Lucy Kellaway on ‘David and Goliath’ by Malcolm Gladwell

‘Tom and Jerry’, in which the little guy always wins

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99/Little, Brown, RRP$29, 320 pages

David and Goliath is an ill-assorted collection of anecdotes that demonstrates various things we already know. It tells us that having nothing to lose can make you bolder. That if you deploy power indiscriminately, it may backfire. And that losing a parent early on can give you a leg up if you plan on becoming a genius.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book comes without the single, catchy idea that made his earlier ones such stonking successes. The Tipping Point (2000) introduced us to the instant at which a trend became a trend. Blink (2005) told us how we make decisions without thinking. And Outliers (2008) warned that if you want to get good at something, you’ll need to spend 10,000 hours practising.

Yet David and Goliath is Gladwell’s most enjoyable book so far. It is a feel-good extravaganza, nourishing both heart and mind. Each of its stories – set in Northern Ireland, Alabama, California, Vichy France and ancient Palestine – has an ending that is both happy and surprising. Gladwell is a master at marching us off in one direction, only to end up taking us somewhere else instead – somewhere better.

The retelling of the David and Goliath story kicks off in the usual way, with shepherd boy pitted against warrior, achieving his miraculous and implausible victory. The story is then retold to show that the little guy was always going to win. To make the shift, Gladwell does another of the things he is so good at: he produces just the right pieces of research at the right time. So he digs up a ballistics expert from the Israel Defence Forces who has calculated that the stone that killed the giant was travelling at 34 metres per second, giving it the force of a modern handgun. He then quotes medical experts diagnosing Goliath as suffering from acromegaly – a condition that hits the pituitary gland and can make you grow to a massive size, but with a common side-effect of vision problems.

Reading this, I started to object: how do we know the stone went so fast? And: who says Goliath’s pituitary gland wasn’t just fine? Yet such objections don’t last. The most remarkable thing about Gladwell is not the power of the research, or even the stories themselves. It is the power of his writing style. With every line he simply insists that the reader come along with him, making it almost impossible not to oblige.

Of all the uplifting tales, the most cheering is the one that says Ivy League universities are best avoided by all but the very smartest. It begins with the story of a girl called Caroline Sacks who loves science, is top of her class and gets into Brown. So far, so good. However, she soon finds herself falling behind, and ends up switching to an easier course. Like a magician pulling a series of rabbits out of hats, Gladwell quotes figures showing that the bottom third of students doing tough subjects at all universities end up dropping out; so had Sacks been at a lesser university she would have been towards the top of the class and would now be a scientist.

Just as you are protesting that top people from lesser universities don’t do so well, he finds more research to show that they get more papers into peer-reviewed journals than middle-ranking students at the better ones. The conclusion: it is miles better to be a big fish in a small academic pond. The big pond takes bright students and makes failures out of them.

The only slight problem with this cracking tale is that it may not be quite right. Gladwell – a graduate from Toronto university – is silent on the magic effect of the networks created by elite institutions. What about the doors opened by the name of Harvard? Or of Eton, come to that, the school that furnishes a suspiciously large minority of the British establishment.

In another chapter he introduces the idea that dyslexics make great entrepreneurs. At first this seems weak. We all know about Richard Branson et al: they are a cliché. Yet the explanation offered is unexpected. Their success is partly because dyslexics have had to fight their way through school and so are better at being disagreeable than the rest of us. And being disagreeable – or unreasonable, as George Bernard Shaw once put it – is a huge advantage if you want to make the world adapt to you, rather than vice versa.

Gladwell tells how a young dyslexic man lied his way into a job on Wall Street, pretending that he knew how to trade options, when he did not have a clue. That young man was Gary Cohn – who is now president of Goldman Sachs.

Equally, Ingvar Kamprad, the dyslexic founder of Ikea, used his unreasonableness to advantage when traditional Swedish furniture makers refused to supply his cheapo outlets. So he started up manufacturing in Poland instead – a pretty disagreeable thing to do in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was just going up. “The equivalent today would be Walmart setting up shop in North Korea,” Gladwell reminds any readers who didn’t quite get the point. The conclusion is not, of course, that all dyslexics do well. Or that they like being dyslexics. It is simply that the world benefits from having people like that.

Sometimes the style grates. The italics – “They ended up better off” and “he was disagreeable” – are simply too emphatic. The rhetorical questions – “But we do know, don’t we?” – are as if addressed to an audience of dim schoolchildren.

Yet to err on the side of simplicity mainly makes the book more, rather than less, intelligent. It is a sign that he has done the hard work so that the reader doesn’t have to do a thing. And this time – hallelujah – all points are made without the help of any pop-neurology. There’s not a frontal lobe in sight.

What ostensibly unites the stories are the twin ideas that an advantage can sometimes be a disadvantage and that a disadvantage can sometimes be an advantage. Yet there is something more powerful and more uplifting that also links them. The man with the poverty-stricken, loveless childhood who helped find a cure for children with leukaemia; the couple who forgave the murderer of their daughter and thus saved their sanity and their marriage; the pastor who sheltered Jews in occupied France – all these stories tell you something that is trite and profound and deeply cheering. It is that good beats bad – just when you least expected it.

Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist and associate editor

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