Gladwell has much to say about Goliaths in arenas outside the battlefield. Vivek Ranadivé had volunteered to coach his 12-year-old daughter’s middle-school basketball team despite the fact that, as a cricket- and soccer-loving immigrant from India, he knew nothing about basketball. A quick study of the sport, he determined right away that his so-so team had no chance against its rivals if it played the game conventionally. Instead, he drilled them relentlessly in a soccerlike strategy, emphasizing defense over offense while infusing them with team spirit and a can-do attitude. He taught them to play their strengths against the other teams’ weaknesses, and the more they won, the more confidence they gained. “Ranadivé coached a team of girls who had no talent in a sport he knew nothing about—and every one of those things turned out to be his advantage,” Gladwell summarizes. That is, until the status quo, in the form of the rival teams’ coaches and referees, pushed back by essentially barring them from using their unconventional strategy in the final championship game. No, Goliath isn’t always as strong as he seems, but Ranadivé’s team’s final loss demonstrates that the powers behind Goliath can also pull out an unexpected power play.
In still another realm, Gladwell makes a counterintuitive case for prospective college students being wary of universities with Goliath-sized reputations. He tells the tale of a high-achieving Ivy League college student whose desire to be a scientist was derailed, she believes, because she couldn’t compete academically with the even higher-achieving students in her science classes. “She was a Little Fish in one of the deepest and most competitive ponds in the country—and the experience of comparing herself to all the other brilliant fish shattered her confidence,” Gladwell writes. Had she gone to a less prestigious but still academically strong university, both he and she hypothesize, she’d probably have majored in chemistry, rather than switching to a nonscience field. Thus, what seemed like an advantage—going to an Ivy League school—may have been a hindrance after all. Although Gladwell trots out some data to back up his larger contention—“The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them,” he writes—I’m not sure this can be quantified. Rather, prospective college students and their parents should take this as a cautionary tale about the pluses and minuses of highly competitive educational institutions.
Gladwell is less successful in discussing the upside of how individuals compensate against the impact of Goliath-sized negative life events, such as the early death of a parent or disabilities, such as dyslexia. He tells us that being unable to read fluently compelled the noted lawyer David Boies in his student days to devise alternative learning strategies. As a result, he built up formidable listening, memory, and speaking skills, all of which helped propel him to the top of the legal profession. Gladwell quotes research correlating losing a parent before the age of 20 with high achievement in the arts, sciences, or politics.
These are examples of what University of California–Los Angeles psychologists Robert Bjork and Elizabeth Bjork call “desirable difficulties,” a term Gladwell admires but I find objectionable. In my view, grief or disability isn’t a gift, as some uplifting books make them out to be, but unwanted facts of your life that you deal with as well as you can. Hardships can lead to new skills learned and the discovery of an inner resilience and strength, resources that can in turn lead us to personal and career growth, but calling these events and circumstances desirable is so wrongheaded as to be insulting to anyone who has experienced such difficulties.
As with his previous books, another problem with David and Goliath is Gladwell’s emphasis on oversimplified anecdotes and an absence of data to support his assertions. As noted in the reviews mentioned above, he typically uses a single, small-scale study or narrow observation of one individual situation as evidence for sweeping and otherwise generally unproven conclusions about much larger phenomena—whether about the effect of college choice or the factors that led to rebellion and peace in Northern Ireland. But his strengths—his power to instruct and entertain—are evident here, too. His great gift is his insistence that we challenge our assumptions and question conventional thinking. Goliaths are seldom as powerful as they seem, he insists, and their weakest point is perhaps their assumption that they can’t be toppled. The far better bet, he teaches us, is to think like the young David, assuming only that you can refine a skill or launch a strategy so unexpected that you’ll succeed against the odds. In other words, cultivate resilience and innovation and believe in the possibility of change—whether for yourself as a therapist, or for your clients. As a meditation on overcoming, David and Goliath hits its target.
Contributing editor Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, and writes for many national publications, including The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic online, and others. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.