The Bigger They Are - David & Goliath Week

By Matthew DeMello

Photo courtesy of Pop!Tech.

Since being acquainted to Joseph Campbell in high school, I’ve never seen much merit to approaching mythology from a literal perspective. Outside of the academic community, few would care to mine out the strict historical clues buried within David and Goliath to analyze the ancient story’s cross-cultural application and lasting impact. But for renowned New Yorker writer and author Malcolm Gladwell, there is, as usual, a lot to pull apart here — much of which we can apply to our daily lives.

“I discovered there’s this really rich and fascinating scholarship about [the David and Goliath story] in which people have been debating about it and have come up with new theories about what went wrong,” Gladwell says during his interview on BTR’s Third Eye Weekly podcast this week, describing his adulthood pursuit of a legend he knew from childhood.

What “went wrong” isn’t necessarily that Goliath wasn’t supposed to lose or that the Biblical account may not be entirely accurate — mythology can be credited, after all, with the first rationalization of the blissfully ignorant “happy ending.” However, what really “went wrong,” Gladwell found, is that anyone ever doubted David in the first place.

When you take a closer look at the historical analysis cited in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David & Goliath, it seems a wonder that the latter figure even had a shot. The conclusions we can draw from a more analytical and objective look at the story, “have the effect of changing our understanding of what it means to be an underdog. That story is more complicated than it seems,” says the author.

For instance, there is an underestimated deadliness of ancient slings, like the kind David used to battle Goliath. The Biblical text fails to point out that these slings were capable of launching small missiles at speeds comparable to bullets shot from a common handgun today. Though such a small weapon might not look like much against a giant from the offset, there could be no better armament suited for the kind of enemy Goliath represents.

“When underdogs triumph it’s not some miracle,” says Gladwell, “It’s rather because they’ve reframed the terms of the combat.”

In real-world application, our misconceptions about underdogs and overlords are evident in our education system, particularly in regards to the virtues of being a big fish in a small pond. David & Goliath highlights the story of a lawyer who graduated from Brown University. Though that may appear to be a success story, she was actually forced to abandon her love of chemistry after finding the competition at her Ivy League school rather debilitating – proving that sometimes the highest, most respected institutions squander talent merely by their nature. Or rather, stature.

As Gladwell puts it succinctly, “If you go to too-good a school, you can impair your chances of getting the most valuable kind of degree, which is a science or math degree.” It’s not that liberal-arts majors or lawyers have chosen an inferior life decision. The problem is very many of them, especially at the best college campuses in the country, chose their major based on being shut out by competition in STEM fields.

This situation has two notable effects on the job market — on the downside, talented individuals who would make far better scientists and mathematicians than lawyers are not encouraged by the system to live to their fullest potential. On the upside, companies are becoming more keen to hiring non-Ivy League graduates to access overlooked, “big fish” talent that has been ignored in a smaller pond environment.

“In today’s job market, the kind of degree you have is what matters most of all,” says the author to those recent grads hunting for employment. “Anything from a reasonably good university on up, the single most important thing is to have a degree in those fields where there actually are lots and lots of jobs.”

There are, of course, far more social applications of the theory that being a David has its own distinct advantages. Acting as the underdog is often viewed positively in the politics of order and the fight for equality. Though the moral conflicts in David & Goliath seem somewhat locked in their Biblical implications (seldom in Gladwell’s examples of Davids does he depict anyone whose ideals are not worth admiring, from civil rights leaders to unwavering oncologists trying to save children’s lives) that doesn’t mean Goliath always has to be the bad guy.

Either way, Gladwell insists that, even in the chapters of David & Goliath that deal with the tactics of insurgency, he is only describing an “abstract or neutral set of principles” to be used by both the powerless and the powerful. On one such chapter describing the less violent strains of the Northern Irish insurgency that ended in the mid-‘90s, Gladwell explains that he was trying to demonstrate to Goliaths how to “handle an insurgency in a way that robs the David of his power.”

Another question that David & Goliath broaches is similar to that of another of Gladwell’s books, The Outliers: Where does exceptionalism come from? The dynamics at play in the David and Goliath story apply, in that we see David as exceptional perhaps more than we should. Further, the Biblical David, rising from an apparently incredible victory, goes on to become the leader of the people of Israel — and, as Gladwell examines in his latest book, so it goes with the Davids of today.

However, it is not merely the Davids’ perception as underdogs that helps underdogs rise to the top so quickly, insists Gladwell. Rather, it’s that they have overcome their “fear of fear” in the process. In David & Goliath he shows how surmounting seemingly impossible odds inflates some of us with a sort of “unconquerable bravery,” one which leaders and other outliers use to push boundaries and achieve a better world.

For example, you’d be surprised how many successful CEOs grew up dyslexic.

The same extraordinary courage, of course, can be derived from those who have experienced great tragedy, where the possibility of their demise was very real — not just perceived. With the same approach to the statistics and “coincidences” that can be found throughout The Tipping Point and Outliers, Gladwell shows the staggering trend of just how many respected historical figures the resilience aspect applies to.

The question still remains of what variable divides the brave from the shattered, those who rise above their circumstances and those who fall victim. Though David & Goliath hesitates to answer this query directly its writer explains to BTR an intriguing commonality between the many successful individuals he interviewed who grew up with learning disabilities.

“These are people who were growing up before we could identify their problems in schools, so they would be routinely labeled as learning disabled, even though, of course, they’re not,” says Gladwell. “But all them who had gone on to do something extraordinary said there was one person, whether it was a grandmother, or their uncle — somebody always believed in them.”

Though can we chalk up superhuman resilience to the foundations of familial love and support? Even Gladwell, no stranger to optimistic analysis, remains skeptical.

“They’re people who refuse to be passive in the face of disadvantage, and I don’t know where that comes from,” admits the author, who has nearly spent a career tackling questions of nature versus nurture. “Whether you develop that or are born with that is a mystery to me.”

For more with Malcolm Gladwell, tune in to this week’s episode of Third Eye Weekly on BreakThru Radio, airing this Thursday, January 30th, at noon.