“David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

What happens when ordinary people confront giants? That’s the question behind “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” (2013) by author and reporter Malcolm Gladwell. It explores two ideas: how people respond to the opportunity for greatness and situations when strength can be a weakness.

The book’s title refers to the Biblical story of David and Goliath: in the 11th Century BC, the Philistine and Israelite armies faced each other across Elah Valley. The Philistines sent their greatest warrior, Goliath, to challenge the Israelites in single combat. Only David, a shepherd boy, was willing to face Goliath, but he did it on his own terms – without armor and carrying only a sling-shot. The story has come to be a metaphor for an impossible victory, but the real lesson is that while Goliath seemed to be invincible (physical strength), it was David who was more powerful (he broke the “rules” of single combat and used his speed and surprise).

Conventional wisdom tells us that stronger individuals, bigger armies, better sports teams, smaller classrooms, and better schools have the advantage; but the reality is that their strength is often their weakness, and being the underdog gives you the freedom to try different options. “David and Goliath” is a fascinating look at some of the “underdogs” who succeeded despite the odds.

Told in a series of stories, Gladwell takes examples from ordinary people, like first-time rookie basketball coach Vivek Randivé and Brownville, NY police offer Joanne Jaffe and shows how their decisions defied conventional wisdom. He also shows us how following conventional wisdom can lead to poor outcomes, such as student Caroline Sachs, who chose a top college; or the Three Strikes Law, which tried to deter and punish career people who commit multiple crimes.

According to Gladwell, here are some lessons from underdogs:

* In war: don’t fight the enemy on their terms; fight using your own strengths. Their apparent size and strength may blind them to danger and make them slow to react.

* In competitions (sports, games, academics): if you lack talent or skill, work harder. Effort and endurance can trump ability.

* In classrooms: smaller classrooms are not necessarily better; they may have too few viewpoints and inhibit discussion.

* In parenting: too little money is harmful, but too much money can create a sense of entitlement and can discourage ambition and drive.

* Choosing a college: sometimes it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond (where you can excel) than a Little Fish in a Big Pond (where you may become discouraged when you compare yourself to others – “relative deprivation”).

* Living with learning disabilities: force us to focus on our strengths. With dyslexia, people can adapt in other ways (compensation learning) such as improving our memory, and must work harder, may become more comfortable with failure, and may be less afraid.

* Living in war times: remote misses (surviving a disaster) can build courage.

* Living with difficult childhoods and parental loss: if a child’s worst fear has been realized, then having nothing to lose may lead to unexpected freedom and motivation.

* Government and teacher authority: the government and classroom teachers may seem all-powerful, but they need the support or at least tolerance of people and students. If authority is too corrupt or unfair, ordinary people may feel that they have no choice but to rebel or misbehave.

The unanswered question is: when faced with obstacles, what makes some people succeed while others fail? Why do some people thrive in adverse circumstances, and others thrive in advantageous circumstances?

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