Book Review: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

In my last post, I rashly promised to put a stop to my endless droning on about the parlous state of contemporary politics. That was, of course, before the hastily called general election confounded all expectations and proved, once and for all, I’ve no skill for political soothsaying. Tempting as it to go back on that statement, I’m going to leave working out what is going on to others. Instead, I’ll be getting on with the serious business of reflecting on some reading that I’ve been doing in the first half of 2017.

As I explained in an earlier review, my reading in 2016 was focused on plugging some embarrassing gaps. For 2017 I’ve taken a slightly different tack and decided to work my way through some of the vast collection of untouched non-fiction that fills my groaning bookshelves. The process has been rewarding if frustratingly slow. The undoubted highlight so far is the prescient 2013 work, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

Credit: Penguin

Gladwell has long been a favourite of mine [see here]. He has that endlessly enviable ability of finding the fascinating angle. He wears his learning with the graceful lightness of touch that unites many of my favourite writers of non-fiction (Bryson, Pinker, Lewis to name just three). In his hands the anecdote is a powerful tool for shining a clarifying light on the human condition.

The premise of this book is not a complicated one. Using the most famous underdog story of all, Gladwell sets out to explain that we commonly misunderstand and misread the concept of advantage and disadvantage . We falsely assume one party is more likely to fail because they are smaller, less well resourced, less prestigious, or just a bit of an outsider. And Gladwell loves nothing more than an outsider.

As he explained in a TED talk that accompanied the book everything that commonly taken to be the moral of the David and Goliath story is probably wrong. In this revisionist version, David is not a poor ill-equipped shepherd boy but an elite “slinger”, able to stop a man at 200 yards with the power of a handgun. And Goliath is not a herculean warrior but profoundly near-sighted sufferer of a form of giant-ism called acromegaly.

This is vintage Gladwell. Taking something so familiar that it is accepted without a moment’s thought and looking again. Highlighting the power of simply pausing, reading closely, and ask “but, why?”

Throughout the rest of the book he continues to unpick these cultural shibboleths, arguing in turn that perhaps it better to not get into Harvard, that bigger classes are better, or that being severely dyslexic is an advantage. In the second half of the book things get more freighted when he explores the effects of trauma, both personal and communal, on those who survive it and asks is it actually true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

Part 1: The advantages of disadvantages (and the disadvantages of advantages)

The first section is largely focused on education as an example of misunderstood advantage. Surely those of us who manage to just about squeeze into the best schools or universities are better of for it? Apparently not.

Instead, Gladwell argues, they experience something called “relative deprivation”. They are not objectively any worse — in fact they are probably better — but they don’t feel better. The shock of being surrounded by the brightest and the best makes them realise how miserable it is to be a moderately sized fish. This chilling effect does not stop at the campus edge. Based on research of graduate students output those who are “average” in incredibly competitive academic environments are less likely to publish than those come top of less competitive schools. Intuitive this feels wrong but the data Gladwell presents is difficult to argue with. Personally, being forced to compete in an environment where I felt distinctly under-qualified, worked well; but clearly that type of competitiveness should not be pursued at all costs.

This concept of “relative deprivation” feels applicable to a whole raft of phenomena. I think, it goes a long way to explaining why populations might feel things are against them even when the data suggests otherwise. As Gladwell explains “we form impressions not globally, by placing ourselves in the broadest possible context, but locally — by comparing ourselves to people “in the same boat”. This is compounded, in many cases, by a comparison not just with those in currently parallel situations but against the past. For instance, two generations ago it was feasible for a lower middle class white man in the UK to support his family on a single income. Now it isn’t. That sense of “relative deprivation” has been powerfully exploited by some.

Part 2: Desirable Difficulty

The second section gets more personal. This feels like the point at which Gladwell is most precariously navigating his tightrope; arguing that things that are undeniably “bad” — such as losing a parent as a child — can confer certain unexpected advantages.

He starts, rather unexpectedly, by talking about the Blitz. It had been commonly assumed that such industrial scale destruction would have devastatingly psychological consequences. It didn’t. The much vaunted, somewhat jingoistic, “blitz spirit” that ensued was the perfect example of a theory of morale later developed by J. T. MacCurdy. He identifies a group of people who experience “remote misses”. In a combat situation these are the people who are close enough to feel the fear but not so close that they are physically harmed. The effect of this is to give them a sense of invincibility by demonstrating that the really frightening thing was the thought of being afraid. This invulnerability gives this population a heightened capacity for taking risks — after all what is the worst that could happen?

Gladwell takes this concept and applies it as widely as he can. There are multiple examples, including the remarkable tale of an pioneering oncologist Emil Jay Freireich, but the section that really stuck with me is the story is that of David Boies. Boies a hugely successful lawyer. The twist is that he is so severely dyslexic he can only just read and write.

The argument here is not an uncommon one. Having a condition, like dyslexia, that makes things that others take for granted causes people to adapt. That adaptation in turn confers advantage. The example usually ends with Richard Branson.

It’s not an argument that I have a huge amount of time for. It feels like a false syllogism: Branson is dyslexic, Branson is a billionaire, therefore being dyslexic helps you become a billionaire. Gladwell’s argument is more nuanced than that. He focuses on the ways in which adaptations manifest. Boies, for instance, reads so slowly that he notices things that other don’t. He doesn’t have the ability to take notes and therefore has developed a prodigious memory. I have slightly more sympathy for this.

Given you’ve just read 1,500 of my prose you’ll have doubtless noticed that I’m dyslexic. I went the first 18 years of my life without being diagnosed. I’m not dyslexic in the way that Boies, or thousands of others, are. I’ve never struggled to read. But it has undoubtedly shaped the way I think. I had to learn more words because I couldn’t spell the ones I wanted to use. I’m pretty bad at texting. I’ve never been able to write fast enough to record what someone is saying so I just remember it. This in turns means I remember all kinds of other useless things that could be happily forgotten.

Despite that I’m remain unconvinced. It feels so selective, and perhaps even dangerously dismissive, to draw out the success stories from a landscape of undeniable hardship. David Boies has been very successful. I’m know most of the flags. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that thousands of lives are blighted by a condition that is debilitating and isolating. The lesson is, surely, not that dyslexic is the route to fame and fortune, but that a society that too rigidly defines success and failure is doomed to miss out on the talents of many.

Part 3: The Limits of Power

The third and final section expands the scope again to consider the limits of power — when does doing more of something achieve the opposite of the intended effect.

By this point Gladwell’s purview is the firmly fixed at the grand narrative level. It takes in the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the US’s ruinous criminal justice system, or the treatment of Jews in Vichy France. All are examples of what happens when authorities fail to recognise their limits; when the obvious advantages of being more powerful tip into the disadvantage of marginal returns. Why campaigner Mike Reynolds, for instance, in his earnest attempts to ensure nobody else suffered the horror of having their daughter murdered, gave birth to a justice system that created vastly more injustice than it solved.

The section does not lend itself to simple paraphrasing, but it is a clarion call to avoid the obvious answer. To think long and hard about what it means to wield power and the importance of using it to advance the chances of all. As Gladwell put it at the end of at the end of his heartful story of Andre Trocme:

“You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and the shield and the glittering armour. 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”

This is not Gladwell’s best book. It doesn’t have quite the imaginative range or joie de vivre of some of his earlier writing. It hasn’t shaped the popular discourse in the way his ideas about tipping points, micro-judgements or 10,000 hours did. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a superbly engaging piece of writing. I hadn’t realised until I came to write this review that its critical reception had been largely negative and it’s not a reception that I believe it deserves. I’ve no qualification to judge the quality of the social science but I come away from it with a fresh perspective and my mind changed.

I hope to continue to read, and to enjoy, Gladwell’s sideways look at the world. His fantasy dinner party spot is still very much in the bag.

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