Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

The first time I picked up Malcom Gladwell's David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants I promptly put it down. Why read a book that you know you're going to agree with? Consider that the very premise of my day job is that with your idea and my coding skills, we can conquer tech giants everywhere. Or that my blog has a whole section focused on feel-good underdog stories. Even activities like being a foster parent are done with an eye towards showing that one family can make a difference against the colossal problem of child neglect and abuse. So I hardly needed a book telling me that little could beat big; this I knew.

What an idiot I was.

I just finished listening to David and Goliath, and I'm glad to report that it's more than worth your time. Gladwell isn't just interested in recounting underdog stories. Though there is plenty of that, and as usual, he nails it. But he goes further: picking apart the tales to see what makes them tick. As is typical in Gladwell's work, he cleverly weaves together totally disparate threads, from a girl's basketball team to a French town that defies the Nazi's, to make his point.

As if that weren't enough, Gladwell seems to veer into territory that's essentially custom written for me. After a chapter that pretty much explains my college experience, he launches into a chapter on dyslexia, a learning disability I have first hand experience with. His discussion about how being a slow learner in some areas can, in the long run, help you be successful in others wasn't just an interesting theory; it was a description my academic career.

There's no doubt that if you find yourself in an underdog situation, you best get yourself Gladwell's book and start reading in a hurry. He definitely has key insights into what the David's of the world can do to come out on top.

I, however, have been thinking about the Goliath side of the equation of late. Bare with me, as the analogy sort of breaks down. Consider that as I was listening to Gladwell's book, we had both the Paris and San Bernardino attacks happen. In this situation, the US fits the profile of the seemingly invincible Goliath, and ISIS (or is it ISIL or Daesh?) fits the role of the underdog, David.

Goliath appears to hold the advantage: he's huge, well equipped and makes quite the show of force. David, for his part, is opportunistic, using a fighting style that Goliath simply never considered. We know how the story goes.

While I can appreciate why it's tempting to respond to these attacks with draconian polices or outrageous shows of force, I can also see how these can serve to benefit the bad guys. As Gladwell's book points out, it's these sort of tactics that have historically helped the underdog, not defeated it.

I won't claim to have the answers for how to deal with ISIS from a domestic terrorism perspective. But man, it sure would be nice to learn the lessons of history and not fall for into the traps other giants have. And Gladwell's book can absolutely help in this department.

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