David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants - review

Books: This wildly successful penseur divides opinion like no other. Reviewer Simon Caulkin enjoys the ambiguities of his latest big idea.

by Simon Caulkin
Last Updated: 28 Oct 2013

David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants

Malcolm Gladwell

Allen Lane, £16.99


Reading a new Malcolm Gladwell is like entering a war zone. In case you've been living on a different planet, Gladwell is the bestselling founder and major practitioner of one of today's most potent literary sub-genres, the single catchy insight recounted in popular social science mode.

His first book was the self-explanatory The Tipping Point (2000), followed by Blink (2005), about the power of snap judgements. Next came Outliers (2008), which popularised the idea that if you want to be good at something, go away and come back when you've practised for 10,000 hours.

And now David and Goliath, which inverts the famous Mae West line to show not only how too much of a good thing can often be deeply unwonderful but that the reverse is also true: very little of a good thing can turn into a 'desirable difficulty', spurring people on to superhuman efforts that they might otherwise not have made.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his popular success, Gladwell arouses strong feelings. Critics fulminate that he recycles other people's ideas into pseudo-profundities and plays fast and loose with evidence.

What seems to get up their noses most is the way he uses narratives to illustrate the underlying academic raw material, so creating what he calls 'intellectual adventure stories', a technique decried as anything from 'vapid homily' to 'virtual malpractice'.

Thus, in this volume, along with the biblical contest of the title and several individual odysseys, he fleshes out his thesis with accounts of the rise of the Impressionists, the discovery of a leukaemia treatment, the US civil rights movement, the Northern Ireland troubles and the French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which successfully defied the Germans in WWII and refused to give up its Jews - all of which leads one frothing reviewer to dub Gladwell the 'non-fiction equivalent of Dan Brown'.

That's over the top, for several reasons. The first is that unlike Brown, and apart from an annoying mannerism of asking rhetorical questions ('Do you see what is happening here?'), Gladwell is an elegant writer with a terrific eye for a story, which gives him an advantage over 99.9% of business authors (no wonder they're jealous).

He doesn't talk down, and nor do his stories, which describe complex, difficult situations far removed from the two-dimensional banalities encountered in most management texts.

As it happens, I don't think all his stories say what he thinks they do. For example, the idea that dyslexia encouraged the current president of Goldman Sachs to fib his way into his first job on Wall Street seems a stretch (recent events suggest a talent for economy with the truth is a normal job qualification for a Wall Streeter).

And, as a critic pointed out, Gladwell blithely fails to follow up the most convincing explanation for the charmed lives of Le Chambon's Jewish population in favour of his own rather thinner theory.

Yet it's a pleasing variant on Gladwell's model that ultimately these ambiguities and doubts make the book more engaging, not less. Gladwell makes you think. You have to make up your own mind whether or not his central point is right: does too much of what we think of as advantage (ie, wealth or power) turn out to be its opposite and too little likewise?

To which the answer has to be yes. The findings that what doesn't kill you can make you stronger, that there can be too much of a good thing, and that a wily little one can run rings around a clodhopping big one - in short, that David can fell Goliath - are hardly earth-shattering. But what saves them from platitude is that they don't happen all the time.

None of these outcomes is automatic, as Gladwell shows. The examples of Northern Ireland, Birmingham, Alabama and Lawrence of Arabia are moving and powerful tales: the British Army and the Birmingham police didn't have to defeat themselves, and there was nothing predetermined about the hits Lawrence's ragtag troops landed on the Turks in the Arabian peninsular. Their success was not obvious.

At a time when we are all still suffering the continuing effects of overconfidence and overweening concentrations of financial power, it's no bad thing to remind the mighty of what happens when they believe their own press - and the non-mighty that neither advantage nor disadvantage are fixed.

As Field Marshal Slim once remarked: 'No news is ever as good or as bad as it seems at first sight.' So put on your tin hat and take heart. Enjoy the fray.

Simon Caulkin is a management writer and an ex-editor of MT

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