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.