Monday, November 4, 2013

David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits & the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

Let me ask you a series of questions:

Can a team with only mediocre offensive skills and limited physical gifts regularly beat teams that are more talented?

Are larger classes sometimes better for learning than smaller ones?

Might an accomplished young woman interested in science find career success by attending a state university instead of the Ivy League school that admitted her?

Might a guy with dyslexia (a serious disorder that affects reading ability) do well in a legal career?

Can a physician with a very troubled youth develop a breakthrough protocol for treating a fatal childhood disease by ignoring colleagues and forcing patients (and parents) to push through the pain?

Can an oppressed minority gain rights and dignity through tricking the oppressor into dumb moves?

Can the campaign of a heart-broken father to limit crime after the murder of his daughter backfire into promoting more crime?

Can forgiveness provide a stable and fulfilling way of responding to horrific loss?

Can a small group of dissenters thumb their noses at Vichy and Nazi officials and openly harbor Jews, saving them from internment and death?

Can David beat Goliath?

If you’ve ever read any Malcolm Gladwell, you will know that the counter-intuitive answers to some of these questions are Gladwell’s answers. Gladwell opens his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by explaining how David’s victory over Goliath was not so great an upset as we've come to believe. David, as an expert with the sling (not an unusual talent in that time), held a real advantage over the armor-clad, pituitary case (Goliath) that he faced. Like the game of rock-scissors-paper, each strategy entails an effective counter-strategy. So a girls basketball team, coached by an Indian immigrant father with no basketball experience, used the unorthodox strategy of an aggressive full-court press to win games and go the national tournament. (Gladwell journeys into basketball lore to describe the education of Rick Pitino about the value of the press. I must add that the press is under-utilized still. I loved it.) If you don’t have rocks, use paper.

As Gladwell often does in his writing, he weaves insights from social science into real life tales, and in doing so, he challenges the easy assumptions we tend to make. In two segments involving education, he challenges a couple of common assumptions, assumptions that cost a lot of money and that have very serious repercussions. First, he explores the assumption that smaller class size always improves student achievement. Gladwell finds that class size, like many things in life, has a sweet spot—a Goldilocks point—that is neither too large nor too small. In smaller classes, there may not be enough variety to facilitate a desired give-and-take for discussion and projects. Thus, the class never reaches its full learning potential. Gladwell concludes (and I intuitively agree) that outstanding teachers are the key to educational success, not simply more teachers. Rather than paying outstanding, experienced teachers to retire early to hire some additional new, untested teachers, we should work to keep outstanding teachers working as long as possible. (Yes, I’m thinking of C, for an example, although she’s still working.)

Another very interesting point involving education addresses the issue of college choice. Gladwell uses the instance of a young high-school student interested in science who goes to Brown (an Ivy) rather that her home-state University of Maryland. Because of the intense competition and high-skills range, Gladwell’s young woman abandons science as her major. She tried to make it as a big fish in a big pond, but as statistics show, this is tough. Those who succeed tend to be those who succeed in comparison to their peers in a particular environment, whether at State U or an Ivy League college. For young people making excruciating decisions about where to go to study or where to go to continue playing a sport, this is vital information. (Of course, the Ivy League works well for some, as I know a couple of Ivy League grads whom I think have done quite well.)

Another tale that interested me especially was that of David Boies, one of the premier trial and appellate lawyers in the nation. Boies has dyslexia, which makes reading very difficult. To compensate, he learned to learn by listening—listening very carefully. Boies didn’t go to college until a bit later in life. He ended up graduating from Yale Law. (I guess his Ivy League choice worked out okay, too.) One strategy he used in law school was to read the synopsis of a case rather than a whole opinion (a lesson there, I think). And he listened—very carefully. (I suspect that careful listening is a skill that most of us, including lawyers—or especially lawyers?—too often fail to practice.) Boies chose litigation as a field because it didn’t require as much reading as corporate law would have. (Still, there’s still plenty to read in litigation.) Interestingly, unlike most lawyers, Bois doesn’t read for pleasure, either, reporting that he only reads about a book a year. Boies learned to compensate for his disadvantage and by doing so, cultivated skills that allowed him to rise to the top of his field.

From the list of questions at the beginning of my review, you can discern some of the other topics Gladwell addresses. Gladwell has mastered this genre. Gladwell, along with Michael Lewis, Daniel Pink, and a few others, has learned how to weave nonfiction narrative into social scientific insights in a manner that is both instructive and entertaining. Gladwell’s counter-intuitive insights and arguments challenge us to consider what things may not work the way that we easily assume they do.

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