David and Goliath

  • Malcolm Gladwell
  • Little, Brown and Company
  • 320 pp.

The author of The Tipping Point looks at how an underdog's disadvantages and adversity may lend themselves to triumph.

Joseph Heller did it with “Catch-22.” Tom Wolfe did it with the “right stuff.” Malcolm Gladwell did it with the “Tipping Point.” In popularizing the term in his book of the same name, Gladwell joined a very short list of writers whose work has injected a new word or phrase into the language.

It also sets a high bar for the writer. Unfortunately, in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell often doesn’t meet his own admittedly rarefied standard.

Obviously, Gladwell doesn’t claim to have invented the David and Goliath story or its use as a metaphor, but he does make a convincing case to turn it on its ear. In short, he demonstrates that Goliath was the real underdog in the famous battle with the smaller David. He then goes on to focus on several stories, some about individuals, some about military strategy or personal situations, to show that weaknesses can be disguised strengths, and overcoming serious misfortune can be the making of a highly successful person.

The book is at its strongest, and most thought provoking, in these early pages.

But there’s a danger when even the best of writers decides to turn a magazine article into a book. David and Goliath is the extension of a 2009 Gladwell piece in The New Yorker. That article, “How David Beats Goliath: When Underdogs Break The Rules,” makes many of the book’s same points with some of the same examples. As a result, the 320-page book sometimes feels a little padded by comparison.

Gladwell remains an excellent writer. In the preface to an earlier work he suggests, “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.” Given those parameters, I’d say Gladwell’s strong writing almost always hits the mark.

In some cases, though, Gladwell works a little too hard to make an example support his thesis. David and Goliath is at its weakest toward the end, perhaps indicating Gladwell was running out of steam. He looks at two families whose daughters were senselessly and horribly killed. In one case, a distraught father named Mike Reynolds channeled some of his grief into helping create California’s Three Strikes law. Gladwell argues that the law didn’t actually deter crime. The law was later scaled back, viewed by many as a failure.

Gladwell contrasts that outcome with that of a mother, Wilma Derksen, whose daughter was tortured and killed gruesomely. Unlike Reynolds, Derksen didn’t seek revenge, and moved toward some kind of forgiveness of the killer.

The author acknowledges that both “acted out of the best of intentions and chose a deeply courageous path … The difference between the two was that they felt differently about what could be accomplished through the use of power.”

Here’s Gladwell on the ultimate lesson learned: “A man employs the full power of the state in his grief and ends up plunging his government into a fruitless and costly experiment. A woman who walks away from the promise of power finds the strength to forgive — and saves her friendship, her marriage, and her sanity. The world is turned upside down.”

Well, I’m not buying that entirely. One could argue that even an imperfect attempt to effect real change is a noble quest with a positive effect on the advocate and those around him. Further, it’s not crystal clear that Three Strikes was a complete failure. As Reynolds points out, “Back then, we were seeing twelve murders a day. Today, it’s about six.” Turning the other cheek is admirable, too, and may or may not have “saved” the rest of Derken’s life, but I don’t think the situations represent the perfect parallel required for Gladwell’s argument.

Gladwell also makes the case that some challenges can be leveraged into strengths. He tells the story of noted lawyer David Boies, whose dyslexia forced him to memorize long passages of legal arguments. It also, Boies says, helped him to detect when a witness was not telling the truth because he is able to detect what he claims are subtle changes in voice when a person is lying. Dyslexia compelled Boies to develop compensatory strengths others might not have worked so hard to attain. His acute ability to listen, Boies and Gladwell believe, became a foundation for his success.

But while we’re on the subject of conjecture, what would Boies have become had he not been dyslexic? With his drive and intelligence, perhaps he could have risen even higher in his profession? Or excelled in something completely different? Or is Gladwell’s implicit assessment correct? Did dyslexia propel Boies and others like him? Of course, we can’t know.

Gladwell also offers anecdotal evidence that an unusually large percentage of entrepreneurs have some form of dyslexia. That’s interesting, but the author sometimes downplays the serious obstacle dyslexia presents to many others. He does say no one should “want” dyslexia, and even those who have thrived despite it say they hope their children are not dyslexic. Gladwell also acknowledges that a disproportionally large portion of the prison population is dyslexic.

But in making his case for the “advantage” of these and other challenges most would perceive as obstacles to success, Gladwell arguably overplays positive stories like that of Boies to serve his purpose.

Maybe Gladwell is correct. Maybe some misfortunes do indeed enhance the capabilities of some people. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t as smart or driven as attorney David, or as brave and confident as ancient David. Gladwell’s new book suffers in part because too often he assumes most of us are worthy company for either.

Michael Causey is past president of Washington Independent Writers. His fiancé once came close to going on a date with Gladwell. It did not happen and, therefore, it did not influence this review.


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