Wednesday, November 13, 2013

David and Goliath Challenges Conventional Wisdom

See the Sixty Minutes piece here.
In Malcolm Gladwell's newest volume, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, (2013), we learn to take a second look at weaknesses and bad fortune, because hidden in them may come remarkable resiliency and strength. Go beyond the conventional reading of history to see the surprise ending of a David, who used nimbleness, superior sight and "artillery" skills to overcome the half blind and weighted down infantry man,  Goliath. 

If anything, the book is a fascinating read of how troubled childhoods do not dictate failure, but rather, can give the wisdom to persist in difficult situations throughout life. The misfit often finds their place because of a number of obstacles along the way. 

Out of dire circumstances can arise amazingly gifted people, chiefly because they are used to adversity and see it for what it is. Thus, terrible circumstances growing up forged in a pioneer of better childhood Leukemia treatment a willingness to test his young patients, even if it meant that they endure painful shin biopsies of bone marrow. Used to being alone in a fight, many peers called him "murderer" for adding to the misery of his patients.

Another theme of the book is that the strong are not as strong as you think and the weak are not as weak as you think. It's the same reason why raw power is not the only predictor of who ends up winning the war. During WWII, when London was bombed night upon night, predictions arose that within a few weeks, the entire population along with its government would be thrown into chaos. But that's not what happened. Many Londoners who survived were products of "remote misses," and these experiences created more courage and resolve- not less. It would have been better for Germany not to have bombed London at all, the author concludes.  

Gladwell makes the case for the inverted U curve when trying to "fix" things that are broken sociologically. Taking any measure to extreme, you end up not helping the situation. Thus, a classroom size of 25 is better than 35 or 40, but if you go down too low below the teens, the same educational strategies become less and less effective the smaller the classroom size. With criminal justice, the same is true. A moderate use of power is more effective than none at all, but it also is more effective than ruthless crackdowns where stealing a slice of pizza is treated the same as armed robbery. The "three strikes" rule in California is an example that went too far and it could not discriminate the severity of the crime. Thus, three strikes has been modified.   

Most people would say it's better to go to an Ivy League institution than to go to your back-up school. However, the question that really needs to be asked is "Do I want to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond?" In many ways, those who attend a state school, for example, are no worse off, and may have a better chance of being published in a prestigious journal as a grad student. Where being published is a stepping stone to teaching and career, you would have to be the creme de la creme in an Ivy League institution (the big fish) to have a chance.    

A sociologist at heart, Gladwell explains the practical implications of such terms as relative deprivation and legitimacy of power. As a gifted journalist, his writing is the product of bringing together interviews into solid biographical sketches- the stories of people overcoming what looks like insurmountable odds. He tells the stories with drama and suspense. 

The why of adversity? The book doesn't take us to theodicy a la Job, however, we should be well cautioned not to equate any difficulty with God's dishing something up for us just so we can experience the remote miss. It's life, not God, that happens to us. Finding God in the circumstances is a different matter.

But that's a path that Gladwell cannot, or doesn't, take. 

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