David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell subverts our assumptions about winners and losers in his newest work.

David and Goliath By Malcolm Gladwell Little, Brown & Company 320 pp.

Goliath had it coming. But why did the big guy take the big fall that's inspired countless generations of underdogs to aim high?

Malcolm Gladwell, America's patron saint of human behavior, offers an unexpected answer in his new book and uses it to puncture our assumptions about winners, losers and power itself. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants is enlightening and entertaining, even if Gladwell's grand theory wobbles a bit.

It's not just a rock that slays Goliath, it turns out, and David is more than a man with a slingshot. As Gladwell explains, being a hulk of a guy – or, as the behemoth's mother might have put it, just big-boned – gives Goliath advantages and disadvantages.

The Big G isn't agile. He may suffer from a disease that boosts his size but hurts his vision. And his lavish confidence makes him oblivious to his own vulnerabilities. David, meanwhile, is armed with what one historian describes as the equivalent of a .45 automatic pistol, and he knows how to use it. So who's the real underdog here?

There's a lot more to Gladwell's fascinating analysis of the most famous one-on-one battle of all time, but the gist of his argument is this: "The powerful are not as powerful as they seem – nor the weak as weak."

There's a kernel of common sense here, as is often the case in Gladwell's work. Instant gut decisions – a la "Blink" – are often good ones. No kidding. Some people are a kind of social glue ("The Tipping Point"). Absolutely! And of course the powerful are often limited by things like overconfidence and their unwieldy size.

Gladwell's genius is his ability to venture beyond the seemingly obvious and find wider lessons about human behavior. He finds them here in stories of unexpected winners in the civil rights-era South, modern-day Silicon Valley, Vichy France in World War II, and the tales of the sly Br'er Rabbit.

Gladwell takes readers on side trips too. He examines how some of the most extreme challenges that face us as humans – like the bombing of London and the death of a parent at a young age – crush some people but inspire others to courage and greatness. (The people he profiles aren't perfect models, though: The courageous are reckless too, and one great man is greatly abusive.)

The most illuminating part of the book comes when Gladwell explains a conundrum that's mystified educators across the US: Why don't kids learn more when class sizes shrink?

This isn't specifically a Goliath-and-David issue, but it's related. Gladwell uses our society's expensive assumptions about the value of smaller classes to show how we sometimes only consider the value of one side of these equations. We miss the counterintuitive concept that the opposite – more kids in classes – may have its own benefits, too.

It turns out, in his telling, that bigger class sizes, at least to a point, come with plenty of advantages. And there's the inconvenient fact that teachers, like just about any humans, often work less hard when there's less work to do.

Here's where Gladwell makes one of the assumptions that he so often urges readers to avoid. He looks at a $50,000-a-year boarding school with average class sizes of 12 and says its small classes "plainly" hurt students. But he doesn't have any evidence to back up his claim in this specific case. Maybe the school makes them work somehow, but we don't know.

This hints at the problem with the edicts of Gladwell's works. Going with your gut, say, or giving underdogs more credit are good guidelines. But they're terrible ironclad rules because the truth in any one situation, like giant-slaying, can be very different.

As always, the best tool in any battle is awareness. The tough part: figuring out the enemy's strengths and weaknesses. The excruciatingly difficult part: putting ego aside and fully understanding your own.

David had this down. Goliath didn't.

It will also help to have a shelf full of Gladwell's books on hand for insight into how people work. Just make sure a slingshot full of skepticism is at the ready.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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