Open Book

Sizing Up Goliath

The Upside of Being Underestimated

Magazine Issue
January/February 2014
Malcolm Gladwell, David & Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, took as its subject “the moment of critical mass” that allows trends, fads, and ideas to spread as quickly and ubiquitously as uncontainable viruses. Published in 2000, that book’s engaging mix of social science research and marketing case histories put the phrase “tipping point” on everyone’s lips. Ironically, it was a tipping point for Gladwell, launching his career as one of the most popular nonfiction authors in English.

Five years later, Gladwell’s next book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, focused on the science and psychology of intuitive thinking and when and why going with your gut can sometimes yield better decisions than relying on logic and reason. Not everyone agreed with his optimistic take on the benefits of snap judgments and gut instinct (see my review “Don’t Blink: Two Skeptical Looks at Intuition” in the January/February 2011 issue of the Networker), but the critical consensus was once again overwhelmingly positive, and the book appeared on numerous bestseller and best-of-the-year lists. His 2008 and 2009 books—Outliers and What the Dog Saw—were also New York Times bestsellers.

Now comes David and Goliath. Once again, the book is on the New York Times bestseller list, but the tide of critical opinion seems to have reached something of a, well, tipping point.

In the New York Times, Joe Nocera declares Gladwell’s latest book to be “at once deeply repetitive and a bewildering sprawl.” In the New Republic, London School of Economics emeritus professor John Gray dismisses Gladwell’s case histories as “a species of inspirational [nonfiction] in which fidelity to reality is of secondary importance, if not a hindrance.” And in The Wall Street Journal, psychologist Christopher Chabris concludes that Gladwell’s latest book “teaches little of general import, for the morals of the stories it tells lack solid foundations in evidence and logic.”

In yet another ironic wrinkle, the response to Gladwell’s latest effort is again mirroring its content. This time, it’s as if Gladwell has morphed from an underdog championed like a darling adolescent David to a monolithic, menacing Goliath at whom it’s now trendy to sling insults. As we learn from David and Goliath, one of the hardest transformations to negotiate is this move from the role of the underdog David to that of a giant-sized hero. (In the Bible, David was eventually crowned king, becoming a powerful figure himself. Then King David’s own son Absalom eventually rebelled against him.)

Winning as an underdog by overcoming things like personal adversity, physical disability, historical injustice, or just bad odds is the major theme of David and Goliath. Each chapter focuses on a different case history, with each illustrating the qualities and strategies (psychological, intellectual, behavioral) that made it possible for underdog sports teams and social causes to triumph. By the book’s end, we can see that—although a slightly different mix of strategies was required in each situation—four essential qualities are common to all triumphant underdogs: counterintuitive (as opposed to cookie-cutter) thinking; a resolute determination synonymous with outsized persistence; a knack for refining compensatory strategies to make up for a host of physical, intellectual, academic, or power deficits; and a canny recognition that being without power, whether political or physical, affords the advantage of allowing you to make your moves beneath the radar and win, like David, through unexpected means.

Gladwell begins with a brilliant analysis of the biblical story of David and Goliath. Goliath’s size, weaponry, and reputation made him the obvious favorite to prevail over an untested youth armed with only a slingshot. But wait, says Gladwell: it was precisely because Goliath expected the obvious that he was caught off guard by someone so unlike him. In addition, a close reading of the biblical text reveals that Goliath was probably so hampered by his body armor and size that he lacked the agility to get out of the way of the high-velocity stone David targeted at his unarmored forehead. “The duel reveals the folly of our assumptions about power,” Gladwell writes. “What the Israelites saw from high on the ridge was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is a powerful lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem.”

Nor are the weak as powerless as they might at first seem. Gladwell recounts how in 1963, civil-rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, used his public-relations savvy to make civil-rights demonstrations appear far larger than they were to reporters and photographers by timing them to coincide with the end of the workday, when people were heading home and crowding the sidewalks anyway. Gladwell shows how, despite their overwhelming numbers, British soldiers occupying Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1970 couldn’t quell the resistance of the angry, rioting Catholic minority. “The British made a simple mistake,” Gladwell writes. “They fell into the trap of believing that because they had resources, weapons, soldiers, and experience that dwarfed those of the insurgent elements that they were trying to contain, it did not matter what the people of Northern Ireland thought of them.” Reading this, it’s hard not to think of the Vietnam War and many other conflicts.

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.


Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.