Book Review: ‘David and Goliath’ by Malcolm Gladwell

March 26, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

gladwell_david and goliath

Malcolm Gladwell is one massive brain, and he even looks a little like one. He takes interesting ideas, builds a line of argument, and develops the concept into fascinating, easy-to-read books that also happen to be page-turners. His latest, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, which tackles our misconceptions of perceived advantages and disadvantages, is no different.

The book starts off with a clever take on the Biblical encounter between David and Goliath — you know, story about the little shepherd boy who defeats the massive, unstoppable giant warrior, presumably because he was infused with the power of God.  But oh no, Gladwell says. Contrary to what the Bible would want you to believe, David actually had all the advantages, with experts saying that his sling shot basically had the power and accuracy of a modern gun. Goliath, on the other hand, was large and immobile, and he was probably also nearly blind because of the condition that caused him to grow to such an enormous size.

That fun little introduction paves the way for many more examples to back up Gladwell’s theory that many of our preconceived notions about the world are wrong. In the ensuing chapters, Gladwell challenges the notions that smaller classes are better than bigger ones, that it is better to go to a top school than a mid-tier one, and that dyslexia is always a debilitating disadvantage to have. Is it better to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond? Does being nearly bombed in war make people more frightened or more courageous? Is the three-strike rule in crime prevention and punishment effective? These are just some of the questions he asks, and the answers he comes up with might surprise you.

One of the central pieces to his arguments is the inverted U-curve, which suggests that too much of a good thing will start generating diminishing returns, before eventually leading to negative returns. An example is the link between money and raising children. Being poor obviously makes it difficult to raise kids, and of course having more money will make it easier. But at some stage the richer you become the harder it will be to raise kids because they’re so comfortable and pampered that it’s almost impossible to motivate them to do anything.

As usual, Gladwell finds brilliant case studies with extensive research, humorous anecdotes and personal interviews to support his conclusions. He does oversimplify at times to make his point, but to his credit there are extensive notes and sources of further reading at the end of the book. I was also impressed with the breadth of topics he explores. As mentioned above, he considers things such as the Bible stories, the education system, dyslexia and crime prevention, but he goes even further as the book progresses, taking on the civil rights movement in the US, Northern Ireland and WWII. Some of the links are a little tenuous and I occasionally had to remind myself what the central argument of the book is about, but I guess that’s what happens when you try and fit everything under the same umbrella.

On the whole, this is another strong effort by Gladwell. I didn’t find it as engrossing as say Outliers, and I felt the David and Goliath story was such a fantastic start that the rest of the book felt weaker by comparison, but by the standards of any other book of the same genre this is an excellent read — friendly, informative, witty, well constructed and compelling.


PS: I was drawn to the book after watching Gladwell promote it on Jimmy Kimmel. Here’s the 2-part interview where he talks about the David and Goliath story and the benefits of dyslexia.

Book Review: ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ by Carol Dweck

October 24, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews


I’m generally pretty sceptical when it comes to self-help books because, let’s face it, they all seem life-changingly great when you’re reading them but in reality do absolutely nothing for you after you turn the last page. Oh sure, there might be some vague recommendations you might remember — or even try to put into action — for a few days or weeks, but in the long run you’ll eventually forget about it and gravitate back towards what things were like before.

So naturally, when my sister told me about Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, I went and got myself a copy right away. She hadn’t even read it, but said it was the “it” thing in her part of the world right now, even though the book was published originally in 2006. I guess it sometimes takes a bit of time for these books to take off.

I finished the book a few weeks ago and I am still pretty excited about it. The ideas in this book are unlikely to make you rich and successful, but I genuinely believe it is one of a few self-help books out there that can actually help a lot of people make positive changes in their lives.

You’ll have to read it to get the whole shebang, but the basic concept underlying the book is that people’s lives are dictated by two types of mindsets — the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

People with the fixed mindset essentially believe we are born a certain way and that’s that. We are each given a certain amount of intelligence and talent and natural endowments, and some people are just naturally more gifted than others. Most of these people would probably accept that they could improve at something if they keep working at it, but at the end of the day their abilities are fixed/ limited and it’s not worth the effort to find out.

For fixed mindset people, life is all about proving themselves to others. They are afraid to make mistakes because they are don’t want to be labelled stupid or incompetent, tags they think will permanently define who they are. They tend to take the easy route and avoid risks so they can look good in front of other people. They ascribe to the idea that if people do better than them it is because they are smarter or more gifted, and not because those people worked harder than they did.

For people with growth mindsets, on the other hand, life is all about taking on challenges with a positive attitude, learning from mistakes and growing and improving all the time. At the core of this mindset is the belief that people’s real potentials are unknown. It does not mean that everyone is created equal or that people can be exactly what they set out to be as long as they put their mind to it, just that we should not be afraid to fail and should approach problems and setbacks as challenges to overcome as opposed to seeing them as a reflection of who we are.

One of the earliest examples in the book Dweck uses is children who are given puzzles to solve. Everyone starts off with a simple puzzle they can solve easily, but they are then given a much harder puzzle beyond most of their abilities. The children with fixed mindsets lost interest and give up quickly or want to go back to solving easier puzzles, while the children with growth mindsets get excited by the challenge and keep working — and failing — at the puzzle until they can conquer it.

To demonstrate the mindsets in a real life adult context, Dweck uses the following example (reconstructed from memory). On a particular day, you receive a disappointing mark on an exam, after which you discover that you got a parking ticket. You then call your dear friend to vent, but the friend seems totally uninterested in your problems. How would you react or feel in these circumstances? Fixed mindset people would tend to just think, man, I’m having a crap day, nothing is going right for me. But growth mindset people will tend to think about how they can do better in the exam next time, how they can avoid parking tickets in the future, and whether there is a reason why their friend seems to not care.

In the book, Dweck does tend to lump people into these two categories — fixed or growth — but in reality people are much more dynamic than that, and she does recognise that each person will likely possess a mixture of mindsets on different things so that they can have a fixed mindset when it comes to one thing but a growth mindset when it comes to another. For instance, I think if I keep working at my writing I could one day become an excellent author or screenwriter, but I doubt all the basketball practice in the world could land me in the NBA (or any professional league for that matter).

The first couple of chapters of Mindset go through these fundamental concepts in some detail, and after that Dweck ventures into specific areas, from sporting success to the business world and human relationships. And according to her, pretty much everything you achieve or don’t achieve in life can be boiled down to your mindset.

It helps that the book is written in a very reader-friendly way that can easily be comprehended by younger readers and non-native English speakers alike. It does occasionally get somewhat preachy in tone, which can be off-putting when you are constantly being bombarded with example after example (a few times I was like, “I get it already!”), but then again, maybe some people need that kind of repeated reinforcement before the idea really gets through.

Dweck tries to keep interesting by using lots and lots of real life examples to demonstrate her point, many of which involve celebrities and famous people, as well as some personal examples extracted from life (both positive and negative).

Occasionally the examples are oversimplified, which even she readily admits for the sake of getting her point across. Tennis legend John McEnroe, for instance, is her whipping boy in the sports chapter. With his petulant attitude and tendency to blame everyone else for his failures, McEnroe  is the epitome of everything she despises (about the fixed mindset, that is) and is used numerous times to demonstrate why the fixed mindset limits success. But damn, isn’t McEnroe also one of the most successful tennis players of all time? Surely he didn’t get there on talent alone, and maybe it was his fear of failure — a fixed mindset trait — that drove him to his greatness?


I have a fixed mindset? You’ve got to be kidding me!

By contrast, Dweck gushes over basketball great Michael Jordan, who is praised for his hard work, dedication, humility and respect for teammates — all growth mindset traits. But anyone who follows basketball should know that MJ was no saint and is/was one of the most arrogant, egotistical people around, someone who regularly belittled, tormented and bullied teammates in his heyday. Perhaps his growth mindset should only be applied to honing his own basketball skills? And don’t even get me started on how Jordan has been managing the Charlotte Bobcats (soon to be Hornets again)!

That is not to say Dweck doesn’t employ a lot of insightful examples that do make you think twice about the ways we approach problems in our own lives. The relationship chapter, for instance, shows how mindsets apply to the way people approach relationships and breakups. Are you the kind of person who believes there is a perfect mate out there for you who complements you in every way and will never change, or are you the kind of person who thinks relationships are hard work and effort is imperative for them to grow and blossom?

As a father of two kids under two, the chapter on how to teach children about positive mindsets was particularly interesting to me. Children absorb everything we tell them, and according to Dweck, we should always praise them for their effort as opposed to their intelligence (eg, “You got an A without even studying, you’re so smart!”). This is because children should learn that success comes from hard work, not from their natural gifts. The same thing goes for failure. Do we sugar-coat it with white lies or do we tell them the truth — that if they really want something they need to work harder? That’s the difference between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

In some ways Mindset reinforces the ideas in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers that successful people — the most successful — are a combination of talent and hard work. But Dweck goes even than that further to suggest that many of the most successful people in the world don’t even have the “talent” they are known for, or at least they didn’t have it at the start or until well into their careers (thereby suggesting that some talents are fictions).

The reason I think the book could work for a lot of people is because the ideas put forth in it are at the most basic, fundamental level — that everything comes from your mindset. For example, it doesn’t just tell you to think positive and learn from mistakes; positive thinking is a product of a growth mindset.

That said, this is not to say that Mindset offers a magic switch to success. As Dweck notes in her final chapter, holding onto a growth mindset is a constant challenge full of potential setbacks. It is about reminding yourself that whenever things go wrong you need to adhere to the growth mindset, which she admits is difficult (even for her), but if you persist your mindset can eventually change for the better.

As such, you probably need a growth mindset to be able to fully appreciate the book. If you go into it with a fixed mindset you might think there is no point because the book can’t really change the way you think or the way you live your life. But if you think there is potential for growth and improvement then the book could very well help you accomplish that.


PS: As for me, I’m trying my best to implement the growth mindset into every aspect of my daily life. So far so good, but maybe check back in a couple of years to see if it’s made any difference.

Book Review: “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

December 28, 2009 in Book Reviews

I haven’t read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s earlier bestsellers The Flipping Point and Blink, but many people I know rave about his third book, Outliers.  A friend lent it to me for a couple of weeks and I must admit I am now a fan.

Outliers is a non-fiction book that looks into the way society perceives success.  We tend to think that massively successful people, like the Bill Gates and The Beatles, are outliers, freaks of nature who fall outside the normal realms of possibility for ordinary people.  Gladwell, on the other hand, reminds us that success (and by this I mean phenomenal success), is a product of not only natural talent, but also extreme hard work, fortuitous opportunities, as well as cultural background and upbringing.  To be fair, there isn’t anything entirely novel about the ideas in the book, but it’s the way Gladwell structures and writes it that makes it so unputdownable.

Outliers starts off with a look at the so-called ‘Rosetta’ mystery – why a town of people who live according to their own cultural rules live longer and are more immune to heart problems than everyone else, despite not having more healthy diets or living habits.   It’s a starting point which demonstrates that everything has an underlying reason, and to get to the root of it, you inevitably have to dig deeper.

The book then delves into various aspects of what makes a person super successful.  Of course, there is the natural, innate talent.  There’s no doubt that some people are born better than others at certain things, and that talent is imperative to success.   But there are also plenty of other factors you may not have considered.

For instance, the date you were born.  Gladwell considers the cut-off dates of sports teams for youths, and discovers that the time of the year you were born could dictate whether you are most likely to be just an average athlete, or perhaps provide you with an opportunity to become a star.

Another fascinating chapter looks at the hard work of professional musicians (such as The Beatles) and IT whizzes such as Bill Gates and Bill Joy.  Of course, extreme, prolonged periods of hard work is important to becoming successful, but being at the right place and time to give you that opportunity to work hard is equally important.  Each of The Beatles, Bill Gates and Bill Joy all worked exceptionally hard in their respective fields, but they were also recipients of some extraordinary twists of fate which put them on their paths to stardom.

Then there’s the story of Joe Flom, one of the most successful lawyers in the one of the most successful law firms on Wall Street.  Flom was also one of those guys that appeared to have the world against him, but what initially seemed like bad luck and awful injustice actually led him to becoming the man he is today.

That’s not all. Cultural backgrounds and ancestry are also contributing factors to success, according to Gladwell.  Why are Asian children typically so good at mathematics?  Why are Mid-Western Americans more temperamental?  These are just some of the things Gladwell considers.

There are plenty of tales of success in Outliers, but success stories alone aren’t sufficient – there are also stories of failure that help illustrate Gladwell’s point.  One of them is Chris Lagan, considered by many as the smartest man in America, and yet he never managed to live up to the expectations of his brain.  Another story of failure deals with the catastrophes of Korean Airlines, where Gladwell shows that many of the airline’s plane crashes could have been avoided had the pilots not been so constrained by their culture.

I love Gladwell’s style. He writes in a simple, unassuming manner that communicates the message across in the simplest way possible. He starts off each chapter by telling a story that leaves little clue as to where it is heading.  It grabs your attention as you wonder what he the heck he is trying to get at.  But then, by the end of that intro, he reveals that there’s a long back-story that forms the foundation of the point he is making, and then get down into the nitty gritty of it.  It’s the type of writing I would like to try and emulate.

Of course, you won’t necessarily agree with every point Gladwell makes, and you won’t always find what he is saying interesting.  Sometimes you may think he’s making something out of nothing, or perhaps stretching statistics and coincidences too far.   Every person’s life is full of opportunities, small, big, or life-changing.  Gladwell never comes out and says it – but the essence of what Outliers is getting at is that mega-success is really a product of fate, and being able to make the most of it.

Nevertheless, I found it fascinating reading Gladwell as he tries to connect all the dots and delivers compelling theories and arguments.  When I get a chance, I’m definitely going to check out Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures.

4 out of 5 stars!