Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Book Review: David And Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell (2013)

A commentary on the often faulty perceptions of strengths and weaknesses, Malcolm Gladwell's David And Goliath is a breezy romp through the world of metaphoric giant killers.

The book starts with a slow motion blow-by-blow re-examination of the Biblical battle between David and Goliath, and by the time Gladwell has finished his replay, there is no doubt that to the trained eye, David was the one who carried a great advantage into that battle, while Goliath was always the more vulnerable combatant. The rest of the book is, as ever, filled with engaging and thoughtful observations on life as told through stories, this time centred around the themes of turning apparent disadvantages to actual advantages, and underdogs who found innovative ways to even the playing field.

Examples include the basketball coach who deployed unconventional tactics to create an unlikely winning team out of a hapless group of girls, the civil rights leaders in the southern United States who goaded their opponents into self-defeating violence, lawyers and leaders of industry who compensated for dyslexia and emerged stronger, and the cancer researcher who used a rough childhood to develop a streak of stubbornness that proved crucial to the development of chemotherapy.

Gladwell finds the common threads, where seemingly obvious strengths are actually weaknesses, deficiencies turn to trump cards, and longshots become sure things. Smaller class sizes are good, but classes that are too small prove to be a disadvantage. Top tier universities are supposed to be better, but could prove to be overwhelming and disheartening to otherwise bright students. And a disproportionate number of national leaders lost a parent early in life. With the right tactical approach, a setback can be turned to an asset, and an apparent position of weakness can prevail.

As usual, Gladwell peppers his book with just enough data and science to prove his points while avoiding any descents into dry patches.

Good as the book is, Gladwell is developing some irritating writing habits. David And Goliath is filled with self-interruption and stories embedded within other stories. By the time Gladwell returns to the story he left dangling ten pages earlier, all the initial context has been lost, forcing frantic backpedalling and flipping back. In a slight book of 275 small pages, there is no need for this type unnecessary structural complexity.

David And Goliath forces a re-examination of traditional definitions of favourites and underdogs, and makes a strong case to be most wary when the outcome of the impending battle appears most obvious.

Subtitled: Underdogs, Misfits and The Art Of Battling Giants.
275 pages, plus Notes and Index.
Published in hardcover by Little, Brown.

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