What do the following have in common: An inexperienced girls basketball team coached by a software developer originally from Mumbai, a cancer researcher with a Dickens-like childhood of loss and neglect who goes on to develop the most effective treatment for childhood leukemia, a Civil Rights activist/strategist who worked with Martin Luther King in Birmingham, and a small mountain village in France that stood up to the Nazi occupation.
These are just some of the many stories that Malcolm Gladwell relates to the famous story of David and Goliath and the principles he believes this story embodies—that one shouldn’t underestimate the “powerless” or overestimate the “powerful.” Actually, Gladwell begins by unpacking the David/Goliath match by discussing in battlefield terms the great advantages that David actually had over Goliath—speed, the ability to maneuver, and that slingshot. Because Goliath never imagined that David wouldn’t engage in traditional hand to hand combat (which Goliath was incredibly prepared for with his size, weapons, and massive armor), he saw David as weak, not realizing his mistake until too late. Gladwell even theorizes that Goliath’s size was related to illness that affected his eyesight—making him actually unable to see David clearly. The heart of what Gladwell is interested in here is how by casting this story as the triumph of the little guy over the big guy, we miss the strengths of David and the weaknesses of Goliath.
Gladwell goes on to tease these ideas out in all sorts of contexts. For example, the girl’s basketball team, coached by Vivek Ranadive, is low on skilled players—most of the girls are small and lack the fundamental skills. They should have been murdered on the court. However, Ranadive, who is more familiar with cricket than basketball, decides to have the girls play “full court press” for entire games—a strategy that plays to their strengths (determination, ability to work hard) and minimizes their weaknesses (their ability to dribble and shoot baskets). This strategy gets the team to the regional championships, much to the dismay of the more traditional-playing teams. This is another example of how changing the rules or thinking outside the box helps the “weak” become strong. Gladwell is also interested in how adversity shapes people in important ways and suggests that though these events can be horrible (the death of a parent, an extreme case of dyslexia, the bombing of London), they may also bring particular strengths to those who go through them.
This is the first Gladwell book that I’ve read (though the other popular ones like Tipping Point and Blink are on my to-read list) and it was the February choice of my book club. There’s a lot to think about and wrestle with here, and I was particularly interested in some of the later examples that explored the limits of power. For example, a fascinating chapter contrasts an innovative community policing program in New York City with the dynamics of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Finally, the book ends with the story of a pastor, Andre Trocme, who lived in Le Chambon, a mountain village in France, where the community’s Huguenot history of religious persecution not only sensitized them to the plight of the Jews during World War II but gave them the infrastructure (think smuggling!) to do something about it. Gladwell shows that both the community and Trocme’s decision to refuse to “give up their Jews” is a product of the tragedy and hardships they’d dealt with and that these “weaknesses” give them the strength to do the right thing.