Author: Malcolm Gladwell
The title of this book refers to the well-known biblical story of how the acknowledged outside shot, David, triumphed over the mighty Goliath. This is a forensic examination of ‘what happens when ordinary people confront giants’, the author using this epic battle to demonstrate the surprising advantages underdogs have over powerful forces such as armies, corporations, deprivation, and misfortune. The book argues that giants are vulnerable because of the same qualities which make them powerful. On the other hand, underdogs have immense resources under the veneer of their weakness.
The book uses many examples to illustrate how frequently the weak overcome the powerful. One such story which demonstrates this paradox is the standoff, during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, between civilians and the British army. The author said ‘what should have been a difficult few months turned into thirty years of bloodshed and mayhem‘ (page 203). This story demonstrated that ‘there comes a point where the best intentioned application of power and authority begins to backfire‘ (page 257). The author showed how, in exercising their power, the British army ignored the principle of legitimacy, and ‘fell into the trap of believing (that)…it did not matter what the people of Northern Ireland thought of them’ (pages 203-208).
To achieve their goal, underdogs often need to redefine or break the rules, and to adopt unconventional strategies. The author illustrated this when he said ‘David has nothing to lose… he has the freedom to thumb his nose at the rules set by others’ (page 191). Underdogs also rely on the their tough backgrounds and difficult circumstances, resilient traits which ‘can open doors and create opportunities… and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable’ (page 6). The unconventional tactics of underdogs are however very hard and require a strong discipline to implement, discipline which most giants do not possess (page 33).
Characteristic of the authors style, he illustrates his arguments with a variety of detailed but captivating stories. Take the story of Vivek Ranadive, the basketball coach who applied unconventional coaching tactics to enable his inexperienced girls’ team to overcome technically superior sides (page 28). With the story of the victory of Lawrence of Arabia over the Turks, we learn how lack of resources may be turned into a strength (page 23-25). The story of haematologist Emil Frierich illustrated how a forceful personality breaks down obstacles to achieve success, in this case the development of combination chemotherapy for childhood leukaemia (page 155). The story of how Édouard Manet led other French artists to establish the art form, impressionism, shows the hidden strength of breaking away from established institutions (page 72). These and several other stories showed that underdog advantages are not restricted to any sphere of life.
The author made many assertions that challenge conventional assumptions. An example is his argument that dyslexia may be considered a desirable difficulty because it ‘forces you to develop skills that might otherwise have lain dormant’ (pages 102-123). He supported this claim with the observation that ‘an extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic’ (page 106). Another counterintuitive claim is that attending a top quality university is often not an advantage, except for the very brightest students (page 47). This is because the ‘Small Fish in a Big Pond‘ effect stifles achievement (page 73-74). Other paradoxical disadvantages the book explores include coming from rich homes, and learning in small-sized classes (pages 40).
The author references a range of experts to support his assertions. An example is Ivan Arreguin-Toft whose studies demonstrate that weaker armies defeat stronger ones a third of the time, the proportion rising to 2/3 if the weaker sides use unconventional tactics (page 21-22). Other experts include Samuel Stouffer on the concept of relative deprivation (page 77), and Marvin Eisenstadt on how the loss of one parent in childhood may engender creativity (page 140).
This book challenges the conventional view of power, and it uncovers the hidden strengths of weakness. It is difficult to appreciate that David was better placed to defeat Goliath, but the author offers convincing evidence and unimpeachable analysis to support his assertions. The stories are inspiring, and give everyone the encouragement to persevere in the battles they face against all sorts of giants. This theme is relevant to healthcare professionals who are constantly developing and enhancing services, often against huge obstacles and challenges. The author appeared comfortable with his observation that some underdog strategies are not ethically above board, and this is my only criticism of the book.
This excellent book offers a unique view of what constitute strengths and weakness. Healthcare will benefit form this insightful perspective, and I recommend the book to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Penguin Books, London, 2013
Number of Chapters: 9
Number of Pages: 307
Star rating: 4 stars