Journalist and pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell has made it his undeclared mission to explain the fascinatingly unexpected in his best-selling books The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink. And on
October 11 he comes to a sold out Benaroya Hall to talk about his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, in which he examines how, time and time again, underdogs in all walks of life turn their disadvantages into advantages. In anticipation of his appearance, we talked to the author about how to guard against becoming a Goliath, his favorite Davids, and potential Goliaths poised to fall.
Did the inspiration for the book come out of the piece you wrote in The New Yorker on basketball’s full court press?
Yes. That’s what got me going. I became intrigued by the idea that underdogs have a different set of strategies than favorites. And also, a there’s really interesting paradox, which is all of the things that seemed like disadvantages to the team were advantages. They were forced into their winning strategy because they weren’t any good.
Is there a cyclical inevitability that the Davids will eventually become the Goliaths?
It’s not an inevitability, but it does happen an awful lot. Apple was one David, and is now a Goliath. And there are people at Apple who will tell you at great lengths the difference between the mentality of that company in 1985, or 1980, and that company today. It’s considerable. The United States was one David in a battle against England, and has now been Goliath for an awful long time. So there is this weird thing where the lessons you learn while you’re coming up from the bottom get discarded when you reach the top.
I remember in my last book (Outliers), I had a chapter on Jewish lawyers. I interviewed these guys who would talk about it, in a very wonderful and fascinating way about how their modest circumstances growing up contributed to their success, led directly to their success because they learned all kinds of things. And if you asked them, “How do you raise your children?” they would say, “Well I send my kids to the best schools I can and give them everything they need.” And you realize there’s this disconnect—the Davids becomes Goliaths. That’s what the guy from Hollywood is talking about in that chapter, this weird thing that happens—people can’t help themselves when they obtain positions of privilege. They start to play by a different set of rules.
So Davids aspire to be Goliaths, and then getting to the top changes the way they act?
Yeah, they sow the seeds of their own decline. It’s why wealth does not persist. After a while, people return to the middle.
Growing up, did you have a favorite David-versus-Goliath match-up?
It’s funny, I remembered when I was writing this book, when I was very young, I would make my mother read to me the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den over and over again. I was obsessed with that Biblical story. I could not get that story out of my head. So maybe I am drawn on some level to these kinds of mismatches. I think as a kid—because you are so obviously without power as a child—you’re naturally drawn to those stories in which there’s this unexpected victory by the apparently powerless.
What’s your favorite current David-versus-Goliath story?
I’m a big fan of running and I’m half-Jamaican, so every time a Jamaican wins some big race, I get an inordinate amount of pleasure from this country of two million people vanquishing rivals more than 10 times larger than them. So that’s always kind of great.
But isn’t Usain Bolt a sort of Goliath figure to other runners?
Jamaica occupies such an outside place in so many different realms—culture, sports. People forget it is a tiny, tiny island. Nobody lives there. It’s kind of crazy. You could bury the population of Jamaica in Staten Island and you wouldn’t even know they were there. I’m exaggerating slightly, but they’re always going to be—in my book—Davids, no matter how much fame they achieve. You can’t be from Trelawny, which is where Usain Bolt is from, and consider yourself to be a Goliath. Trelawny is not home of Goliath.
Where there any David and Goliath stories that you were considering that didn’t make the book?
There was a lot of stuff to do with war. Basically, how we deal with terrorists and how we deal with insurgencies and how we deal with criminals, there’s an infinite amount of stuff you could write about in that vein. I just realized I had too much. I didn’t want to turn the book into this really dark book that was all about violence. So I had to kind of cut back. They were all directions I was curious in going to. You could write an entire book just on how to deal with criminals. How should we express those with positions of authority, and part of the mainstream, how should we express our power when it comes to people in the margins? That’s like an entire book. And I didn’t want to do a book that was just about that because it’s really depressing. I was interested in so many other topics. So yeah, I ended up cutting back a huge amount. I could’ve written a whole other chapter about Northern Ireland. I ended up writing about one very specific, brief three-day period in a 30-year war. So I had to cut out 29 years and 362 days.
So do you see any Goliaths on the verge of collapse?
There are those that I sense are going to come. For example, I think that over the next couple of years, the industry to be disrupted by the Internet is going to be banking. And if you think about it, banks in this country are these unbelievably large, powerful multi-billion dollar organizations with huge numbers of employees and real estate holdings and branches in every corner. I sort of think that whole thing is going to come tumbling down. There won’t be any reason—on many levels—for us to have to use those kinds of institutions. There’s a case where it’s entirely possible to imagine relatively small, nimble virtual companies just kind of slicing the heart out of the major institutional banks. In the same way that many other brick and mortar retailers have been decimated by the Internet, I think that the banks are the next one to tumble. I think we’re in an era where these kinds of upsets happen all the time at an increasing rate.
So do you feel that the speed at which our modern digital age operates is beneficial to the people in the David position?
I do. If you think about the original story of David and Goliath, David has audacity, speed, the element of surprise, expertise, and an unusual weapon. All of those are—in an economy that moves virtually—huge advantages, much bigger than they would have been otherwise. So I do think maybe we are entering a sort of golden age of the David.
With all the success you’ve had as an author, how do you keep a David mentality?
I try and avoid spotlight. I try to live my life the same way I’ve always lived my life. I typically do my work the same way I’ve always done my work—not bring on teams of researchers, not delegate stuff, not isolate myself from the world of ideas. You have to take active steps to counteract what is corrosive about success.
Oct 11 at 7:30, Benaroya Hall, sold out