so much in this book - the advantages of disadvantages (and the disadvantage of advantages) as well as the theory of desirable difficulty and the limits of power. He explains the U curve and class size. He talks about college choice and whether you will be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond.
One of my favorite chapters in the book is when Gladwell explains the principle of being a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond using the French Impressionists creating their own art show instead of sticking with the giant salon where they were lost in the crowd, and often laughed at. I think this is a great story which also illustrates my belief that we need to create the art we care about and then find the market rather than trying to conform to what we think others want.
I also particularly enjoyed his take on how dyslexia can affect how people approach challenges in a positive way and his points on how money makes parenting easier, but only up to a point, where it actually begins to make it harder.
I was absolutely fascinated by this book. There is a thread of persistence and audacity, being willing to face down the dreaded because you have nothing left to lose, that I have identified with at times in my life.
Gladwell’s reading was also particularly effective on the audio version. I recommended this to my writer’s group on the basis that the stories Gladwell tells are a great possible insight into character motivation, teaching you about the psychology of a possible character through stories. I think it’s also just fascinating insight into who people are and the way they function and thrive.