Malcolm Gladwell - Pop!Tech 2008

“But the better answer is that Hotchkiss has simply fallen into the trap that wealthy people and wealthy institutions and wealthy countries—all Goliaths—too often fall into: the school assumes that the kinds of things that wealth can buy always translate into real-world advantages.”

I’ve been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath, in audiobook form for the last couple of weeks. In it, he explains how something that we may perceive to be a weakness could actually be a strength, just as what we perceive to be advantageous could actually turn out to be a disadvantage. Intuitively, this doesn’t make a lot of sense and it doesn’t apply to every situation and circumstance, but it sure is fascinating when it does.

The Nature of Goliath’s Weakness

The story of David and Goliath is a familiar one for most of us, but the truth behind the tale is far more complex. Yes, Goliath is definitely bigger and stronger than David, but he may have suffered from a health condition that impaired his vision. And his bulk could have significantly impaired his mobility. Even so, with his brute strength and protective armor, Goliath seemed unbeatable… under the normal conditions of single combat. However, David didn’t play by these conventional rules. When Goliath dared David to come to him, David kept his distance and slung his rock at Goliath instead.

David’s vision was better. Because he was smaller, David was also faster and more nimble. Even though Goliath appeared to have the clear advantage, he ended up losing the fight.

Mo Money, Mo Problems?

We don’t need to be Goliaths to think that having more money is probably a good thing. In many of our circumstances, having more money would be advantageous, but it also comes with downsides. A different set of challenges arises among children of wealthy parents. The parents can no longer use the “we can’t afford it” argument to deny their children the latest toy. And these children can grow up with a tremendous sense of entitlement. By contrast, children of working class parents might be raised with more of a fighting spirit and tenacity, because they learn that you have to work for everything you have.

Is it “better” to be poor than to be rich? Not at all, but it does present a different set of challenges and obstacles. Just as being big and strong could mean that you’re also slow and lumbering. This is why it’s difficult for large corporations to “change direction,” while smaller startups can completely shift and adapt their approach far more quickly.

Happiness Is Relative

“Which do you think, for example, has a higher suicide rate: countries whose citizens declare themselves to be very happy, such as Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Canada? or countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, whose citizens describe themselves as not very happy at all? Answer: the so-called happy countries. It’s the same phenomenon as in the Military Police and the Air Corps. If you are depressed in a place where most people are pretty unhappy, you compare yourself to those around you and you don’t feel all that bad. But can you imagine how difficult it must be to be depressed in a country where everyone else has a big smile on their face?”

In the book, Gladwell also explores related issues like how we tend to compare ourselves to our peer group rather than to the population as a whole. If you are reading this blog post, chances are that you’re better off than the majority of the world’s population. They don’t have reliable shelter or clean water, let alone a computer and Internet access. You might fit into your middle class neighborhood, but you may feel nearly destitute when you try to keep up with the Joneses in a wealthier, gated community.

Words of Wisdom

Some people clearly have their gripes with Malcolm Gladwell. He can come off as an elitist snob at times; he does write for The New Yorker, after all. Nonetheless, he offers tremendous insight in all of his writing. We’ve already learned about the other minds problem and why it may be in your best interest to trust your gut reaction.

And with David and Goliath, we confirm that it may be a tough road for David, but even a lowly shepherd boy can take down the mighty Goliath if he’s smart about it.