David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

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December 20, 2013

Previous Malcolm Gladwell books, OutliersBlink and The Tipping Point, have used psychosocial research to explain little known phenomenon that are often the opposite of what one would expect. His most recent publication, David and Goliath, also focuses on surprising findings from research on the nature of advantages and disadvantages and how so called underdogs can and do succeed. Well written and easy to read, this book can be inspiring to all of us as we face challenges in everyday life and as we seek to make decisions about the future. The introduction reveals how the classic Biblical account of an improbable underdog victory may not be so improbable after all.

The book is divided into three parts: I. The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages), II. The Theory of Desirable Difficulty, and III. The Limits of Power. Each chapter tells stories of a person or persons whose life illustrates the theme of the section. The first section highlights surprising strengths of being an underdog, and how underdogs can succeed even when faced with an opponent of much larger size or ability. Gladwell also illustrates how things that we think of as advantages (such as small class size, increased wealth of parents, and going to the best school possible) can actually be hindrances to an optimal outcome. Tiger mothers would be especially interested to read about why it is not always in the best interest of the child to go to the most prestigious school possible.

The second section deals with childhood difficulties such as dyslexia or loss of a parent and how these struggles can actually make people stronger in ways that lend to career success. Gladwell writes about a trial lawyer, a movie producer and an options trader who all struggled in school as dyslexics but learned compensatory skills that allowed them to be extremely successful in their chosen fields. He relates that 1/3 of highly successful entrepreneurs have dyslexia. Gladwell goes on to tell the story of Dr. Emil Jay Freireich’s miserable childhood and how it enabled him to become one of the groundbreaking childhood leukemia researchers in the 1960’s at the National Cancer Institute. He also discusses how the Nazi Germany bombings of London, England during World War II actually increased the courage of many of the British who endured and survived through the war. There is a fascinating chapter on the Civil Rights Movement and how because the African American community had been so oppressed for over 100 years in America, that their community learned “underdog skills” in dealing with the white majority in their quest for equality during the 1960’s.

The third part of the book, The Limits of Power, is my least favorite, mostly because it details horrific crimes of violence. Detailed in this section are the acts of violence against the Catholics in Northern Ireland by the British Army as well as murders of two young girls and how their families responded to the violence. Through these stories, Gladwell makes the point that even if an organization or a person has the ability to use significant power against another person or group, that often more power or more violence has the opposite effect. He also illustrates that forgiveness, or turning the other cheek, is a much healthier way to respond to violence than retribution, although retribution seems to be the more powerful way to respond. The book ends by recounting the stories of the French Huguenots from Le Chambon who during the Vichy regime, gave refuge to hundreds of Jews that the Nazis were pursuing. “It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish. If you take away the gift of reading, you can create the gift of listening. If you bomb a city, you leave behind death and destruction. But you create a community of remote misses. If you take away a mother or a father, you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force.”

The question that Gladwell does not answer, and likely because there is not one single answer, is why some people who face difficulties and tragedy overcome their past and build a productive future while others who face difficulties end up in prison or with an unproductive life. As in many “why” questions in the field of medicine, there does not seem to be one answer that applies to all people. If you have an interest in reading fascinating stories of people who overcame often overwhelming odds to succeed, this book will be a great read for you. You will be inspired by human spirits that rise above tragedies to succeed, just like David’s triumph over Goliath so long ago.


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