Though Gladwell’s interpretation of the David and Goliath story leaves a bit to be desired (he reads too much into certain narrative details and fails utterly to place the story in the bigger story of David—and the even bigger story of Jesus), the principle he uncovers in the book seems valid: underdogs have more strength, and “overdogs” have more weaknesses, than we might initially expect.
Gladwell is a master prose writer, meriting the neologism “Gladwellian.” He finds the most interesting stories, offers an impressive number of insights per page, and generally keeps the emotional energy going from beginning to end. This is my fourth Gladwell book, and in only one of them did I start wishing for the end to come sooner.
The stories about dyslexia really stuck with me, both by humbling me (reading and spelling have always been second nature to me) and giving me empathy for gifted friends (especially one, and she knows who she is!) who have succeeded both in spite and because of their learning disabilities.
The stories about the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland also made an impact, serving this point: “The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.” Authority needs to be perceived as fair or it will lose legitimacy.
A few more lessons (if Gladwell is to be believed–and even if he isn’t, I’m unlikely to run into the writer who refutes him, so he wins):
- Small class sizes aren’t necessarily beneficial; teachers prefer a large enough group to get emotional energy through conflict and small enough not to be overwhelmed.
- An Indian immigrant who knew nothing about basketball realized that his unskilled shooters could never beat more experienced teams unless they contested every inch of court space.
- A doctor who lacked empathy because of his own difficult childhood was able to push past difficulties in treating childhood leukemia.
- A valedictorian discovered it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond (by going to a state university) than a small fish in a big one (by going to highly competitive Brown). This was particularly meaningful for me. It resonated deeply.
- The German bombing of London was counterproductive because those it failed to kill developed a sense of invincibility.
- The Civil Rights movement in 1960s Birmingham stumbled on a way to get the apparently all-powerful Bull Connor to overplay his hand.
- Christian forgiveness may have done more to retard crime than the “revenge” taken by California’s failed three-strikes law.
- The persecution that created the French Huguenot community made them impervious to the threats of the Nazis and the Vichy government, and they became efficient hiders of Jewish refugees.
When you get to the end of a Gladwell book, you do feel as if you’ve been taken for a ride, that you’ve had to take his word on a lot of interpretations of stories and studies. It can feel a little like a utilitarian self-help book (though a skillful one). But in this book I sensed an earnestness and a personality, someone who believes in the value of what he writes, who believes he’s found truth. Perhaps this is the voice of the Gladwell who regained his Christian faith after witnessing real forgiveness in Manitoba while researching for this book.