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Study of underdog lacks bite


TRIUMPH: In his new book Malcolm Gladwell asks why ordinary people can sometimes defeat the most powerful opponents

TRIUMPH: In his new book Malcolm Gladwell asks why ordinary people can sometimes defeat the most powerful opponents

TRIUMPH: In his new book Malcolm Gladwell asks why ordinary people can sometimes defeat the most powerful opponents

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book poses a stirring question: why is it that when ordinary people confront powerful opponents, they sometimes win? In a world in which wealth and size seem to have a lot to do with power, it's heartening to consider that the underdog might have a chance.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants aims to explore just that – the strategies the weak adopt on the occasions when they defeat those who appear much stronger.

Gladwell assembles an array of examples that connect in some way with this central question; but their persuasiveness is debatable. Early on in the book we meet Caroline Sacks and that is where the first cracks appear. Sacks was an exceptionally bright student who won a place at the prestigious Brown University in the US. After she got there, though, she began to feel intimated by her fellow students. In the end, she decided to change her major. She told Gladwell that if she had gone to a less competitive college she would not have given up: "I'd still be in science."

The story of the unfortunate Sacks forms the basis of chapter 3, in which Gladwell argues that it may be better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big one. Small ponds are the place to be, Gladwell suggests. "They have all of the support that comes from community and friendship – and they are places where innovation and individuality are not frowned upon."

Gladwell draws on academic studies to support his idea but fails to address the fact that many things affect a young person's trajectory in college. What 'Caroline Sacks' (it's a pseudonym) found too much, another young student might have thrived on. When Gladwell asserts that for another bright young student, 'Stephen Randolph' (also a pseudonym), attending Harvard was a mistake – that "Harvard cost the world a physicist and gave the world another lawyer," since that's what Randolph became – we don't have enough information about Randolph to know if it's really the tragedy that Gladwell thinks it is.

This lack of nuance also plays out in the structure of the book, which sees Gladwell position very different situations side by side. He writes of Northern Ireland at the start of the Troubles when women in the lower Falls brought their children out in buggies in defiance of a British curfew. He presents us with a boy who had dyslexia, who grew up to become a successful Hollywood lawyer against all the odds. He tells the tale of civil rights protestors in Alabama who successfully exploited the ignorance of whites about the African-American community to win a major publicity battle.

But because he dips lightly and briefly into such a wide variety of subjects, bizarre comparisons, cherry-picked glimpses of scientific research and sweeping generalisations are inevitable. Caroline Sacks's college choice gets contrasted with the French Impressionists' decision to eschew an exclusive Salon in preference for a smaller venue for their work. The comparison places the 21st Century by the 19th and a young girl's once-off life choice alongside the dynamics of an artistic movement. (In case you're curious, while Sacks made a fateful mistake the Impressionists got things right.)

Gladwell has gained a reputation for oversimplification and this book helps consolidate that notion. His argument, heart-warming though it may appear, lacks the context a reader needs to ascertain its validity. David and Goliath is certainly thought provoking and it has the potential to be uplifting, but only if you are able to agree with it.

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