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

December 26th, 2013

The story of David and Goliath provides a metaphor that reaches far into American culture, from church to business to athletics. It is the quintessential celebration of the underdog. The little boy with no chance of success miraculously triumphs over the giant warrior.

But there is a problem with our telling of the story, author Malcolm Gladwell tells us. Namely, that we have it all wrong.

Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker and author of best sellers The Tipping Point and Outliers, opens his latest book with a different telling of 1 Samuel 17. David, he argues, is not a simple shepherd boy, but a young man trained to fight—only in a different discipline. Goliath may have been enormous, but his strength was also his weakness. He was an immobile infantryman, and no match for the deathly aim of someone skilled in artillery.

David was not an unlikely hero. He was the perfect champion—in no small part because he could see his advantage when others could not.

Gladwell derives two primary lessons from his understanding of David and Goliath. First, that we find tremendous value and beauty in stories of triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. And second, that we usually misinterpret how these conflicts happen. We give too much credit to giants, and too little to underdogs.

With that in mind, Gladwell examines a variety of apparent disadvantages that, when viewed in a different light, open the door to innovation and success. By contrast, he also notes that some advantages—including small class sizes in public schools and admission to elite universities—have hidden downsides.

But Gladwell also takes this idea a step farther. Some disadvantages are not just obstacles to overcome, but keys to victory. A surprising number of CEOs are dyslexic. An astounding percentage of US presidents grew up in single-parent families. Although these are not ideal situations and certainly crush many who endure them, they can in some people produce skills that they might otherwise never have developed.

The third and final section of David and Goliath looks at the battle from the side of those with advantages. Power, Gladwell asserts, has some very clear limits—especially when that power employs the use of force. As civil rights leaders and wartime dissidents have found out, the abuse of power can actually lead to a freedom from fear that galvanizes supposedly powerless people into an indomitable resistance.

Although not written for a religious audience, David and Goliath is filled with Christian themes, many of which reflect the author’s Mennonite upbringing. His thoughts on perseverance, compassion, justice, and forgiveness make this book more than simply interesting. It becomes in many ways beautiful.

Gladwell’s latest has much to teach those who work from a position of powerlessness, including church members and church leaders. His skill with language and rhetoric make the book a compelling read. David and Goliath could serve as a terrific personal resource, or an outside-the-lines small group study.

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