Thursday, May 22, 2014

Book Review: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath
Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Date of Publication: October 1, 2013
Pages: 320

     Malcolm Gladwell has produced another wonderful book of counter-intuitive thinking.  I marvel that all of his books seem to make so much sense and yet they scoff at the politically correct or majority opinion way of thinking.  

     In David and Goliath, Gladwell takes us on fascinating statistical surveys which underscore his main point which is that much of what we would normally perceive as hindrances or handicaps may actually be advantages.  From physical limitations to adverse socio-economic circumstances he shows us how many have been motivated by these life circumstances to become super successful.

     He opens the book by re-examining the fabled Old Testament story of David and Goliath.  While this story is traditionally understood as the classic example of the triumph of the underdog, Gladwell presents cogent reasoning to convince the reader that things aren't always the way they seem.  David, in Gladwell's vision, is actually the favorite in this lop-sided battle.  The author sums this premise:

"We have, I think, a very rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is. We think of things as helpful that actually aren't and think of other things as unhelpful that in reality leave us stronger and wiser."  (Page 20)

     He then uses multiple studies and statistical surveys to examine everything from sports to classroom size.  He introduces the concept of the "inverted U" phenomenon.  This refers to graphical analysis of data where at some point more of something produces the opposite of the desired effect.  There comes a point where there can indeed be too much of a good thing.  He applies this principle to wealth and states: "Wealth contains the seeds of its own destruction."  (Page 38)

     He then relates several more interesting stories.  The first tells of the Impressionists in France and their difficulty finding acceptance in the traditional Parisian art world.  The second is more contemporary and introduces a college student who went to an Ivy League school and couldn't finish in her field of choice because of the high level of competition.  The point of these stories according to the author is "that there are times and places where it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond."  The Impressionists were successful because they operated outside of the expected behavior and the student would more likely have been able to pursue her original dreams in a less competitive environment.

     The next section of the book relates how many with handicaps defy odds and become successful.  Gladwell reasons that their handicap may actually be perceived as an advantage because of the psychological benefits of overcoming their handicap.  Their resolve may be the ticket to their achievement.

     The last three chapters deal with legitimacy of authority.  According to Gladwell, the principle of legitimacy relies on three principles.  First, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice.  Second, the law has to be predictable and, finally, the authority has to be fair.  He applies this test to several examples, including positive parenting, an effective police program in Queens, New York and military action against civilians in Northern Ireland.  He further explains that "when law is applied in the absence of legitimacy, it does not produce obedience.  It produces the opposite.  It leads to backlash."  The author then explores how this applies to misuse of power.  He spends a lot of time discussing the California "three strikes" law  and how the extension of prison sentences over a long period of time actually led to the opposite of the desired effect (lowered crime rates).  He has compelling explanations for this, again using his "inverted U" principle.  The logic is that the same strategies that work really well at first stop working past a certain point. He concludes with a story from Nazi occupied France.  This story illustrates his point that "the powerful are not as powerful as they seem - nor the weak as weak."  Gladwell points out that "the excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.

     Gladwell's books are always entertaining, well written and thought provoking.  I admire his contrarian view of the world.  Some may argue with his statistics and others may carp about his conclusions, but no one can claim that Mr. Gladwell is not an original thinker.  

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