Popular 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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I can’t remember which talk it was but I seem to remember Ravi Zacharias discussing similar themes at times. We find all sorts of examples of extrodinary things being done by ordinary people for the cause of the kingdom. The Martyrs Mirror is full of such stories, as is the catholic cannon of saints, and then there are the stories of missionaries like Gladys Aylward. What I think is conspicuously missing from this mans Ted talk is God. There is this repeated biblical theme of the upsidedown kingdom where the first will be last and the last first, where many defeats are actually victories, where the weak are strong. In fact there is of course the story of Gideon where he must reduce the size of his army and trust God to win the battle. There is the story of Moses in Exodus 17:11 where the deciding factor in the battle was wether Moses staff was raised. Isreal’s strength was its covenent with Yahweh. It stood or fell based on that. I think the main point driven home time and again is that we have to trust in God and lean not on our own understanding. In dying to self and living in Christ we trust the Lord for our strength and He is mightier than any corporation, any government, or any circumstance. If what Mr Gladwell is correct about the medical and scientific context of the story, it only reiterates that God knew what he was doing far better than anyone else there.
This presentation by Gladwell was most convincing. It’s always great to discover a new angle on some over-familiar Bible story. I’ve read a couple of his books (“Outliers” and “Blink”) and hope to read this new book. Paul wrote, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are . . .” (1 Cor. 1:27-28). Years ago there was a play called “The Terrible Meek.” If “the meek” are going to “possess the land” (Psalm 37:11, or as quoted by Jesus, “inherit the earth,” Matthew 5:5), then they are indeed to be feared. But getting back to Gladwell’s analysis — perhaps it’s time for Christians to reassess their weaponry and claim dominion over the supposed “powers that be.”
Have you seen this: http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2013/october/malcolm-gladwell-return-christian-faith-interview.html
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Claim dominion, Richard?
Psalm 8:6, Romans 5:17, Revelation 20:6, etc. I certainly hope Christians don’t want to claim servitude and peonage to the “powers that be.”