Monday, 14 April 2014

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell - Book Review

Malcolm Gladwell has developed a proven formula for writing international bestsellers: once again, he gives us a book which provides yet more insights into modern society through sharing the fruits of academic research and anecdotes from sociological and psychological study.
At the heart of Gladwell's argument in David and Goliath is a view that power has its limitations. The 'Goliaths' of this world can dominate when the fight is on their terms; how ever if the 'Davids' go about engaging battle in an unconventional way, then there is no reason why the odds should not be in favour of the seeming underdog. Throughout the book, Gladwell works out this thesis in two distinct ways:
  1. First, Gladwell introduces the reader to the concept of the 'Inverted U'. Economists are familiar with this phenomenon: as organisations grow larger, then they benefit from 'economies of scale' (they have increased efficiency, specialisation of job roles and purchasing power); however if an organisation gets too big then 'diseconomies of scale' kick in (the organisation is too big to manage, there are problems of shared vision or internal communication. Gladwell applies this argument to Governments or to large Corporate organisations and demonstrates that unconventional people and approaches can have a greater impact in these circumstances.
  2. Secondly, he argues that apparent natural disadvantages (disability, being an outsider, being unconventional) can often become strengths. It is often the unconventional outsider, who has nothing to lose, who is the true agent of change and progress. This is perhaps best summed up by George Bernard Shaw's observation:
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Gladwell characteristically focuses on a few key case studies to illustrate his thesis: 
  • the basketball coach who achieved great success with his relatively inexperienced and unskilled team by defying convention by playing full-court press for the whole of the game;
  • the phenomenon that having too much wealth can make parenting even more difficult than the norm;
  • the phenomenon that less academically able students who are top at lesser universities do better than their theoretical betters who are in the bottom stream at top Ivy League schools;
  • that the Impressionists changed the world's perception of modern art by defying convention and striking out on their own setting up a rival to the Salon exhibition;
  • that a disproportionate number of dyslexics make it to the top in commerce by developing other important skills sets to compensate for their problems with literacy;
  • the consultant on the children's Leukemia ward, who because of the hardships that he had faced growing up, thought little of putting his young patients through pain in order to find a cure for their condition;
  • the reasons why the British Army failed to control the Roman Catholic population in Northern Ireland; and
  • how Martin Luther-King succeeded in winning over the Nation to his cause through manipulating the Press.
Gladwell is a supreme story-teller who is able to carry the reader with him through his sheer narrative ability. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening chapter where he takes the biblical story of David and Goliath and, at the end of his narrative, leaves the reader in no doubt that the odds were stacked to such an extent in Shepherd-boy's favour that the Philistine Champion literally didn't have a chance. However, if we take the book as a whole, Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath has only a superficial coherence and it is disappointing that he doesn't really explore his central theme of the limitations of power in anything other than an anecdotal way. Then again, perhaps a balanced argument sits outside the "Gladwell-genre". It remains, nevertheless, a most enjoyable romp - and one not to be missed.

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