Book Review: David and Goliath

[This review originally appeared at Law Technology News, October 7, 2013 ]

You can have too much of a good thing — and that which does not kill us makes us stronger. That’s the essence of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book,  David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell is a well-known writer who spins readable stories from social science, and his books, which include Tipping Point, Blink, Outlier, and others — have all been popular. His latest book follows a similar path but lacks the strengths of its predecessors.

A Gladwell book invariably gets thoroughly reviewed and seems to perpetually generate criticism about the underlying theories on which he hangs his stories. The New York Times takes a thorough look at the stories, while the Wall Street Journal‘s look digs into the science and its lack of depth.

As the review on Freakonomics suggests, this is a highly readable book. I enjoy Gladwell’s storytelling, but David and Goliath‘s thinness makes it less valuable than my favorite of his books, Blink. After reading it, I felt like there was information that I could use. (I don’t read this type of book merely for feel-good inspiration.)

The lessons David and Goliath imparts are weakened by their lack of context. The wealthy Hollywood parent, pulled up by his bootstraps, worries about the paradox that his children will not have the same disadvantages he had. But it ignores his role as parent and ability to control their lifestyle and access to his wealth. The reasons why a student chose an Ivy League school and dropped out don’t factor in  her admission that she had over-committed, taking too many courses, and participating in too many extracurriculars.

Gladwell says that people who complain about his books being oversimplifications shouldn’t read them. I can’t really speak to whether the science is oversimplified. But I think that anyone who comes at this with a business mindset and wants to take Gladwell’s examples tied to the inverted curve — more is better, but eventually too much causes a drop off — will find that it’s not always clear how to apply the stories.  It does seem clear that the “inverted U” idea is useful — but you’ll need to do more digging to make this a useable concept.

There are threads, like the inverted curve, that are worth keeping in mind. Gladwell writes early on about asymmetric warfare. Chapter one — which gave me deja vu because it was mostly a rehash of this 2009 New Yorker article —  uses basketball to describe how you can approach a situation and be successful by doing something unexpected. A weak basketball team adopts a strategy that is nontraditional and maximizes their strengths that leads to a winning season.

The legal profession relies heavily on precedent and anecdote. It benchmarks itself against other similar firms. There would seem to be a substantial breadth of opportunity to not always approach things the way every other firm does. An asymmetric strategy has its own weaknesses, but it is more customized to the strengths of your law firm than averaging yourself out to be like everyone else.

Lawyers are sprinkled throughout the text, funnily enough. One prodigy who failed out of his mathematical and science degree switched to tax law. David Boies is a chapter headliner as Gladwell looks at his dyslexia and how it impacted his prominent career as a litigator.  Anyone who has read or heard Gladwell will have also heard this dyslexia-as-an-advantage story, which he has used for many years. He also discusses the “big-fish-little-pond” theory in relation to where you go to law school: Minorities may be better off as highly successful graduates of less-highly regarded schools.  But again, there is nuance, because where you go to law school may determine what future doors are open for you.

This will be the first Gladwell book that I pass on rather than keep on my bookshelf. It’s an enjoyable read but seems the most threadbare.  Writers like Duncan Watts have taken the style and delivered it far better, with more foundation, since Gladwell’s earlier books.

David Whelan is manager of legal information for the Law Society of Upper Canada. Email: dwhelan@lsuc.on.ca.

 

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