David and Goliath:Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Malcolm Gladwell
Paperback, 352 pages
Published April 2015

Reviewed January 2016

Malcolm Gladwell is a master at keeping the reader involved in subjects, which while not hard intellectual material, certainly demands attention and thought.

The issues he directs our attention to are readily imaginable, but he takes the reader down a winding and compelling road to discover how, how much and how often they apply. He examines things not so obvious. I also think of writer Nicholas Taleb in this way.

The Canadian educated author, when not crafting non-fiction books, writes for The New Yorker magazine.

The key to his popularity seems to me how he uses, I resist calling them anecdotes, short biographical sketches of people and weaves their story into the issue he is illustrating. Hence the reader can regularly look forward, to meeting people with compelling stories.

His major thesis in this book is that in situations the weak are often not as weak as they initially appear, nor the strong as strong. And what seems like a disadvantage may prove an advantage. “We are often misled by the nature of advantage.”

His title and first chapter take the legendary biblical confrontation of the huge apparently invincible Goliath battling the small and vulnerable David.

As Gladwell dissects, all is not what was portrayed in the Bible as a miraculous heroic triumph of an underdog.

Goliath's great size is possibly a product of the tumour condition acromegaly which causes a person to continue growing literally until death. Accompanying the condition is often poor eyesight. So effectively we have a large, strong, maybe ill co-ordinated man with heavy armour who can't see well.

Armies of that day had the infantry for hand to hand combat, of which Goliath was one, then there is the cavalry with horses and finally there is the artillery or projectile group whose weapons function at a distance. These are archers and, more to the point, slingers.

The Philistines and Goliath in agreeing to a mano a mano contest expected the best infantryman to come forth. David was a slinger. All witnesses, says Gladwell, would know that was not an even match, and favoured the slinger.

To put it into common phraseology David brought a gun to a knife fight and, says Gladwell, it is almost certain that is the way the Philistine army saw it. One might even infer the Israelites cheated.

While this is the keynote example in the book, there are about 20 others all more modern, not so readily obvious and without martial conflicts.

The second involves a 'basketball coach' with no basketball experience taking a team of 'little blond' girls, the offspring of silicon valley nerds, to the national basketball championship. With few skilled players, and he knowing close to nothing about the game, the coach changed the nature of the game to suit his charges' limited ability. And as such engendered the enmity of all the coaches of the other teams he faced.

At one point in this chapter, Gladwell delves into and indirectly gives plausible explanation why the powerful United States has been largely unsuccessful in many recent military adventures.

While most of us might think the hugely dominant side wins a war nearly 100 per cent of the time, he references a political scientist who calculated that this bigger side wins about 71.5 per cent of the time.

However, when the weaker side fights like “David” with unconventional or guerrilla tactics the weaker party's winning percentage jumps from 28.5 to 63.6. He uses a surprising hypothetical example of this. Real life examples were Afghanistan and Vietnam. This should suggest pause with respect to the ISIS war.

He suggests this isn't well understood because “we have a rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is”. We don't really know what is helpful and what isn't. And sometimes effort trumps ability. In the ISIS war one should imagine that the weaker side is defending in its own territory rather than attacking the other country in its homeland.

One of his earliest chapters explores the idea of what is the most functional school class size. Not necessarily ideal for parents' desires or teacher workload, but what works best for teaching children. It seems to be somewhere between 18 and 24. Maybe disappointing to parents and teachers, smaller classes are not necessarily better and may be worse, below a certain number. He speaks of group energy with certain numbers of people, also for the opportunity for individuals to 'hide' a bit or not be noticed, a positive thing.

He points out that schools catering to wealthy patrons often provide what impresses the parents, but not benefitting students.

He briefly delves into the advantages/disadvantages of wealth and raising children. On the one hand they may have more broadening experiences and on the other have stunted development in responsibility and managing life within resources available. He reinforced the refrain that happiness doesn't seem to increase with incomes beyond $75,000 per year.

Gladwell briefly describes the scenario of rebellion of the 19th century French impressionist artists, where they had to turn status quo disapproval into an advantage.

And one that really goes into a different realm, Gladwell demonstrates where attendance at the “best university” a student can gain admission to may often not be the best choice and in fact a bad choice. He points out that parents may pressure this choice. The choice revolves around the idea of a small fish in a big pond versus a big fish in a small pond. “Pond” here refers to the percentage of extraordinarily gifted students. In this chapter, the featured person is not identified. The rest are and some may come as a surprise to the readers. The U.S. elite schools get some unfavourable press here concerning their values.

His next chapter is about dyslexia, which among other things serious handicaps the ability to read. As a result the person has to adapt which may involve listening and remembering carefully. There is a comparatively high correlation between this condition and success in the entrepreneurial world. However, the person featured here is David Boies, one of the most formidable trial lawyers in the U.S. While his condition limits the amount of reading he can do, his memory is legendary, along with his ability to present the case.

Emil “Jay” Freireich had an extraordinarily painful and punishing childhood. A large imposing man, he became a medical doctor and researcher. His survival of an horrific childhood steeled him to conditions of pain and discomfort. He was highly resistant to authority, threats and intimidation, particularly when he was on a mission and imbued with extra courage.

Gladwell links this to the courage developed in the London people during the battle of Britain. Rather than to be cowed or terrorized, people attacked, Those missed by the projectiles became more courageous, imbibed with a sense of ultimate survival. 'If that didn't kill me nothing will.”

Freireich's singular purpose was discovering the use of bone marrow transplants to battle a type of leukemia in children.

Gladwell, also speaks of the loss of one parent, as was the case with Friereich, as an example of a setback to be overcome and this theme comes up in artists and writers. And a salient comment: “The right question is whether we as a society need people who have emerged from some kind of trauma__and the answer is that we plainly do.”

Of all of his stories in this book the one that was most enlightening was a kind of David and Goliath battle: the internal battle of the 20th century in the U.S., civil rights.

The story doesn't feature the obvious Martin Luther King, but Wyatt Walker, little known and deliberately so outside of the immediate circle. He was the fixer, the one who manipulated the situation in which King's charismatic abilities could shine.

To a degree, he orchestrated the scenes that ensured they would be picked up by the national media during the non violent protests in the south.

Those witnessing the events unfolding on TV in the 1960s never imagined how much it was a subtle strategic battle with tactics tried and failed in one place, but successful in another where there was a weakness to be exploited. One of the climactic photos from the Birmingham demonstration was how orchestrating such that a 'police dog lunged at a child.' The movement was ecstatic with the “police brutality”. And this, the only photo in the book, appears twice, a few pages apart.

They also worked to make a few people actually demonstrating look like a large crowd through inclusion of bystanders.

Had the opponents known how they were played and set up it would have been Walker and not King they would have wanted in jail.

Had a strict 'play be the rules' guide been followed in several of Gladwell's examples, including David and Goliath, outcomes would have been different.

He has a section on the Northern Ireland conflict. While he focuses on a Catholic woman and how the battles impinged on her, it is the actions of the British army that are subject to his analysis.

The army was so strong, he says, and it used its strength and invulnerability at every turn, regardless of what the populace thought. And it was this that motivated the Northern Irish to resist so much and so long. In a sense the flagrant use of strength by the British motivated the reaction in the people and the Irish Republican Army which were so much weaker, at least by normal criteria.

Sometimes “extra resources that the powerful think of as their greatest advantage only serve to make things worse.”

One that has a lesson for all countries concerned with law and order and legal punishment, the 'three strike rule' in the U.S. With this, a sentence is maximized following the third conviction for breaking the law. Under this system a repeat offender could serve more time for a third offence, that might be something as innocuous as shoplifting, than a first offender who committed murder.

Gladwell profiles a man whose daughter was murdered and made it his life's mission to reduce this kind of crime. His efforts led to the “three strike rule”. While this had initial benefits in reducing certain kinds of crime, weaknesses later became apparent.

Form a personal point of view the father, while trying to work constructively, never 'got over' his daughter's death and got on with his life. He didn't recognize the limits of punishment.

The author contrasts this with a Mennonite family, also loosing a family member, but taking the road of forgiving the criminal. They resisted the opportunity to prolong their despair and got on with their life.

The one man chose to mobilize power to action, the other chose to retreat from publicity and heal. The populace was under the impression that if some punishment works more would work better. Gladwell quotes a study “If more than two percent of the neighbourhood goes to prison, the effect on crime starts to reverse.” And people start to see the law as their enemy. “Excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.”

Another deals with a Protestant priest Andre Trocme in France during the Nazi occupation. While the French resistance battled with traditional terrorist tactics, this priest in a relatively isolated mountainous part of France just dealt with the authorities with disdain and obstinacy meanwhile continuing, out in the open, to rescue Jewish children and often their families and basically integrate and hide them around his parish.

Gladwell describes Trocme as a disagreeable person and speaks of “the beauty of the disagreeable”. It doesn't mean obnoxious and hard to get along with. Instead it describes people who refuse to go along the expected path and choose another. In the book he also refers to Freireich and Wyatt as disagreeable.

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Malcolm Gladwell
Paperback, 352 pages
Published April 2015