Book Review: David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell

You may recognize the name of the book I (Michael) am reviewing today, as it was in part the inspiration behind my thoughts on the story of David and Goliath, which found their way into my lecture (and blog post) on 1 & 2 Samuel. I have reviewed books by Gladwell before, and with his latest work, I think it is safe to say he is becoming a favorite author of mine. He skillfully combines story and statistics in a way that compels me to look at the world around me differently. Some reviewers have criticized Gladwell for “misapplying” research for his previous books, but in many ways the goal of his books is to inspire people towards good, and to go beyond themselves; I have grace for him if he misinterprets things once in a while (not that I would know even if he did). I think David and Goliath has been the book to inspire me the most so far.

DavidandGoliathThe premise of this book is simple: giants aren’t aways as strong as they look, and shepherd boys aren’t as weak as they may appear. Starting with examining the context of the story of David and Goliath, Gladwell builds a case showing that, when approached conventionally, many obstacles seem greater than they really are. The unconventional approach that will overcome such obstacles and allow the weaker to defeat the strong often takes a lot more work and commitment. It is from here that Gladwell starts telling the stories of those who turned their disadvantages into advantages. Additionally, he shows that those things we often hold as advantages actually can become disadvantages. A good example of this confusion between advantages and disadvantages is the research surrounding whether smaller class sizes are really an advantage (spoiler: they are of no measurable advantage).

The following portion of the book looks at the “theory of desirable difficulties.” This is not something we would typically consider, but there is evidence that Gladwell provides both in stats and stories, that certain disadvantages, when overcome or compensated for, can create extraordinary people. We may never wish trials upon the ones we love, but that which might actually shape them into something great, are the things we try to shield them from the most. This part of the book reminded me of what we often discover when asking the more difficult questions of why a good God allows people to suffer pain: it is as C.S. Lewis suggests – that God may speak to us in our joys, but He shouts at us in our pain. Gladwell opens this part of David and Goliath with the following passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians:

“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Gladwell seems to recognize the connection between his own discoveries and the truth declared by Paul in this passage.

Finally, Gladwell focuses in on the limits of power in controlling society. Initially, I found it difficult to see the value in this portion of his book, but it actually ended up affecting me and convicting me the most. As someone who finds himself in a certain level of leadership, and after teaching from Samuels, I found myself meditating heavily on how I use my power, and how it may affect people negatively. Gladwell speaks to examples of heavy handed corrective actions and reactions, and how this causes people to see those in power as illegitimate. This illegitimacy causes people to act in complete opposition to the desired response. I see now how important it is to be seen as a legitimate authority when in leadership, and that legitimacy is earned through humility and serving those you lead.

I imagine that it goes without saying at this point that I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in personal growth, no matter where you find yourself. I never get the feeling that Gladwell intends to write self-help books when he pursues writing, yet I am increasingly challenged personally with what finds its way onto the pages of his books.

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