Malcolm Gladwell loves to challenge the obvious. Or at least what we all believe is the obvious. As a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of four previous books, he has created a niche for himself by questioning assumptions that we hold as blatant, undeniable, indisputable truths.
And he often proves them wrong.
Or he proves them right after all — but for a completely different reason than we ever imagined.
The beauty of Gladwell’s role as an intellectual provocateur is that he jolts us into seeing things anew. His New York Times bestsellers include What the Dog Saw, Outliers, Blink, and The Tipping Point, which all present fresh views of cultural commonplaces, from the mystique of ketchup to hero legends. Add to these his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (Little, Brown, 2013), which shot straight up the bestseller lists and begins by reappraising one of the most famous stories of the Bible.
Gladwell counterintuitively explains that David actually had everything on his side: speed, maneuverability, and a sling and stone that were deadly from a distance. Goliath didn’t stand a chance, and he should have turned tail to run for the hills.
Our latter-day misunderstanding of the truths behind the story of David and Goliath is itself the parable upon which Gladwell’s book is based. The first section is titled “The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages).”
“We spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that prestige and resources and belonging to elite institutions make us better off,” he writes. “We don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways in which those kinds of material advantages limit our options.” And vice versa.
In the end, David and Goliath is a book of empowerment. It’s not feel-good self-help pabulum. Rather, Gladwell tells the stories of regular folk who are true Davids defeating real-world Goliaths, like childhood leukemia, civil-rights injustices, and even governments. And that’s inspiring.
Q & A With Malcolm Gladwell
Experience Life | We often hold up the biblical story of David and Goliath as the ultimate underdog legend. Why after all these years do we still misunderstand the tale?
Malcolm Gladwell | I begin David and Goliath with a reanalysis of that story, in which I point out that Goliath is a good deal less formidable than he appears, and David is a good deal more dangerous than he appears. David’s victory is not as widely improbable as we think, in other words.
Why have we misunderstood that story? Maybe it’s because we find it more exciting and romantic to imagine David’s victory as a one-in-a-million occurrence. It makes for a better story if we see him as weak and Goliath as indomitable. But my argument is that that version of the story makes us blind to the fact that underdogs are rarely as powerless as they seem. When we really understand that story, it becomes an incredibly hopeful message for those who appear weak.
EL | What is it about the underdog that fascinates us so much? Why do we often ignore our common sense and want to root for the underdog?
MG | Is rooting for the underdog a failure of common sense? I’m not sure. I think the problem is that a world where the obvious favorite always wins is incredibly depressing for the rest of us. We need underdogs to win in order to feel like society is just and that those without obvious advantages stand a chance.
EL | Are there lessons we can learn for our own lives from the concept of underdogs?
MG | Absolutely. A number of the chapters in David and Goliath are about people who turned what seemed like disadvantages into advantages because they refused to be passive in the face of adversity. One of the chapters is about how many dyslexics end up as successful entrepreneurs. I talked to many people like this, and what was fascinating was how many of them said that their success came not in spite of their disability but because of it. Because they couldn’t read, they forced themselves to learn other things to compensate. You make it through school, if you can’t do the thing that schools require of you, by forming alliances with good students, negotiating with teachers, becoming a really good problem solver, learning how to delegate responsibilities, learning how to listen — all the things, in short, that will end up serving you very well in the real world. What all those people had in common, in other words, was a refusal to think of their disability as a disability. They viewed it as an opportunity to learn a new way of doing things. That’s the lesson the rest of us can learn.
EL | Do you think it’s important or topical that we rethink this myth right now? Is there something about our current times that demands it?
MG | We live in a time when the rules about advantages and disadvantages are being rewritten overnight. It used to be a huge advantage in all kinds of businesses to be the biggest and most established player. Now, suddenly, it’s not. Netflix — which didn’t exist two decades ago — is more powerful than some of the old-world television networks. I feel like everything is up for grabs right now, which makes the kind of conversation I hope to start with David and Goliath very useful.
EL | In Outliers, you examine highly successful people and the sometimes hidden or unrecognized advantages they had that helped them succeed. Do you view the stories in David and Goliath as the opposite: underdogs, who use their disadvantages to their advantage?
MG | Not the opposite, exactly. But David and Goliath clearly grows out of Outliers: It’s an attempt to take the lessons of that book and look at them on a personal level, and with a much greater level of detail.
EL | Can you explain the concept of “desirable difficulties” and how they inform some people’s personalities and become an advantage?
MG | “Desirable difficulties” is a lovely term coined by two academics at UCLA — psychologists Elizabeth and Roger Bjork. It refers to the idea that certain kinds of obstacles can prove advantageous. They have done a ton of work on learning, for example. Sometimes a student does a better job of learning difficult material, for example, when the process of learning is made even more difficult. That’s a desirable difficulty.
The question then is, what kinds of difficulties are desirable? When is an obstacle not an obstacle? I tell the fascinating story in the book of how people during the London Blitz responded to being bombed night after night by the Germans during the Second World War. Contrary to expectations, most Londoners were not traumatized by the bombing. In fact, most quickly became resistant to it: They realized that they were far more courageous than they had imagined. The difficulty caused by the bombing was — in the way that it affected people’s attitudes during wartime — desirable.
EL | Much of your writing offers us a window to seeing the world a bit differently from the truths or perceptions that we may take for granted. Why do you think people have so many hidden or subconscious misperceptions about the world?
MG | Oh, wow. A great question. What’s that great line from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”? “All lies and jest / Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” We’re really great as human beings at seeing the world through our own experience and biases. Much of my work is about trying to imagine situations and experiences through someone else’s eyes — and then trying to account for the difference between our perspective and theirs. The chapter on Northern Ireland, for example, is an attempt to look at what happened there through the eyes of the Catholic minority — and especially the IRA, which is normally thought of as a terrorist group. It’s really hard to look at the world through the eyes of a terrorist. But I think it is important for us to do that, from time to time.
EL | How do you approach writing a book: Do you start with a theory and strive to prove it? Or do you find a crack in a common perception and use that as a wedge to break it open?
MG | Usually, I find a powerful idea from psychology or economics or sociology, and look for ways to bring the idea to life. So, for the chapter on parental loss and “remote misses,” for example, I became fascinated by the literature on resilience: on the notion that under some circumstances hard times make us stronger. That idea was the core of the story I tell about Emil Freireich, the remarkable, brilliant — and damaged — man who cured childhood leukemia. That remains my favorite chapter in the whole book.
EL | What was your most memorable experience in researching or writing David and Goliath?
MG | For the chapter on the troubles in Northern Ireland, I spent a summer hanging around Belfast. It was an eye-opening experience. Here was a mythical conflict — that dragged on for 30 years, engaged one of the world’s most powerful countries, and claimed countless lives — and much of the conflict took place in a neighborhood so small you could walk around it in an hour and a half. It was a sobering reminder that when a group of people is determined to fight — no matter how seemingly powerless or small they appear — they can fight for a long time.
EL | What do you hope people learn and take away from your books?
MG | All my books are about the same thing: They are invitations to think about the world in a slightly different — and more hopeful — way.
This article originally appeared as “The Power of the Underdog” in the March 2014 issue of Experience Life.