Malcolm and I started out great here. We usually do. He’s judgmental, opinionated, smart, questioning, and downright entertaining. Outliers remains my all-time Gladwell favorite, then Blink, then Tipping Point. I thought he faltered a bit in his last title, What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, but those contents weren’t new; that is, the book included 19 “favorites” among the “countless articles” he’s written for The New Yorker since 1996. This one seems all new (no notes on the copyright page that make reference to earlier publication of any of its parts). So I began with excited anticipation … and, well, things didn’t end so well this time.
Stuck in the ears (because Gladwell thus far always does his own perfect reading) and on the run, I nodded along to his explanations as to why Goliath was doomed, what with his acromegaly, diplopia, and lumbering inability to react to fleet-footed, clever, healthy David. I got that would be the general gist throughout: never underestimate the underdog because s/he will find ways to take that perfect shot.
So I played along with the odds-defying Silicon Valley tween girls’ daddy-basketball coach who himself had never played the game. I listened carefully as Gladwell revealed the surprising disadvantages of small class sizes (including a snarky diss at the exclusive boarding school Hotchkiss), where some of his reasoning started to falter. But when he insisted that a Brown student who ‘failed’ her first class ever (a B-!!) – a notoriously difficult rite-of-passage-chemistry requirement – would still be a scientist if she had gone to her backup state school instead of competing with the crème de la crème at an exclusive Ivy, my eyeballs indeed began to roll so far into my head, I reached my own tipping point, tripping over my own feet on the gnarly trails.
By the time I got halfway through, I was doing killer hill repeats … and trying to summarize what I was hearing with every agonizing four-minute repeating climb: unless you’re poor, abused, dyslexic, with at least one dead parent, you ain’t ever gonna amount to anything – and no one who survived one or all of those categories to become massively successful would ever wish those challenges on their own kids. Call it oxygen deprivation, but I quickly ran out of energy to argue and just kept going.
Divided into three parts that decrease in convincing efficacy, David and Goliath is not exactly the expected Gladwell triumph. But once you start, I imagine you’ll read to the very end, and retain certain clauses and concepts. His “Theory of Desirable Difficulty” explains how dyslexics and children missing at least one parent have compensated to become some of the most powerful people in the world – from Richard Branson (dyslexic) to 12 of the 44 U.S. presidents (including Obama) who lost a parent as children. He compares and contrasts the trauma induced by “near misses” with the courageous invulnerability inspired by “remote misses.” He explains how the “inverted U-curve” damned California’s “three strikes” laws to eventual failure. And if you’re googling around, you’ll see he found plenty of detractors over his revisionist (documented) presentation of one of the most famous civil rights images from Birmingham.
Bottom line? At his best, Gladwell makes you think; at his not-so-best, he makes you think harder. That’s it then: I’m doomed to be a Gladwell-groupie for life.