Sadly, the more Malcolm Gladwell writes, it seems, the less the general conversation about Malcolm Gladwell concerns his writing.
Instead, critical pieces pile up, and it’s become popular almost to tear at his work so harshly that, in many cases, there’s plenty enough momentum to carry forward with calling him a plain fraud. The release of Gladwell’s latest book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants,” in October stirred up this discourse some more.
Gladwell is a smart storyteller who dips into science and psychology and sociology and other academic realms to craft narratives that promise to deliver profound meaning often by making the seemingly difficult simple and applicable to a mass audience. This is a gift, one that has made Gladwell one of the most marketable and influential authors of his generation, if not multiple ones.
This gift also serves as a deep well of ammunition for Gladwell’s critics, who accuse him of cherry-picking research and bending data to fit story arcs, drawing overly general conclusions from suspect anecdotes or samples (suspect because, his critics say, Gladwell has whittled them to be precisely what he needs to draw his conclusion) and applying formulaic logic to new, skewed material when he wants to print another book.
There’s no shortage of material questioning Gladwell’s ways. Even his old editor at The Washington Post took to the comments section on a website (see that last highlighted link) and delivered his blow to Gladwell.
I read “David and Goliath” and will share a few thoughts about it below, but I felt I needed to begin by acknowledging that subplot to seemingly all Gladwell discussions now.
Beyond that, I also wanted to make clear this post will not be another of those questioning Gladwell’s procedure of producing D&G. If you haven’t had your fill, click away at the links above or get lost on Google.
I don’t dismiss those criticisms. The truth is probably that some of them have merit just like some of them spew from a petty fountain of jealousy, the kind that can be prevalent among media and spark stupid little battles that rattle around the walls of Twitter, creating these daily insulated fights that nobody who’s actually a member of the writer’s target audience could give a damn about.
So, no, I will not be doing that to Gladwell. I just don’t find takedowns of his work – or anyone else’s, really – compelling at all, because they hold no lasting value. (Once you’re done bitching, what, exactly, are you left with? Is that fun? Is that why you read stuff?)
There’s also some important context missing from those discussions, which shapes the way I read Gladwell’s work.
(And I recognize that some people don’t care about anything other that poking holes in Gladwell’s writing. They feel they can’t trust it, and therefore there’s no point in advancing any further. I disagree, but that’s cool. Feel free to stop here if you aren’t interested in a more nuanced discussion.)
Not long ago, Gladwell appeared on a podcast – I believe it was Longform’s, but I’m not entirely sure – to promote D&G and talk about writing, and he said one of his favorite websites is Marginal Revolution, written by Tyler Cowen. Gladwell mentioned a theory Cowen holds about reading articles, research or whatever, and it was one Gladwell said he loved.
The theory, and I’m paraphrasing: I don’t decide if I like something based on whether I agree, disagree or think it’s even true; if it makes me think, I like it.
Gladwell expressed glee when he explained this theory, and I thought: Well, that’s a perfect explanation for Gladwell’s work.
Now, Malcolm himself did not say that. That was just the interpretation I took from his expressed love of this theory, and it immediately made sense and made Gladwell’s work enjoyable to read, because for all his critics, not one claims Gladwell’s writing doesn’t make you think or doesn’t challenge firm beliefs you previously held.
And isn’t that the point, really? Of course, nobody wants to be lied to or mislead. But whether you disagree, agree or whether something is even true are all secondary concerns if viewed through this prism.
If a piece or work – writing, film, art, anything – makes you think, then there’s value to be extracted from it that can potentially make you better at what you do.
This is where the infatuation with Gladwell criticism fails for me.
It’s difficult for me to understand why someone would exchange that opportunity for mud wrestling on the Internet.
Now, for “David and Goliath.”
As usual when I blog about someone’s work, I won’t give away too much of it in an effort to respect the writer and preserve the original content (if someone were to ever create a side-business selling “I support writers!” posters or coffee mugs or T-shirts or coasters or something, I’m good for at least a few of them). So I’ll be concise here and mention a small part of one of my favorite chapters from the book and why.
This chapter happens to be the first, in the book’s first part titled, “The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages).”
It’s about Vivek Ranadive, a man who runs a software company in the Silicon Valley, who once decided to coach his daughter’s youth basketball team even though he knew literally nothing about basketball and had a team of players who weren’t particularly good at it.
Despite these two obvious deficiencies – if you were building a basketball team, you’d of course choose the most knowledge coach you could find and the best players available – Vivek’s team ended up in the national championships for their age group. They got there because Vivek did a simple equation – if the point is to not let the other team advance the ball, why don’t we start defending them from the first foot of their territory rather than letting them cross halfcourt before setting up? – and decided to run a full-court press the entire game.
You don’t have to be particularly skilled to run a press – you can pull it off with enough energy and effort. This, as you might imagine, is hell to face for young players (girls or boys), regardless of how good they are compared to their peers. Vivek created a basketball power, so to speak, by finding the one advantage he had access to and leveraging that as best he could. It did not matter he lacked traditional strengths, since he possessed nontraditional ones if he would just take the time to notice them.
This, to me, was the rewarding takeaway from “David and Goliath.” Although the most endearing quality of the book is wrapped around the victorious underdog narrative – and the most practical quality could be considered the same, since the vast majority of people don’t fall into the “Goliath” category in their lives and are thus forced to compete with them – I found myself not really caring at all about how an underdog could beat a favorite.
I was compelled by the idea of hunting your own weaknesses and dragging them closer to the line that keeps them divided from your strengths.
In a book that is built on the reality of tipped scales and strives to find ways to flip them, this is the one environment in which favorites and underdogs shed those statuses and communicate as equals. An underdog has weaknesses (obviously), yet so does a favorite. The process of addressing those is applicable for both.
Gladwell is speaking to the disadvantaged masses in this book, rallying on their hope of improbable victory, but he’s also speaking to the privileged. The common tie: Everyone, regardless of size, is better off thinking and operating as an underdog.
What are your weaknesses? How do you rectify them? What are you strengths? How do you maximize them? What does your world (your line of work, etc.) expect from you? How can you be different and better than that?
All of these little nuggets can be applied individually or on a global scale, and they have little to do with status.
For those who didn’t stop at the surface-level Gladwell bashing above, hopefully, through this prism, you found a similar kind of value in “David and Goliath.”
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