David and Goliath

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is the very best kind of writer. I feel myself pulled into a world that is my own, due to the nonfiction genre, yet I find myself challenged to analyze circumstances and situations in ways I have not yet considered. David and Goliath is my second Gladwell read, after being dazzled by Outliers.

David and Goliath is a solid, interesting, challenging read. Still, I found myself searching for meaning in the final 75 pages of this 275 page book. Outliers kept me entertained every page, so if you are new to Gladwell make sure to read Outliers first to know the full power of Gladwell’s genius. From that point on, you will read his opinions as facts and begin to take a Gladwellian perspective on certain aspects of the world around you: how coincidence created giants in technology, law, and more, and how giants like Goliath come into battle disadvantaged against shepherds like David.


Let’s Dive in: David and Goliath

Gladwell writes David and Goliath in three parts, introduced by the story of the “underdog” David. I was hooked by the introduction of David, being the shepherd to beat, against the warrior Goliath, who barely stood a chance.

Part one and two took me on a journey to understand the power of “underdogs and misfits” through the Blitz during WWII, the beginning of chemotherapy in the leukemia wing of a hospital in the 1950s, and the resilience of a great freedom fighter often standing beside MLK Jr. Part three was a little disconnected in my opinion, yet the book still retains so much value.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart

1 Samuel 16:7 + title page quote of David and Goliath

Introduction: Goliath

The story of David and Goliath as told by Gladwell is a treat. Sit down with this book and enjoy.

David came running toward Goliath, powered by courage and faith. Goliath was blind to his approach–and then he was down, too big and slow and blurry-eyed to comprehend the way the tables had turned. All these years, we’ve been telling these kinds of stories wrong. David and Goliath is about getting them right.

David and Goliath, page 15

And so begins the 275 page journey of how the underdog may have always had the upper hand.


Part One: The Advantages of Disadvantages

Part one is fascinating and relevant to anyone who finds themselves a fan of basketball (or even just semi interested), a parent striving to place their child in the best circumstances to learn and develop a strong work ethic, or a student on the brink of selecting an institution of higher education.

Some pretend to be rich, yet have nothing; other pretend to be poor, yet have great wealth.

Proverbs 13:7 + introduction to Part One of David and Goliath

Chapter One: Vivek Ranadivé

Part One begins with the story of Vivek Ranadivé, a father who led a team of middle school aged girls with mediocre basketball skills to the national championship. “It was really random,” said Ranadivé’s daughter. “I mean, my father had never played basketball before” (page 19).

Ranadivé believed basketball to be an illogical game, and when the girls on his team were bad at dribbling and shooting, he used logic that only the most desperate team should carry out: the full-court press. The girls started winning, although they were gaining no skills of basketball nor playing the game as it was intended. Ranadivé created an advantage from a disadvantage.

Chapter Two: Teresa DeBrito

The case of Teresa DeBrito analyzes the advantage of being in a classroom with a small number of students. Turns out most reductions in class size are quite trivial when ranging from somewhere in the mid teens to the low twenties. However too many students or two few creates problems. The private school down the street boasting of an intimate primary education for 20k a year isn’t worth the price. There is no overwhelming evidence that having your child in a classroom with 8 other students instead of 20 will benefit them, however, it may hurt them.

Gladwell uses this idea to introduce the concept of the inverted-U curve. Too few students is bad and too many students is also bad. The sweet spot is right in the middle. He then applies this to parenting based on family income. Too little money makes it extremely difficult to parent, too much money causes other problems. The sweet spot is around $75,000 according to David and Goliath.

There is an important principle that guides our thinking about the relationship between parenting and money–and that principle is that more is not always better. It is hard to be a good parent if you have too little money… but no one would ever say that it is always true that the more money you have, the better parent you can be.

In Spain it’s “Quien no lo tiene, lo hace; y quien lo tiene, lo deshance” (“he who doesn’t have it, does it, and he who has it, misuses it”). Wealth contains the seeds of its own destruction.

David and Goliath, page 48 & 51

Chapter Three: Caroline Sacks

Gladwell continues his analysis of perceived advantages in education with the case of Caroline Sacks, a little fish in the big pond of Brown University. The alternative option being Sacks as the big fish in the smaller pond at the University of Maryland. When Sacks made her decision to attend Brown University, she chose the big pond that would ultimately push her out of science classes. It is extremely difficult to compete when many brilliant minds find themselves competing in the same classroom. Someone who can excel in the sciences at a slightly less prestigious University, may fail out at the Ivy league. Caroline Sacks told Gladwell, “if I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in science” (page 63).

The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them.

By the way, do you know what elite institution has recognized this very fact about the dangers of the Big Pond for nearly fifty years? Harvard!

[Fred Glimp, Harvard’s director of admissions in the 1960’s wanted to] find students who were tough enough and had enough achievements outside the classroom to be able to survive the stress of being a Very Small Fish in Harvard’s Very Large Pond. Thus did Harvard begin the practice (which continues to this day) of letting in substantial numbers of gifted athletes who have academic qualifications well below the rest of their classmates…

David and Goliath, page 90-91

Gladwell compares Sacks to the great French impressionist painters Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro, who were unable to earn the esteem of the Salon one hundred and fifty years ago in Paris. The Salon being the ivy league, the big pond. All but Manet, decided to make their own small pond in a private show of impressionists on the Boulevard des Capucines. Today, every piece from that show “would cost you more than a billion dollars” (page 74). However, at the time, these great painters decided not to conform to the expectations of the Salon, the world’s greatest art arena at the time.

We have a definition in our heads of what an advantage is–and the definition isn’t right. And what happens as a result? It means that we make mistakes. It means that we misread battles between underdogs and giants. It means that we underestimates how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage. It’s the Little Pond that maximizes your chances to do whatever you want.

David and Goliath, page 93

Part Two: The Theory of Desirable Difficulty

If part one was good, part two will knock your socks off.

I was given a thorn in my flesh, a message of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 + introduction to Part Two of David and Goliath

Chapter Four: David Boies

You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child, or would you?

Gladwell utilizes chapter four to share about how many different entrepreneurs and business giants overcame the challenges of dyslexia. He focuses on David Boies.

How Boies went from a construction worker with a high school education to the top of the legal profession is a puzzle, to say the least. The law is built around reading–around cases and opinions and scholarly analysis–and Boies is someone for whom reading is a struggle. It seems crazy that he would even have considered the law. But let’s not forget that if you are reading this book, then you are a reader–and that means you’ve probably never had to think of all the shortcuts and strategies and bypasses that exist to get around reading.

David and Goliath, page 108

Gladwell explains how Boies was an expert listener which directly transferred to the courtroom regarding questioning witnesses on the stand and giving concise arguments that summarized and simplified for judges and juries. Also his listening helped him remember nearly everything his professors taught during law school.

The skills Boies gained from being dyslexic, which is often seen as a disadvantage, turned into an advantage. Similar scenarios occurred with top professionals who are also dyslexic. Regardless of extremely successful careers, none of the people Gladwell interviewed would wish dyslexia upon their children. In fact, they were appalled that Gladwell asked. Gladwell presents dyslexia as a desirable difficulty.

Chapter Five: Emil “Jay” Freireich

Part five may be the single most interesting chapter of David and Goliath. Gladwell focuses on Emil “Jay” Freireich. Freireich had an extremely rough childhood, which helped him to become disagreeable, a factor that Gladwell has identified as necessary for Freireich to successfully develop chemotherapy. This disagreeableness was caused by his mother dying young, father being absent, and being raised (practically by wolves) in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. Gladwell turns these disadvantages into “desirable difficulty.”

Gladwell masterfully tells the story of Freireich advocating for the simultaneous use of four or five drugs on small children with leukemia. Many believed that Freireich was torturing children already suffering. When he began testing drugs on these children, nurses and doctors would refuse to help him buy the drugs, mix them, or give them to the patients. Freireich had to do it all on his own. The other doctors thought he was nuts. Gladwell believes that Freireich’s childhood hardened him to the point where he was able to test this drug “cocktails” on children knowing they may die and would be put through excruciating pain, because he knew without the drugs they would be dying rapidly from the leukemia regardless.

Freireich had the courage to think the unthinkable. He experimented on children. He took them through pain no human being should ever have to go through. And he did it in no small part because he understood from his own childhood experience that it is possible to emerge from even the darkest hell healed and restored.

David and Goliath, page 162

Gladwell parallels the life of Jay Freireich to the civilians experiencing the Blitz in London during WWII. Those who were close to each bombing but rose unscathed and developed a sense of being almost immortal. A new sense of courage and confidence, growing stronger with each near missed bombing.

The same parallel is then applied to Fred Shuttlesworth, an ally to Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama and a black Baptist preacher. In 1956, Shuttlesworth’s home was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. He survived, without any injuries. “He was unscathed. Whatever the Klan had hoped to accomplish had gone badly awry. Shuttlesworth was now less afraid than he had been before” (page 151). Shuttlesworth continued to lead protests, with a “new psychological armor” (page 152) growing stronger with each attack from which he rose unscathed. Desirable difficulty helped Shuttlesworth overcome the fear of fear itself, growing in courage and confidence, making him a force for white authority to fear.

Chapter Six: Wyatt Walker

Wyatt Walker stayed in the shadows as Martin Luther King’s organizer and fixer, causing mischief behind the scenes without telling King what he was up to. “People called Martin Luther Kind “Mr. Leader” or, in lighter moments, “De Law.” Walker was Brer Rabbit,” (page 177) a common “trickster hero” legend from American slave tales.

Gladwell focuses this chapter on a photograph from Birmingham, Alabama on May 3, 1963 by Bill Hudson. This photo of a teenage boy being attacked by a police dog caught the world’s attention and displayed police brutality of the south. Wyatt Walker played a role in allowing this situation to unfold.

Wyatt Walker had a plan for Birmingham: Project C–for confrontation. His goal was to draw media attention to the problem of segregation, boycott to put financial pressure on the white business community, and to lead mass marches to back the boycott and fill the jails. The whole plan relied on the retaliation of white authority in Birmingham.

To create the appearance of high numbers of protesters, Walker began utilizing spectators to skew reports of marches and protests. He even used children for this purpose, inviting children to leave school one afternoon which caused the children to be arrested. The next day more children came to protest, and were met by firefighters with high pressure hoses and the K-9 Corps. Walker sent the children out to the streets where the above photo was taken.

Walker was trying to cause movement, he wanted the police to turn brutal, and he utilized children to achieve this goal. When the K-9 Corps and firetrucks came out, Walker had accomplished part of his plan. “Malcolm X–the black activist who was in every way more radical than King–said “real men don’t put their children on the firing line” (page 187). Walker, like Freireich, was disagreeable.

Walker and King were trying to set up that picture–the German shepherd lunging at the boy. But to get it, they had to play a complex and duplicitous game… To the press, they pretended that they were shocked at the way [the city’s public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull”] Connor let his dogs loose on their protesters–while at the same time, they were jumping for joy behind closed doors.

David and Goliath, page 188

Part Three: The Limits of Power

Part three lost a lot of the steam and passion that I felt in the first two parts. Gladwell explained the first two parts so well, sewing every anecdote back to the main thesis. However, in part three, I was often lost about the relevance of a given story. Let’s take a closer look:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 + introduction to Part Three

Chapter Seven: Rosemary Lawlor

Chapter Seven examines the difficulties faced by Catholics in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, from the perspective of an Irish Catholic woman Rosemary Lawlor. An additional anecdote is sprinkled throughout about an innovative police initiative in the Brownsville neighborhood of New York City, that intervenes, surveys, and supports juveniles who have committed a robbery, with the goal to get them a diploma and keep them out of jail. Both anecdotes are quite interesting, and taught me something new; however, the thesis was hidden in pages and pages about the details of the conflict and police program.

Chapter Eight: Wilma Derksen

The following chapter picks up steam. The Three Strike criminal justice laws that began in California under the influence of Mike Reynolds is explained. Make Reynolds advocated for stricter laws on repeat offenders after his daughter was murdered by a felon who left prison to visit his pregnant wife and never returned. Gladwell brings back the concept of the inverted-U shape graph, explaining that the new three strike law, which imposed much stricter sentences upon repeat offenders, even after non-violent crime, had created a negative impact on communities due to huge increases in the incarcerated population.

The chapter is named for a mother who also had a child murdered. Wilma Derksen was the mother of Candace who was kidnapped and murdered near their home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Ten years later, when the murderer was found and convicted, Wilma and her husband Cliff, tried their best to forgive and move forward with their lives, in a way very different than Mike Reynolds who changed the state law in hopes to prevent another murder like his daughter’s from happening again.

A man [Mike Reynolds] employs the full power of the state in his grief and ends up plunging his government into a fruitless and costly experiment. A woman who walks away from the promise of power finds the strength to forgive–and saves her friendship, her marriage, and her sanity. The world is turned upside down.

David and Goliath, page 262

Gladwell understands that the lesson he is trying to convey throughout part three is difficult to absorb. So here is his most simple telling of the point of chapters seven, eight, and nine.

The final lesson about the limits of power is not easy to learn. It requires that those in positions of authority accept that what they thought of as their greatest advantage… has real constraints.

David and Goliath, page 257

Chapter Nine: André Trocmé

The final chapter of David and Goliath is just over ten pages, telling the story of a small town in France called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon that welcomed and hid Jewish children during WWII. It was known that there were people hiding in the mountains, and still the German chose not to “pick a fight with a group of disputatious and disagreeable mountain folk” (page 268). Gladwell explains this to be another example of when “the powerful are not as powerful as they seem–nor the weak as weak” (page 268).

“The Hugenots of Le Chambon were the descendants of France’s original Protestant population, and the truth is that people had tried–and failed– to force them out before… They stayed and learned… that they were not really afraid” (page 268-269).

Gladwell focuses on André Trocmé a leader in Le Chambon. He compares him to the protagonists of chapters past.

Trocmé was disagreeable in the same magnificent sense as Jay Freireich and Wyatt Walker and Fred Shuttlesworth. And the beauty of the disagreeable is that they do not make calculations like the rest of us.

Walker and Shuttlesworth had nothing to lose. If your house has been bombed and the Klan has surrounded your car and pummeled you with their fists, how can things get any worse?

Jay Freireich was told to stop what he was doing and warned that he was risking his career. He was heckled and abandoned by his peers. He held dying children in his arms and jabbed a thick needle into their shinbones. But he had been through worse.

The Huguenots who put their own self-interest first had long ago converted to some other faith or given up or moved away.

What was left was stubbornness and defiance.

David and Goliath, page 273

So now look at David, the disagreeable opponent. How does Goliath stand a chance?

It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish.

If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening. If you bomb a city, you leave behind death and destruction. But you create a community of remote misses.

If you take away a mother or a father, you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises and indomitable force.

You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and the shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose than we ever imagine.

David and Goliath, page 275

To Conclude:

David and Goliath is a worthy read, asking the reader to reevaluate advantages as disadvantages and disadvantages as advantages.

Although I laid out the bones of the book throughout this blog, there is so much more in the pages to discover for yourself. The magic of Malcolm Gladwell’s story telling takes common stories and turns them inside out and upside down. While reading I felt as though I was standing in the Valley of Elah watching the legendary battle or in a hospital room with Jay Freireich as he took a bone marrow sample from a child dying of leukemia.

I highly suggest David and Goliath and hope that you too find value in turning reality on its head. Thank you for reading my blog, more to come very soon!

One thought on “David and Goliath

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s