David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown and Company. 320 pages. 2013. Audiobook read by Malcolm Gladwell.
Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite authors. He writing is always interesting and he comes with perspectives that are different than we had always thought. He is excellent as a story teller (I always listen to the audiobook version of his books, which he reads himself), and those stories are based on a good deal of research. Whether I agree with him or not, he always makes me think. Gladwell is the best-selling author of Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers and What the Dog Saw.
In this, his first book of new material in five years, his main point is that for the strong “the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness,” whereas for the weak, “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.” He contends that the powerful are not as powerful as they seem and that being an underdog can open doors, create opportunities and make possible what has been deemed unthinkable. Gladwell writes that what we think are disadvantages are sometimes actually advantages.
He begins with the biblical story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Gladwell often tells you that what you thought was true, actually isn’t. For example, in this story he tells us that David was not the underdog, Goliath was. Goliath wore heavy armor and couldn’t move quickly. He was expecting to fight someone with similar weapons and heavy armor like him. Instead he fought someone with a different type of weapon (a slingshot). Gladwell also writes that Goliath may have suffered from a tumor of the pituitary gland that would have explained his size and also his vision problems. Goliath wasn’t a match for the swift David. Interesting….
Gladwell covers a number of interesting stories in this book, such as:
• Underdog countries going to war with giant countries
• Smaller classroom size vs. larger
• The role of a popular photograph in the civil rights movement (see below):
• How two people responded to injustice (murder of their daughters)
• Lesser talented basketball teams who use a full-court press against more talented teams
• How high school students choose colleges to attend
• The bombing of London
• Leukemia medicine for children
• The concept of the inverted “U” curve
• Being a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond
• That sometimes dyslexia can be an advantage, rather than a disadvantage
• That losing a parent while young can be an advantage
• Battles between England and Northern Ireland
• Disobedience and behavior and legitimacy
• The Huguenots protecting the Jews
• The impact of “remote misses”
I thoroughly enjoyed this book as I have all of Gladwell’s books and would recommend them to you.
Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. Little Brown and Company. 2008. 309 Pages.
The New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell begins this book with a story about Roseto, Pennsylvania. This is a place in which incidences of heart attack and the death rate overall was 30-35% lower than expected. Gladwell cites a study by physician Steward Wolf that calls Roseta an outlier, a place that lay outside everyday experience and where the normal rules did not apply. The study concluded that the Rosetans were healthy because of where they were from. Gladwell states that he wants to do for our understanding of success what Wolf
did for our understanding of health.
The book is divided into two sections, the first being “Opportunity”. Gladwell writes that the book is about outliers – men and women who do things out of the ordinary. He states that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success – that people don’t really rise from nothing. Instead, he will argue, people are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. He will argue that it matters where and when we grew up.
He first looks at junior hockey in Canada and shows that those with an early birthday month (January, February or March) are more likely to make it to the professional level, because they are given additional opportunities. The sociologist Robert Merton has called this phenomenon the “Matthew Effect” (after Matthew 25:29 in the Bible). It is those who are successful, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.
Gladwell asks if we see the consequences of the way we have chosen to think about success. He states that because we personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We prematurely write off
people as failures, are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail.
Gladwell states that the people at the very top don’t just work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder. Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule states that ten thousand hours is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. Ten thousand hours is the magic number for greatness.
He gives a few examples of those who have had opportunity and ten thousand hours of practice:
• Bill Joy attended the University of Michigan in 1971 and was able to take advantage of a time-sharing computer system instead of using punch cards. Because of the bug in the system, he could program all he wanted at a Computer Center that was open twenty-four hours.
• The Beatles played eight hour shows in clubs in Hamburg, Germany 270 nights over a year and a half. By the time they had their first major success in 1964, they had played an estimated 1,200 live shows.
• Bill Gates was provided an extraordinary series of opportunities to program for five years from 8th grade through the end of high school.
• Of the 75 richest people in human history, an astonishing fourteen are Americans born within nine years of one another in the mid-nineteenth century.
Gladwell writes that what truly distinguishes these individuals’ histories is not their extraordinary talent but their extraordinary opportunities. He writes that we pretend that success is exclusively a matter of individual merit. But he states that things aren’t that simple. Instead, the stories of the successful people he recounts are about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society. Their success was not just of their own making. It was a product of the world in which they grew up.
Gladwell then looks at the purest form of an outlier – the genius. He states that the relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage. Just like a basketball
player has to be tall enough, the same is true of intelligence. Intelligence has a threshold.
He compares Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer, both brilliant, but very different. One (Oppenheimer) had social savvy. Langan did not. Social savvy is knowledge. It’s a set of skills that have to be learned. It has to come from somewhere, and the place where we seem to get these kinds of attitudes and skills is from our families. Oppenheimer was raised in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan, the son of an artist and successful garment manufacturer. Langan, by contrast, had only the bleakness of a home dominated by an angry, drunken stepfather.
Gladwell looks at how the Jewish came to dominate the legal and garment professions in New York City by looking at Joe Flom and Louis Borgenicht. Flom was an overweight and brilliant Jewish law student who wasn’t hired by the big New York City law firms because he was Jewish. He became very successful taking on work that the big law firms wouldn’t touch and he was ready when that work was in demand later. Gladwell shows the importance of Flom being Jewish and being born when he was.
Gladwell then looks at Louis Borgenicht. To come to New York City in the 1890’s with a background in dressmaking or sewing was a stroke of extraordinary fortune. It was like showing up in Silicon Valley in 1986 with ten thousand hours of computer programming already under your belt.
Gladwell writes about the importance of meaningful work, which he defines as having autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.
Gladwell traces the family tree of Jewish garment makers. The examples show that Jewish lawyers and doctors did not become professionals in spite of their humble origins. They became professionals because of their humble origins. He also shows that there was a perfect birth date for a New York Jewish lawyer and that was 1930 because that would give the lawyer the benefit of a “blessedly small generation”.
The second part of the book is on legacy. Gladwell begins by looking at Harlan, Kentucky. He writes that when one family fights with another, it’s a feud. When lots of families fight with one another in identical little towns up and down the same mountain range, it’s a pattern. In describing why Appalachia was the way it was, Gladwell writes that it was because of where the original inhabitants of the region were from. They were immigrants from one of the world’s most ferocious cultures of honor – the “Scotch-Irish” from the lowlands of Scotland. The “culture of honor” hypothesis says that it matters where you’re from, not just in terms of where you grew up or where your parents grew up, but in terms of where your great-grandparents and great-great grandparents grew up and even where your great-great-great-grandparents grew up.
Gladwell then looks at the importance of cultural legacy in plane crashes. He discusses what is called the “Power Distance Index” (PDI). Power distance is concerned with attitudes toward hierarchy, specifically with how much a particular culture values and respects authority. He gives an example of a First Officer not being willing to challenge the Captain when it was apparent that the Captain was making critical mistakes when trying to land, and concludes that who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from, and when we ignore
that, planes crash.
Gladwell then looks at the reasons the academic success of Asian students, including the fact that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. In fact, by the age of five, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills. Gladwell states that being good at things like calculus and algebra is a simple function of how smart someone is. However, he states that the difference between the number systems in the East and the West suggest something very different – that
being good at math may also be rooted in a group’s culture.
In discussing schools, Gladwell states that perhaps our school systems are not as bad as some would make them out to be. He brings up the negative impacts that summer vacation has on the academic progress of those in the lowest socio-economic class. One study shows that the wealthiest children come back in September and their reading scores have jumped more than 15 points. The poorest children come back from the holidays and their reading skills have dropped almost 4 points. He states that virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school. He also connects this back to Asian children not having long summer vacations. His conclusion is that for its poorest students, America doesn’t have a school problem; it has a summer vacation problem.
Gladwell states that success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed. Nor is success simply the sum of decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is rather a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.
The concluding chapter called “A Jamaican Story” is about Daisy Nation (to whom the book is dedicated). We find out that Daisy was Gladwell’s grandmother. The chapter talks about the advantages and disadvantages of the color/tint of one’s skin.
Gladwell states that those he writes about in this book are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are. He concludes that the outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.
After reading this book, it is good to consider these questions:
• What advantages have you benefited from?
• Why haven’t they been enough to catapult you to an outlier level of success?
• Or, if you consider yourself very successful, to what do you attribute your success?
Gladwell is an excellent writer, and his style will keep your attention as he challenges your views on success in this thought-provoking book.
Below are some noteworthy quotes from the book:
• Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.
• Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from.
• Those three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people will agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.
• It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention. And it’s the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice. Success is the result of what sociologists like to call “accumulative advantage.
• Once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.
• In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”
• The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?
• It’s not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether or not our work fulfills us. Being a teacher is meaningful.
• I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing….It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.
• Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.
• If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.
• No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.
• We overlook just how large a role we all play–and by ‘we’ I mean society–in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.
• Achievement is talent plus preparation.
• Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky – but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.
• To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success–the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history–with a society that provides opportunities for all.
• Do you see the consequences of the way we have chosen to think about success? Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung…We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play—and by “we” I mean society—in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.
• Those three things – autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our work fulfills us.
• My earliest memories of my father are of seeing him work at his desk and realizing that he was happy. I did not know it then, but that was one of the most precious gifts a father can give his child.
• Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.
Practice isn’t the thing you do when you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.
• For almost a generation, psychologists around the world have been engaged in a spirited debate over a question that most of us would consider to have been settled years ago. The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. Not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only some do – the innately talented ones. Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger role preparation seems to play.
• It wasn’t an excuse. It was a fact. He’d had to make his way alone, and no one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses — ever makes it alone.
• It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.
• Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.
• We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail.
• Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.
• We cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.
• Hard work is only a prison sentence when you lack motivation.
• The 10,000 hr rule is a definite key in success”
Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite authors. He can take stories about seemingly everyday topics and make them extremely interesting. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, and has written four best-selling books. Blink was his second book. I recently listened to the audio book, which was read by the author.
Gladwell states that the book is about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. “When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you were thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, Blink is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.”
He goes on to say that: “You could also say that it’s a book about intuition, except that I don’t like that word. In fact, it never appears in Blink. Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings – thoughts and impressions that don’t seem entirely rational. But I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It’s thinking – it’s just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with “thinking”. In Blink, I’m trying to understand those two seconds. What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better?”
Gladwell goes on to say that he is very interested in figuring out the kinds of situations where we need to be careful with our powers of rapid cognition. He is trying to help people distinguish their good rapid cognition from their bad rapid cognition. He wants people to take rapid cognition seriously.
Gladwell says that the book is concerned with the smallest components of our everyday lives, with the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that bubble up whenever we meet a new person, or confront a complex situation, or have to make a decision under conditions of stress. He believes that it is time we paid more attention to those fleeting moments, thinking that if we did, we could end up with a different and happier world.
Blink contains a number of interesting stories to illustrate this type of thinking. Gladwell also introduces a concept called “thin-slicing”, which is when we take a small portion of a person or problem and extrapolate amazingly well about the whole. Included among the stories about thin-slicing are stories about a Pentagon war game, New Coke, and how New York City police officers who killed Amadou Diallo made a series of terrible snap judgments.
I found this book to be very interesting and would recommend it to you.