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Sizing Up Goliath: The Upside of Being Underestimated

By Diane Cole

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown and Company. 305 pp.
ISBN: 9780316204361
Purchase this book on Amazon

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.

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