David & Goliath


Malcolm Gladwell




Date Reviewed:

February 19, 2023

nother Malcom Gladwell book, and of course it is a good one. David and Goliath is a book that questions our assumptions of underdogs versus superior powers. Gladwell makes the case that in the biblical confrontation between David and Goliath, Goliath never had a chance. He was weighted down with heavy armor, burdened with a sword and short javelin (weapons suitable for close combat). Gladwell argues that Goliath is near-sighted (he has a shield bearer guiding him, he shouts that his opponent should "come to me", he scorns a boy "carrying two sticks" when David has just his shepherd's staff). When David comes running at Goliath, whirling his deadly sling, the immobile Goliath doesn't have a chance. Practiced slingers can launch rocks with velocities greater than 100 mph, and they can be deadly accurate. Gladwell explains that we have the entire story of David and Goliath backwards - it would have been a surprise if Goliath had won! But we see Goliath's size, his weapons and armor, his experience and bluster, and we assume that Goliath should have been victorious.

The book is full of Gladwell's trademark anecdotes that might make you see things in a different light. The first example is a story of a team of 12 year old girls playing basketball. The girls don't have skill, size or speed, but their coach (a man from India who grew up watching soccer and cricket, not basketball) insists that the girls relentlessly run a full court press the entire game. This so flusters their opponents that it leads to turnovers. And since the steals often occur at their end of the court, the girls can score with easy layups. The team went all the national championship game (who knew that there was national championship for 12 year old girls?) An unconventional approach to the game - "stepping outside the frame" of expectations led to success.

Gladwell talks about an "Inverted U" curve - his point is that more of something is not always a good thing; in fact, it can be a detriment. For example, some policing is good, but adding more and more police presence eventually leads to more crime as the population resents their heavy handed presence. Having a wealthy family is great for a kid, until it gets to the point where there is so much money that the kid has no adversity, everything is available - even a pony! Beyond a point, smaller class sizes are less effective, as the few students in the small class are not surrounded by peers of similar abilities, instead, one or two bright extroverts will dominate the tiny classes, and the remaining "ordinary" students will be too discouraged to put forth effort.

Gladwell writes about how it is better to choose a "normal" state school rather than an elite ivy league university. Every kid who attends Harvard or Princeton is brilliant, yet there are still kids in the bottom percentage of each class, and these students naturally measure themselves against their peers. They see these geniuses cruising through classes and decide that they cannot hack the studies, and so will abandon their dreams of engineering, science or math because they feel that they cannot keep up. If these talented children had instead attended a typical university, they would have been at the top of their class, and would have been confident to pursue whatever degree they chose.

Gladwell describes what a difficult burden dyslexia is, and then cites several famous leaders who are dyslexia - these people learned to overcome their dyslexia and so have skills and drive that is uncommon in people who can read easily. Gladwell notes what a large number of famous people lost a parent while still at a young age. I believe he said that 11 of our 45 president's have grown up without one parent. No doubt that this trauma is terrible adversity, yet these kids learn to overcome challenges at an early age and this equips them with extraordinary perseverance. Once you survive a terrible tragedy, "ordinary" obstacles seem much less daunting. (Gladwell is not suggesting that dyslexia or growing up with a single parent is an advantage - he notes that the prison population contains a larger than expected percentage of dyslexics and children of single parent homes.)

People who have endured tragedy come to feel that they have nothing to loose, and so they soldier on through circumstances the others would balk at. Gladwell tells the story of Dr. Emil J Freireich, who was assigned to the children's leukemia ward. At that time, leukemia was nearly always fatal, with almost all children perishing within a few weeks of their diagnosis. Leukemia caused unstoppable bleeding, the children bleed from everywhere, suffering horribly. Freireich decided that the leukemia was destroying their platelets, so the kids had no clotting factor. He organized a blood drive to acquire huge quantities of platelets, and then pumped the kids full. Other doctors were outraged - Freireich was experimenting on sick children! But Freireich felt that the kids were doomed to die shortly anyway, and he would do whatever he could to find a cure. It turned out adding massive doses of platelets did indeed stop the bleeding, now the kids lived long enough for Freireich to look for a cure to leukemia. Freireich decided to administer three or four powerful chemotherapy drugs at the same time (up to that point, doctors would issue just one drug at time, which would kill off some of the leukemia cells, but the cancer would always come back.) Freireich's cocktail was so lethal it would bring the children to the brink of death - but it worked. Even more, Freireich insisted on a continued regimen of this chemo-cocktail every month for a year, even when the kid appeared to be healthy. He was bringing seemingly healthy kids to the brink of death, yet his strategy worked. Now leukemia has a 90% curable success rate if caught soon enough, and drug cocktails are deployed for a host of maladies. Gladwell noted that Freireich's story is more fully detailed in the book The Emperor of All Maladies- a Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee; that sounds like a book that I need to read. (Siddhartha Mukherjee also wrote The Gene, which I have already read and thought was pretty good.)

I should check out the Gladwell books that I have missed, he always delivers an interesting read.