David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Brief Book Review)

by Harley Voogd

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling GiantsDavid and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars… This poorly titled book is full of interesting stories highlighting the often unseen advantages of the seemingly disadvantaged. But, the question which I kept asking as I read was: So, what’s the point?

Apart from the actual David vs. Goliath tale, Gladwell follows several stories to push his thesis: that the underdog, because of his disadvantage, is forced to act in ways which are unexpected, and so, give him an unexpected upper hand in a conflict…

  1. The coach of an unskilled girls basketball team, with no chance of beating other teams with taller and more experienced players, discovers that if his girls concentrate on speed they can dominate every area of the court and shut down the opportunities of the other team to shoot and play an effective traditional game style.
  2. Overly large class sizes hinder a teacher’s ability to control her class, so the obvious solution is small class sizes, right? Wrong. Class sizes which are too small hinder the learning experience for the kids in their own way. But yet, most parents hold to the idea that small class sizes are better, especially in expensive private schools.
  3. If you finish at the top of your class in mathematics, and you get accepted into MIT, you should definetely go, right? Well, not necessarily. The competitiveness at MIT is so high you might find yourself so discouraged that you’ll end up dropping out. You might be better off going to a less elite university where, still being challenged, you will be at the same level as your classmates. As Gladwell writes: Better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. The economist, Thomas Sowell, touches on this when he talks about affirmative action. Black kids, getting the highest marks on their S.A.T.’s compared to their school mates, are being let into elite schools at lower standards than normal but are later dropping out. They would do much better at schools which perform to their level.
  4. Dyslexia is a big problem for those who have it, but it also gives those same people a drive and a unique way of approaching life which opens unexpected doors.
  5. All would agree that a child dying from cancer does not need to be put through any more pain than they are experiencing already. Well, one doctor, who, because of his difficult upbringing, lacked this empathetic wisdom, and put children though painful medical treatments, and in doing so, discovered how to prevent leukaemia patients from bleeding to death.
  6. Martin Luther Kings’s team did some questionable things to get the rest of America to see the oppression the black community was suffering.
  7. The German bombing of London in WWII did not quite have the desired effect, as the survivors developed a sense of invincibility having nearly been killed but still escaping. They became indifferent to the attacks.

Those are some examples, but there are more.

Gladwell wants to persuade the reader to not always hold to the idea that might is right, or that the status quo is best, or that “the way it’s always been done” is the way to achieve.

He writes:

“…look at the shepherd [David] and the giant [Goliath] and understand where power and advantage really lie. It matters, in a hundred and specific practical ways. It affects the decisions we make as parents, the schools we choose to attend, and the way we fight wars and battle crime. It shapes the way we understand creativity and entrepreneurship and the way the oppressed seek to take on bullies and tyrants … We aren’t very good at confronting the lessons about power … Understanding the power of the underdog requires an effort. It requires standing up to conventional wisdom.” (page 294)

As I wrote above, the question I asked continuously as I read was: What’s the point? Often, the status quo is the status quo because it works. Years of experience of those who came before are what make life currently good for all. If you do find yourself the underdog, trying to change things might not be the best thing to do. The girls basketball team mentioned above just ended up pissing off all the other teams in the league. How do you know when to shake things up and when not to? I guess it depends on how revolutionary you feel.

Interesting book. It’ll make you think.

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