Malcolm Gladwell has made a mint taking true-life stories and statistics, then wrapping them up together into an easily digestible whole. Like the writers of Freakonomics, he trades in counter-intuitive arguments, showing how conventional wisdom is, more often than not, wrong. It’s a good hook, and he’s been successful with it over and over again. But every hook can become overused, and Gladwell’s latest, David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants, fails to recognize that rather obvious lesson.
Taking the Biblical battle in the Valley Of Elah as its titular example, David And Goliath is about people taking on forces (human, political, or within themselves) that are bigger and more powerful than they are. From the rock-slinging shepherd to Martin Luther King, Gladwell traces a number of “little guy vs. big guy” battles throughout history to show that being small or weak isn’t always a disadvantage. Sometimes, under the right circumstances, what may appear a roadblock can in fact turn out to be a deciding factor in someone’s success. David And Goliath attempts to spread out that idea over an entire book.
The problem with a lot of Gladwell’s thinking (as expertly pointed out by Steven Pinker) is that many of his “counterintuitive” arguments are anything but. The most glaring example of this is his chapter on higher education. After telling the story of a young woman who wanted to study science, but floundered in the competitive classes at Brown, Gladwell emphasizes a rather obvious point: People who do well in high school find themselves significantly more challenged in high-caliber colleges, and would do better academically at lower-tiered universities.
There is a more interesting argument in the chapter: People who excel at lower-tiered colleges are more likely to succeed than those who get middling grades at prestigious schools. But Gladwell doesn’t spend enough time teasing this claim out, instead pointing to overall rates of study between schools like Hartwick and Harvard as simple proof. Yes, these two universities may have the exact same percentage of graduates who studied STEM subjects, but what jobs did these various students go on to? What if Harvard students are, as a whole, no better off job-wise than those at Hartwick (a counterintuitive argument if there ever was one)? Gladwell is silent, content to fall back on the vague point about subjects studied instead of any real-world results.
This lack of holistic data plagues David And Goliath, especially in the chapters that deal with disabilities and early childhood trauma. Once again, Gladwell’s point is rather obvious: Sometimes, bad things make people more adept at dealing with life. (Nietzsche summed it up a century and a half ago with “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”) Devoting a chapter to dyslexia, Gladwell notes over and over again how many successful people (men, usually) are dyslexics. His point is to show that the burden of dyslexia made these people more comfortable with failure, and thus more willing to take risks. That’s great, but how many of them are CEOs? And, in terms of the overall population of dyslexics in the world, how many are highly successful? Gladwell’s point is only interesting if the proportion is a high number. If the same percentage of dyslexics and non-dyslexics are highly successful, then there’s no actual lesson to learn from the chapter. “Sometimes, for a few people, having a disability can actually teach them to cope with the world in different ways,” is somewhat intriguing as an argument. But Gladwell offers nothing beyond that trite conceit.
Platitudes aside, there are some very interesting parts to David And Goliath. Gladwell’s description of the battle between the Hebrew shepherd and the Philistine giant is chock-full of historical factoids, including how slingers in the ancient world were actually deadly accurate when whipping stones. Gladwell shows that Goliath never really had a chance against his smaller, faster foe. That is an interesting angle (as is his contention that Goliath had diplopia), but it isn’t enough for a whole book. More than anything, David And Goliath feels like one of Gladwell’s New Yorker articles stretched past his limit. Unfortunately, the book proves Steven Pinker right: Gladwell should stick to shorter works.