The academic community has always been dismissive of Malcolm Gladwell, viewing his work as somewhat parasitic and devoid of original thought. This seems rather unfair, for there is much to be said for making sociological research accessible to the masses via entertaining narrative. I personally thought Outliers: The Story of Success was entirely worthy, in style as well as substance, with an autographical element contributing to its authenticity. It was with anticipation therefore that I launched into Gladwell’s latest, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement: the central theses and conclusions are banal, and the analyses deeply flawed. Such is Gladwell’s stature as pop social scientist and increasingly management guru, I almost feel a moral obligation to write a critique. So here goes…
To paraphrase a line from a favorite movie, this is a book that lost me at hello. Gladwell starts with an attempt to analyze the story of David’s duel with Goliath, which is of course the ultimate metaphor for the underdog battling a giant. The suggestion is – to borrow a memorable Sean Connery line – that Goliath effectively brought a knife to a gun-fight, such was the potency of David’s slingshot as a lethal weapon. Moreover, Gladwell makes the case that Goliath was in fact a lumbering dimwit with double vision; Goliath describes David as carrying “sticks” when he was in fact carrying a single staff. But if Goliath had double vision, why did he not see two Davids? More fundamentally, there is a reason the story of David and Goliath features on the roof of the Sistine Chapel rather than as a case study at West Point. David wins because he knows that his missile is guided by the Almighty; he has only a single shot to find the tiniest of chinks in Goliath’s armor, knowing there will not be a second chance. This is Biblical allegory rather than military history, and if there is any practical lesson to be gained it is has everything to do with the power of faith, self-belief, and destiny, exactly the characteristics that make an evangelical terrorist such a dangerous adversary. (You might also conclude that size does not matter, but maybe that’s just me). To look for answers, as Gladwell does, beyond what the Bible suggests is like a gynecologist trying to rationalize Immaculate Conception.
Much of the book is devoted to the notion of “desirable difficulty”. Gladwell observes – with the usual dose of anecdotes – that a disproportionate number of “eminent” people had lost a parent before the age of ten, and that a surprisingly high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic. This is certainly interesting, albeit not particularly original as an insight. In fact, the notion that successfully overcoming adversity makes one resilient is rather trite. In his classic Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche famously says “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. If you’re not into the whole pretentious dead German philosopher thing, Kanye West repeats it in his 2007 rap hit Stronger and Kelly Clarkson in her 2012 hit Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You). But if Gladwell wishes to use induction to argue that these difficulties are in fact advantages, he would need to present data not corrupted with the elementary logical trap of survivor bias i.e. what happens to the orphans or dyslexics who do not end up running countries or founding companies. Instead, Gladwell himself concedes that incarcerated criminals are “two or three times more likely to have lost a parent in childhood than the population as a whole”, and “there are a remarkable number of dyslexics in prison”. Sort of kills the punchline, but wtf, lets not let the facts get in the way of selling books.
The intrepid Malcolm now takes us further down the track of social psychology, exploring the phenomena of “relative deprivation”, or the notion that we form our impressions not globally but locally i.e. by comparing ourselves to people in our immediate environment. In and of itself this is a fairly obvious fact; any parent with multiple children or manager dealing with employee compensation will recognize it immediately. The idea is also at the very heart of the communist theory of revolution; Marx himself talked about a small house satisfying all the requirements of a residence but “let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut”. So once again, we’re a little short on originality here, but to be fair that’s never been Gladwell’s forte. Where he really takes off on a wild tangent is in making the case that relative deprivation accounts for (relatively) talented mathematicians not pursuing a science degree, and concluding that this is somehow a “waste” both at an individual and societal level. To make his case, Gladwell looks at Math SAT scores of Harvard undergraduates, compares these to equivalent scores of students at Hartwick College, and registers outrage that Harvard has the same distribution of science degrees as Hartwick, despite the fact that the bottom third of Harvard’s class has higher SAT Math scores than the top third at Hartwick. His (unproven) hypothesis is that this happens because Harvard students begin to question their ability given the quality of their peer group, and therefore gravitate toward “soft” subjects rather than “hard” science degrees. Extrapolating off this somewhat trivial data, he concludes that one might be better off being a bigger fish in a smaller pond rather than the reverse; specifically, it might pay to turn down Harvard College and consider Hartwick College (which by the way happens to be a small liberal arts college in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City).
This analysis is downright silly, and while Gladwell’s “conclusion” has some limited validity, it is in no way, shape or form substantiated by his arguments. To start with, why is this data significant at all, and why would it surprise anyone? The distribution of majors at Harvard or Hartwick ends up the way it is because that is exactly what these institutions desire when they admit students, with a mix of future physicists and poets. And this is exactly how it should be; can you imagine a world where all we had was science and math geeks? There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that pursuing chemistry rather than the classics (for example) is in any way a more desirable goal. (Unless of course you end up producing crystal meth, but that’s a whole other story). What Gladwell calls the “dregs” (based purely on lower Math SAT scores) at Harvard and Yale might include a talented musician or actor, a writer or artist, a Kennedy or a Bush, or a football or track star; the point being if you’ve made it there you are unlikely to be demoralized because of a few quant jocks in your midst. Most fundamentally, Gladwell misses the entire point of a liberal arts education, whether at Harvard or Hartwick, which is to equip young minds to reflect on existential questions such as wanting to be a big fish in a small pond or vice versa. Or indeed what it means to be a fish in the first place.
It’s been almost 5-years since I read Outliers, and in that period I’ve played golf and hit range balls for countless hours without even remotely approaching mastery of the golf swing. So much for that “10,000-Hour Rule”; that shit don’t work either. I won’t be buying your next book Mister Gladwell.
If I may add my take on David. Having overcome Goliath, does he jump in glee and show signs of having acquired a superiority complex? If one were to closely observe the 15 ft high original masterpiece in Florence, one would notice that he stands in complete modesty. A great lesson to be learnt there, don’t you think?