Last updateWed, 20 Sep 2017 9am


Gladwell's "David and Goliath" takes on underdogs

Author Malcolm Gladwell likes to tell his readers that what they believe to be true often isn’t.

In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success” (Little, Brown, 2008), for example, Gladwell informs us that, contrary to what most people assume, success usually requires more hard work and luck than talent.

In his latest best-seller, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants” (Little, Brown, 2013), Gladwell asserts that being the underdog is often a position of strength. In this case, the trouble with his thesis is that most people probably already suspected that to be the case.

“David and Goliath” contains several interesting anecdotes. Gladwell’s stories of real people in real situations are well worth absorbing. These are not scientific studies, nor does Gladwell pretend that he bases the book on empirical evidence. He simply attempts to buttress his point with a number of real-life case studies.

Gladwell interprets the biblical story of young David and Goliath, the Philistine giant. After studying written accounts of their battle, Gladwell concludes that Goliath never really a chance because he was fighting in an outdated manner against an opponent who was using more modern technology.

“David was a slinger, and slingers beat infantry, hands down,” Gladwell writes.

Modern historians also suspect that Goliath had a serious medical condition that weakened his eyesight. The lesson is that power is sometimes coupled with serious weakness.

Gladwell draws examples from many different spheres of life. He discusses the advantages and apparent disadvantages of smaller class sizes in elementary schools and highlights the benefits of being a medical renegade in a hospital that is attempting to care for people with childhood leukemia in the 1960s. With both examples, Gladwell makes the point that perceived advantages (smaller class sizes, following hospital protocol) may, in fact, be disadvantages.

He also points out that many people with dyslexia end up in positions of power, largely by compensating with and exploiting other strengths they have developed. The same can be said of people who lose their parents at an early age.

In the end, however, “David and Goliath” illustrates what most of us already believe – that some people and groups can overcome their handicaps or even exploit them to succeed in their endeavors. The real story, I suspect, lies in how this actually happens – how is it that some people can succeed against overwhelming odds while others fail? A book that teaches us how to turn everyone into winners would be one worth writing.

Despite minor shortcomings, most book clubs should enjoy reading and discussing Gladwell’s latest. Unlike the iconic David and Goliath, most of the stories he tells are not well-known, and not everyone will agree with his conclusions – no doubt sparking interesting conversations.

Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.

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