“Am I dog that you should come to me with sticks?”
Did you know that there is no evidence that correlates smaller classrooms with better grades? Why did a Pakistani immigrant in America find amazing success coaching a women’s basketball team despite having no familiarity with the sport? Why was Martin Luther King and his associate Wyatt Walker so keen to visit Birmingham, Alabama despite its reputation as the most racist town in America?
Thats just a flavour of the topics covered in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell explores various case studies of Davids getting the better of Goliaths, starting with the original biblical tale and expanding into articles covering civil war, economics, classrooms and sport. Conceptually, I don’t think David and Goliath is necessarily as interesting as his previous work in Blink or Outliers but Gladwell’s strength in researching and immersing the reader in the minutiae of the topics he covers still makes this an easy book to recommend. I always find that after reading Gladwell’s books, which obsess on why successful people excel in their field, I begin to observe the traits he explains in my daily routine – reading the news, watching people on television, even observing colleagues at work.
Some points on a couple of particular chapters. I thought it was interesting that Gladwell chose to explore the underdog rags-too-riches story of an ambitious, dyslexic Wall Street wannabe stockbroker named Gary Cohn who bluffed his way into his first job by jumping into a taxi with a director of a company and striking up a conversation with him. This ballsy individual talked his way into a job, worked his way up the ranks and is now apparently the CEO of Goldman Sachs. It’s one of the sharpest twists in the tale out of any of the chapters as the story is framed in such a way that you admire the guy’s enterprise, only to learn he’s probably one of the biggest antagonists to come out of the GFC.
As a sports enthusiast who only has a cursory understanding of basketball, I was intrigued to read about Vivek Ranadive, a Pakistani guy who coached a high school girls basketball team using a gloriously unconventional tactic that I still don’t really understand why it isn’t more widespread. Basically, he had the girls in his team perform a full court press for the entire game. A full court press is where your players hold positions across the entire court in defence instead of retreating back to your own half and protecting the hoop. Vivek must also have been something of a pessimist, a statistician and a pragmatist because he only allowed his girls to perform lay ups and shots from inside the key, thus maximizing the likelihood of scoring. This ruthlessly efficient approach to both attack and defense took his Redwood City team all the way to the regional finals of their division.
One of the most interesting and challenging chapters to read is the last one. A sad tale about a man whose daughter was killed in a homicide in Los Angeles, who subsequently lead the movement to introduce the three strikes system, which resulted in mandatory minimum prison sentences for repeat offenders, no matter what the crime. The legislation was a well intentioned and noble failure which ultimately ended up with people serving twenty years for shoplifting and creating a damaging long term impact in communities where the crime rate didn’t drop, but in fact began to increase. I was familiar with mandatory minimums in America but had no idea where the idea for it started, nor that it had been abolished in recent years.
A final note on Malcolm Gladwell himself. In the last twelve months, I kind of went off the guy a little. I saw him do an interview on The Daily Show and found him awkward and unimpressive to listen to. I downloaded a New Yorker podcast where he discussed drug cheats in sports and found his segment to be simplistic and even dull. For whatever reason, I didn’t find Gladwell to be a person that presents all that well in interviews or radio segments. I went into reading David and Goliath a little cautiously, wondering if my interest in his work was on the wane. I needn’t have worried however. His flair for writing and the sharpness of his prose remains as appealing as ever. I found David and Goliath to be interesting, informative and challenged my thinking.
Next Book: Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters by Johnny Warren.