I recently finished listening to an audiobook version of Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The nonfiction piece focuses on how being an underdog can occasionally confer advantages that the “overdog” doesn’t expect.
The book uses a wide-range of examples of underdogs overcoming their disadvantages and actually using them as jumping off points to topple bigger and stronger opponents.
This isn’t a new idea to me or the world. Scholars were peddling this theory at least 1,500 years ago when the Roman Empire fell. I first read about it in Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece, Dune, where the fictional race of Freman are hardened by their desert homeland and are able to overcome the forces of the Padishah Emperor.
The first example Gladwell uses is the title of the book, David vs. Goliath. David was a scrawny little shepherd. No one expected him to defeat the huge Goliath in combat.
David of course wins due to the range and accuracy of his sling. Gladwell also speculates that Goliath had eyesight issues due to clinical gigantism which impeded his ability to dodge missiles.
David seems like the underdog due to his smaller size, but he compensates for that size in a way his opponent didn’t expect. He used a ranged weapon (in most societies this would probably be viewed as cheating in a single combat duel, but let’s move past that).
Gladwell talks about dyslexia as a form of disadvantage that can turn into an advantage. While dyslexia often hampers a person’s professional career there are also a disproportionate number of dyslexics in powerful CEO positions.
Gladwell argues that some dyslexics come up with unique strategies to overcome their disability that others do not. They often become far better listeners and conversationalists than the average person. This improved social ability allows them to easily climb the corporate ladder.
Note that this is only true if dyslexics develop a strategy to get around their hampered reading ability. Many do not and the disability remains a lifelong problem.
Gladwell also looks at underdogs in college selection, the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, and elementary school class sizes.
While it is tempting to declare Gladwell’s work as amazing and groundbreaking, I found it to be largely speculative and without a sound factual base.
Gladwell’s basic argument is that difficult conditions can produce amazing outcomes. That’s true, but do those favorable outcomes happen more often in harsh or favorable conditions? A lot of basic social research says favorable conditions are better on average.
He argues his piece well and some of the evidence against his position was published after the book, so I can’t blame him for not including it. It’s also great to have the book read by the author himself. He understands the flow of the book perfectly.
Overall, David and Goliath is interesting and worth a read/listen if you want some pop nonfiction without a definite historical focus. Just be careful that you don’t accept his stance as fact without examining the data yourself.