#45. A Summary of ‘David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants’ by Malcolm Gladwell

'David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants' by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown and Company; October 1, 2013)

‘David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants’ by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown and Company; October 1, 2013)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis


1. Too Much of a Good Thing, Part I: Money and Parenting

2. Too Much of a Good Thing, Part II: Small Class Sizes

3. Too Much of a Good Thing, Part III: Miscellaneous Excessiveness

4. Power and Authority Gone Awry


5. The Plight of the Dyslexic

6. Successful Dyslexics

  • a. David Boies
  • b. Brain Grazer

7. Dyslexia and Risk-Taking

8. Severe Trauma: The Trauma of Losing a Parent in Childhood

  • a. Emil ‘Jay’ Freireich


9. Underdog Armies (and a Digression into the Story of David and Goliath)

10. Underdog Sports Teams: The Redwood City Junior Girls Basketball Team

11. Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

This book is not about underdogs and giants in any conventional sense of these terms. Rather, the book is about the curious nature of advantages and disadvantages, and how each can (under certain circumstances) become its opposite.

The first lesson to be learned is that the things we take to be advantages are often no such thing. Our greatest mistake here comes from the fact that we identify a certain quality or characteristic as being a benefit or advantage, and then assume that the more of it there is the better—when this is often not the case. Put another way, most of us recognize that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and yet we fail to appreciate just how often and where this principle applies. For instance, we recognize that having a certain amount of money greatly facilitates raising children (it being very difficult to raise a family in a state of poverty), and yet we fail to recognize that beyond a certain point wealth also makes parenting increasingly difficult (for it becomes harder and harder to instill qualities of hard work and self-control). Or we recognize that small class sizes are a good thing, and yet we fail to recognize that classes can actually begin to suffer once they become too small (since diversity and energy begin to disappear).

Another arena wherein an advantage can become a disadvantage is in power and authority. Power and authority is an advantage, of course; however, when it is wielded illegitimately and without fairness, it can actually cause more chaos, destruction and violence than it curbs. This is as true in the classroom as it is in community policing as it is in handling minority groups within a nation’s borders.

The second lesson to be learned here is that certain disadvantages can sometimes drive people into positions of advantage. Take the disadvantage of being born with a disability, for example. Say dyslexia. In our modern world, where the ability to read is extremely important—and practically a requirement for success—having great difficulty with reading is a major disadvantage. And indeed the statistics indicate that the vast majority of those who are born dyslexic end up falling through the cracks and missing out on success.

Still, though, many dyslexics have gone on to become highly successful people; and it has also been noted that in certain fields (such as entrepreneurship) an inordinate proportion of the most successful individuals do, in fact, have dyslexia. So how can we explain these success stories? What we find in these cases is that these individuals have managed to compensate for their disability by developing skills that make up for their flaws (such as an improved memory or debating prowess). Thus, in a way, the successful dyslexic has actually benefited from his disability, because it has forced him into a position where he has had to develop other skills that have led him directly to success.

Also at play here is the fact that dyslexics tend to endure many failures when they are young. Repeated failures (especially at a young age) have the potential to crush the spirit. But they can also have the opposite effect: they can inure the individual to failure, thus making them more likely to take risks and try things that others wouldn’t—which is often a sure path to success.

A similar phenomenon also sometimes touches trauma victims. Take the ultimate trauma of losing a parent in childhood, for example. This is one of the worse experiences imaginable, and the trauma of losing a parent in childhood does indeed crush the vast majority of those who have the misfortune of enduring it.

Again, though, it has been noted that a very high proportion of highly successful individuals across many fields (from science to art to politics) have in fact lost a parent in childhood.  And what we find in these cases is that the experience has left these individuals with the mind-set that now that they have endured such a terrible event, that nothing could ever be so bad. And thus they are liberated from the fear of failure, and—like the successful dyslexic—are willing to try things and take risks that others are not (which often leads directly to success).

The same experience and logic can also apply to underdog groups. For example, when a group recognizes that it is severely over-matched in terms of skill or strength compared to its opponent, it can begin to feel liberated to try unconventional tactics and approaches. This is often for the best, for it turns out that unconventional tactics and approaches are frequently very effective against giants—in everything from sports, to politics to war—and are, in many cases, the only chance the underdog has to win anyway. Again, then, in both of these instances (the trauma victim and the underdog group) a disadvantage has driven the party into a position of advantage, and thus the disadvantage may itself be seen as a kind of boon.

Here is Malcolm Gladwell introducing his new book:

What follows is a full executive summary of David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell.


1. Too Much of a Good Thing, Part I: Money and Parenting

We are all well aware that it is quite possible to get too much of a good thing. And yet, when it comes to benefits and advantages, we tend to lose sight of this wisdom, and assume instead that the more the better.

Take parenting, for example. Raising a child is expensive, and it is certain that bringing up a healthy and well-rounded child requires a certain minimal amount of money. Put another way, it is extremely difficult to raise a happy and healthy child in a state of poverty. As Gladwell puts it, “it is hard to be a good parent if you have too little money. That much is obvious. Poverty is exhausting and stressful. If you have to work two jobs to make ends meet, it’s hard to have the energy in the evening to read to your children before they go to bed. If you are a working single parent, trying to pay your rent and feed and clothe your family and manage a long and difficult commute to a physically demanding job, it is hard to provide your children with the kind of consistent love and attention and discipline that makes for a healthy home” (loc. 494).

Given that having a certain amount of money makes parenting easier, we may be tempted to think that the more money one has the better—to the point where parenting would be easiest when money is no object. However, when we look into the issue, we find that this is not at all the case. Instead what we find is that beyond a certain point, wealth actually makes parenting more difficult.

The reason for this is that once there is enough wealth around, children get the idea that there is nothing their parents could not afford to buy them (now and ever). But how can you instill qualities of self-reliance, ambition and restraint when a child knows that they will never need to develop these attributes? As Gladwell puts it, “how do you teach ‘work hard, be independent, learn the value of money’ to children who look around themselves and realize that they never have to work hard, be independent, or learn the meaning of money?” (loc. 507).

Of course, it is possible to make it clear to your children that you will not buy them anything they want (or bail them out of any kind of trouble) even if you are able to do so. However, this is much harder than it sounds. It takes resolve, and a commitment to values. As Gladwell explains, “‘no we can’t’ is simple. Sometimes, as a parent, you have to say it only once or twice. It doesn’t take long for the child of a middle-class family to realize that it is pointless to ask for a pony, because a pony simply can’t happen. ‘No we won’t’ get a pony requires a conversation, and the honesty and skill to explain that what is possible is not always what is right… all of which are really difficult things for anyone to do, under any circumstances, and especially if you have a Ferrari in the driveway, a private jet, and a house in Beverly Hills the size of an airplane hangar” (loc. 522).

And because it is so difficult for wealthy parents to say ‘no’ to their children, they often don’t say ‘no’. They say ‘yes’—and this, of course, leads to a host of problems. Specifically, it leads to children who are dependent, lazy, entitled, profligate and lack self-control—which is a recipe for failure. It is for this reason that great wealth often evaporates over generations. As Gladwell explains, “that’s why so many cultures around the world have a proverb to describe the difficulty of raising children in an atmosphere of wealth. In English, the saying is ‘Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.’ The Italians say, ‘Dalle stele alle stalle’ (‘from stars to stables’). In Spain it’s ‘Quien no lo tiene, lo hance; y quien lo tiene, lo deshance’ (‘he who doesn’t have it, does it, and he who has it, misuses it’). Wealth contains the seeds of its own destruction” (loc. 512).

Thus the relationship between money and ease of parenting may be said to go like this: Having too little money makes parenting very difficult. From here, the more money one has the easier parenting becomes—until one reaches a certain amount of money, at which point parenting again becomes more and more difficult.

If you were to graph this relationship, it would look like this (loc. 525):

The shape of the graph, as is clear, is an inverted-U. And, for Gladwell, the inverted-U graph is actually quite common when it comes to advantages (loc. 528).

2. Too Much of a Good Thing, Part II: Small Class Sizes

Take class sizes for example. When it comes to the teacher-pupil relationship, it is generally believed that the more individual attention a teacher provides a student the better-off that student will be (loc. 402). And thus it is generally believed that the smaller the class-size the better (since the fewer students there are, the more individual attention each stands to receive). As Gladwell explains, “virtually everywhere in the world, parents and policymakers take it for granted that smaller classes are better classes. In the past few years, the governments of the United States, Britain, Holland, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and China—to name just a few—have all taken major steps to reduce the size of their classes. When the governor of California announced sweeping plans to reduce the size of his state’s classes, his popularity doubled within three weeks. Inside of a month, twenty other governors had announced plans to follow suit, and within a month and a half, the White House announced class-size reduction plans of its own. To this day, 77 percent of Americans think that it makes more sense to use taxpayer money to lower class sizes than to raise teachers’ salaries. Do you know how few things 77 percent of Americans agree on?” (loc. 399; see also loc. 438).

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