A victim of his success: Malcolm Gladwell's "David and Goliath"


gladwell cover
gladwell cover

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Little, Brown), came out this week, and let's get one thing out of the way: if you're a Gladwell hater, this book will not change your mind. Critics of Gladwell's selective and biased use of facts (see here and here, for example) will find plenty to complain about, and I have little to add to the comments of other reviewers who have already observed that logical flaws in this book's stories may be even more glaring than they were in his prior works. But to fans, Gladwell's gift has been his ability to use these stories to illuminate intriguing aspects of human nature. And although it's dangerous to uncritically use Gladwell's examples to "play the process forward" (as discussed here by healthcare writer David Shaywitz), there's no denying that his works have helped introduce some fascinating social science ideas to a broader audience. In the business circles in which I travel, for example, it's hard to find someone who hasn't thought about the implications of memes like "tipping point", "connectors" or "ten thousand hours". Smart businesspeople recognize the limitations of Gladwell's rhetoric while seeking to use these concepts to challenge their preconceptions and explore novel solutions and ideas.

The measure of a Gladwell book's impact is its ability to expand your horizons and consider new aspects of how the world works. In David and Goliath, Gladwell uses stories spanning topics like middle-school basketball, Nazi Germany, dyslexia and leukemia clinical research to put forward two theses. First, he suggests that "much of what we consider valuable in the world arises out of ... lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty." Second, he argues that we confuse our perception of strengths and weaknesses in these situations, by under-appreciating the flaws in the former and the benefits of the latter.

One reason why this book may not create the "aha" effect of some of Gladwell's prior efforts is that these simply aren't such new ideas. In the business world, for example, the point that Goliath's strengths could be his very undoing has been made by Clayton Christensen and others who have correlated large companies' size, structure and ingrained ideas of how to succeed with an inability to innovate and adapt. And as for David, stories of overcoming adversity and turning deficits into assets feel like fodder for the paperback self-help aisle, and even some of the specific examples that Gladwell cites, like dyslexia, are old news. There may still be room to explore how to capitalize on one's shortcomings or avoid succumbing to one's strengths, but the what has already been described.

And that leads us to Gladwell's second, and most formidable, challenge: the rules of popular social science writing have changed under his feet. When The Tipping Point was published in 2000, there was a freshness to a skilled writer using a mixture of anecdotes and secondary research to introduce a complex but intriguing psychology concept to the public. But today, not only is Gladwell's hybrid narrative/research format mainstream, it's been taken to the next level by bona fide academics like Daniel Kahneman and Angela Duckworth, who bolster their innovative ideas and well-honed rhetoric with rigorous data and analytics worthy of scientific journals. Gladwell's defining (and previously unique) ability to layer just enough data into a compelling narrative to drive home the point, honed in the pages of The New Yorkeris now his greatest weakness, and having helped create and popularize a literary genre, Gladwell himself is now the vulnerable Goliath. Here's hoping he can learn from the examples in his new book how to avoid succumbing to his own strengths.