Setting Your Sights High


I accepted Malcolm Gladwell (of Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point fame) into my heart as lord and savior several years ago, at least when it comes to perspective-shifting nonfiction reading, so I was more than ready to receive his latest, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

Is it a victory or defeat? Well, first let’s talk about what kind of book it is.

Gladwell (and separately The Steves, Levitt & Dubner) all but invented what I call the Unexpected Conclusions genre back in the early 2000s. If you set out to write this kind of book, you do it like this:

1. You have discovered cause and effect are not really as they seem. The relationship between classroom size and education doesn’t work the way people have been led to believe, for example. Or there is a shocking relationship between abortion rights and crime rate people would never have thought of.

2. You give people a layman’s overview of the situation, with expert sources and data charts. But keep it simple – anything technical that might alienate casual readers is there in the bibliography, if nerds really want to look it up. As the writer, you frame yourself a normal person along for the ride.

3. Now you jump into firsthand stories, interviews, and historical accounts. “Zoom in” to real people and tell their stories, sometimes leaving it a surprise how they tie into your main idea (”And this person who is extremely successful was also an orphan.”) As you follow all these stories and examples, the relationship you were trying to show grows more and more obvious. Sometimes you detour into new discoveries by the researchers or follow their own stories in trying to prove this relationship.

Unexpected Conclusions books can make you smarter, and more equipped to fight that good fight of going about your day. You might learn about micro-expressions and how to better tell if someone is lying to you. You might learn that swimming pools are actually more dangerous to have around babies than guns. You might learn the kind of school you want your child to go to, or why it helps to think twice about your realtor’s suggestion to take a certain kind of offer.

In a bigger sense, you might learn to look for mysterious connections, to interpret data, to shift your perspectives. And best of all, these books are fun. The best authors did the credible research work and now they’re going to tell you a great story.

Gladwell is good at it. Damn good. If that kind of book is the coffee you crave, Gladwell is a gourmet peaberry reserve and almost everyone else is a drop-off in quality from there: ranging from the serviceable but bland imitative chain offerings to the harsh undrinkable dregs of the hastily-pulled hacks.

David and Goliath comes through, hitting all the notes, presenting great ideas, keeping you reading until wee hours of the night with its real-life tales. Somehow, though, the magic isn’t full on tap.

Part of it is a lack of cohesion in its thesis. Without ruining too much (insights and discoveries are part of the fun), David and Goliath focuses on how the things that make people and organizations seem powerful and unbeatable might not be such great advantages, and things that make their opponents seem weak and underdog-like might be more of an advantage than you think.

But the handful of situations he explores just aren’t enough to shift the way you’re going to look at the world. They definitely work on their own terms: there were plenty of things I highlighted to remember, including a particularly beautiful summary paragraph near the end full of tested idealism and hope. But there was no major “Aha!” that I couldn’t wait to talk about like there was in Blink and its contemporary Freakonomics by The Steves, Levitt & Dubner. A lot of what he presents evidence for are things that thoughtful, insightful people might already have, well, figured out on their own.

So what’s the verdict? If you’re a fan of The Gladwell, or just want to pick up a smart new read with engaging stories and insights you can think on, pick it up. There’s nothing to complain about here. In fact, if expectations weren’t so high because of Gladwell’s consistently great pieces in The New Yorker and other books, I wouldn’t hesitate to call this book wonderful. But if you’re expecting a real game-changer, a disorienting epiphany of the kind that made this genre famous in the first place, you won’t get struck with it here. The slingshot hits its mark ably; it just doesn’t topple any armies.


| “We spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that prestige and resources and belonging to elite institutions make us better off. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways in which those kinds of material advantages limit our options.”

| “Why so many gifted children fail to live up to their early promise. One of the reasons, he concludes is that they have ‘inherited an excessive amount of psychological health.’ Those who fall short, he says, are children ‘too conventional, too obedient, too unimaginative, to make the big time with some revolutionary idea.'”

| “Traumatic experiences can have two completely different effects on people: the same event can be profoundly damaging to one group while leaving another better off.”

| “But we need to remember that our definition of what is right is, as often as not, simply the way that people in positions of privilege close the door on those on the outside.”

| {All of the last few pages, which you have to read the book to get to.}

Note: No one ever pays me anything to review or link to any books.


2 thoughts on “Setting Your Sights High

  1. I noticed that you have a Malcolm Gladwell section on your blog while reading another post, so had to investigate. I like him, but sadly have fallen behind on his works. Will have to add David and Goliath to my ever growing list for summer reading! His books are definitely a great way to get educated without feeling intimidated, and they leave readers wanting more. He is fun to read!

    • He’s one of my favorite authors, and he has a gift for making connections between disparate ideas and texts and finding insights about the picture they make as a whole. You’re right that he’s not intimidating – actually, I think sometimes he dumbs things down a little too much. He’s always intelligent and entertaining, though, and it’s good to see he’s getting well-earned acclaim.

Holla back, girl

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