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.

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.

In Gladwell’s view, Coach Ranadivé was able to employ his amazing strategy because he came from outside the system. If he and his girls had had more talent and experience, they would have played in the same style as every other team, and had a losing season. But unfamiliarity with the game gave them “the audacity to play that way,” he says, and an underdog’s desperation inspired them to practice more intensely. “The whole Redwood City philosophy was based on a willingness to try harder than anyone else,” and it seemed to work: The team lost only a “few games” in that whole magical season, and made it to the third round of the nationals. Gladwell summarized the story’s lesson on his blog in 2009, shortly after a version of the story appeared in the New Yorker: “Insurgent strategies (substituting effort for ability and challenging conventions) represent one of David’s only chances of competing successfully against Goliath, so it’s surprising that more underdogs don’t use them.”

But certain aspects of the story push back against its central thrust. First, Ranadivé is less of an outsider than he appears to be. Gladwell describes the coach as “a foreigner new to the game” who was helping the girls “in a sport he knew nothing about.” But Ranadivé is so ambitious, and so invested in the sport of basketball, that he brought expert help to Redwood City, including several former pro athletes. The Silicon Valley area from which the team was drawn includes lots of wealthy families, so the girls also had the benefit of high-quality training facilities and dedicated parents. (Redwood City has excelled at NJB for many years.) The “nationals” are not, in fact, a national tournament, as the league comprises mostly teams from California. And when I reached out to other coaches in the same division, they told me that the full-court press is a common strategy, no matter if the girls are underdogs or favorites. One guessed that 90 percent of the coaches make use of it, and some do so for the whole game, like Ranadivé did.

These are minor points, but they suggest the story’s been massaged to emphasize its impact. What about the bigger message, though? Gladwell claims that underdogs have the hidden strength of added effort, and presents the Redwood City girls as proof. But scientists have come to different conclusions. For one experiment (which I described in Slate in 2010), researchers at Ohio State University and Cornell University tested undergrads on a thinking task: How many different uses could they come up with for a knife? When the kids were told their scores would be compared with those from students at a less prestigious school, they tried extra-hard and their scores improved. When they thought they were going up against a better school, however, they didn’t do as well. Being an underdog didn’t lead these kids to make a greater effort; it sapped their motivation. Other studies have come to similar results.

Yet the fantasy that underdogs push themselves to great achievement persists among observers. At the University of South Florida, Joseph Vandello showed students footage from a closely contested basketball game, and told them that one team had been a heavy favorite to win. Then he asked his subjects to describe the players on each team according to their demonstrated effort and ability. They said the underdogs showed more “heart” and “hustle” than their opponents. Those judgments had little to do with what the players really did, however. It didn’t matter if they played aggressive defense or dived out of bounds for balls—Vandello could show the same video clip with the underdog and favorite labels flipped, and the students would attribute “heart” and “hustle” to the other team. Underdogs don’t try harder than anybody else, but we often think they do.

In part because of the qualities we (wrongly) attribute to them, people tend to overestimate David’s chances. A well-known inefficiency in gambling, first identified in 1949 and known as the “favorite-longshot bias,” derives from the fact that bettors often place too much faith in underdogs like Redwood City, and not enough in their opponents. And why not? We remember unexpected victories, and forget about the rest. David wins in films and books and epic poems, too. But Gladwell doesn’t think like the rest of us: Remember, he’s a giant, not a shepherd. “We think of underdog victories as improbable events … [but] they aren’t at all. Underdogs win all the time. Why, then, are we so shocked every time a David beats a Goliath?” he asks, as if any normal reader would share his disbelief. “Why do we automatically assume that someone who is smaller or poorer or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage?” The premise makes no sense. It’s like he’s on a visit from a far-off place where everyone’s a Yankee fan and dyslexic poobahs power-lunch.

In Chapter 3, the book looks at what Gladwell calls the “Big Fish-Little Pond Effect.” Here he profiles a young woman called Caroline who planned to study bugs and fish at Brown University. Though she excelled in high school, getting an A in every class and a 5 on every AP exam, at Brown she struggled to keep up. Faced with stiffer competition than she’d ever seen before, Caroline washed out of majoring in science. If she’d gone to a lesser school, says Gladwell, where she would have been a stronger student than her peers, she might have ended up an ichthyologist. David and Goliath contrasts her fate with that of the Impressionists, who made the choice to boycott the Paris Salon art competition. If they’d put up their work against the great classical painters of the day—the Ivy Leaguers of 19th-century peinture—they might have languished in obscurity. They’d have gotten lost in a pond that was much too big. Instead they chose to mount their own, tiny exhibition where they could excel.

If I had a kid of college age, I might take the book’s advice, and suggest she skip the schools for which she’s only barely qualified. But thinking back to Chapter 1, the logic starts to blur. Shouldn’t Caroline have been an underdog at Brown, like the girls of Redwood City? If so, what happened to her hidden advantages—the ones that should have helped her to full-court-press her way to victory in class? And if she’d gone to Maryland instead, wouldn’t she have fallen victim to the state-school Davids who didn’t share her high school pedigree? What happens when the Big Fish-Little Pond Effect runs headlong into the Theory of Desirable Difficulty? It depends on the context, Gladwell says: “Not all difficulties have a silver lining, of course.” (Of course!)

It’s often been observed that Gladwell dresses up the obvious to make it seem remarkable. That’s a classic top-dog move, to blast away a straw man with the blunderbuss of common sense, then claim to be a marksman. Why change a winning strategy? David and Goliath came out Oct. 1; it’s already the fourth-best-selling book on Amazon. This drubbing of the competition may disappoint those of us—the four in five adults—who tend to pull for underdogs, but that’s the hidden lesson of the book: It doesn’t matter if we cheer or hiss. The giant marches on.

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