written by Renee Kimball
“Giants are not as powerful as they seem
and sometimes the shepherd
has a sling in his pocket.”
~ Malcom Gladwell
Malcom Gladwell is not a “new author.” He has been writing for the New York Times since 1996, and is the best-selling author of many books. But more than that, Gladwell is a one-of-a-kind writer–there is no one like him. “. . . Gladwell’s true genius lies here, in identifying common assumptions that lie just beneath the surface—beliefs that are so widely accepted, so taken for granted, that we don’t even know we believe in them.” (Adam Grant).
Gladwell’s strength is taking the ordinary and
making it interesting. (Adam Grant)
In his book David and Goliath -Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell tests our presumptions by asking us to consider two questions: When does an advantage (strong) become a disadvantage (weak)? At what point does a disadvantage (weak) become an advantage (strong)?
Gladwell shows why finding the answers are not as easy as they appear. By the end of this book, the reader finds that their once comfortable presumptions have been turned on their heads.
There is no better introduction for Gladwell’s, David and Goliath, than the story of David and Goliath – the most well-known underdog vs. giant story of all time. It is much more than we thought– David was a lucky young man who delivered a one-in-a-million shot instantly slaying the giant. David did do those things, but thanks to Gladwell, we now know there were other reasons that played a very large part in David’s victory.
No one disputes the fact that Goliath was a giant of a man for his day. He was a scary guy– overwhelmingly huge compared to others. What was not known is that Goliath suffered from a debilitating growth condition, now known as “acromegaly, a benign tumor of the pituitary gland” (Gladwell). Acromegaly caused Goliath’s unchecked growth and also impacted his eyesight–Goliath could not see well. And because of his size, Goliath’s responses were delayed, and because of his disease, he was not only slow, he could not see clearly. For this famous battle at least, these two facts substantially reduced Goliath’s chances of victory.
While Goliath was already a proven warrior, he was primarily successful engaged within hand-to-hand combat — traditional warfare. Traditional hand combat mandated certain behaviors and dress. Combatants wore a heavily armored breast plate, needed the ability to carry and wield a large and heavy sword with alacrity, must have the ability to target and throw a javelin, and all this, while wearing a heavy metal helmet.
The fully dressed combatant was restricted both in movement and sheer weight. Moreover, to be effective wielding the sword, the warrior must be very close to their opponent—face-to-face. In this story, David was at the bottom of a ravine, while Goliath was standing at the top of a slope bellowing demands while walking in a downward direction towards David. Unbeknownst to Goliath, the fight with David would not follow the familiar traditional rules of either dress, weapon, or combat, and there would be no face-to-face contact.
Unlike Goliath, the young shepherd David, had never worn armor, fought hand to hand combat, or a major battle. David was small, lithe, unencumbered, and his only weapon a sling – and in that –slinging– he was an expert. David refused an offer of armor because he knew it would weigh him down. David approached the fight with excellent eyesight, a honed skill, unburdened by armor and no predisposed concepts of traditional warfare. David would not be close enough for hand-to-hand combat, and he carried no sword.
“So here we have a big, lumbering guy weighed down with armor, who can’t see much more than a few feet in front of his face, up against a kid running at him with a devastating weapon and a rock traveling with the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun. That’s not a story of an underdog and a favorite. David has a ton of advantages in that battle, they’re just not obvious. That’s what gets the book rolling is this notion that we need to do a better job of looking at what an advantage is.” Malcom Gladwell (Interview, Inc.com)
We know the end of this story, and the underdog (weak) (disadvantaged) proves to be no underdog at all, and becomes in this situation the winner, (strong) (advantaged). This type of scrutiny is where Gladwell shines, taking a subject, stripping away assumptions, turning it on its head–making the story something else entirely.
Gladwell’s precise and skillful analysis continues on throughout the book’s nine sections, all equally thought-provoking, and all dealing with preconceived assumptions of weak and strong, advantages or disadvantages. In one of his more bewildering propositions, Gladwell questions the impact of certain types of disability and asks: Can disability ever be desirable? (Gladwell). A premise that at first blush, appears both jarring and indistinctly hopeful. We answer we cannot imagine that there is an appropriate answer.
To structure his premise, Gladwell reviews the impact of living with dyslexia – “a learning disability that makes it difficult to read, write, and spell, no matter how hard the person tries or how intelligent he or she is” (LDOnline). The root cause for dyslexia is still being studied, however, so far what we do know is that the brain’s mechanical functions are unable to link the vital connection of essential neuron transmitters that allow an individual to learn, to read, to speak, and to write.
Dyslexic individuals struggle every day, normal activities take a very long time and exhaustive concentration. Gladwell suggests that for dyslexics, the harder it is to learn, the more they excel in adulthood. The premise —they excel because they have worked so very hard from the very beginning to cope, to fit in, to make it through daily life.
This may seem improbable, but it has been found that “a high number of entrepreneurs are dyslexic” (Gladwell). Within one entrepreneurial group studied, it was found that approximately one-third of those participating had some type of learning disability. Which begs the question, would you want your child to have a disability? It is a tough question and a harder one to answer (Gladwell).
The success stories of affected individuals winning over dyslexia exist because they were forced to compensate from a very early age and developed skills to overcome learning roadblocks—they were and are, flexible and adaptive and found a way to exist in a very cloudy and disorganized world. Dyslexia forced them to learn to listen acutely, memorize large amounts of information, and develop a razor-sharp ability to read people, retain complex nuances and facts, not on paper, but in their minds. So, under Gladwell’s premise, there are benefits to a disability – which may not be easily understood.
While there is much, much more within Gladwell’s stories, in the end, the reader must decide which speaks to them. Which story is the most relatable, plausible? Gladwell writes simply, his premises, rebuttal, and results, are presented in an easy to read format while challenging the reader to think deeply.
And if you stay the course to the end of the book, you will be given a glimmer of hope, because that is what Gladwell gives – hope. Hope that despite incredible odds, things are not as they seem –there is always more. Gladwell’s gift is to leave the reader questioning everything – and that is what Gladwell does better than anyone.
Dyslexia puzzle by Gerd Altman is from Pixabay
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate, fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters, and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.