David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is another triumph from acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell. (I’ve reviewed his other book Tipping Point here). Starting perhaps with the iconic underdog story of our generation: David vs. Goliath, Gladwell begins to challenge our assumptions and force us to look at challenging situations from a different perspective.
For instance, in the classical biblical story, David is the outright underdog when he faces the giant Goliath, a mighty warrior over nine feet tall. Through the miraculous help of God, David emerges victorious. The danger in oversimplifying the story is that we build David’s feat up to mythic proportions, a level that none of us could dare to achieve. Yet, according to Gladwell, Goliath was in fact the underdog. He makes a convincing case from history:
- Goliath was heavy infantry, slow and cumbersome, ready to duel hand-to-hand with another heavy infantry warrior. David was artillery, a slinger. Historically, slingers were known to decimate the ranks of infantry in battles. David’s slingshot was not just a backyard toy. According to modern ballistics experts, a well trained slinger could hurl a rock with the explosiveness and impact of a fair-size modern handgun.
- Many believe that Goliath might have suffered from acromegaly — a disease caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland. It causes abnormal growth for those who suffer from it, but another dangerous side effect is that it impairs eyesight. Notice in Scripture how someone had to lead Goliath onto the battlefield, how slowly he moved, how late he saw David charging, and how he saw two sticks come at him when David was only carrying one shepherd’s staff. Not only was Goliath cumbersome and slow, he couldn’t see well.
When David charged Goliath, he trusted in his God, but it wasn’t a blind trust. David wasn’t suicidal; he knew what he was doing. Goliath was the true underdog.
This role reversal drives the crux of this book, as Gladwell looks at conceptions we have about life and turns them on their head. He explains how a newcomer to basketball took his underachieving girls team all the way to the state finals, all by looking at the game from a different perspective. He challenges the assumption that smaller class sizes in education is always a good thing.
A fascinating topic for me was his discussion of higher education. For so long, we’ve held to the belief that the better the college, the greater our chance at success. If we had the opportunity to attend an Ivy League university or a state college, for instance, we should always choose the Ivy League school. Gladwell begs to differ. He notes that the average ACT scores of Ivy League attendees are always higher than those attending state colleges, yet the dropout rate is the exact same. The lowest tier of test scores at an Ivy League school are higher than the highest scores at a mid-level college, yet the dropout rate is the exact same. The answer? Sometimes it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. Your sense of achievement is determined not by your actual success, but by how successful you are in comparison with those around you. Although the bottom tier of students at Ivy League schools would have been the star students in a mid-level college, they viewed their success as compared to their immediate environment, and saw only failure. Thus, they dropped their chosen major. Sometimes, bigger isn’t always better.
Gladwell tackles this issue from two sides: sometimes things we think are advantages are actually disadvantages. For instance, he spends a chapter showing how kids raised in homes that are too affluent tend to struggle more in life than those that aren’t. But the opposite is actually true as well. Sometimes things we think are disadvantages can actually become advantages. He looks at the disproportional amount of business leaders, CEOs and iconic figures that are dyslexic, something we would all think is a disadvantage. What he discovered is that in the process of overcoming a difficulty, these figures developed a deeper strength that propelled them to untold heights. He also looked at the fact that a large majority of recent British Prime Ministers lost a parent growing up, something we would all hold to be a disadvantage.
All in all, I would highly recommend this book, if for no other reason than to challenge your view of the status quo.
1. I am a huge Malcom Gladwell fan. I’ve read several of his books now, and one of the things that separates him from the millions of pages of copy out there is his ability to challenge our assumptions and shed light on what seem to be unexplainable mysteries to many. Reading his works will keep your mind fresh and sharp.
2. Gladwell punched through the myth of David and Goliath without questioning its veracity. I’m thankful for that. After reading Gladwell’s explanation of David and Goliath, David looks much less like a myth and much more like a man. I think that’s needed. The heroes of Scripture can too easily become larger than life, leaving us to feel like we could never accomplish what they did. Although Gladwell’s theories about Goliath are just that, theories, they make sense to me.
3. I was challenged to try and see my disadvantages as advantages. An invigorating exercise took place among my staff after reading this book. We took time to list some of the greatest ‘disadvantages’ facing Mt Vernon. Then, in the spirit of Gladwell’s book, we discussed how those disadvantages could turn out to be advantages for us. It was a worthwhile exercise that helped us see some of our biggest challenges from a different perspective.
4. A book doesn’t need to be overtly Christian to be helpful. I read a healthy diet of Christian and non-Christians books. I’m not ashamed to say that I gain just as much benefit from those books written for the secular marketplace. All truth is God’s truth.