I mentioned recently that Malcolm Gladwell has become the Dave Matthews of non-fiction writing. Both are hugely influential in their respective industries, but who is willing to list either as his favorite musician or writer?
I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for both Dave Matthews and Gladwell. Even the bad stuff. And Gladwell’s latest, David and Goliath Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is far from his best writing or most profound intellectual inquiry. It builds on several themes from his previous book, Outliers, which argues that what we perceive as “success” and “genius” is more dependent on context, hard work and luck than inherent capability. In other words, so-called extraordinary people are actually hard-workers who have benefited from a number lucky breaks. It is a worldview aligned with my own.
At first glance, David and Goliath makes the opposite argument: It’s not the people with the lucky breaks who become successful, but the unlucky, the underdogs. The David who conquers Goliath, the dyslexic who didn’t learn to read until the third grade and later became one of America’s most successful trial lawyers, the cheeky jester behind the Civil Rights Movement.
Indeed, taking the two books together, Gladwell seems to argue that, even if you can’t get by on good luck, then you can still turn bad luck into your advantage. Both books emphasize that hard work and creativity are more important than inherent capability.
Gladwell has received much flak for David and Goliath. Indeed, the anti-Gladwell backlash has been building over the past few years. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, psychology professor Christopher Chabris claims that Gladwell “excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.” (Gladwell responds to Chabris in Slate with the great headline “Christopher Chabris Should Calm Down.”)
Even if Gladwell does cherry-pick the research to support his own way of looking at the world, there is something about that worldview that I find irresistible.
Deference and irreverence
Last week, the actor-turned-lawmaker, Taro Yamamoto, was condemned by Japanese society when he personally handed a note to Emperor Akihito. Like most cultures, the Japanese stress deference to authority. (Akihito’s father, Emperor Hirohito, only renounced his divinity when Japan was defeated in WWII.)
And it’s not just royalty. Around the world, the rich, famous and powerful are treated with deference. Here in Mexico, journalists rarely ask difficult questions of politicians or business leaders due to the strong culture of deference to authority. (The most famous example of Mexican deference is the common use of the word mande, which literally means “at your command.”)
Deference and reverence can be detrimental to democracy. If we don’t ask difficult questions of the most powerful individuals of society, then they will not be held to account. Their riches, power, and influence will be used to further their own narrow interests rather than to promote the wellbeing of all. And I believe that our deference to authority originates in our belief that they are extraordinary, that they are somehow inherently better than the rest of us.
In Outliers, Gladwell gives us the framing to see even the wealthiest and most powerful actors in society as regular people who worked hard and got some lucky breaks. In David and Goliath, he reminds us that, even if we didn’t get those same lucky breaks, we can still stand up to the giants and persevere.
Granted, this worldview is less social science and more inspirational preaching. But Gladwell’s intellectual project is to equip us with the mental toolbox to speak truth to power.
A couple of weeks ago I was in London where the Indian social activist Aruna Roy was the sole civil society representative on a panel with US Secretary of State John Kerry, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, and billionaire Mo Ibrahim. Roy is the founder of MKSS, the Association for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants, which uses India’s FOI law to empower the working class. She has spent the majority of her life training the disempowered to seek accountability from India’s elites. And that is precisely what she did on the panel, asking a surprised John Kerry how he can possible speak of establishing trust between government and citizens when the NSA leaks have demonstrated America’s mass surveillance over ordinary citizens.
I have seen highly confident, qualified individuals become stuttering nervous wrecks in the company of billionaires and heads of state. I have a hunch that Roy’s quiet, calm demeanor when surrounded by such powerful men is rooted in the conviction that power is mostly a product of circumstance.
David beat Goliath, but is average over?
It’s difficult to square Gladwell’s latest — how the Davids can beat the Goliaths — with Tyler Cowen’s latest, Average Is Over, which argues that we are entering a chapter of humanity that will be increasingly segmented between the techno-empowered elites and the disempowered majority.
In the first chapter, Gladwell sets out to challenge the myth that David was the underdog in the battle with the giant warrior, Goliath. In fact, David, the future king of Israel, was most likely an elite, rock-slinging sniper. If you had to put your money on an elite sniper or a sluggish giant, you’d probably go with the sniper. For Gladwell, the anecdote of David and Goliath demonstrates that what we initially perceive as disadvantages (David’s small stature and lack of armor) are, in fact, often times advantages (his mobility and speed).
But the story of David and Goliath also reminds us that both individuals were elites (David, of course, goes on to become the king of Israel). Gladwell focuses on the handful of highly successful people with dyslexia, but only mentions in passing that dyslexics are vastly over-represented in prison. (A study of more than 2,000 prisoners in the UK in 2008 found that over half were diagnosed with dyslexia compared to 10% of the overall UK population.)
In other words, Outliers seemingly argues that the highly successful aren’t exceptional; they are lucky and hard working. David and Goliath seems to reveal, on the other hand, that a few successful people are unlucky, but both exceptional and exceptionally hard working.
Gladwell’s latest is a work of inspiration for the highly ambitious. But what about the rest of us? What if we didn’t get all the lucky breaks that opened up opportunities for the elites profiled in Outliers? And what if we don’t have the unlucky disadvantages that ultimately encouraged the heroes of David and Goliath to work harder and more creatively?
The outlook for your average Joe or Jane in the 21st century seems considerably less optimistic than Gladwell’s portrait of reality.