David and Goliath

I recently heard Malcolm Gladwell at the Catalyst Conference. While it was not the first time I had heard him speak there, I was really looking forward to hearing him talk about his new book, David and Goliath. Blink was a fascinating read and I have yet to read What the Dog SawOutliers or Tipping Point. So, I was excited for his talk as well as getting my hands on a copy of his book.

David and Goliath is actually not a book about David and Goliath (from 1 Samuel 17), rather it is about “Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.” In the introduction, Gladwell suggests we have understood the story of David and Goliath incorrectly. He argues that we identify David as the underdog with inferior abilities who pulls the miraculous upset over the giant Goliath when the details of the story actually argue the opposite. He suggests David actually has the advantage—as long as he plays on his terms not Goliath’s. David does and the giant falls. Gladwell’s central argument is that things that seems like disadvantages can actually be advantages and visa versa. Therefore, we might want to rethink the way we understand the story of the underdog.

Gladwell splits his book into three sections. Each section deals with a different topic around the idea of advantages and disadvantages and includes chapters that zoom in on individuals whose story illustrate Gladwell’s argument.

He begins by talking about the advantages of disadvantages. Through stories about basketball teams that always pressed to statistics about classroom size to the struggle of being a small fish in a big pond, Gladwell argues that perceived disadvantages can actually be advantages—your inability to match up against bigger, faster teams forces creativity in your executions on the basketball court, smaller classroom sizes do not always lead to higher test scores, and prestigious universities do not always lead to the most successful careers. Disadvantages actually produce better results sometimes.

Then Gladwell explores the “Theory of Desirable Difficulties.” Here he puts forth there are some difficulties that tend to produce more desirable traits. One of his examples is dyslexia. In the book he lists out numerous successful individuals from Hollywood producers to Wall Street brokers who would not be where they are at today without learning how to overcome their disability. Other examples of “desirable difficulties” Gladwell uses is a doctor who faced resistance from authority in treating childhood leukemia to Wyatt Walker’s role in the Civil Rights movement. While most of us would never wish these difficulties on anyone, those who can overcome them become stronger for it.

The final section deals with the paradox of limits of power. Gladwell explains a popular military theory about power states those in power can control those they are over by raising the cost of rebellion—i.e. the reason more riots happen is because the costs to the people rioting are not high enough. He points out how this is not correct thinking because it discounts the way people feel by reducing power struggle to a math formula. Using the recent history of the civil war in Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants, Gladwell outlines the flawed thinking and how the powerful can actually be overturned by those perceived as powerless.

One of my favorite points that Gladwell makes about the actual story of David and Goliath, he never makes in the book but is actually from his talk at Catalyst. His outlined much of what he explains in the introduction but adds the “X-factor”: God. He asserts that we should never see David as the underdog because God is on his side. While he never makes the point in the book, it was a powerful moment for Christian leaders at the conference as they were challenged to rethink they way many had always taught such a famous passage.

I think everyone should read at least one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. He his a phenomenal writer, thorough researcher, and just thinks about things in a unique way. If you enjoy popular psychology and sociology and its potential impact on culture, you will find his works entertaining and thought-provoking. In regards to David and Goliath specifically, it definitely makes you think about areas in your life where you can turn disadvantages into advantages as well as be aware of advantages that can become disadvantages. Gladwell challenges us to look at our giants from a new perspective, because we might actually be better equipped than we first believed.

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