Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath, isn’t about the ways in which underdogs sometimes have a few advantages over giants—it’s about the ways that the underdog often isn’t even the underdog.
Gladwell made a name for himself with books like The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, which present anecdotes and unexpected data that turn conventional thinking on its head.
David and Goliath puts that successful formula to work in its first few pages by revealing it was no accident David triumphed over Goliath. Evidence shows that Goliath was less like a powerful, fleet-footed NFL behemoth and more likely suffered from acromelagy—a disease caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland, which explained his extraordinary size and limited his vision. David, meanwhile, could wield a sling with extraordinary precision. “Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an [opponent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol,” says historian Robert Dohrenwend.
One myth already dispensed, Gladwell takes the reader on a 280-page journey including the story of rookie basketball coach Vivek Ranadive, who took his 12-year-old daughter’s hapless basketball team to a national championship game by instituting a smothering defense that their opponents had never seen. Given the team’s lack of shooting ability, it was truly their only option. In this case, Gladwell isn’t merely noting that sometimes it pays to embrace limitations—he’s saying that without those limitations, victory for Ranadive would have been impossible. No team with any significant amount of offensive talent would have been as committed to such an unconventional approach.
Malcolm Gladwell’s Inspiring Big (and Small) Stories
Gladwell devotes a lot of ink to the surprising number of successful people who suffer from dyslexia—a disadvantage that forced them to overcompensate in other ways just to stay afloat. Brian Grazer struggled in school so much that he learned to persuade his teachers to improve his grades—changing D’s into C’s and C’s into B’s by sheer force of will. That ability to negotiate would eventually help him to become one of Hollywood’s most successful movie producers. (Gladwell notes that even his most successful subjects were quick to say that they would never wish dyslexia on their own children, in spite of the many ways it contributed to their own achievements.)
There are big stories here (the battle for Civil Rights in Alabama and early advances in the battle against leukemia) and smaller stories, too (the surprising impact of a police unit that fostered relationships with juvenile offenders in Brownsville, New York). Once again, Gladwell’s ability to find unexpected victories and surprising solutions to seemingly intractable obstacles should inspire anyone working to design a solution to any problem.
For graphic designers, that might mean something as simple as a tiny in-house team finding the upside in being smaller than an agency, or something as grandiose as re-thinking the ways that we try to change behavior in an audience of hundreds of thousands of people.
Expect Malcolm Gladwell to draw more parallels between David and the design community in Boston May 12-16, when he joins Stefan Sagmeister, Seth Godin, and Maria Popova as keynote speakers at HOW Design Live 2014. Reserve your spot now!