Do Underdog Readers Stand a Chance Against Malcolm Gladwell’s Latest Book?

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 7 2013 2:04 PM

Gladwell Is Goliath

Do puny readers stand a chance against his latest book?

Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell

Photo by Bill Wadman

Two years ago on public radio, Malcolm Gladwell made a startling confession. “I never, ever cheer for the underdog,” he told the hosts of WNYC’s Radiolab. That’s a little strange: Studies show that four in five adults root for David types when they’re up against Goliaths, and the rule applies to nearly every domain of our experience—sports, politics, business, dating, even the visual arts. But Gladwell being Gladwell, he goes against the grain; he pulls for power and success. “I’m distressed by the injustice of the person who should win not winning,” he explained. “There’s a very unflattering interpretation of this, and that is that on some deep level I think of myself as a favorite, not an underdog.”

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Well, sure, and not just on some deep level; Gladwell is a favorite on the surface, too. He’s a giant in the world of publishing and a conqueror of conferences. His latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, will slaughter its puny competitors no matter what the critics say. Gladwell can’t be stopped by slinging stones. He’s the occupying force of big ideas. He’s the New York Yankees of nonfiction. The bruising, brilliant genre he created—smarty-pants self-help—has a way of turning even its most thoughtful would-be critics into underdogs. Do you dare to challenge Gladwell’s nifty rules of thumb? Have you any doubts about his anecdotes? Then best of luck to you, my friend. You’re wrestling a titan.

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Or are you? “Giants are not what we think they are,” says Gladwell in the introduction to David and Goliath. The book goes on to argue that people misinterpret contests between the strong and weak by making two mistakes of judgment. First, we forget that being an underdog changes people for the better, and teaches them to win by other, sneaky means. (David slew Goliath because he knew how to use a sling, and could attack the giant from long range.) Second, we ignore the fact that power has its burdens, and what might look to be a clear advantage often hides a hidden set of flaws. (Goliath lost his fight with David because the disease that made him huge impaired his vision and mobility.) Being weak can make you strong, and vice-versa.

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That’s a bit confusing when you think back to Gladwell’s last book, Outliers, which suggested just the opposite. There, he explained the principle of “cumulative advantage,” which says that strength breeds further strength, and weakness further weakness. The biggest kid on a sports team gets the most coaching and practice, and so he ends up the better player. The genius who grows up in a wealthy neighborhood ends up a brilliant scientist, while the isolated genius finds himself running a horse farm. Goliaths get bigger and more Goliath-y while Davids shrink and wither. But in David and Goliath, the rules have been reversed: Now we’re told that growing up in dire straits can make you more successful, by gracing you with underdoggish wit and grit.

So which is it: Do the poor get poorer (Outliers), or does being poor make them rich (David and Goliath)? It’s both. Gladwell gives us David Boies and Gary Cohn, the famous trial lawyer and the president of Goldman Sachs, as examples of people who struggled with dyslexia as children but went on to achieve a kind of greatness. Then he concedes that many prison inmates are dyslexic, too. The same mix of good and bad applies to losing parents. For some children, this tragedy will inspire a luminous career in cancer medicine—that’s another example in the book—but it also increases a child’s chances of delinquency and depression. At times our lives are governed by what Gladwell calls the “Theory of Desirable Difficulty,” where struggle makes us stronger, and at other times we’re subject to the principle of cumulative advantage. “If you take away a mother or a father,” he writes, “you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force.”

The notion that a rule holds true except for when it doesn’t runs through David and Goliath, and insulates its arguments from deep interrogation. Is it really advantageous to have severe dyslexia? Yes, and certainly not. Are children better off without their parents? Don’t be silly, but it could be so. These non-answers rub the dazzle from Gladwell’s clever thesis statements, until they all begin to look like dullish intuition. We don’t need another book to tell us that adversity can lead to greatness (see: memoirs by CEOs, episodes of The Moth, every college essay ever written), just as we don’t need another book to say that adversity really, really sucks (see: the world outside your window). But couched in the golden armor of anecdote, Gladwell’s overgrown ideas seem powerful and new.

It’s impossible to read David and Goliath with the care and skepticism it deserves, since the subject matter ranges so outrageously from one page to the next. That’s what makes Gladwell’s readers into underdogs: In nine chapters, his book delves into the fields of sports, oncology, education, psychology, military history, law, finance, civil rights, fine arts, and criminal justice. It draws case studies from the London Blitz, the civil rights protests in Birmingham, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and resistance to the Nazis in southern France. Also, there’s a girls' basketball team in California, and a family of Mennonites. How can anyone keep pace with Gladwell’s superhuman breadth of knowledge and ambition? We’re doomed to glimpse the world the way he does, through the eyes of a giant.

From this towering perspective, though, the details look a little fuzzy. A closer read of his examples finds signs of hidden weakness, and a dash of imprecision. Start with the girls from California: Chapter 1 tells the story of a Redwood City team of seventh- and eight-graders who make it to the national championships in their National Junior Basketball league. That’s despite their lack of height and talent, and the fact that they have a coach—in software entrepreneur Vivek Ranadivé—who was born in Mumbai and has never played the game himself. Gladwell argues that the “little blond girls” from Redwood City achieved their enormous success because they chose to use a full-court press. That’s a strategy in basketball that favors effort over skill: It forces your opponent into making a mistake.