David and Goliath. Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath. Little, Brown, New York, 2013. NF;10/17.

A conversation between Gladwell, who is a New Yorker journalist and writer, and Michael Lewis, a more prolific nonfiction author (Moneyball, The Big Short) appeared in the most recent Paris Review (issue 222) and I was impressed with Gladwell’s appearing to be a champion of the underdog. Self-effacing, and sporting a wry sense of humour.

In this book he makes much of the idea that ordinary people can take advantage of the fact that all is often not what it seems. Many of his examples are biblical, including that most famous underdog, the shepherd boy David, who dispatches with a single stone the acromegalic giant who looked to everybody like he was invincible. There is an advantage to disadvantage (and disadvantage to advantage) Gladwell tells us. Other examples he describes include Vivek Ranadive, a Silicon Valley software engineer from India who agrees to coach his 12-year-old daughter’s basketball team, even though almost none of the girls had any basketball skills and Ranadive had never played, or even really seen, the game.

The coach appreciates a weakness in excellent basketball teams’ strategy: there are time limits on getting the ball in play and carrying it across centre court, and with the help of an experienced older girl he teaches his team to find ways to stop the other team getting the ball in play, and to deploy a relentless full-court press. The team therefore wins by scoring a few layup baskets because they effectively prevent the opposition from shooting. They made it to the national finals.

Gladwell describes an inverted U-shaped curve that shows, for example, that while raising children requires enough money to support them, the benefit children get from affluence falls off when it becomes excessive. “You can rely on your old man’s money” as the song goes. Children of very rich parents may unknowingly face a trap of having no idea how to deal with adversity. The curve also applies to the benefits of small class size in schools, and along similar lines to very bright kids who get into top-notch universities like Harvard and Stanford but who sometimes find themselves at the bottom end of an extreme elite. In fact in studies these students do worse in professional and other aspects of life than big frogs in small ponds who, while not as bright, graduate in the top third of much more modest schools.

Kids who have no experience of adversity are an example of what Gladwell calls “the theory of desirable difficulty”. Certain dyslexics are forced by struggling with language to achieve greatness. The tortoise fools the rabbit into losing the race. And power has limits. British soldiers couldn’t suppress with overwhelming force the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. “Three strikes and you’re out” laws in California produced no real improvement in criminality, whereas forgiving, difficult as it may be, someone who seriously harms you may leave you in a better place.

And so on. The examples are impressive. An afterword describes the disagreement between Leon Goure, favoured advisor to the US military in the Vietnam war, who believed that victory was inevitable through sheer massive weight of bombing, and Konrad Kellen who understood that the Vietcong would never give up.

Gladwell has a lovely storytelling style, and begins each chapter with an interesting and engaging story about someone we may never have heard of who turns out to be a very special character. But I found myself wondering just what we were being asked to celebrate except for the very obvious: little guys sometimes prevail over big ones. Someone like me (like, I imagine, most of us and at one time or another pretty well everybody) identifies with that. I was absolutely head over heels in love with ice hockey goalkeeping when I was fourteen. But I lacked the determination, speed, skill, size and strength to amount to anything but an over-padded slowpoke with pucks flying past me into the net. How I fantasized about beating the odds and being a star! It didn’t happen.

This inspiring work is packed with wonderful anecdotes, but I didn’t seem to feel the author himself. Little guys, poor boys, ignoramuses, sceptics, and humble people inspire when they succeed, but in spite of the wonderful exceptions in David and Goliath most of us still have to fly in the teeth of life’s cruel storm. Although our author may have been an exception to the rule that success is directly related to assets, he looks to this frustrated aging nonfiction wanabee to be sitting reasonably pretty at the New Yorker.

Compare the humility implied here to what I later encountered in Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton. For this book to inspire me  as that one did I’d need to be getting at Malcolm Gladwell’s own personal struggles, or be really dazzled by unusual literary grace and charm.

7.9/8.8

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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