The argument that people succeed because of their weaknesses, rather than because they overcome them, is a difficult one to make in a truly legitimate way. But this is exactly what Malcolm Gladwell attempts to do in his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.
While Gladwell is, by most accounts, one of the most gifted nonfiction writers around, and a personal favorite of mine, unfortunately, he fails in his attempt to convince us that our shortcomings are the real secret to our eventual success.
Does the narrative flow? Yes. Do the stories and case studies sweep us along and entertain us? Absolutely.
But if you're looking for valid takeaways on how the world really works or strategies to improve your chances for success in business, work and life, you're out of luck. In fact, in a departure from his previous books, Gladwell falls short of provoking deeper thought.
In The Beginning
David and Goliath begins with the biblical story, which is perhaps the most intriguing part of the book (and why Gladwell has focused on it in recent public talks). We all know the story: Giant warrior Goliath is defeated by a diminutive boy with a sling. Gladwell argues that we are all mistaken in the true lesson of the story, which is that the enormous odds facing David are what produced his great defeat of Goliath, while Goliath's apparent advantage was, in reality, a deadly vulnerability.
Gladwell puts it this way: "What we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong." He goes on to say, "The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem."
In other words, the obvious difference in size—which is what most people focus on in the story—is exactly the opposite of what you think it is. That's an intriguing spin, and characteristically Gladwellian: If ever a writer owned the counterintuitive space, it's Gladwell.
What follows the retelling of the David and Goliath story, though, is an increasingly scattered assortment of what many critics have termed "cherry picked" cases and stories to support the central argument. And it doesn't really work.
The logical extension of Gladwell's argument is that we should all wish for disadvantages. Take, for example, dyslexia. The reason we should all wish that we were born with dyslexia (or some equally challenging impairment) is that another David—David Boies, the enormously successful attorney—was born with it and attributes his legal prowess to it. It wasn't simply a challenge to overcome and succeed in spite of, but rather the very source of Boies' breakout success. It was not, as Gladwell would have had us believe had he included the Boies story in his bestselling book Outliers, because of 10,000-plus hours of practice and a healthy does of serendipity.
And this is where entrepreneurs might lean in. Gladwell uses the Boies example to bring up a nearly half-decade-old survey showing that entrepreneurs had a significantly higher percentage of dyslexics in their ranks than did corporate managers. The conclusion Gladwell wants us to reach is that dyslexia causes entrepreneurship.
Successful entrepreneurs, at least the several dozen that I know and the several hundred I know of, all have one thing in common: They like to take risks. Calculated, educated risks to be sure, but risks nonetheless. What does that have to do with a reading disability like dyslexia? We don't find out in David and Goliath.
What I was hoping for—and what I did not get—was guidance to the central question in my mind, the answer to which would be undeniably useful: Which difficulties are desirable, and which ones are not?
We're told that being a small fish in a big pond is undesirable, but that dyslexia is desirable. But the only way we can know the difference is through a particular retrospective story of failure or success. We are left without as much as a handrail to guide us going forward. And that's the great and fatal flaw in David and Goliath, especially for the career-minded, success-oriented business audience.
Still, many of the stories are great fun to read. You don't have to be a basketball fan to appreciate the uplifting story of Vivek Ranadivé, a Mumbai-born software engineer who had never played basketball before but coached his daughter’s team to the national championships. His secret strategy in a nutshell was to push the girls to ignore convention, press hard and play faster than their rivals.
"The whole Redwood City [team] philosophy was based on a willingness to try harder than anyone else," Gladwell writes.
While it's an inspiring story of triumph over adversity, the lesson is as conventional as it gets. In the end, everyone loves the story of the underdog.
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