Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Book Review (#29 of 2013) David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants . I disagree with Tyler Cowen, I do not think this is one of Gladwell's best books. It is thought-provoking and I enjoyed it, but reviewers (see here and here and here) have poked too many holes in it for me to think it authoritative.

Gladwell's premise is that we misperceive who is at an advantage and disadvantage. David wasn't an "underdog," a stone and sling in the hands of a mobile warrior had a huge advantage from a distance over a slow-moving giant (who was possibly blind) with a spear.

People can create advantage from disadvantage by altering their paradigm. He uses the full-court press in basketball (hailing Pitino, even) as an example. (I love to harp on peoples' paradigms as weaknesses, and this is my favorite example (not mentioned by Gladwell) of an item reinvented and made better by approaching from a different paradigm.)

Gladwell also points to research showing that millionaires--successful people-- have disproportionately faced handicaps, such as dislexia or losing a parent at an early age. He illustrates using a few examples, including the president of Goldman Sachs, who credit dyslexia to their future success. A "desirable difficulty" creates a willpower or stubborness that later serves the otherwise handicapped. However, Gladwell notes that the socially dysfunctional--namely prisoners-- are also disproportionately represented by dyslexics and people who lost parents at an early age. So, what does that tell us? Certain events in childhood can lead to polar outcomes, and it depends on luck, grace, and other circumstances? Did I need to read the book to know that? Do I not already know enough people who ended up in opposite ends of the spectrum to note this phenonmenon?

I appreciate Gladwell for trying to popularize economics, psychology, and statistics into "adventure stories" for the common reader. But repeated accusations that he cherry-picked his studies are problematic. You can't draw broad conclusions from a few anecdotes, especially when contradictory evidence is ignored.

You will learn about all sorts of historical trivia that Gladwell wants to draw your attention to. How Martin Luther King Jr. eagerly hoped children he'd recruited to march in Birmingham would be savagely attacked by dogs, and was quite happy when they were jailed in inhumane conditions. How the Three Strikes law in California was counterproductive in reducing crime, and how that relates to the British's failed occupation of Northern Ireland. How French Huguenots harbored Jews and behaved as true Christians in the midst of WWII and went unpunished, standing up to the Nazi/Vichy Goliath. But as reviewers have noted, other villages that stood up (not mentioned by Gladwell) were destroyed. Perhaps the full-court press isn't as widely shelved as the reader is led to believe.

I give this book 3 stars. There was a lot of historical trivia that I learned and found useful. His main premise, that we shouldn't count people out based on our preconceived biases and paradigms, doesn't strike me as very interesting. If it strikes you as novel, then you are Gladwell's target audience.

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