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Malcolm and Goliath

Was David really an underdog? Are pricey schools really worth the money? Do “disadvantages” really thwart success? In his newest tome, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants ($31, Little, Brown and Company), Malcolm Gladwell, esteemed New Yorker writer and author of four best-selling books (including global phenom The Tipping Point, which spawned a generation of young Gladwellians), gets out his sling and takes on the big guys.

Malcolm Gladwell, who was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2005, releases his newest book on Oct. 1.

City for Display: 

You wrote a New Yorker piece in 2009 titled “How David Beats Goliath.” Is that where your new book began?
Yes. That was a piece about a team of 13-year-old girls who knew nothing about basketball—and who went all the way to the national age-group championships. I wrote that piece and couldn’t get it out of my head. It was so hilarious—and yet, oddly, so thought-provoking. It made me think there was more to be learned from underdog stories.

The book starts with the biblical David and Goliath story, and argues that it’s been told incorrectly for centuries. How so?
I’m going to give away the big surprise in that chapter, but I will say this: David had far, far superior technology to Goliath. The sling was—and i—a devastating weapon that was routinely used in ancient times against infantry, with great effect. No one watching the duel that day 3,000 years ago would have considered David the underdog.

Is it sometimes a good thing to be the underdog?
Being the underdog is useful if you’re willing to explore the freedom offered by having nothing to lose. Underdogs have an incentive to take real chances. If you’re going to lose anyway, why not? That makes them very dangerous opponents.

You write that, in the past 200 years of wars, when the weaker side—the underdog—has fought in unconventional ways, they’ve won 64 percent of the time. So, why don’t underdogs do that all the time?
A great question! And I’m not sure, but I think it’s because underdogs don’t always realize there are hidden advantages in their apparent disadvantage. There were thousands of soldiers in the Israelite army, all of whom looked at Goliath and couldn’t imagine winning. Only David figured out that if you simply changed the rules of combat, then Goliath was suddenly vulnerable. That kind of subversive thinking is necessary for an underdog to triumph—and rare.

So, if Goliaths have been beaten so often, why do they still not see a defeat coming? Especially modern-day Goliaths, who should know better?
Precisely. A few years ago the computer giant Hewlett Packard was struggling—and decided that the answer to their problems was to merge with another struggling computer company, Compaq. Why? Why do the big and powerful persist in believing that the answer to their problems is to get even bigger and more powerful? That’s the kind of thinking David and Goliath is designed to confront.

Who do you consider modern-day Goliaths?
I did an entire chapter on the disastrous British experience in Northern Ireland, where they came in with every advantage and were fought to a standstill by an army a fraction their size. It wasn’t really about Northern Ireland, though. I really want Americans to wonder whether those same lessons apply to the wars we’ve been fighting around the world recently.

One chapter highlights successful entrepreneurs who are dyslexic, and the scientific research into that connection. Were you surprised by that?
Absolutely. It’s one of the weirdest chapters in the book. The great mystery of the many—and there are many—entrepreneurs who are dyslexic is that they consider their success to have come, not in spite of their disability, but because of it. That’s fascinating. And it suggests we need to rethink our definition of a disability.

You also touch on how it’s been found that smaller school class size doesn’t have much of an effect on a child’s education, and that extreme wealth can ruin children as easily as extreme poverty. But every year in NYC, parents pay through the nose to send their kids to the “best” schools. Is that a waste, then?
Perhaps ‘waste’ is too strong a word. But I think it would be hard to read that chapter and still believe that spending $40,000 a year to send your child to Choate or St. Paul’s is exactly worth it. Wealthy people vastly overstate the advantages of the things riches can buy.

What do you say to someone who argues that the difficulties and obstacles in their life made it impossible for them to succeed?
Unfortunately, that’s all too often the case, that difficulties aren’t desirable. But what I’m interested in, in this book are those cases where difficulties are desirable: When is it a good thing to have grown up poor, or fatherless, or with a disability? We need to move away from the notion that there’s only one kind of response to adversity.

Do you do your best work when your back’s against the wall?
I’m the guy who, in college, finished all his papers a month before they were due. I might not be the best example.

How does living in New York City inspire you?
I like to walk around and work in cafes and be inspired by the noise and bustle and diversity. There isn’t a better city for me in the world.

Who are your favorite authors?
My favorite writer is Janet Malcolm. I’ve read everything she’s ever written—and if I ever write a book as good as some of hers, I will die a happy man.

What are you looking forward to reading this fall?
The new Jack Reacher thriller from Lee Child, of course!

You’ve written books about tipping points, success, first impressions and now underdogs, and covered a slew of other topics for The New Yorker. What’s next?
I have no idea. Do you have any ideas for me?