Summary of “David and Goliath“ by Malcolm Gladwell: With his analysis of countless life stories, Malcolm Gladwell shows us why our weaknesses can also be our best assets and how we can always win a “David versus Goliath” fight.
By Malcolm Gladwell, 2019, 288 pages
Chronicle and summary of “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell
What is the law of David and Goliath?
Malcolm Gladwell starts his book with the story of David and Goliath, one of the most famous battles in history that took place three thousand years ago in the Valley of Elah, in ancient Palestine, between David, a young shepherd, and Goliath, a giant gladiator.
This duel, a common practice in ancient times, was miraculously won by David; the opponent who, on the face of it, had no chance of victory. This story, which has been told for centuries, gave rise to the expression “David vs. Goliath” which is used today as a metaphor for an unlikely victory.
Thus, “David and Goliath” explores what happens when ordinary people oppose giants. By “giants”, the author means different types of powerful opponents such as an army or a formidable opponent; but also disability, bad luck and oppression.
One chapter, one story
Each chapter of the book tells the story of one or more people, famous or unknown, ordinary or brilliant; who, faced with enormous problems, were forced to react.
These stories examine two main ideas. Mainly:
- The improbable victories, which result from conflicts in which there is an imbalance of power, win one’s admiration.
- This type of conflict is completely misinterpreted:
- On the one hand, the giants are not as robust as one would like to believe: “The qualities that seem to make them strong are often the source of their greatest weaknesses.”
- On the other hand, the fact that someone is disadvantaged can change them in ways that can surprise others: this unexpected situation will sometimes open doors, create opportunities, educate, enlighten and make the unthinkable possible.
“In reality, one can learn how to face the giants, and there’s no better lesson for initiation than the epic battle between David and Goliath.”
How do you explain David’s victory?
The fight between David and Goliath was as follows:
- On one side: Goliath, big and strong, heavily armed gladiator, expects to fight a duel against another gladiator.
- On the other side: David, with no armor, and therefore fast and agile, rushes towards Goliath; with his slingshot, he aims at the only vulnerable point of the intimidating “giant”: the forehead. Goliath, immobile, with over 45 kilos of equipment for hand-to-hand combat, has no time to protect himself and falls stunned. David then takes advantage of the situation to cut off his head with his sword.
Before the meeting between David and Goliath, Saul, the king, was skeptical about David’s chances of victory. David was the complete opposite of the great and strong Goliath. For him, power was a matter of physical strength, and it didn’t even occur to him that guile; speed and surprise could be so effective.
With the aid of historical analysis, it appears that Goliath, in fact, suffered from acromegaly; a serious disease that often causes, as a side effect, sight disorder. This disease is due to a benign tumor of the pituitary gland, which leads to an overproduction of growth hormones and results in the person affected by the disease to grow to be very large and tall.
In fact, the cause of Goliath’s large size was also the source of his greatest weakness!
“The moral of this story applies to struggles against all kinds of giants: the powerful are not always as strong as they seem.”
The purpose of the book “The Law of David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell
With “David and Goliath“, the author wishes to re-establish the idea that those who seem strong are not always as strong as we think they are and that those we see as weaker can be much more powerful than we imagine.
“Moved by his courage and faith, David rushed towards Goliath, who did not see him approach. The giant was shot down because he was too tall, too slow and his vision too blurred to understand how things had turned out. But for all these years, this story and similar ones have not been told correctly. The purpose of this book is to set the record straight.”
Part I – The advantages of the disadvantages (and the disadvantages of the advantages)
The main idea of this first part of “David and Goliath” can be summed up this way: not everything that looks like an advantage is necessarily one…
Chapter 1 – Vivek Ranadivé: “It was really weird because my father had never played basketball”
The first chapter of “David and Goliath” is devoted to the stories of Vivek Ranadivé and Lawrence of Arabia.
First story: the unexpected victory of a basketball team
The story of Vivek Ranadivé is the story of an ordinary man who decides, one day; to become the basketball coach of his daughter Anjali’s team. The team in question, who play in a second-tier league, is made up of twelve-year-old girls from Silicon Valley; with a bit of a nerdy reputation and no talent for the sport.
Throughout this chapter, Malcolm Gladwell tells us how Vivek Ranadivé, who has never played basketball in his life, goes on to lead this team to the national championships, thanks to a very specific strategy: that of pressuring the other team in all parts of the court, for the whole game, in every game.
Second story: the unexpected victory of Lawrence of Arabia in the conflict between Turks and Arabs.
The Turks had the advantage of a very large number of soldiers, weapons and resources. But for the Turks, who believed that they were on the road to victory, this ultimately led them to remain on the defensive.
Lawrence of Arabia’s Bedouin troops, for their part, had no armies. However, they were very mobile, possessed incredible endurance, were confident in their abilities, had knowledge of the terrain (the desert) and “intelligent bravery”. And this is what enabled them to gain victory over the Turks.
With these two examples, Malcolm Gladwell argues that it is wrong to think that a person who is less powerful, less wealthy or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage:
“We think the underdogs have very little chance to win. That’s not the case at all. It happens all the time that competitors taken for losers, win.”
The skills required to come out victorious in spite of one’s weaknesses
To think that the giant will be the winner is an error of judgment:
“In reality, we have an extremely rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is. Some things are seen as useful when they are not, and some things are seen as useless when they make us stronger and wiser.”
Malcolm Gladwell has analyzed the qualities required to challenge these conventions. For:
- Vivek Ranadivé: it was his defense strategy that allowed him to hide his weaknesses. His players were not good shooters and they weren’t very tall, but as long as they “played hard on defense”, they could steal balls and make easy shots on the run.
- Lawrence of Arabia: he owes his victory to the fact that he attacked the Turks at their weak points, i.e. at the furthest and most deserted outposts of the railway, and to the skills and knowledge of his troops, which are listed above.
- David: It was partly down to his refusal to engage in hand-to-hand combat (which he would probably have lost) that he won the fight.
To adopt the strategies of the disadvantaged, there must be no choice.
The author finds that the strategies put in place by those who were supposed to lose, in order to defeat those expected to win, are not used very much. Despite their proven track record, these tactics are, surprisingly, almost never used.
The strategy of the pressing tactics, for example, has allowed teams to win against very good opponents in games they were expected to lose. However, the tactic is not commonly utilized. Malcolm Gladwell makes the same observation in armed conflicts: disadvantaged countries do not fight “like David”.
In fact, Malcolm Gladwell explains this phenomenon as follows:
“To play by David’s rules, you have to be so bad you have no other choice.”
In the case of basketball, for example, if the players are fairly good, they won’t want to play so “hard”:
“It won’t work for them because they don’t want it enough.”
Ranadivé coached a team of ungifted girls in a sport he didn’t know about. He was insulted for his methods, but he continued with it. It was, in fact, the very fact that he and the team were disadvantaged and marginalized that gave him the freedom to persevere and pursue the unthinkable.
Chapter 2 – Teresa DeBrito: “At one point I had 29 students in my class. It was fantastic!”
Through various stories, one of which was from Teresa DeBrito, a school principal, Malcolm Gladwell examines the idea that advantages and disadvantages are sometimes confused when it comes to education. Indeed, scientific research in a number of countries, within the field of education, suggests that what at first sight appears to be a clear advantage may, in fact, not be.
Wealth does not always promote better education
To begin this second chapter of “David and Goliath“, Malcolm Gladwell tells us about one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. He talks about his childhood and early adulthood, where he had to work hard to get by: shovel for his neighbors, scrap metal work with his father, university laundry services and travel arrangements for his rich classmates. Then, one day, he got himself a job in Hollywood, and that was the start of a string of extraordinary successes.
Today, this man faces a contradiction: he succeeded because he learned “the hard way” to recognize the value of money, the meaning of work and the satisfaction to be able to get by in life. But because he succeeded, his children will not be able to learn the same lessons:
“To raise children in a well-off environment is a lot harder than people think. People can be destroyed by poverty. But they can also be destroyed by wealth, as they lose their ambition, pride and self-esteem. It’s difficult at both ends of the economic spectrum. Probably works better in the middle.”
The $75,000 per year mark
Certainly, when you lack money, it’s very difficult to be a good parent: the exhaustion and stress caused by poverty make it difficult to give your children the kind of love, attention and discipline that is the foundation to a healthy childhood. But, conversely, you can’t say that money is always synonymous with a good education.
In fact, the author explains that in education, money makes things easier to a certain extent. This point was calculated based on a family income of about $75,000 per year. If it’s above this, the studies show that increased wealth does not make much of a difference.
What is the inverted U-curve?
The inverted U-curve is characterized by the fact that, at a very high level; a favorable situation has a higher cost than its benefits.
The man in Hollywood, for example, learned valuable lessons from his lack of money, which motivated him. His father taught him the value of money, the virtues of work and independence. But his children live with wealth and prosperity, where the rules are no longer the same. In the end, “wealth contains the seeds of its own destruction.”
This is what the inverted U-curve that represents the relationship between a family’s economic status and education looks like.
Based on this curve, the higher the family income, the more difficult it becomes to raise children.
The curve shows three phases:
- Ascending (left): If you increase a resource or activity, it improves the situation;
- Plateau (the highest horizontal part of the graph): If you increase the resource or activity, it doesn’t change the situation;
- Top-down (right): If you increase the resource or activity, it makes the situation worse.
For psychologists Barry Schwartz and Adam Grant, virtually all important phenomena follow an inverted U-curve. Their opinion is:
“Pure good does not exist. When it reaches a very high level, a positive quality or experience or a favorable situation has a cost that may exceed its benefits.”
The inverted U-curve applied to the number of children in a class
As a result, for Theresa DeBrito, the relationship between the number of children in a class and their academic performance is more clearly understood. A very small class is, in reality, potentially as difficult to manage as a very large class. It is, in effect, difficult:
- In a large class, to control a high number of different dynamics;
- In a small class, to manage the children because of the lack of interaction; energy (which is caused by disagreements) and discussion (only possible if there is a certain number present).
Conclusion: yes, a class can be too small in the same way that a parent can have too much money.
Chapter 3 – Caroline Sacks: “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in science.”
In this chapter of “David and Goliath”, the author develops, via the stories of Caroline Sacks, a student; and 19th century impressionist painters, two essential ideas:
- It is better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big
- Situations, that at first glance, seem to appear to be a disadvantage (if you’re an outsider in a marginal environment) can in fact become rather advantageous in the end.
Small fish in a big pond or big fish in a small pond?
Malcolm Gladwell begins this chapter with a portrayal of Paris from one hundred and fifty years ago (19th century); when the city was the artistic center of the world. A group of painters used to meet up in the Batignolles district: the Impressionists.
In this period, in the 1860s, times were very tough for them.
As an Impressionist the ideal scenario was to be invited to participate and show in the “Salon”. This “Salon” was the most important exhibition of works of art in all of Europe. To be selected to exhibit your work at the Salon was almost impossible and the rules were very rigid. In addition, in order to respect the selection procedures, the artists had to subscribe to an art form that had no meaning for them.
The Impressionist painters considered the situation they found themselves in and, rather than continue to apply for the Salon, they decided to organize their own exhibition and create their own cooperative (the “Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers”). This meant that there would be no competition, no jury, no prizes, with each and every artist treated as an equal.
Although their exhibition would be a much smaller scale than the Salon, it meant that the artists could exhibit as many works as they wished and in a manner that people could really see and appreciate them (unlike the Salon, where if and when they were accepted, the works of the Impressionists went mostly undiscovered amongst the many paintings on display).
In the years to follow, their exhibition became hugely successful. And it is partly because of this decision and their actions that their works can be found today in all the great museums of the world.
In fact, because of their actions, they decided to be big fish in a small pond rather than small fish in a big pond.
Recognition from big institutions is not always advantageous…
Thanks to their independent exhibition, the impressionists were able to achieve some recognition. Outside of the Salon, they discovered a new identity and enjoyed the benefits of their creative freedom:
“Within a short time, the outside world began to see them. In the entire history of modern art, there has never been a more famous or more important exhibition. Today, you would spend a few billion dollars to buy the paintings once exhibited in the old maze of a building on Boulevard des Capucines.”
Conclusion: people often aim for the best and attach great significance to the recognition received from large institutions. However, we should always, as the impressionists did, ask ourselves if this recognition is really advantageous?
If you’re an outsider in a marginal environment it can have its advantages
Caroline Sacks graduated at the top of her class with a love of science. She was accepted at two universities, one in Maryland and Brown in Rhode Island, and had little hesitation with her choice: she chose Brown, reputed to be one of the most prestigious universities in the United States. This university also had more facilities than the University of Maryland, with brighter students and more talented professors. It was among the top ten or twenty universities in the United States, while Maryland was much lower on the list.
So, like the Salon in the history of the Impressionists, Brown University became a place where reputations were built. There were many applicants but few were chosen. Rejection was the norm, acceptance an achievement. This permits us to understand Caroline’s choice, similar to the way that the impressionists saw their involvement in the Salon. But, unlike the painters, the student chose exactly the opposite path:
“Caroline Sacks was faced with a similar choice. She could be a big fish at the University of Maryland or a small fish at one of the world’s most prestigious universities. She chose the Salon over Boulevard des Capucines, and she suffered the consequences.”
The concept of “relative deprivation”
At Brown, Caroline Sacks was no longer the brightest student in the class. She soon encountered difficulties in chemistry and had to contend with a very a competitive spirit. Unable to keep up with the pace, even though she loved science, the student became disheartened and eventually gave up. For her, it was a total failure.
Gladwell believes that Caroline Sacks should not have worried so much about natural chemistry: firstly, because she had no intention to pursue a career in this field. Secondly, she wasn’t the only one who found it difficult. The problem, in the author’s opinion, was that Caroline Sacks did not compare herself to everyone, but only to her colleagues at Brown. She was a small fish in one of the biggest ponds in the country. And when she compared herself to all those other strong and talented fish, she found her self-confidence shattered into a million pieces.
In fact, the author explains that Caroline Sacks was in what is called a state of “relative deprivation”. The concept of “relative deprivation”, developed by the sociologist Samuel Stouffer, is as follows:
“A person’s impressions are not a function of the most global context possible, but are formed by comparison with a small reference group.”
As a result, students who go to an elitist school (with the exception of the best in the class) experience stress that they could avoid in a less competitive environment.
The Big Fish – Little Pond Effect
When applied to the context of education, the phenomenon of relative deprivation is called the Big Fish – Little Pond Effect (or BFLP effect). Therefore, the more elitist a school is, the less confident the students who attend it are in their academic skills:
“The first in the class in a good school can easily become the last in the class in a very good school where they will always feel overwhelmed. However subjective, ridiculous and irrational that impression may be, it counts.”
Indeed, the “concept of school self”, which is the way one sees one’s own skills, influences a person’s willingness to take on challenges and persevere with difficult tasks. This is a crucial aspect of motivation and self-confidence!
Malcolm Gladwell tells us that while a science degree is valuable in today’s economy, more than half of U.S. students who begin university science studies drop out after a year or two. The author concludes that:
“The likelihood of obtaining a science degree is therefore based not only on a candidate’s level of intelligence, but on their perception of their level of intelligence relative to that of their classmates.”
What Caroline Sacks should have thought about when she chose Brown
Gladwell believes that when she chose her university, Caroline Sacks should have considered more than just the typical advantages of a “big pond”: prestige, classmates who may have more varied interests and be from richer backgrounds, a head start on the job market because of the “Brown” mark on her degree and the relationships she would have made with people who would have become influential. With her preference for a very good school over a good one, the student took the risk to drop out of science altogether, which statistically reduced her chances to graduate with a science degree by 30%.
“The big pond has the effect to demoralize even the really bright students.”
Part II – The Theory of Desirable Difficulty
In this second part of “David and Goliath”, Malcolm Gladwell focuses on the trade-off between advantages and disadvantages.
Chapter 4 – David Boies: “I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t been dyslexic”.
In the course of this chapter, the author draws on the story of David Boies, who is dyslexic, to illustrate the concept of “desirable difficulty”.
What is the concept of “desirable difficulty”?
“Popular wisdom holds that a disadvantage is a pitfall best avoided, an ordeal or difficulty that will only make things worse. But what is seen as a disadvantage is sometimes a “desirable difficulty.”
The concept of “desirable difficulty” was developed by psychologists Robert Bjork and Elizabeth Bjork at the University of California at Los Angeles.
To introduce us to this concept, Malcolm Gladwell asks us to solve two puzzles from the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT). In the pages of his book “David and Goliath“, the author presents us with the statements of these two puzzles exactly as they are presented by psychologists Alter and Oppenheimer to the candidates, i.e. with two different fonts. One is easy to read, the other is more difficult (light grey). With the second font, you have to focus more and squint to read the instructions.
What the author then explains to us, as a result of this test, is that these extra efforts are profitable. Indeed, the fact is that if we redouble our efforts it will lead us to be more efficient. Humans generally believe that it is easier to solve a problem if it is presented simply and clearly. But, in reality, if the subject has to conquer a difficult task and is forced to think harder, they will perform it better. The findings were that with the creation of the less readable CRT, Alter and Oppenheimer created a difficulty that proved desirable.
Malcolm Gladwell points out, however, that not all difficulties are desirable. For example, the barriers encountered by Caroline Sacks (in the previous chapter) did not motivate her to appreciate science more, quite the reverse.
Is dyslexia a desirable difficulty?
Before he gives us the answer to this question, Malcolm Gladwell tells us about David Boies, who suffers from dyslexia. As a child, David found it very difficult to read. His mother read stories to him, and the little boy memorized everything she told him.
Even though he wasn’t a great student, David Boies still managed to complete high school, but with no particular ambition to do anything. His first job was in construction and the next as a bookkeeper. Finally, one day, he decided to enroll in law school.
Today, David Boies is one of the most famous lawyers in the world.
Learn by capitalization vs learn by compensation
Gladwell believes that one of the reasons David Boies has become such a good lawyer is because of his excellent ability to listen. However, the way in which he built this particular skill, was very different to the way that most people learn it.
- Capitalized learning
Indeed, the author explains here that most people choose activities which they find easy. This is called “learning by doing”: a process by which one masters an activity or skill with the use of one’s natural strengths.
- Learning by compensation
If you learn by compensation, based on the theory of desirable difficulty, it follows a very different logic: one will seek to compensate for one’s own shortcomings. This is how David Boies proceeded: he learned to listen because he had no choice. He found it so difficult to read that he had to manage to find a strategy that would allow him to adapt, to follow others in a different way.
Unlike capitalized learning, which is the most common way to learn things, “learning by compensation” is very difficult.
“Most people with severe disabilities are not capable of it. But those who are able to do so significantly improve their fortunes, because what is learned due to necessity is unquestionably more powerful than what is learned due to ease.”
And the number of successful dyslexics who have used compensatory strategies is remarkable.
Chapter 5 – Emil Jay Freireich: “I don’t know how Jay managed to succeed”
Survivors and Savers
Gladwell starts this chapter of “David and Goliath”, with an introduction to London in the middle of World War II. The city suffered terribly: 40,000 dead, 46,000 injured and a million buildings destroyed or damaged. Yet, contrary to all expectations, the panic expected by the government never materialized. And the same phenomenon was observed in several other countries where the inhabitants were equally resilient.
A Canadian psychiatrist, J.T. MacCurdy, explains in his work that, when a bombing raid occurs, the target population is divided into three groups:
- The people who die from it are obviously those for whom the experience is the worst.
- The survivors: they felt the explosion and experienced the rubble, they are traumatized and sometimes badly wounded, they survived, but are now deeply scarred, many may be in a state of “shock”.
- Those spared: they heard the sirens and explosions, saw the enemy bombers fly over the city and the bombs that landed at the end of the street. But their reaction to the bombs was the opposite of that of the survivors: they escaped practically untouched. If they happen to survive two or three more attacks, they will even associate the bomb raids with “a feeling of excitement, tinged with invulnerability:
“A near-death experience is traumatic, but an attack seen from a distance provides a measure of invincibility. […] In London, many more people who were left emboldened by the experience of the bomb raids rather than those that were traumatized by them.”
The two opposite consequences of traumatic experiences
MacCurdy observes that:
“The same traumatic experience can have two completely opposite outcomes: it can cause serious harm to one group and improve the lot of another.”
Malcolm Gladwell recounts several stories that took place in the war to illustrate the idea that the traumatic experience of air raids alleviate fears that people possess and have a positive impact on a section of survivors.
He believes that there are other examples of the same phenomenon:
- Dyslexia, which has already been discussed: in many cases, people who suffer from it cannot compensate for their handicap and find themselves unable to complete even the most basic school tasks. But the same neurological disorder in people like Gary Cohn and David Boies can have the opposite effect.
- The loss of a parent in childhood: there is a strange coincidence between professional achievements and grief experienced in childhood (For example: 66% of prime ministers had lost a parent before the age of 16, 44 American presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama, 12 lost their father when they were young).
“Dyslexia forces the sufferer to develop skills that, in some cases, prove to be clearly advantageous. If you’re bombed or lose your parents it can either destroy a person or make them stronger. These are David-like difficulties, desirable difficulties.”
The courage acquired
For Malcolm Gladwell, MacCurdy’s theory about survivors and those who seem to get stronger also suggests that courage is acquired:
“Courage is not a virtue one already possesses, which makes one brave when times are hard, but rather a benefit that is built by the experience of hard times and the discovery that they are not so hard after all.”
One example of the life stories told by the Malcolm is the story of a man who came out of the rubble of his house unscathed after a bomb raid and said:
“We are not simply exposed to fear. We are also exposed to the fear to be afraid, and to overcome fear is an exhilarating experience […]. The contrast between the initial apprehension and the sense of relief and security felt later translates into a sense of self-confidence that is the very source of courage.”
Jay Freireich’s Story in the Fight Against Cancer
Jay Freireich had a very difficult childhood. It consisted of the death of his father at a very young age, his absent mother, the sudden separation from his nanny who he considered as his mother, the reconstruction of his family “for convenience”, poverty, and other tragic events.
In spite of this, Jay Freireich became a major medical researcher. And his relentless efforts in the fight against childhood leukemia, above all else; now make it possible to treat thousands and thousands of children affected by this cancer.
However, Jay Freireich is a heathen. In order to eradicate the disease, for years he persisted in his conduct of experiments on children. These treatments inflict atrocious pain on the sick children, which creates enormous controversy within the scientific community. But:
“When you have been orphaned at a very young age such as Jay Freireich, you don’t fear risking your career, to lose peer support, hold terminally ill children in your arms and stick big needles into their shins.”
And for Malcolm Gladwell:
“…we should ask ourselves…whether as a society we need people who have survived very traumatic events – and the answer is emphatically yes. It’s not a pleasant idea. For every person whose character has been strengthened by the traumatic experience, there are innumerable victims who have been broken by their experiences. The fact remains that, in certain circumstances and at specific times, we all depend on people who have been hardened by life. Freireich had the courage to think the unthinkable. […] And he did so largely because his own childhood made him realize that it is possible to emerge from the darkest hell and be healed.”
Chapter 6 – Wyatt Walker: “The rabbit is the most crafty animal that the Lord has ever created”
This sixth chapter of “David and Goliath” addresses the third desirable difficulty. This is the freedom that comes when you have nothing to lose; a freedom that allows you to break the rules.
The African-American advantage: Born into an oppressed community, they had grown up and learned how to fight the giants
Throughout this chapter, Malcolm Gladwell focuses on the civil rights movement in the United States in the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign in Birmingham, Alabama.
Birmingham was the number one city for racial discrimination in the United States. Martin Luther King’s struggle to abolish the racist laws that virtually prohibited blacks from the right to work; vote and learn was an almost hopeless fight. But Martin Luther King had an advantage similar to David Boies’ dyslexia or Jay Freireich’s unhappy childhood; he came from a heritage that had always experienced losses in their community.
“By the time civil rights activists arrived in Birmingham, African Americans had already suffered prejudice and been abused for a few hundred years. They had somehow learned how to fight the giants.”
Malcolm Gladwell explains that the character of the “cheater” is central to the culture of oppressed communities. The cheater is often embodied in songs and legends as a harmless animal who manages to be victorious against enemies much stronger than themselves with the use of guile and duplicity.
In the past, such legends:
- Allowed slaves to fulfill, metaphorically, their dreams to dominate their white masters.
- Revealed that it was possible to fight against much stronger people provided you use your intelligence.
- Suggested that with nothing to lose, there was freedom to break the rules.
In their long history of persecution, African Americans have drawn inspiration from the cheaters…
“One is not born a cheat, one becomes one out of necessity”
Martin Luther King and the executive director of his organization, Wyatt Walker, knew they could not fight racism with the use of traditional weapons. They couldn’t defeat Bull Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety (well known for his racist ideas) at the ballot box, on the street, or even in court. They could never be as powerful as he was.
Malcolm Gladwell explains how Martin Luther King and his cohorts used tactics that were sometimes incorrect, broke certain rules and at times even cheated a little to get their way.
“With nothing to lose, David, Grazer, Cohn, King and Walker were free to thumb their noses at the rules set by others. That’s how they created any opportunity for themselves to defeat the Goliaths, the odds against them and those people in this world who were similar to Bull Connor.”
Part III – The limitations of power
Chapter 7 – Rosemary Lawlor: “I was not born this way. They forced me to be so.”
The brutality and stupidity of governments spark revolutions, not revolutionaries.
In this chapter of “David and Goliath“, Malcolm Gladwell chronicles the events of the Northern Irish conflict between Protestants and Catholics. In the background is the story of Rosemary Lawlor, a young Catholic mother, who was forced to flee with her husband and baby when gangs of Protestant activists started to burn down the homes of Catholics.
The Lawlor family lost their home, were threatened and harassed, and had their loved ones sequestered. Rosemary’s brother was killed. The British army, which was supposed to protect them, attacked them and destroyed their property. Rosemary stated:
“I was pushed to participate in the conflict. […] We were wounded, we were heartbroken. I was in a rage for a long, long time […]. But it was the circumstances that made it necessary. I wasn’t born this way, they forced me to be this way.”
Malcolm Gladwell adds:
“It is said that most revolutions are not started by revolutionaries, but by the stupidity and brutality of governments,” said Seán MacStíofáin, the first Chief of Staff of the provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). That is effectively what happened in Northern Ireland.”
The principle of legitimacy
“When a person or institution in a position of power wants others to behave properly, they must first and foremost set an example. This is called the “principle of legitimacy.”
Legitimacy rests on three conditions:
- People who are asked to obey must feel that they can express what they think and that they will be heard.
- Rules must be consistent and predictable.
- The exercise of authority must be fair: everyone must be treated equally.
Every good parent understands this principle:
“If you want little Louis to not hit his sister, you can’t just yell at him once and then let him do as he pleases, any more than you can treat his sister differently when she hits him back. If Louis swears that he didn’t hit his sister, you must give him the opportunity to explain. How you discipline them is just as important as the punishment itself.”
If it is not legitimate, power leads to insubordination.
The principle of legitimacy applies when it comes to law and order. So, for example, to convince criminals and renegades to behave well is based on the principle of legitimacy.
The people who hold power must be concerned about what the people who are subject to that power think of them. In Gladwell’s opinion, it’s this that General Freeland, who was in charge of the process to enforce the law in Belfast, should have asked himself in order to avoid the bloody war that lasted 30 years in Northern Ireland. As the leader of an army that the Catholics of Northern Ireland rightly saw as sympathetic to Protestants, he did not, in fact, have the legitimate credentials to do so. And, in the absence of legitimacy, the law resulted not in obedience, but the opposite: insubordination.
“Despite the best intentions in the world, the British people […] have not understood that power has limits. It must be regarded as legitimate by those who are subject to it, or else it leads to insubordination; the exact opposite of the desired effect.”
Chapter 8 – Wilma Derksen: “Who has never done anything bad in her life or had a strong desire to do so?”
In this chapter of “David and Goliath”, Malcolm Gladwell tells us the stories of two fathers. They are Mike Reynolds and Cliff Derksen. Both men experienced the loss of their daughter, murdered by criminals who were on the loose at the time. However, the two men reacted completely differently in the aftermath, both to the tragedy and to their child’s attackers.
“I would do everything in my power to make sure that what happened to him didn’t happen to anyone else.”
Mike Reynolds’ daughter Kimber, a student in Los Angeles; was shot in the head when she came out of a restaurant dinner party. Kimber’s killer was on bail at the time of the murder.
Her father reveals:
“Everything I’ve done since then has come from the promise I made to Kimber on her deathbed. I couldn’t save her life, but I swore to her that I would do everything in my power to make sure that what happened to her wouldn’t happen to anyone else.”
And for this reason, Mike Reynolds embarked, immediately after the death of his daughter, on a struggle to reform California’s criminal justice system, particularly with regard to repeat offenders.
The introduction of the “three strikes law”.
With a group of judges, police officers, lawyers, sheriffs, members of the Attorney General’s office; school boards and the community, Mike Reynolds drafted a bill. The bill, known as the “Three Strikes Law”, was designed to toughen penalties for repeat offenders. Reynolds and his group were supported by the vast majority of Californians in the bill.
With the Three Strikes Law, Reynolds believes he helped save the lives of many potential victims. He believes that the public, and therefore criminals, behave in a “rational” way: if they reoffend; it is because they believe that the gains that can be made from their criminal behavior outweighs the potential consequences involved. This is why he believes these consequences must be increased until; “it is not easier to steal and burgle than it is to make an honest living.”
Basically, when it comes to public order, Reynolds believes that “more” is always better. Yet, earlier in the book, the Malcolm illustrated, through the inverted U-curve model, that “more” is not always better. What exactly is this?
The “three strikes law” in the light of the inverted U-curve
Malcolm Gladwell sheds some light on the “three strikes law” based on the inverted U-curve:
The response of criminals to the higher consequences they face if they commit these crimes has been a reduction in the number of offences carried out. This is what the case studies show when the consequences are relatively small to start with.
These procedures or strategies are no longer effective after a certain point. Many criminologists confirm this:
“Those who are prepared to commit a crime – often impulsively and often with any rational thought process impaired at the time – and calculate that they are virtually immune to capture – will probably make the very same decision the next day, even though they may face even more severe consequences.”
There is a point at which tougher crime control makes things worse, but only to a certain extent. Despite the collateral damage (psychological after-effects, worse employment prospects, loss of friends who are not in the criminal fraternity replaced by criminals, emotional and financial pressure from family), criminologists believe that the imprisonment of criminals is still the best approach. However, criminologists argue that when too many people are locked up over too long a period of time, the collateral damage outweighs the benefits:
“In this case, the consequences outweigh the benefits. Specifically, […] to take a large number of men out from where they live, send them to prison, and then send them back to the same place after their sentence has been served, is not beneficial to people who haven’t committed any crimes but who live in that area.”
So the more it’s researched, the less effective the three strikes law seems to be. A recent study shows that the “three strikes law” has decreased the overall crime rate; but has resulted in an increase in the number of violent crimes.
“We’d like to know who he is so we can offer him some of the love that he seems to lack in his life.”
The Derksens were also devastated by the murder of their 13-year-old daughter, Candace, who was on her way to school. The girl was found two months after her disappearance; her body tied up in a garden shed where she had frozen to death. Her parents would learn years later that she was left there after she was tortured by a repeat sex offender.
The day after the funeral, and before they knew who had committed the crime and what had happened; a reporter asked the girl’s father, Cliff Derksen, how he felt about their daughter’s murderer. The father’s response was:
“We would like to know who he is so we can give him some of the love that he seems to lack in his life.”
Malcolm informs us that the Derksen family, originally from Russia, is of the Mennonite faith. This community, which was severely persecuted in the revolution and the Stalinist era; has learned, the author says, to deal with injustice and persecution. Indeed, the entire Mennonite philosophy is based on mercy, which is based on forgiveness and the ability to move on.
When Candace’s murderer was identified years later, the trial that ensued was extremely hard and emotional. The Derksen found themselves unable to forgive. Nevertheless, Malcolm Gladwell tells us how, in spite of this, they found the strength not to pursue any kind of revenge.
For Malcolm Gladwell, Cliff Derksen and Mike Reynolds, both acted with the best of intentions and with enormous courage. However, they both see what power can accomplish in a very different way:
“The Derksen’s had to curb their urge for vengeance because they didn’t see what it would accomplish. They don’t share the belief in the power of giants.”
Chapter 9 – André Trocmé: “We wish to let you know that there are among us a certain number of Jews”
The determination and courage of villagers that the authorities were unable to suppress
This last chapter of “David and Goliath” is devoted to the story of André Trocmé. A stubborn and rebellious man, sombre and disagreeable, who suffered the loss of his mother at a very young age and the suicide of his son. André Trocmé risked his life many times to save Jews in the Second World War.
On a broader scale, Malcolm Gladwell describes the events and the unbelievable network of resistance that occurred in the village of Le Chambon sur Lignon (where André Trocmé lived) in central France in the course of the war. He explains how the inhabitants of this village were courageous enough to hide large numbers of Jews in their homes in order to spare them from deportation. In the end, hundreds and hundreds of people, especially children, were saved when they were given refuge at Le Chambon sur Lignon.
And because of this, the villagers took enormous risks in relation to their own lives. In their united struggle, they challenged Marshal Pétain’s soldiers. They never caved in to the threats. Gladwell is in no doubt that this was due to the fact that most of the inhabitants of Chambon were descendants of the first Protestants on whom there were many attempts made to eliminate them over the centuries: they could understand, better than anyone else, the experience that the Jews were faced with, as they too had “gone through the same thing.”
Here is an excerpt which summarizes, in a way, this last chapter; and which Malcolm uses to conclude his book “David and Goliath“:
“There are limits to what evil and unhappiness can accomplish. In the absence of the ability to read, one receives the gift to listen. A bomb causes death and destruction, but creates a community of those spared. To be orphaned at a young age inflicts great pain; but one out of ten times an indomitable force is born out of despair. In the Valley of Elah, the eye is drawn to the giant, to the man who carries a sword; a shield and armor that sparkles. But much of the beauty and richness of this world emanates from the shepherd; whose strength and intelligence never ceases to amaze.”
Conclusion of “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell
Stories that combine and illustrate the author’s ideas in a variety of ways to create surprise and interest.
As usual, Malcolm Gladwell develops his ideas through a variety of stories that are of interest, as well as varied. Although there are some questions about the conclusions the author draws from some of the stories; the facts are always well documented. In addition, as you read these stories; each one of them takes us from one universe to another thanks to the author’s skill as a storyteller; and each will inevitably give you food for thought.
In his usual style, the author intertwines these stories as if to weave a web between them. The end result is that he ends up with a connection between his argument and his ideas for each one of them.
The message is positive and offers encouragement, although there are some contradictions
“David and Goliath” is a book that will bring you, if you are discouraged or held back by what you consider to be a weakness or handicap, a more positive and constructive view of your situation. Malcolm Gladwell’s argument will help you believe that every “weakness” has a strength. And that strength, when unearthed, can be a powerful advantage, more than any other much more “obvious” advantage.
Conversely, if you think you have a lot of skills and abilities but you are not successful at the things you try, if, contrary to all logic, you are never successful, then perhaps it is because you don’t make the right choices or you don’t use your strengths in the right way.
In my opinion, certain inconsistencies and contradictions (with regard to dyslexia or adaptability, for example) back up what the Malcolm says.
A study that decodes how some people have turned their weaknesses into powerful drivers towards their ultimate success!
“David and Goliath” won’t teach you any specific method of self-development. However, Malcolm Gladwell involves the reader in a comprehensive overview on the subject, supported by the author’s studies and analysis. And with these insights from people who have turned their weaknesses into strengths or maximized their potential; “David and Goliath” is a book that could truly transform your life!
- The author’s style and talent as a storyteller makes a non-fiction book a fun read; full of stories that will amaze you and that are full of valuable insights.
- A positive message, contrary to preconceptions, and a “winner” philosophy that will help those who feel discouraged by their problems; or conversely, those who are not successful in spite of their many attributes.
- The very well documented and journalistic side of the book.
- Some of the comments, from one chapter to the next, seem to contradict each other.
- Controversial ideas, and conclusions that may, at times, seem rash.
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