Park Slope

In Brooklyn, Malcolm Gladwell dissects ‘David and Goliath’

Brooklyn BookBeat: Author spoke, signed books in Park Slope

December 6, 2013 By Samantha Samel Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Most of us know the story of David and Goliath as it’s traditionally told: shepherd boy David, in spite of his comparatively diminutive stature and seemingly inferior weaponry, manages to defeat the giant Goliath when the two engage in battle. Simply put, as bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell writes in his latest book, the tale has long served “as a metaphor for improbable victory.” 

But Gladwell’s book, titled “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” (Little, Brown and Company), challenges this traditional analysis of the story. As Gladwell told a crowd in Park Slope on Thursday, he was moved to write this book because “as a kid you identify with [David] in a way, so [the story] was always in the back of my mind.” Upon further examination, Gladwell saidhe realized the story is much more complicated than it seems at first glance.

Gladwell spoke at Congregation Beth Elohim at a ‘Brooklyn By The Book’ event, co-hosted by Community Bookstore and the Brooklyn Public Library. Community Bookstore and the Congregation, two Park Slope institutions, partnered to create the wildly popular series in fall 2012.

The author appeared in conversation with Bruce Headlam, managing editor of video content development for The New York Times. The two, who coincidentally grew up in the same town in Ontario, discussed, with a distinctively intimate and humorous rapport, one of the chief questions raised in Gladwell’s book: Why do so many misunderstand who has the upper hand in David vs. Goliath fights?

Gladwell suggests that our views surrounding power are misguided. While most associate power most closely with physical strength, Gladwell explains in the introduction to his book that “power can come in other forms as well—in breaking rules, in substituting speed and surprise for strength.” In the case of David and Goliath’s encounter, Gladwell says we must look at David more closely: what the boy lacks in size he makes up for in quickness and cleverness. “David broke the rules,” Gladwell pointed out on Thursday, noting David’s audacity. “You were supposed to fight sword-for-sword…the sling is such a devastating weapon; it’s outrageous in this kind of awesome way.” 

The author contends, too, that we should more closely examine Goliath’s circumstances, rather than assume his physical stature is ultimately advantageous. Gladwell points out that Goliath’s enormous size, many medical experts believe, also caused him to behave like “someone suffering from what is called acromegaly – a disease caused by a benign tumor [that] causes an overproduction of human growth hormone […] one of the side effects of acromegaly is vision problems.” Gladwell makes the case that perhaps those with great physical power might be masking other shortcomings that can thwart their abilities when engaging in an argument or fight.

Gladwell elaborates on this theory throughout his book, analyzing “the advantages of disadvantages (and the disadvantages of advantages),” and applying his analysis to real-life people and situations. He goes on to examine a wide range of subjects, among them short teenage girls who play basketball, a school teacher with an intimidatingly large classroom, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, Goldman Sachs president Gary D. Cohn and world-famous trial lawyer David Boies.

When considering Boies, Gladwell notes that the lawyer emerged from humble beginnings; he was raised in rural Illinois, worked in construction upon graduating high school and thought little about going to college until his wife strongly encouraged the idea. All the while he struggled with dyslexia. To compensate for his difficulty in reading, though, Boies honed other skills – among them listening, observation and memory – which eventually aided his success in the courtroom.

Gladwell and Headlam’s discussion on Thursday also focused heavily on education, as much of Gladwell’s research for “David and Goliath” examined the effects of class size and of being in the bottom third of a college class. He spoke to teachers who revealed that classes, when too small, seem ineffective, and one teacher he spoke with revealed that she actually enjoyed teaching a class of 29 students. While the task of teaching such a large group may appear to be a disadvantage, this particular teacher ultimately found it was advantageous, as the students were exceptionally excited to learn about the material.

And while parents across the country are adamantly pushing to reduce their children’s class size – which, Gladwell emphasized, is enormously expensive – Gladwell affirmed that the “average child is actually worse off when a class gets too small,” down to around 10 to 15 children, as students can become deprived of having a well-rounded group of peers with whom they can collaborate and from whom they can learn.

Turning the discussion to college students, Gladwell made the case that students are far better off being “a big fish in a little pond,” and excelling at what might not be the best ranked school to which they were admitted, rather than being in the bottom third of their class at a more prestigious school. “The bottom third of kids drop out of math and science classes in college regardless of the school,” he noted, pointing out that even the brightest students in the country who attend, say, Harvard, will drop out if they don’t feel smart in class.

Gladwell went on to speak about the hidden disadvantages of being too wealthy, and Headlam recalled that Malcolm, as a teenager, had said that “it is more difficult for someone [enormously wealthy] to walk through a mall because they’d be overwhelmed by choice.” Decades later, Gladwell still believes this holds true; on Thursday he spoke of “the degree to which being wealthy can be very isolating.”

Toward the end of his book, Gladwell puts it plainly: “The powerful are not as powerful as they seem – nor the weak as weak.” He hopes his book will encourage readers to look at underdogs and their giant opponents in a new manner; “All these years, we’ve been getting these kinds of stories wrong,” Gladwell says. “‘David and Goliath’ is about getting them right.”


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