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

NY: Little, Brown, 2013.

Gladwell has become somewhat famous for his ability to puncture popular preconceptions, and this fifth volume continues that tradition. This one focuses on the ways in which presumed underdogs seem so often to come out on top.

Whether it’s the Viet Cong fending off both the French and the Americans for twenty years, or the impoverished Catholics of Belfast holding their own against the might of the British Army, or the civilian citizens of London not only declining to succumb to panic and terror during the Blitz but actually showing a boost in morale. And it’s mostly because of misunderstandings about how power and advantage work.

The title, of course, comes from the Bible story about the shepherd boy with the sling and the heavily armed Philistine warrior. I did a degree in ancient history many years ago, one course of which was an introduction to classical methods of warfare, and our professor explained to us then what Gladwell points out here — that slingers (think of them as artillery) were well known in the ancient world to be superior to infantry, just as experienced infantry could usually defeat cavalry. The Romans certainly knew this, but generations of Sunday School teachers obviously don’t. David wasn’t overcoming Goliath’s strength — he was avoiding coming into contact with it, dealing with the enemy from a comfortable distance. The big Philistine never had a chance.

How did the leaders of the civil rights movement in the ‘60s finally defeat Bull Connor and those like him? How did Br’er Rabbit beat wily Mr. Fox — especially when, in this case, he had police dogs? By changing the rules of engagement, that’s how. If a small class in school is better than a too-large class, is a really small class even better? If being wealthy is better than being poor, is being really wealthy even better than that? The answer to both is “No,” and that’s because of the “inverted U curve.” How did a basketball team of nerdy 12-year-old girls in Silicon Valley defeat almost an entire league of avid and talented players? By substituting attitude and aggressive full-press tactics for the dribbling and shooting talents they lacked.

How did the Impressionists overcome the critical resistance of the French art world? By becoming Big Fish in a Small Pond instead of Small Fish in a Big Pond. How can it be that so many multimillionaire entrepreneurs are dyslexic? Because they learn to substitute other skills for the inability to read fluently. Can a disadvantage have a positive influence? Not everyone survives overwhelming odds early in life — but those who do tend not to have major problems with anything else the world throws at them.

Gladwell has a very fluid style and his stuff is always a pleasure to read, but in addition he has the ability to call to your attention things that may seem obvious once they’ve been pointed out to you. Note that none of the insights he makes available here are original with him. But he holds them up and says, “Look at this. Why does this happen? How did they manage this? Well, here’s what the answer seems to be. . . .” His approach is not academic at all — and he has been unfairly criticized for this by people who don’t understand who his audience is meant to be. In any case, he’ll hold your attention until you run out of book and he’ll entertain you while you learn. And you will wait attentively for the next one.


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