Book Review: David and Goliath

National Post, September 27, 2013

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown and Company
305 pp; $32

In his 2008 bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell famously identifies an “iron law of Canadian hockey: In any elite group of hockey players — the very best of the best — 40% of the players will have been born between January and March.” Gladwell explains this phenomenon through the relative age effect — the theory that Jan. 1 cut-off dates mean that kids born early in the year are bigger and stronger than those born later; the stronger kids make the team, practice more and the gap inexorably widens. So, if you want to produce the next Crosby, aim for January. Seems straightforward, right?

According to the sociologists Benjamin Gibbs, Jonathan Jarvis and Mikaela Dufur, it’s anything but. In a study published last year in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, the trio argues that if you redefine “elite,” Gladwell’s theory crumbles. Gibbs and his team looked at Canadian-born players on NHL All-Star teams and Canadian Olympic hockey rosters from recent years. They found that, on average, just 17% of those players were born in January, February or March. On Canada’s 2010 gold medal-winning team, a mere 13% adhere to the “iron law.” An early birth date may be advantageous if your goal is simply reaching the NHL. However, at “the most elite levels of play, the relative age effect reverses.” In other words, to achieve true hockey greatness, an early birthday is a disadvantage.

How could this be? Why would the weaker kids, the kids who get less practice, rise to the top? It’s precisely this kind of question that Gladwell asks in his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, which is both a sequel and rebuttal to Outliers; it proceeds from the now-familiar Gladwellian premise, that context often supersedes character, while insisting that obvious advantages — like being the strongest kid on the team — are not always obviously advantageous. Instead, he argues, apparent strengths may often be weaknesses, and weaknesses may be strengths.

Gladwell opens by retelling the titular, archetypal tale. Clad in bronze and heavily armed, the towering Goliath seems a sure bet against David, who carries only a shepherd’s stick and a satchel into the Valley of Elah. Until, that is, David produces a slingshot and a small, flat stone, winds up and flings the stone at Goliath’s forehead at roughly 34 metres/second — almost equivalent to “a fair-size modern handgun.” Thanks to David’s willingness to break with the era’s ritual of “single combat” — close-range, one-on-one fighting — Goliath never stood a chance. The tale of Vivek Ranadivé, which Gladwell first recounted in the 2009 New Yorker piece that inspired the book, follows a similar arc. An Indian immigrant to California, Ranadivé knows nothing of basketball when he agrees to coach his daughter’s team, which comprises the 12- and-13-year-old “daughters of nerds and computer programmers.” Ranadivé finds it absurd that although a full-court press — in which defenders contest opponents for the court’s entire length — is permitted, it is seldom used. So, he decides his girls will press all the time, every game. The strategy is exhausting and highly effective. The girls dominate more skilled teams, ultimately advancing to the national championships.

The full-court press, like the slingshot, defies the game’s unwritten rules. But underdogs implicitly understand that the rules are skewed against them. “Because [David] has nothing to lose,” Gladwell writes, “he has the freedom to thumb his nose at the rules.” Ranadivé’s strategy infuriates his opponents — but who has time for etiquette when your only hope is defy it?

Certainly not Martin Luther King, Jr., nor fellow civil rights activists Wyatt Walker and Fred Shuttlesworth. Gladwell recounts the men’s orchestration of Bill Hudson’s iconic 1963 photograph depicting a German shepherd attacking a passive black teen. The photo appeared on newspaper front pages across America, instigating a tipping point in public opinion. The trio, we learn, worked to create that image, compelling thousands of youth to come to Birmingham, knowing that they may die there. The move was morally ambiguous but brilliant, a classic example of underdog tricksterism, says Gladwell. Shuttlesworth justifies it succinctly: “We got to use what we got.”

King and co. have in ample supply a quality shared by all game-changers. “Innovators need to be disagreeable,” Gladwell writes. “They are people willing to take social risks — to do things that others might disapprove of.” This, perhaps, is why nearly a third of prominent entrepreneurs — from Hollywood producer Brian Grazer to Goldman Sachs president Richard Cohn — are dyslexic. Dyslexia, perhaps, is occasionally an example of what psychologists Robert and Elizabeth Bjork call “desirable difficulties.” For Grazer and Cohn, childhoods spent compensating for shortcomings made them exceptional bluffers and risk-takers. Both men, Gladwell writes, “learned something in their struggle that proved to be of enormous advantage.”

The same could be said of pioneering cancer researcher Emil Freireich, who — like 12 of 44 U.S. presidents — lost his father young. “Gifted children and child prodigies seem most likely to emerge in highly supportive family conditions,” says psychologist Dean Simonton. “In contrast, geniuses have a perverse tendency of growing up in more adverse conditions.”

The book’s David stories — featuring characters that seem weak but are strong — outshine its Goliath stories, where the strong are surprisingly weak. Instead of focusing on people, Gladwell’s Goliaths are mostly institutions, and his arguments — Ivy League schools are desirable only for the top two-thirds of students; draconian law enforcement actually increases crime — are more abstract.

David and Goliath may lack the vocabulary-changing, world view-flipping oomph of Gladwell’s previous books. It may lack an “iron rule” — an idea so influential, I remember friends timing their pregnancy accordingly. (Of course, we now know this was a mistake; turns out late birthdays may be “desirable difficulties” for hockey players.) Then again, maybe something will stick. Who knows? In a sense, this uncertainty is the core of Gladwell’s work: He’s not a self-help author, nor a clairvoyant. He’s a journalist, presenting counterintuitive, empirically grounded ideas through masterfully told stories, aspiring to shed light on the ultimately unanswerable question: Why is the world not always as it seems?

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