By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)
These days, with four – soon to be five – bestsellers, a tremendously popular and never-ending lecture tour and the devotion of a massive fan base, Malcolm Gladwell has quite a bit more in common with Goliath than David. In his latest “intellectual adventure story,” David and Goliath, Gladwell examines the nature of underdogs and over-dogs. As per the formula, he asks interesting questions and introduces you to characters and situations that might not answer them, but they’ll definitely make you think. Just how did puny David conquer the mighty Goliath? How did other historical underdogs prevail over giants? Do we misunderstand the very nature of advantages and disadvantages? It seems like a natural subject for Gladwell to take on, given his track record. However, when I finished reading it, I was left wondering if, perhaps, it was a little too on the nose.
In each of his previous books, (excluding 2009’s What the Dog Saw, which was a collection of essays) Gladwell champions unconventional thinking and spins inventive, and sometimes, not-so-inventive theories. In 2000’s The Tipping Point, he outlines characteristics common in social epidemics. The underlying idea (and subtitle of the book) is that “little things make a big difference.” Essentially, an accumulation of small acts in a movement can build up until they reach a tipping point that results in a massive ripple effect. The book is heavy on social science, history and case studies. Although it isn’t necessarily irrefutable, it is an affecting and thought-provoking book that makes you assess the way you think about the world. For a writer, there really isn’t a greater compliment than that.
In his next book, Blink, Gladwell examines the power of rapid cognition. This one is a little bit tougher of a buy. The subject matter is a little bit more inscrutable than his debut – what goes on in the world is a little bit easier to comprehend than what goes on in the mind – but he makes up for it with his selection of fascinating examples. Another facet that adds to the book is that he examines both the positives and the negatives of his central subject. Overall, it makes for an enthralling read. In 2008, Gladwell released his most popular and, fittingly, successful book yet, Outliers. In Outliers, Gladwell evaluates the external factors of an individual’s or organization’s success. In other words, he reveals the missing value in the equation to success, the factors wholly independent of God-given ability, talent and intelligence, which he attributes to opportunity and cultural legacy.
Each book has its own unique ethos and theme, but if you expand your scope, it isn’t very difficult to detect that there has been a loose grander theme that is traceable through all of his work. “Little things,” “unconventional thinking,” “factors wholly independent of God-given ability,” these all sound like components of underdogs. In a way, Gladwell has been writing about underdogs – or at least underdog methods – in every book. And every book I have ferociously devoured and finished feeling completely full of knowledge and thought. But strangely, David and Goliath is the first one that left me feeling hungry – and not in a good way. It wasn’t as if I was being a glutton; I simply didn’t have enough to chew on in the first place.
So why is that? I have a few hypotheses for that question, and I have a feeling it’s a probably a combination of these things. For one, as I previously alluded to, I feel like it’s a possibility that this book didn’t have the same panache as his others because in a lot of ways it felt like we’ve been there before. Not only was the formula the same – that was to be expected – but also the subject itself felt too obvious. If you’ve read his other books, then Gladwell has trained you to expect the unexpected and to be prepared for conventional wisdom and logic to be turned upside down. David and Goliath simply isn’t as illuminating, or at least it doesn’t seem to be. But there is more to it than that.
In the past, Gladwell has been criticized for “cherry-picking” evidence to present an idea that isn’t entirely accurate. However, to me, that has never been an issue. The reason being that I always saw Gladwell as an innovative thinker who was trying to open people’s minds to the possibilities of different strategies to help you improve both yourself and the world at large. In his previous work, Gladwelll leaned heavily on experiments and case studies in the fields of psychology and social science. Contrary to what some have professed, Gladwell has never tried to be anything that he’s not. Sure, some people think that he’s a genius, but in reality, Gladwell is a talented and eloquent messenger who heavily cites the work of academics, scientists and the rest of the bright minds putting in the real groundbreaking work.
The difference is that in David and Goliath, Gladwell largely eschews this style in favor of focusing on the story and leaving the majority of the science in the footnotes. Gladwell has described this change as an effort to make the data more “accessible”. It seems like a minor modification, but it makes a noticeable difference. Instead of case studies, each chapter feels more like merely a collection of anecdotes. I suppose that maybe his newly-adapted style might be a little more appealing to the masses, but let’s be real here: it’s not like this is a guy who has ever had trouble with that in the past.
At one point, I considered the possibility that maybe I wasn’t as engaged because Gladwell as Goliath breaking down “the art of battling giants” rung fundamentally false. But that seems ridiculous, and it’s not even entirely accurate. I was engaged by David and Goliath, I just didn’t feel as enlightened as I had been by his other books. The stories about the Civil Rights era, the origin of the Three Strikes Rule and the history of David and Goliath are definitely captivating – Gladwell remains an extremely gifted storyteller – but they all have an air of “well…yeah,” as opposed to the fascinating revelations featured in his earlier material. There are kernels of wisdom and intrigue spread throughout, just not in the density in which an experienced Gladwell reader has become accustomed.
However, regardless of its limits, David and Goliath is still a feel-good adventure. It’s refreshing to see that even though Gladwell, the self-described “skinny Canadian,” has grown to become a giant that he is still appreciating the small things and looking out for the little guy. You might not agree with everything he says, but, overall, his ideas and philosophies paint an image of a more open-minded, creative and efficient world that few can dispute.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.