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Title: David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits And The Art Of Battling Giants
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Published: 1 October 2013
Publisher: Allen Lane
Genre: psychology, sociology
Source: Exclusive Books, Canal Walk
In his latest book, David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell sets out to reveal the hidden dynamics that exist between the weak and the strong. Using the biblical account of David and Goliath as his point of reference, Gladwell explores several case studies to uncover the hidden advantages of underdogs and misfits. He pinpoints why underdogs succeed so much more than they should and just how the small outsmart the mighty.
The basis for Gladwell’s book rests on three main theories: that disadvantages can be advantageous (and vice-versa), that certain difficulties can be desirable, and that there are limits to power that those in power are completely oblivious too. The clear, although unexpected, parallels he draws between case studies support each of his theories. What would you think an aspiring scientist attending Brown, a group of starving artists in the 1860’s trying to get noticed, and the US Army’s Military Police have in common? We would think nothing, but Gladwell – with his gift of digging well below the surface of everything – uncovers that each of these scenarios are clear cut cases of people suffering from ‘relative deprivation’ or the ‘Big Fish-Little Pond Effect’.
These discoveries lead to his provocative insights as to why going to a really good school may not be the best option and how the happiest countries in the world can have the highest suicide rates. But most importantly it reveals what kind of an edge an outsider can have by refusing to play a game the way it’s expected to be played. Gladwell teaches us through his first theory that there is no such thing as an advantage that is absolute.
He introduces his second theory on ‘desirable difficulty’ with a verse from the Bible,
I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefor I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. This is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
A more powerful opening I have yet to see. Gladwell begins with the dyslexia enigma and the astounding amount of successful entrepreneurs today who suffer from the learning disability. The total, according to Julie Logan of City University London, is roughly a third. What I love about Gladwell here is that he never chose Richard Branson, the most obvious choice to illustrate his point, as a subject for this case study. He chose other, more obscure subjects. One of these was David Boies. Boies is an excellent example of what ‘desirable difficulty’ is all about, or what is known in this case as ‘compensation learning’. Boies struggled to read as a child and as a result used to memorize the stories his mother read to him. The result was someone who struggled to develop his reading ability but in the process developed a superb memory to compensate for this learning affliction. Boies went on to study law and become a US litigator at the top of the legal profession.
Another account to support the theory of ‘desirable difficulty’ is a study conducted in the early 1960’s by a psychologist named, Marvin Eisenstadt, that would span 10 years and suggest that the loss of a parent at a young age is not entirely disadvantageous. Of the 573 eminent “creatives” (innovators, artists, and entrepreneurs) in the study 45% of them had lost at least one parent by the age of 20. This same occurrence was found by historian, Lucille Iremonger, among England’s prime ministers. 67% of the prime ministers she researched lost a parent by the age of 16. And the same pattern can again be found among American presidents from George Washington all the way to Barack Obama.
Now this is not to suggest that anyone who loses a parent or is orphaned at a young age is better off, the number of orphans in jail would tell us otherwise. What it does say is that depending on whether you suffered a ‘direct hit’, a ‘near miss’, or a ‘remote miss’ with the death of a parent early in your life, this would determine your success later on. More support for this theory is illustrated in the recount of the Blitz during the Second World War and the American Civil Rights Movement.
The last theory is about the limits of power and the misconceptions those in power have about their position. Here again, Gladwell elegantly makes his case with examples from the conflicts in Northern Ireland between the Catholic and the Protestant communities in the late 1960’s; the little town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and their failure to comply with the Germans after France fell in 1940; and more recently an experiment taking place in Brownsville, New York City, called the Juvenile Robbery Intervention Program or J-RIP. Each of these stories presents a case where widely accepted strategies and beliefs of those in positions of power led to the powerful being overthrown, duped, or just given a plain old hard time. Illustrating again that the weak overthrow the mighty because they have been forced to look at the world more attentively, they’ve compensated for their weaknesses and in doing so developed new, unexpected strengths, letting them play old games by new rules.
Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and has been for the last 20 years. His journalistic experience and philosophy to never have someone regret having spoken to him upon reading his work about him or her has developed in his writing a finesse for storytelling. Most often you forget that you are reading as he sweeps you up in the struggles and triumphs of his subjects. Hooking you with carefully curated details and vivid settings. He is in fact Canadian, which in my opinion makes him somewhat of an underdog himself – writing successfully in the big, cut throat city of New York.
Gladwell’s tone is slightly informal, almost conversational. He reveals a certain level of empathy towards each of his subjects, presenting such intricate details about their lives and circumstances that they become almost endearing.
Overall I found David & Goliath both informative and highly entertaining. It challenged my thinking and taught me new things, and in that alone I would call it a success. I also appreciate the 3 biblical verses introducing each theory in the book; it gives each of Gladwell’s theories a fresh perspective.
I would recommend this book to anyone with a curious mind, anybody who has ever thought of himself as an underdog or a misfit. In these pages you will not only discover valuable insights into the advantages of your position, but you will discover courage.