Friday, March 28, 2014

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

Malcolm Gladwell has a gift for taking data and case studies, historical and contemporary, and drawing out counterintuitive conclusions that cause the reader to think seriously about their assumptions. In David and Goliath, the assumption Gladwell takes on is that superior strength or other perceived advantages assure positive results. Beginning by arguing that David actually had the advantage in the original David v. Goliath battle in the Valley of Elah, Gladwell then moves on to examine a variety of cases in which advantages turn out to be disadvantages. One of the examples is reduction in class size, which data indicates offers advantages only to a certain point; when class size goes below a certain point, improvements in student performance disappear. Gladwell calls this pattern the inverted-U curve. Another example the case of a high school student who loved science and was elated to be accepted at an Ivy League school. There, however, she struggled in classes in which every student was extremely bright. She ended up abandoning her long-held dream of being a scientist. But Gladwell presents data showing that her chances of achieving her dream would have been much better had she attended her state university. The advantage of attending an Ivy actually became a disadvantage for this student.

In the second section of the book, Gladwell examines circumstances in which disadvantages can become advantages, looking at dyslexics who developed coping strategies, took risks, and became highly successful; people who lost parents as children develop unusual courage that enables them to solve problems others turn away from; and oppressed groups who have nothing to lose and therefore can take risks and employ "trickster" strategies.

Finally, Gladwell discusses the limits of power, those cases when exerting the full power of the state has negative consequences. Here his case studies involve Three Strikes laws, as well as the British Army strategy in dealing with the Irish Troubles. Perhaps the most moving story in the book is that of the French residents of the tiny Huguenot town of Le Chambon, which became a haven for Jewish children. Following the Vichy government's cooperation in the round-up of Parisian Jews, the townspeople made it clear they were not going to collaborate, giving a Vichy minister a letter that ended, "We have Jews. You're not getting them."

As was the case in reviewing Gladwell's Blink, I don't feel that I have done his work justice. Although the insights here were not as personally meaningful as those in Blink or Outliers, David and Goliath is well worth reading.  Indeed, I cannot imagine anything this exceptional thinker and writer could produce  that I would not find thought-provoking.

Favorite passage:
It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish. If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening. If you bomb a city, you leave behind death and destruction. But you create a community of remote misses. If you take away a mother or a father, you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force. You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose than we ever imagine.

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