Malcolm Gladwell’s new book redefines the underdog | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Malcolm Gladwell says the craziest things. The frizzy-haired New Yorker staff writer became a best-selling author by advocating the counter-intuitive.


In blockbuster books like 2000’s “The Tipping Point” (change through critical mass); 2005’s “Blink” (sudden decisions); 2008’s “Outliers” (the effect of environment); and the 2009 anthology “What the Dog Saw,” Gladwell entertains and enlightens by saying we need to look at the world more closely.


The evocative manner with which he writes and explains has won him a loyal yet discriminating following. A much sought-after speaker, he’s become a franchise by himself, to the point that he even has his own distinctive cover design for his books.


But no matter how famous he’s gotten, Gladwell clearly hasn’t forgotten about the little guy. In his newest book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants” (Little, Brown, New York, 2013, 305 pages), Gladwell is saying the most outrageous thing so far. He points out that we’ve been looking at the world incorrectly the whole time.


“All these years, we’ve been telling these kinds of stories wrong,” he writes. “‘David and Goliath’ is about getting them right.” He begins with the biblical example of David and Goliath and explains how David, the supposed underdog, was going to win every single time. “Giants are not what we think they are,” he warns. It’s a combination of medical problem (Goliath had one) and a long-range weapon (David had that), among other specific conditions that added up to victory for the Israeli shepherd. “Underdogs win all the time,” he says.


From there, Gladwell launches into his trademark progression of one unusual case study after another, each one fascinating by itself, illustrating how “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”


Why isn’t this obvious to everyone? It’s because “underdog strategies are hard.”


Most radical yet


Truth be told, “David and Goliath” is Gladwell’s most radical volume yet, because he posits something that is really hard to believe. He poetically calls it “the advantages of disadvantages,” identifying them as “desirable difficulties.”


In short, Gladwell believes that being a Big Fish in a Small Pond is better. He advocates the idea that dyslexia could be good for you, that losing a parent early in life can lead to greatness as a leader.


It’s unthinkable but enthralling. As examples, Gladwell presents Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, dot-com money man Vivek Ranadivé, medical pioneer Emil Freireich and civil rights activist Wyatt Walker, among others.


He writes from ancient Palestine and occupied France to Birmingham, Alabama and Northern Ireland, about victims and heroes, basketball and the Blitz—enough to keep you guessing and constantly surprised.


The best thing about “David and Goliath,” as always, is Gladwell’s writing, which is stunning in its elegance. You can just read sentence after sentence and swoon.


Even his footnotes are interesting; his endnotes are like a companion volume when read on their own.


He helps make the science behind workaday life come to life; that’s why his readers adore him.


With its ascending structure and polemic intensity, “David and Goliath” is provocative because Gladwell discusses the relationship of the weak and the powerful. It’s like he’s telling you the secret behind the magic trick—but that it really isn’t a trick to begin with. By making his most counter-intuitive claims yet, Gladwell is also opening himself up to criticism that he presents anecdotes instead of evidence, that he makes connections between events for his story’s convenience.


Whether Gladwell completely succeeds in backing up all his asymmetric assertions—whether he gets it right—is up to you, but getting to this point of the discussion is the whole idea. Like Gladwell’s other books, “David and Goliath” challenges you by making you think, and rethink, what is happening around you. With his eye-opening redefinition of what makes an underdog, Malcolm Gladwell is inviting you to the big, new argument—and what a beautiful, breathtaking argument it is.


Available in paperback at National Book Store.

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