Desirable Difficulties: A Review of Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath

Posted: May 1, 2014 in Books, Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Reviews
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David and Goliath (10/1/13) By Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath is the third Malcolm Gladwell book I’ve read. Each of his books acts as a monograph on a particular topic, using a mixture of personal anecdotes and scientific evidence to make sweeping suggestions about how human beings, and the societies we create, work. Gladwell’s interest in the underpinnings of things makes for an interesting read, and his prose is always extremely approachable. Of his three books that I’ve read, David and Goliath is, perhaps, the least sweeping in scope – but this is appropriate given his focus here: smaller isn’t necessarily weaker.

The book’s subtitle is Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, which sums up neatly the people and stories Gladwell focuses on. He begins with a retelling of the biblical story of David and Goliath, and explains that nobody should be surprised that David won that battle. He details the effectiveness of slingers in ancient armies, and how a well slung bullet could easily pierce skulls and the strongest of armor. In fact, Goliath was always at a disadvantage from the moment David came forward as champion.

Other stories he focuses on include a girls’ basketball team that used a constant full-court press in order to disrupt and defeat teams with higher skills than themselves, and several people with dyslexia who have succeeded beyond all expectations at the fields they chose. Gladwell calls these “desirable difficulties,” difficulties that force those with them to work just a little bit harder, push just a little bit further, in order to succeed. However, while these stories are all connected through their “feel-good” sensibilities, they also feel resoundingly cherry-picked. Certainly, one girls’ basketball team enjoyed great success with a particular strategy, but how many did not when attempting the same (read: all the rest)? And if a handful of people with dyslexia have enjoyed great success, how many more have suffered from social stigmatization and depression, and even turn to suicide as a way out (click here for an article discussing people with Learning Disabilities and this issue)? He brushes through these statistics as if they are largely irrelevant when even referring to them at all.

While admitting that most underdogs remain underdogs, Gladwell wants us to believe that sometimes being the underdog is actually an advantage. I believe this assertion, and Gladwell does a good job of showing that this can indeed be the case – but only in very specific situations of novelty, serendipity, or invention. The girls’ basketball team? Highly successful until their opponents learned and adapted – later attempts to repeat the same techniques haven’t fared nearly so well. The individuals with dyslexia who have succeeded? Most often a combination of being in the right place at the right time, with a heavy helping of chutzpah to get them over the hurdles placed in front of them. And David himself defeating Goliath? The way Gladwell writes it, Goliath should actually have been viewed as the underdog, with his heavy armor slowing him down too much to be able to avoid the much quicker David, who could attack from a distance Goliath’s arms and weapons couldn’t reach. In this sense, Gladwell actually undermines the basis of his entire position: in the case of David and Goliath, the underdog clearly lost.

While I enjoy Gladwell’s brand of pop-philosophy, I feel that in this particular case he’s reaching beyond his source material to try to find connections that don’t exist, certainly not in the manner that he claims. A better approach would be to give greater weight to the perceived truth he is trying to undermine, and show then why counter-examples are more than statistical anomalies. He does this better and more completely in some of his other books (Outliers comes to mind), by relying on clear statistical data to show that perception is often refuted by reality. Here, his examples are far too specific, far too obviously examples of, to use his previous title, outlier behavior, to be good exempla of reality. I’ll likely continue to read his books – he’s eminently readable – but I will do so with a large (or perhaps in this case, a small) grain of salt.

Steve’s Grade: C+
An interesting journey into the world of the little guy, and how being taken lightly can sometimes work strongly in an individual’s favor. However, most of the stories smack of cherry-picking, with no weighty counterexamples provided to strengthen Gladwell’s claims.


Malcolm Gladwell’s Blog

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