Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath”: how to leverage you’re assets when others see you as the underdog


Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Title, Subtitle: David and Goliath
publication date 2015
ISBN 978-0-316-28525-4
Publication: Back Bay/Little Brown, 327 pages, paper, indexed
Link: author

I perceive Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell as somewhat the liberal David Brooks, someone who wants to show us how to be good.  But actually he often offers what amount to conservative to libertarian arguments, more or less along the lines of Mary Ruwart.

In his 2015 book “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants”, Gladwell provides a counterweight to his 2008 “Outliers” (see Index), as he looks at how underdogs, in most political and social systems, often leverage their special circumstances to prevail.

The book, while starting with recount of the Old Testament is Bible story that introduces us to King David, is laid out in three large parts (nine chapters and an Afterword): “The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages), “The Theory of the Desirable Difficulty”, and “The Limits of Power”.


His first example is given by basketball coach Vivek Ranadive, but I could digress with a discussion of “backyard baseball” (really softball and sometimes whiffleball) in eighth and ninth grade in the 1950s.  I was behind the other boys physically, but I invented a “league” of individual softball players, with the rules arranged to make the scores reasonable.  Although I was weaker, I had tremendous home field advantage because I could hit the ball just hard enough for “homers” according to my ground rules – and that could make the other kids mad, as it seemed anti-meritocratic.  Or, when I was a patient at NIH in 1962, I won a ping pong tournament by “keeping the ball on the table”, making other impatient players mad with errant slams.  I developed my own catchphrase, “fighting with my fingernails”, which I actually did once in seventh grade, inflicting potentially disfiguring forearms cuts on a bully.

With Teresa Debrito, he introduces the idea of U-shaped curves in explaining that smaller classes don’t always result in better students and better academic results.  Then with Caroline Sacks, he explores the idea of a “big fish in a small pond”, specifically with the issue of whether some students do better if they don’t go to top colleges. (I like the way he talks about organic chemistry.)   I could say that the way I leveraged my writing on the Internet in the early days of search engines, and influenced the debate on gays in the military, could have added more material to the chapter.

He then goes into the idea that having a “handicap” often precludes asymmetric, spectacular success in life.  He develops a lot of his material with dyslexia.  Particularly impressive is the way Gary Cohn talked his way into the brokerage industry by tailgating someone after an elevator pitch.  But in some cases, it’s extroversion and risk taking that has to happen for success to occur (which isn’t exactly the case with me). In discussing David Boies, he gives an important personality chart on p. 116 which is distantly related to the Rosenfels idea of polarities.  With Emil Freireich, he gives an interesting history to the development of combination chemotherapy for leukemia  (earlier account )   In talking about “tricksters” in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, he explains the advantage of having nothing to lose.  So that explains the “Rich Young Ruler” in the New Testament – a rich man who has too much, hunkers down, and doesn’t know when to let go.


The last section, starting with the IRA in the late 1960s, does convey some lessons on why the imposition of overwhelming political and military power doesn’t always work.  The book concludes with an interesting Afterword on why US policy failed to win the Vietnam War into which I was personally conscripted in 1968 (although I was sheltered stateside).  Gladwell also gives some cogent analysis on why increasing sentences for crimes (like “three strikes” laws in California) don’t always reduce crime.  He does get into a brief but interesting self-conversation on how the criminal mind works.  One point is that the usual idea of morality doesn’t make sense to a criminal who cannot function cognitively and simply perceives the need to control others.

Gladwell gives an account of the 1940 bombings of London which could be compared to Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe” (May 31).

There are “moral” questions about the way one deploys one’s hidden assets or “poison pills” – sometimes by avoiding the risks and personal stakes that others have, without much conscious choice.  The “rightsizing” (or “karma”) debate, common in some religious circles, is never mentioned explicitly.  That sounds like something David Brooks could take up (or I will).  Maybe I could name a book “Jacob and Esau” and wonder who is manly enough.

(Posted: Monday, October 10, 2016 at 7:15 PM EDT)

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