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Malcolm Gladwell has a niche. He develops theories to explain stories, people or events that most of us recognise, even though we might be hazy on the details. Whether it is Paul Revere’s ride through the night to alert the Patriots about the British Army’s advances in The Tipping Point, a fireman instinctively ordering his team out of a house just before it collapsed in Blink, or the circumstances that led to The Beatles and Bill Gates becoming successful in Outliers, Gladwell has a pattern for his writing.
Firstly, his readers must have an opinion on what happened, so he usually starts with a well-known example. For the less familiar cases that follow he sets out the conventional or accepted view first and the reader, by now eagerly anticipating Gladwell’s brilliant insight, reads on. Gladwell duly delivers, and there’s a sense of gratification all round.
When The Tipping Point became a bestseller, you could hear marketing people around the world exclaiming that all they needed was to identify the mavens, connectors and salesmen, and huge increases in sales would follow. Blink provided a handy treatise to wave at your boss when he asked you to plan your work more carefully. And how many would-be prodigies started counting progress towards 10,000 hours of practice after reading Outliers?
All of Gladwell’s books are full of insights and observations but Outliers and The Tipping Point are easily the strongest, because they come with what seems to be a fully formed thesis.
But all his books suffer from the general shortcoming the genre faces, which is a failure to present a counter-argument, and an absence of any failures. No-one has sought out geeks who programmed as children, were born at the right time, had the computer access and other advantages Bill Gates benefitted from, and then failed to found one of the world’s richest and most powerful computer firms. And there must be some.
Outliers and The Tipping Point carry their argument so well you can accept what’s missing and read them for what they are. But when I read Blink a few years ago, it felt like Gladwell was forcing it. Or perhaps he needed to let the idea rest for a while, then come back to it, to lift the proposition up, make it stronger. I feel the same about David & Goliath.
What is Gladwell’s theory here? It’s hard to say. The people we think are weak are not actually weak? Hardly a blinding insight. But had he worked on that alone, the book might have been stronger. The characters in the title speak for themselves. David had a strength that Goliath didn’t recognise – or if he did, he couldn’t do anything about it. Goliath had weaknesses David knew about. Or did he? Even in the introductory section which describes this ancient story, Gladwell casts doubt on his own thesis.
As the book progresses through three sections, each with three chapters, the themes and ideas get muddled very quickly. Section 1 sees people or teams that turn actual disadvantages into advantages, or work harder to overcome them, or do something else…and already we have several different things going on. Section 2 posits the idea that being difficult, or finding something difficult, or being different, can drive you to succeed. No surprises there. And Section 3 tackles the idea of the limits of power by looking at people who in some way defied authority. Can you see a strong, cohesive thesis here? I didn’t think so. The common threads are tentative, at best.
That’s not to say the book is without merit. Gladwell can still spin a tale. I particularly liked the chapter about the junior girls basketball team, coached by someone who’d never played basketball, who employed a press defence all the time and started beating everyone. It was as if Wairarapa-Bush had decided to play 14 big forwards plus a runner, put the 14 into every ruck and maul, and started beating everyone because the other side could never get hold of the ball. But pairing that with a Goldilocks theory (Too big, too small = bad; In the middle = good) of class sizes?
From construction worker to ace litigator
His account of how the dyslexic David Boies went from construction worker to ace litigator is quite moving, but in the same section he includes an account of part of the US civil rights movement which, while fascinating, doesn’t seem to really line up with his theory at all. And towards the end of the book when he tries to use the Troubles in Northern Ireland, or California’s three strikes law, to examine the limits of power he comes unstuck, not because it isn’t legitimate, but because it is complex and, again, doesn’t really fit with what’s gone before.
David & Goliath undoubtedly has some interesting ideas, but it reads like a collection rather than a coherent whole. As I read the book, I imagined how you could take any one of the nine chapters, go deeper, and find many more interesting and moving insights. And then, at the end, I found that Gladwell has provided nearly twenty pages of detailed chapter notes with sources, additional reading and other material. It’s as if he knows full well the shortcomings of David & Goliath and has given his disappointed readers a pile of treasure to make up for it.
Reviewed by C P Howe
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants
by Malcolm Gladwell
Published by Penguin