David & Goliath: Have We Misunderstood a Classic Biblical Story?

la-092452-ca-0122-gladwell4-jpg-20131003Popular author Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best-selling non-fiction writers of our time. His insights into how we think, make decisions and process complex data are intriguing to most who’ve read his books. He can be exasperating, however, when he glosses over big and important issues to make a central point, something that he does quite often.

In his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, the bestselling writer tells us we’re living in a world where the weak are really strong. Gladwell argues that many of our disadvantages can easily become advantages. Even something as debilitating as dyslexia can be a road to success for an ambitious individual.

“The one trait in a lot of dyslexic people I know is that by the time we got out of college, our ability to deal with failure was very highly developed,” says Gary Cohn, a man of humble origins whose bold decisions took him to the top of the U.S. financial industry. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without my dyslexia,” he says.

Gladwell, a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, has sold hundreds of thousands of books explaining what are seemingly counterintuitive and complex arguments about psychology and the social sciences to a mass audience. In this book he clearly wants to show us how our thinking about power, influence and success is often misguided and wrong.

“We have, I think, a very rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is,” Gladwell writes. “When we see the giant, why do we automatically assume the battle is his for the winning?”

The key story to Gladwell’s narrative and title is the famous biblical story of David and Goliath. This book is filled with a large cast of “Davids” and that range from sports to art, from politics to civil-rights. The criticism, justly made in my view, is that Gladwell tends to create a thesis and then uses all kinds of data and stories to support his simple thesis, some of which doesn’t work well. The book is ultimately about the strategies underdogs use to overcome obstacles. This is the strength of his book and also its obvious weakness.

One reviewer wrote:

His chapter on the damage caused to many bright students by the most exclusive universities should be required reading for every parent worrying about which college a son or daughter should attend. Gladwell argues persuasively that the most prestigious colleges end up frustrating the ambitions of many bright students who would be better off at mid-level universities. But that chapter is preceded by a lengthy discussion on class size in the public schools of the Connecticut community of Shepaug Valley that reads like a superficial treatment of a much larger policy discussion — and that time and again condescends to the reader.

All-in-all Malcolm Gladwell is an interesting thinker who has developed an art – taking the simple and applying it adroitly to the extremely complex. This method often works well and when he fails it is never for lack of effort. When he succeeds, and he does so in the larger narrative he wants to tell us here, his thesis is famously simple and immensely useful, even highly motivating. Who can, after all, forget the term “tipping point” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell? It is a term used wisely across our culture now.

Gladwell delivered a 15-minute TED talk on the David and Goliath story that I found intriguing. So far as I can tell it is historically accurate. Watch it if you are intrigued.

What if we lived in a world where the weak were really strong, and all of our disadvantages could easily become advantages? Gladwell sets you up to think about this question here.

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