Mike Kueber's Blog

December 15, 2013

Sunday Book Review #116 – David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 11:28 am
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Gladwell has become one of the most popular nonfiction authors in America.  Starting with The Tipping Point, he followed-up with Blink and Outliers, all huge successes.  His newest book, David and Goliath, as noted in the book’s jacket, continues Gladwell’s tradition of combining “history, psychology, and powerful story-telling.”

Outliers, which is my favorite Gladwell book, examined some of the underlying reasons for an individual’s success.  David and Goliath looks at that same issue from a different, narrower perspective.  Gladwell’s newest book scrutinizes situations where, ostensibly against all odds, an individual succeeds.

Obviously, the biblical tale of David and Goliath is the quintessential example of an individual succeeding against all odds.  But upon closer analysis, Gladwell concludes that the D&G matchup was actually a mismatch in favor of David and his sling, based on dynamics similar to the rock, paper, scissors game.

Rock, paper, scissors?  Let Malcolm explain.  In D&G days, there were infantry, cavalry, and projectile warriors:

  • With their long pikes and armor, infantry could stand up to cavalry.  Cavalry could, in turn, defeat projectile warriors because the horses moved to quickly for the artillery to take proper aim.  And projectile warriors were deadly against infantry because a big, lumbering soldier, weighed down with armor, was a sitting duck for a slinger who was launching projectiles from a hundred yards away.”

Gladwell analyzed other facets of the D&G fight, but this was essentially paper covering a rock.  Or in a similarly colorful Gladwell analogy, Goliath went to a gun fight with a knife.

Subsequent chapters in the book examined other situations (a) where the ostensible advantage was actually disadvantageous (sometimes called affluenza), or (b) where significant disadvantages forced individuals to be creative (think out of the box) and develop alternative strategies that enabled the person to overcome those disadvantages.  Being born with dyslexia, like famous lawyer David Boies, is an example of this latter situation.

I found the second and third chapters to be the most interesting.  The second chapter dealt with optimal class size in elementary and secondary schools.  Before directly addressing schools and class size, Gladwell showed how successful parenting is easier with more money, but only up to a certain point, where additional money does not help and eventually makes successful parenting more difficult.  Intuitively, that makes sense and is reflected in an inverted-U curve.  Gladwell extended the same inverted-U concept to schools.  Smaller class size facilitates successful teaching, but only to a certain point, beyond which there are a plethora of problems created by a too-small class; e.g., too dominated by a bully, no individual autonomy, less likely to find intellectual peers, not enough variety of opinions in discussion, etc.

The third chapter concerned whether an individual was better off getting into the best possible university.  According to Gladwell, there was strong evidence that kids were much more likely to succeed in life if they attended an average university where they were strong students instead of an excellent university where they would feed at the bottom of food chain.  The former kid will flourish; the latter will flounder.  An obvious application of this concept would be affirmative action, which Gladwell concluded was counter-productive.

From a personal perspective, there is an argument that this concept applied to me at the University of Texas Law School, an excellent university where I just barely achieved admission and where my studies floundered.  But I disagree with that argument as applied to me because I had already downgraded the importance of academic excellence before enrolling at UT, as reflected by my mediocre grades during my last year of college at UND.  And my self-esteem was fine during UT-Law days and I always felt that I could compete academically with my classmates if that were a priority to me.  But, in general, the concept makes sense.

As with Gladwell’s earlier books, D&G contains some weak chapters, but overall this book is well worth reading.


p.s., the following is an interesting tidbit from Gladwell regarding Harvard’s attempt to deal with class standing:

Affirmative action at Harvard

Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath described the psychological effect on kids in elite schools like Harvard when they find themselves a class position to which they are unfamiliar – i.e., bottom of the class:

  • By the way, do you know what elite institution has recognized this very fact about the dangers of the Big Pond for nearly fifty years?  Harvard!  In the 1960s, Fred Glimp took over as director of admissions and instituted that was known as the “happy-bottom quarter” policy.  In one of his first memos after taking office, he wrote: “Any class, not matter how able, will always have a bottom quarter.  What are the effects of the psychology of feeling average, even in a very able group?  Are there identifiable types with the psychological or what-not tolerance to be ‘happy’ or to make the most of education while in the bottom quarter?”  He knew exactly how demoralizing the Big Pond was to everyone but the best.  To Glimp’s mind, his job was to find students who were tough enough and had enough achievements outside the classroom to be able to survive the stress of being Very Small Fish in Harvard’s Very Large Pond.  Thus did Harvard begin the practice (which continues to this day) of letting in substantial numbers of gifted athletes who have academic qualifications well below the rest of their classmates.  If someone is going to be cannon fodder in the classroom, the theory goes, it’s probably best if that person has an alternative avenue of fulfillment on the football field.  Exactly the same logic applies to the debate over affirmative action.

Based on Gladwell’s book notes, this information came from a 2006 book by Jerome Karabel – The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

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