Three years ago, a friend of mine and her dad bought me Outliers as a gift. Before this, I hadn’t really heard of Malcolm Gladwell except a few references to his book Tipping Point by people I considered somewhat intellectual. I gave the book a read, and it absolutely blew my mind! So when his new book, David and Goliath came out, I was reading pre-release statements, watching videos, and waiting in heavy anticipation for the book.
Malcolm Gladwell has an amazing ability to convey deep truths about society and sociology using stories of ordinary people that the reader can relate to. He explains the thoughts that happen within the minds of human interaction, as well as the social forces that lead to certain kinds of behaviour, and he does it so while capturing you in a completely entertaining narrative of the lives of arbitrary characters in the world’s stage.
In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell looks at the misconceptions of ‘advantage’ and ‘disadvantage’. He looks at how those who are perceived to be advantaged may really be at a disadvantage, and how the underdogs who are at a ‘disadvantage’ may really be at an advantage. Starting off this theme of the book, he looks at the biblical narrative of David and Goliath. How, because of Goliath’s size, training and rank within the Philistine army, it would be expected that he would be at an advantage to David. Similarly, because of David’s size, lack of armor, and lack of military training, he may be expected to be at a disadvantage. But when one looks at the story a lot deeper, Gladwell explains the reason why Goliath’s size and training came at a disadvantage to him, and how David’s lack of military training but experience in herding led to an advantage for him.
The book continues to analyse how we misinterpret signs as advantage, and how we interpret the lack of those signs as disadvantages, when that may be completely false. This explains why underdogs are likely to make it when fighting against large, established Goliaths. The first section of the book looks at the disadvantages that come with perceived advantages, and the advantages that come with perceived disadvantages. One of the examples that captured me was the perception that enrolling at the ‘best’ academic institution in the land may come at a disadvantage to many, and even increase their chances of dropping out. On the other hand, enrolling at what would be seen as an average university may be more advantageous, and result in a better chance of long term success for an individual.
In the second section of the book, he looks at how some difficulties produce qualities in individuals that enable them to succeed better than those who don’t have those difficulties. An example that he looks at is individuals with dyslexia. Because of such disadvantages, many of them have to develop other skills to cope with their difficulty, which other ‘normal’ individuals would not develop. Because of such, they endow themselves with some kind of ‘competitive advantage’ against their peers.
In the last section, he looks at the limits of power. How the perceived power of an individual or group could actually lead to their downfall. The recurring story used in this section is Britain’s ‘assistance’ in the tension between the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. They came in with power, yet this power was illegitimate, and ultimately led to their disadvantage.
In an interview Malcolm Gladwell had at Google, a gentleman asked him if he just makes up this stuff, and uses stories to prove his presupposed outcomes. His response made me respect him even more. He is a reader of research that has been done in the sociology field, and he analyses the trends in the research. From there, he uses stories to make the research more ‘people-friendly’, making it entertaining, but still grounded in academia.
A second gentleman asked him if this is contradictory to what he wrote in Outliers, where he said that those who are in advantageous positions earlier on are likely to succeed and become the outliers. He got a bit stumped. Awkward.
There were times though were I thought the book dragged a bit. Where different stories were used to justify a point already made. Also, because he uses threads of different topics in the larger tapestry he is building, at the end of the book, I felt that there is little effort to show an overall picture of the masterpiece that has been created, and one is left with images of the threads, instead of images of the tapestry.
All in all, I’d give this book a 3.5 out of 5 star rating.