5 More Incredibly Counterintuitive Statements from Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath

dangJohn Steinbeck once wrote “Bring new eyes to a world or even new lenses, and presto—new world.” Malcolm Gladwell wants to challenge you to see a new world. In his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, the sociological pied piper attempts to introduce a different way of perceiving disadvantages and demonstrate how the powerful are not always as invincible as they appear to be. Here are a few of the uniquely incisive theories you’ll find in Gladwell’s David and Goliath.

1. David defeating Goliath was not an improbable victory.
According to Gladwell, the prominent metaphor representing the triumph of the underdog wasn’t much of an upset. Prior to his showdown with David, Goliath was expecting—and was thus prepared for—hand-to-hand combat. He expected the battle to be fought on his own terms. Makes sense. People don’t tend to disagree with people named Goliath very often. Goliath, effectively immobilized by over a hundred pounds of armor and possibly suffering from vision problems (potentially) caused by a tumor, cannot escape his dexterous foe, whose slingshot allows him to kill a target at a distance of up to 200 yards. Gladwell postulates that the story of David and Goliath reveals the folly of our assumptions regarding power.

2. Smaller class sizes do not necessarily create an environment that’s more conducive to learning.
According to David and Goliath, 77% of Americans believe that it makes more sense to use taxpayer money to lower class sizes than to raise teachers’ salaries. Class size is such a galvanizing social issue that after the governor of California announced plans to reduce the state’s class size, his popularity doubled within three weeks. While larger class sizes are obviously an issue, Gladwell points out that we have become “obsessed with what is good about small classrooms and oblivious of what can also be good about large classes.” A classroom containing 18–24 students appears to be the ideal number. Anything less and you lose the unique excitement that comes from a critical mass of engaged students.

3. There’s a point at which money and resources stop making our lives better and start to make them worse.
Dubbed the “Mo Money, Mo Problems Effect” by, well, just me, Gladwell suggests that “what we think of as an advantage and as a disadvantage is not always correct.” “More” doesn’t necessarily mean better. Gladwell explains that there’s an obvious set of advantages that come from material resources,  but there’s also a set that has to do with the absence of material resources. Often times there are unforeseen advantages that stem from adversity; David and Goliath theorizes that we can in fact grow stronger and more adept when forced to compensate for a perceived deficiency.

4. There are times when it’s better to be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond.
Where we choose to go to college is one of the most important decisions we’ll make in our lives, but are we basing that choice on the proper criteria? According to research collected by Mitchell Chang of the University of California, the likelihood of someone completing a STEM degree—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—rises by two percentage points for every 10 point decrease in their university’s average SAT score. For example, since there is roughly a 150-point gap between the average SAT scores of the University of Maryland and the ostensibly more prestigious Brown University, you are 30% less likely to graduate with a science degree by choosing the “better” school.  Gladwell posits that, “the more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities. How you feel about your own academic abilities is a crucial element in your own motivation and confidence.

5. There are such things as “desirable difficulties.”
People who have to overcome difficulties are forced to work harder than their peers. Desirable difficulties contain hidden advantages you can access while being forced to overcome an obstacle. In David and Goliath, Gladwell uses dyslexia as an example. A recent study by Julie Logan at City University London states that around a third of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. The “desirable difficulty” theory postulates that these captains of industry didn’t succeed in spite of their disability, but, in part, because of their disorder. People forced to overcome adversity often compensate for their disability and develop skills that may have otherwise lain dormant. Overcoming an obstacle challenges you to learn out of necessity, which, according to Gladwell, is inevitably more powerful than the learning that comes easily.

Have you read David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants? What’s your take on Gladwell’s theories?

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