Malcolm Gladwell: fear the underdog

But is he past his own tipping point?

david and goliath

A new Malcolm Gladwell book isn’t a publication, it’s an event. Since The Tipping Point was published 13 years ago, the New Yorker staff writer has made himself comfortable at the top of bestseller lists, built a lucrative second career on the corporate speaking circuit, inspired a mini-boom of counterintuitive quasi-academic books, and helped define this TED-talk era of public intellectualism. More than an author, Gladwell is an industry.

Like the latest iPhone or Grand Theft Auto game, a new Gladwell release promises pleasing tweaks on a popular brand. In this case, that means the familiar cover with its white field and small graphic in the centre, the breezily intelligent cocktail-party prose, and the anecdotes from disparate worlds tied together neatly with a satisfyingly quirky Big Idea. The world is more complicated than you think, Gladwell tells us. Then he offers a simple explanation.

In his latest book, David and Goliath, the Ontario-born writer focuses his attention on underdogs and how they can overcome seemingly insurmountable disadvantages. The story of David and Goliath, as traditionally told, is about a young shepherd who slays a giant in battle against enormous odds. In truth, Gladwell writes, we should have considered David the favourite the moment he entered the Valley of Elah with his sling. In those days, projectile warriors like David, armed with mere stones, regularly defeated heavy infantry, clumsier fighters weighed down by armor. Goliath was expecting hand-to-hand combat with a fellow warrior. David changed the rules on him.

This is the problem with giants, Gladwell argues: “The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.” Moreover, being an underdog can lead a person to change the way he or she operates. Underdogs take risks and chart strange new paths that the conventionally powerful rarely attempt.

“All these years, we’ve been telling these kinds of stories wrong,” Gladwell writes. To illustrate his point, Gladwell zips across continents and decades, telling tales from Nazi-occupied France, elementary schools in Connecticut, and the first exhibition of the impressionists. He writes about a talentless girls basketball team that resorted to the strategy of the insurgent, playing an exhausting full-court press to compensate for their lack of traditional skills. He details the strategies of leaders of the civil rights movement—puny Davids in their fight against entrenched giants—and compares them to the “trickster hero” of African-American folklore, who breaks the rules because he has nothing to lose. He writes about Gary Cohn, who was so dyslexic as a child he was held back a year. Suffering through that adversity, he gained a fearlessness that helped him become the president of Goldman Sachs.

In one particularly compelling chapter, Gladwell tells the story of Jay Freireich, a son of Hungarian immigrants, who had a horrible, impoverished childhood. His father died when he was a child. His family lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. He has no warm memories of his mother.

Freireich eventually became a doctor, and found himself in the children’s leukemia ward of the National Cancer Institute. There, the cantankerous and often brutish physician bulldozed through social niceties and conventional wisdom, ignoring professional criticism and even the pain and suffering of young children to help develop a successful treatment that eventually saved thousands of lives.

According to Gladwell, Freireich wasn’t able to succeed despite his awful upbringing: his childhood suffering was essential to his achievements. Freireich’s advantage was that he had seen the worst and no longer feared it. Gladwell writes that a disproportionately large number of renowned people, from British prime ministers to famous poets, lost a parent while they were young. “Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all,” he writes.

The Freireich story is carefully chosen and beautifully told. It is uplifting and fascinating, like the vast majority of Gladwell’s anecdotes. It isn’t, however, a particularly convincing illustration of his point.

Perhaps that’s because, after five books and countless inspiring fables, the reader begins to see the strings. As compelling as some of Gladwell’s stories are, they are quite explicitly the exceptions, not the rule. Freireich lost a parent and helped cure childhood leukemia but, as Gladwell mentions in passing, prisoners are also two to three times more likely to have lost a parent than the rest of the population. Cohn’s dyslexia may indeed have built up stores of fearlessness and allowed him to be more “disagreeable”—a characteristic Gladwell argues is necessary for true innovation—but this is hardly the fate of most people with severe learning disabilities. “Dyslexia doesn’t necessarily make people more open,” Gladwell admits at one point, before soldiering on: “But the most tantalizing possibility raised by the disorder is that it might make it a little bit easier to be disagreeable.” Gladwell has made a career of choosing the most tantalizing possibility over the most likely.

We shouldn’t judge him too harshly. Gladwell is a natural optimist, which is a large part of his appeal. When he writes about underdogs, he chooses not to dwell on the fact that banking on the hugely powerful is often the safest bet. And in the end, “All these years we’ve been wrong” is a much more compelling pitch than “things mostly work much the way you would assume.”

After all, this is how intellectual giants are made—not by following the rules of dusty academia, but by following the most tantalizing, counterintuitive ideas to their delightful conclusions. A kid from Elmira, Ont., doesn’t become a Goliath of the publishing world by writing predictable stories about learning disabled kids who struggle through life, orphans who end up in jail, and skilled basketball teams that defeat the scrubs. Goliath beating David isn’t a story. It happens every day.