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Malcolm Gladwell Explains Why It Often Makes Sense to Put Your Money on David, Not Goliath

The latest book by the best-selling author examines the power of 'underdogs'

spinner image Author photo of Malcolm Gladwell. (Bill Wadman)
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.
Photo by Bill Wadman

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point, makes some typically counterintuitive — and controversial — claims in his new David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.

Take dyslexia: Far from being a learning disability, it might just be a "desirable difficulty" that teaches those with the disorder to deal with failure — and thereby achieve career success.

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Losing a parent in childhood is a traumatic burden, no question — but might it also instill a resilience to life's shocks that makes you tougher than your peers?

And could it be possible there's "a point at which money and resources stop making our lives better and start making them worse"?

We asked the man who's made a career of rejecting conventional wisdom to explain.

spinner image Book cover for David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell (Courtesy Little, Brown and Company)
"David and Goliath" was published on Oct. 1.

Thanks to your four previous books, phrases like "the tipping point" and "10,000 hours" [to master any skill] have become part of the cultural conversation. What will readers take away from David and Goliath?

I have no idea! The takeaways from the previous books all surprised me. It never occurred to me that the 10,000 hours thing [from Outliers: The Story of Success] would be something people remember. I put that in as a kind of throwaway little moment; I never thought anything would come of it. That experience convinced me you can't predict how people will respond to your work.

But what would you like them to take away?

I'd just like people to have more respect for the hidden virtues of certain kinds of adversity. And I'd like people with power to be a little more cautious in how they use it.

You say "the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty." Aren't most underdogs just trying to survive?

Yeah, but sometimes in merely trying to survive, greater things happen. Out of a child's struggle to overcome an unspeakable upbringing, for example, often comes the strength and the tools to do something transcendent.

You say "the right question" for us to ask is whether "we as a society need people who have emerged from some kind of trauma — and the answer is that we plainly do. This is not a pleasant fact to contemplate."

I'm saying that hardship in a certain sense is inevitable. People will always be born with disabilities of one kind or another; there will always be minorities alongside majorities. These things are a constant feature of our world. It makes sense to examine them and say, "What comes of them?"

Your family moved from London, England, to Ontario; then you moved to the U.S. Did all that relocating make you feel like an outsider or underdog?

Not an underdog. An outsider, yes. I was interested in writing about underdogs because they've had such a different experience than I have. I have not had a difficult life at all — I've had a life of real privilege. I mean, to grow up in middle-class Canada and then immigrate to the United States: Compared to 99.99 percent of humanity, that's a pretty good deal! So I don't make any claim to be anything like the people I write about in this book.

Vivek Ranadivé, the basketball coach you profile from Mumbai, took his daughter's California middle school team to the national championship specifically because he knew nothing about the game. Yet his very effective methods — he taught his girls to beat the deadlines for the inbounds pass and moving the ball past midcourt — never really caught on among other coaches. What makes conventional wisdom so persistent?

Underdog strategies are difficult. They don't come with any promise of victory; they simply improve your odds of doing well. Most of us would rather do what's comfortable than do what maximizes our chances of winning. It's a sad truth about human nature that it takes a special kind of person to follow this road.

You just turned 50 — has that changed your worldview at all? What are some seeming disadvantages for people over 50?

Older people as a group are both Davids and Goliaths. On the one hand, the demographic to which I now belong, as you point out, has most of the wealth in the world and most of the power in the world. At the same time, we have an enormous concentration of the opposite: the most vulnerable, the most neglected, the most thwarted people in society.

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People in their 50s and 60s are at a disadvantage in reentering the workforce once they've lost a job. They have enormous potential and experience, yet they face these incredible obstacles in getting a chance to demonstrate them. At the same time, though, virtually every CEO in America is over 50. So there's this strange variability in the roles the elderly play, and the stereotypes that are attached to them, because they're both the most powerful and the least powerful.

As you grow older in your job, you often become the underdog or misfit yourself — if you work for a tech company, for example, you can easily find yourself outside the circle of "cool kids" running the place. How should older workers react or think in such a situation?

We have to rethink getting older, because we have systematically undervalued judgment and experience. One of the key underappreciated facts about the Amadou Diallo shooting [in 1999, which Gladwell covered in Blink] is that the [four] officers who shot him were all very young. They all had very limited experience on the force. And in talking to police officers, I came to understand just how important experience is. There are situations that you're put into as a police officer that you can interpret properly only if you have the benefit of a great deal of experience — if you've seen it many times before.

Has your publisher ever shot down one of your book ideas as insufficiently commercial?

No, but I'm not someone who has a lot of book ideas. I think a long time about what I want to write about before I approach them. So knock on wood, I've not had that problem.

I hate the word "zeitgeist," but how do you manage to nail it so consistently? What's the secret Malcolm sauce?

There is no secret — it's pure luck! [Laughs] No, I'm serious — I don't think there's any secret. I'm just lucky that the things in my head correspond with the things in the heads of readers. But it's no skill on my part; I simply write about what I'm interested in. I've never deliberately tried to tailor my writing to my audience. I just tailor it to myself. I get excited about stuff and I try to put it in print. And I hope that someone other than my friends wants to read it.

You have a lot to say in David and Goliath about the very real but also seeming disadvantages of dyslexia. Did you research any other conditions?

Well, attention deficit disorder is a really interesting one. I had a whole section about ADD in an earlier draft, but then I removed it. With all of these things, there's no question that disabilities can make someone's life difficult. But it's a mistake to think that there can't be upsides — there very plainly can be, and that's a crucial thing to keep in mind.

What are you working on now that shows promise as your next book topic?

I have no idea — it's way too soon! I'm still recovering from this one! What I do is I take a little break and go back to The New Yorker, and I write New Yorker stories for a couple of years, and I replenish my batteries. And then I venture out again into the world.

Is Malcolm Gladwell a David or a Goliath?

His new book about 'underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants' is a trademark compelling read — and he's quick to defend his formula for success. 

Malcolm Gladwell has done it again. In David and Goliath, he's written a collection of fascinating stories that will rivet readers and inflame critics. (The book's message in a nutshell: "Advantages" are often no such thing.)

Indeed, the latest round of Gladwell bashing has already begun. To the usual charges — that Gladwell oversimplifies, that he attacks straw men, that he's overpaid — has been added the new one that he "cherry-picks" stories that confirm his worldview.

It's hard to knock an author who's done so much to make social science so interesting, and accessible, to lay readers. Also, the man seems incapable of writing a boring passage; Gladwell has a knack for jolting us into seeing the world anew, and his writing style is so nouns-and-verbs that the pages fly by like torn-off calendar sheets in one of those cheesy fast-motion movie sequences.

And to hear the author tell it, he isn't exactly agonizing over the critical carping: "I pay more attention to readers than reviews," he says. "I've been profoundly happy with the way my books have been received [by the general public]. People come up to me on the street every day and talk about how much they like my books. That's what matters to me."

Although detractors once devised a "Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator" to churn out spoof titles such as The Cheers Effect: How and Why Everybody Knows Your Name, Gladwell might be justified in using a similar tactic to synthesize his own memoir title: Grit: How Telling Taut Tales About Why We Do What We Do Can Be a Foolproof Path to Runaway Bestsellers.  —Allan Fallow


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