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

by Malcolm Gladwell

Years ago, when I was working as a bookseller, a publicist dismissed an idea I had for an author event within a nanosecond of hearing it. I don’t remember what the specific idea was, but I do remember her reason: she had just read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and based her decision on Gladwell’s thesis that we should trust hunches formed in the blink of an eye. So, instead of giving the proposal proper time and consideration, she impulsively rejected it.

That Gladwell’s ideas are so easily and enthusiastically embraced should be viewed with some suspicion. After all, Gladwell’s great skill as a rhetorician is to challenge widely held assumptions. He is a master of working the contrarian perspective. So what does it mean when his own books rocket up bestseller lists and his ideas are eagerly adopted by the zeitgeist mob? One has to imagine Gladwell himself would view such zeal with scepticism – if only they weren’t his ideas.

At least Gladwell’s new book puts the lie to Blink. The thesis of David and Goliath is simple: when it comes to struggles between the powerful and underdogs, things are not always as they seem. Research, Gladwell explains, suggests that David – the Bible’s famous giant slayer – was not just a shepherd boy, but also likely a skilled marksman, accustomed to defending his flock from bears and wolves with his sling, a common weapon at the time, capable of hurtling a rock with a force equivalent to that of a .45 automatic pistol. Research has also suggested that Goliath may have suffered from a brain tumour that caused acromegaly, a disease that manifests in gigantism and degraded eyesight.

Common sense, argues Gladwell, holds that massive Goliath should have handily defeated puny David, but when we dig deeper we discover that Goliath was actually no match for the boy. Thus common sense is flawed. But don’t ask how Gladwell reconciles this position against his Blink thesis, which would advocate that we trust our initial impressions when considering the possible outcome of a battle between a warrior giant and a shepherd boy. Blink, blink: the boy is toast, right? Wrong. And that is reflective of a central problem with Gladwell’s work: he too often shapes and packages his arguments to suit his needs at any given time.

Gladwell uses the David and Goliath parable to launch into an analysis of the dynamics that affect power struggles. He presents the case of a man who, raised in a grossly neglectful home, developed skills to overcome adversity that helped him become a groundbreaking oncologist. He looks at two dyslexics who found ways to skirt their disability and achieve tremendous business success. He takes the reader to Northern Ireland to understand how the British military undermined its own goals through accepted martial tactics. He analyzes how 1960s civil rights workers in America’s south employed strategies to provoke police and generate negative backlash against white authority.

Through these and other examples, Gladwell argues that disadvantage can become advantage, that difficulty can sometimes be desirable, and that power used unwisely can be its own undoing.

These are not revolutionary ideas, and while some of the case studies Gladwell cites are moderately interesting, just as often they come off as bloated and tedious in the telling. Like a patronizing parent, Gladwell laces his text with rhetorical questions and comments – “Isn’t that strange”; “Think about this for a moment”; “I realize that this is a deeply counterintuitive fact” –  as though the reader is just too stupid to understand the simple ideas he is presenting. Reading David and Goliath is like enduring a lecture given by a boor at a cocktail party who is too enthralled by his own middling observations to notice the rolling eyeballs.

And then there’s Gladwell’s contention that being from an abusive home, or suffering a disability, or facing authoritarian oppression can somehow be beneficial in life. This is not just offensive, it’s intellectually negligent. In miserly fashion Gladwell admits that such difficulties actually destroy more lives than they help, but he is too caught up in his own revelations to really let such truths get in his way. Gladwell has identified a handful of stories that suit his arguments. His presentation of them is designed to give the impression that these exceptions are actually the rule.

Many critics before me have accused Gladwell of oversimplification. Gladwell responded to such criticism recently in The Guardian, saying, “If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!” And there you have it. Readers craving complexity and nuance, please look elsewhere. Gladwell is writing for those readers unencumbered with the need to think for themselves.