David and Goliath

If you visit Gladwell.com, you’ll find a succinct description of Malcolm Gladwell‘s three most recent best-selling books:

“In The Tipping Point Gladwell changed the way we understand the world. In Blink he changed the way we think about thinking. In OUTLIERS he transforms the way we understand success.”

david-and-goliathI’ve just finished his newest — “David and Goliath” (released last fall) — and I have to say it’s likely to make me think counter-intuitively a little more frequently in terms of seeing how apparent advantages may really be disadvantages and vice versa.

Starting with the Biblical tale of the warrior Goliath and the shepherd boy David, who slays his well-armed but slow-moving adversary with a single rock from a slingshot, Gladwell goes on to tell nine stories about “underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants.”

For the most part, it’s entertaining and illuminating. Gladwell writes about an Indian immigrant who grew up playing cricket and soccer and who finds himself coaching a team of 12-year-old girls in a youth basketball league — never having played the game himself. The rookie coach figures out a style of play that will keep his low-skilled players competitive and winds up leading them to a national tournament.

In subsequent chapters, Gladwell turns various assumptions on their head:

— Are smaller class sizes necessarily more conducive to academic success in U.S. schools?

— Are college students better off attending a great university where it’s hard to stand out from the crowd or a less prestigious institution where they can rise to the top?

— Is having dyslexia an automatic predictor of academic and career struggles? Are there ways to compensate and excel despite the disability?

— Is power absolute? Are there limits that work against the oppressor?

— Does Brer Rabbit-type trickery work in the modern age to outfox real-life authorities?

— Did California’s groundbreaking “three strikes” law actually reduce crime?

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

These are interesting questions and Gladwell does reasonably well presenting observations and findings that often run counter to what most Americans would believe to be true. As the book wears on, though, it feels like the arguments are a little thinner, the anecdotal evidence not as convincing, the research findings more open to question.

I give Gladwell credit for pulling together disparate characters and (mostly) entertaining narratives in support of his theme. I appreciate his effort to make us think differently about obstacles and disadvantages. In the end, though, I have to rate this a less successful book than “Blink” or “The Tipping Point.” (I haven’t read “Outliers.”)

Would I recommend it? Sure. It’s a quick and entertaining read (275 pages in hardcover) and it does make you question your assumptions. There’s value in that, even if a couple of examples fall short of buying his argument.

Photograph: famousauthors.org




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