It’s hard to believe that just six months ago, I had never read a Malcolm Gladwell book. Now, I’ve read them all. With the publication of his latest book, David and Goliath, I’m caught back up.
The book centers around two central themes that both become readily apparent from the biblical story of David and Goliath. First, things that seem like strengths can often be great hindrances. The other is that things that seem like weaknesses can often turn out to be a person or organization’s greatest strengths. This isn’t the same as how David and Goliath is usually presented. It isn’t necessarily right overpowering might. Instead, it’s that might isn’t actually mighty (despite outside appearances) and that weak can hide inner strength.
Malcolm Gladwell does a better job of explaining it than I can, so I highly recommend this TED talk which is basically a rehashing of the first chapter of this book. Further, since Dale and I listened to this as an audiobook as we’ve traveled over the last few months, I just need to shout out again that I love it when authors read their own books. It’s one of my favorite things next to food, minimal design, and throwing things away when I’m angry.
Much like Gladwell’s other books, this book takes the central themes and then explores them through a series of stories that bolster his points. In the idea of using weakness to your advantage, he talks about how the London bombings created a mass of people who were far-misses: close enough to hear the bombs, but far enough way to not see any direct damage or experience any negative outcomes. This created a hardened group of people that were psychologically immune to the blitz due to feelings of invincibility. A strategy designed to break the British spirit is the ultimate one that gave them the resolve to see things through to their victorious end. Other examples include successful people with dyslexia, the American civil rights movement, a French village in the mountain becoming a hiding place for Jews during World War II, and a Silicon Valley girls basketball team that took a zoning strategy all the way to a national championship.
Further, Gladwell shows that strength often backfires. His greatest example of this is the mess the British made in Northern Ireland trying to put down the IRA. Obviously, both sides have a lot to answer for, but the conflict has been as long and bloody as it has been due to the lack of credibility that the British had in using overwhelming force. The disenfranchised and powerless do not behave as rational actors, so extra force (what the powerful have at their disposal) becomes less and less effective over time. Instead, the overuse of force has actually been shown to worsen conflicts and deepen resentments.
While not the best Gladwell book, this is a certainly a great entry into his oeuvre. I especially found his argument related to affirmative action interesting. Gladwell once again proves that nothing is as simple as it appears at first glance because the world is truly one complicated place.
JMF Rating: 7/10
‘Til next time,