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SUNDAY BUSINESS GUARDIAN www.guardian.co.tt JUNE 15 • 2014
David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits and the art of
battling giants by Malcolm Gladwell
David Runciman, The Guardian
Malcolm Gladwell s new book promises to
turn your view of the world upside down.
We all think we know what happened
when David took on Goliath: the little
guy won. Gladwell thinks we all have it
wrong, and opens his new book with a
retelling of that story.
Our mistake is to assume it s a story about the weak beating
the powerful with the help of pluck and guile and sheer blind
faith. But as Gladwell points out, it was Goliath who was the
vulnerable one. He was a giant, which made him slow, clumsy
and probably half-blind (double vision is a common side-
effect of an excess of human growth hormone). The only way
he could have beaten David was by literally getting his hands
on him; but David had no need to go anywhere near him.
David had a sling.
Ancient armies contained teams of slingers, who could be
deadly from distances as great as 200 yards. The best, like
David, were lethally accurate, and Goliath was not a small
target. Once David had persuaded the Israelites that single
combat didn t need to mean sword versus sword, but could
be any weapon you like, there was only ever going to be one
winner. As Gladwell says, Goliath had as much chance against
David as a man with a sword would have had against someone
armed with a .45 automatic handgun.
This gives Gladwell his theme. The strong are often sur-
prisingly weak, if looked at from the right angle. People who
seem weak can turn out to be surprisingly strong. Don t be
a Goliath. Dare to be a David. Gladwell illustrates these lessons
with a characteristically dizzying array of stories, the subjects
of which range from high school girls basketball to child
murder and the Holocaust. Most of them are great stories.
The trouble with the book is that they are not great illustrations
of his chosen theme.
The ones that work best are about not being a Goliath.
A particularly moving chapter describes the mistake made
by Mike Reynolds, a Californian whose daughter Kimber was
murdered in 1992 by a man out on parole for car theft.
Reynolds s response was to propose the three-strikes-and-
you re-out law, which made life sentences mandatory for
anyone convicted of three offences, no matter how minor the
last. He got his law passed by referendum under California s
quirky political system. It proved a costly and counter-productive
disaster. It did nothing to stop violent crime but it put massive
strain on the criminal justice system. It was manifestly unjust.
Reynolds believed that the best way to fight back on behalf
of his daughter was to call on the most powerful weapon he
could find: the Californian state. But his law made the state
clumsy and half-blind. The most powerful weapon turned out
to be a useless one.
The error we often make is to double-down on strength
when we think that we need something more effective than
what we ve got. Yet past a certain point, extra-strength becomes
self-defeating because it is too crude and inflexible. Gladwell
gives a compelling version of the same argument in relation
to school class-sizes. Big classes (35 and up) are known to be
bad for kids. So it s good to make them smaller. But many
schools keep making them smaller on the assumption that
more of what works must be better.
There is good evidence that small classes (18 or fewer) are
also bad for kids, because the child-teacher dynamic becomes
stale and unimaginative. Somewhere in between is what keeps
everyone on their toes. Gladwell thinks countries across the
western world have been wasting money hiring extra teachers
when they should be using that money to pay the good ones
But the true lesson here isn t don t be a Goliath, it s don t
be a Philistine; the army that sent Goliath into battle for them.
The simple moral is choose your weapons carefully. The real
problems arise when Gladwell gives his examples of some
modern-day Davids. There is a tension at the heart of his
version of the David story that he never resolves. Is it really
a story about David at all? One implication of the sword versus
sling mismatch is that any one of a host of Israelite slingers
could have beaten Goliath. With the right training, we could
all do it.
On the other hand, David was the only one who spotted
how to win and had the courage to break with convention
(the rest of the Israelites assumed that they had to fight Goliath
at his own game). In that respect he was unique. So, can
anyone be a David or not? Gladwell wants to have it both
This comes out in some uncharacteristic rhetorical slips as
he tries to push his case. One chapter looks at the life stories
of various sufferers from dyslexia who have gone on to be
hugely successful in business (the proportion of high-profile
entrepreneurs who are dyslexic is strikingly high). Gladwell
argues that dyslexia forces people to be imaginative and
resourceful, especially during their formative years, as they
look for creative ways round the disadvantages of their con-
So, he asks: "You wouldn t wish dyslexia on a child of yours.
Or would you?" Well, no you wouldn t (as Gladwell admits
much later on). It s a stupid question. The proportion of
dyslexics who end up in jail is also strikingly high. For many
people it is simply a grave disadvantage. You wouldn t wish
it on anyone. So why pretend otherwise?
Many of the stories Gladwell tells about people who have
taken hardships (a miserable childhood, a physical disability)
and turned them to advantage aren t really anything to do
with David v Goliath. They re just illustrations of the trite and
misleading dictum that whatever doesn t kill you makes you
stronger. The truth is often the opposite: it can make you
weaker, only not in the select cases Gladwell has chosen. It s
not clear what s to be learned from these examples because
it s always possible to imagine someone faced with the same
challenges suffering greatly as a result (jail rather than a suc-
cessful business). That raises the suspicion that what made
the difference was not, say, the dyslexia, but something else.
This problem is most acute in the final chapter of the book.
Gladwell recounts the history of the remote French village of
Le Chambon, which stood up to the Nazis during the German
occupation. Led by their cussed priest and drawing on a
heritage of persecution as Huguenots, the villagers offered
refuge to Jews. They didn t hide what they were doing; they
advertised it and the Nazis left them alone. Many Jews survived
because of this act of brazen courage. It is a remarkable and
stirring tale -- it just doesn t belong in a book about David
taking on Goliath.
The Nazis were not Goliath. Le Chambon didn t expose
some fatal weakness. The occupiers left the villagers alone
because they realised taking them on would be more trouble
than it was worth. They chose to ignore it. An army of Davids
beats an army of Goliaths. But if others in France had followed
the example of Le Chambon, the village would have been
wiped out. Ultimately the only way to defeat the Nazis was
to match them for scale and power: a massive and ghastly
war of attrition. Any little victories achieved within the shadow
of that war, such as the one at Le Chambon, were morally,
not practically significant. Cussedness isn t what makes the
Malcolm Gladwell s best writing in the past has taken general
trends---often identified by path-breaking research in the social
sciences--- and then used personal stories to illuminate them.
He did that brilliantly in Outliers.
In this book he goes down the alternative route of taking
personal stories and then trying to hang general lessons on
them. It is both more conventional and less convincing. Too
often Gladwell seems to be mythologising his subjects. He
treats their unusual individual histories as morality tales.
The perils of doing it that way were beautifully illustrated
in a recent edition of the radio show This American Life, in
a story by Michael Lewis that almost seems designed to serve
as a warning about Gladwell s approach.
Lewis told of a poor Bosnian refugee to the US who saw
his life entirely transformed thanks to the chance intervention
of an inspirational teacher at his sink school. She saw something
in him that he didn t know was there. Now he is an economics
professor on course for a Nobel prize. That was his story. Then
Lewis found the teacher and asked her. It turned out not to
be true. It wasn t a sink school. The boy was obviously brilliant.
All she did was give him a little shove. He would have made
Individual morality tales are frequently forms of self-mythol-
ogising. They don t survive dispassionate scrutiny. Gladwell s
genius was always to know how to balance history and social
psychology with self-help and life lessons.
In this book he seems to have muddled them up.
Dare to be David
The strong are often surprisingly
weak, if looked at from the right
angle. People who seem weak can
turn out to be surprisingly strong.
Don't be a Goliath. Dare to be a
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