Every Underdog Has Its Day
Malcolm Gladwell brings cheer to a world steeped in pessimism with his theory of desirable difficulty
BETWEEN THE COVERS Besides a hairstyle that seems to suggest he stuck his fingers into a power socket, few can deny that Gladwell sparks electrifying conversation. He has created a genre of books that makes academic research accessible with real life stories.
It’s easy to understand why some scientists, academics and engineers will quibble about the new book by Malcolm Gladwell. I suggest you ignore them for three reasons. First, it doesn’t matter if his propositions are universally valid; they are interesting and make you think. Second, in a world awash with pessimism, this book makes you feel optimistic about the human race. Finally, there are few books that will simultaneously educate and entertain you about the biblical story of David and Goliath, the US civil rights campaign, how the World War II bombing of London made residents braver, a French town that told the Nazis “we have Jews and you are not going to get them”, a police intervention in New York involving distributing turkeys, the entrepreneurship of Impressionist painters in Paris, and a doctor who found a cure for childhood leukaemia by giving 18-inch gauge needle injections directly into the shins of children without anaesthesia.
David and Goliath has three interrelated themes. The first is about the advantage of disadvantage, about beating “powerful opponents of all kinds: armies, mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression”. The second is what he calls the theory of desirable difficulty—a readable rephrase of Nietzsche’s quip that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. The third builds on the first one and reflects on the limits of power and policy interventions.
The first point is “the same qualities that give them strength are often the sources of great weakness” whereas for the weak “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty”. He argues that advantages follow an inverted U curve—they help at first, for a while they don’t matter, but after a point they hurt. He cites interesting examples of how making classes smaller does not impact learning outcomes, how extreme wealth makes balanced child rearing complicated, and how college choices can have deep consequences for smart people. To an American, a clear omission is the Viet Cong victory against the vastly better equipped US army in Vietnam. But as an Indian, I wish the author had replaced the somewhat weak Vivek Ranadive basketball coaching underdog story with Mahatma Gandhi as David against the British Empire Goliath. Gandhi forced the British government to expose the colonial underpinnings of force and coercion by its brutal suppression of a non-violent movement that counted on mobilising public opinion rather than material resources. A study conducted of some 60 transitions to democracy concluded that in over 70 per cent of the cases, authoritarian regimes fell not because of armed resistance but because of boycotts, strikes, fasts and other methods pioneered by this Indian thinker. Talk about a globally viral David with a long shadow.
The second point about “desirable difficulty” is a complex musing about the effects of the loss of a parent on dyslexia. Gladwell makes the case that what seems to be a disability often turns out to be something else with interesting examples of a successful lawyer, investment banker and doctor.
The third point—most relevant point to an India heading to elections—is about the limits of power. He argues that legitimacy is based on people obeying authority feeling they have a voice, the law being predictable, and the authority being the same for all groups. The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party and the overreach of the courts, CAG,
CVC, the press and CBI need to be seen in light of the loss of legitimacy of the Indian state.
But Gladwell does open himself to valid criticism. Some of his cited studies have very small participants—as low as 40—and small social science experiments with counter-intuitive effects should attract scepticism till replicated with a larger sample. His argument about big fish in small pond being better for college choice wrongly suggests that a student at Harvard University and a mid-ranked liberal college get the same experience because they are “studying the same textbooks and wrestling with the same concepts and trying to master the same problem sets”. He not only contradicts himself by saying that losing a parent spurs greatness and is a big driver of jail time but the theme of his book Outliers (the power of cumulative advantage) may contradict this book (advantage as disadvantage). And the concept of desirable difficulty is not tempered by caution that many people suffer difficulties but don’t perform greatly or even normally. His point would only be valid if most of the overall populations of dyslexics or children without parents were more successful than everybody else. And Goliaths have learnt from handling insurgencies; the Vietnam and Iraq experiences and General Petraeus have ensured that the current US Army/ Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual says “sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is”.
Besides a hairstyle that seems to suggest he stuck his fingers into a power socket, few can deny Gladwell sparks electrifying conversation. He has created a genre of books that makes academic research accessible with real-life stories. His book
Outliers (2008) was about how hard work counts far more than talent—the 10,000 hours of practice.
Blink (2005) was about how our first impressions are right more often than we think and how intuition represents synthesised experience. The Tipping Point (2000) explained what conditions decide what and how something goes viral. But most importantly he peddles optimism about the human condition. In a world awash with economic and political pessimism—to paraphrase Oscar Wilde—it is important to be reminded that we are all in the gutter together but some of us are looking at the stars.
DAVID & GOLIATH: UNDERDOGS, MISFITS AND THE ART OF BATTLING GIANTS
by Malcolm Gladwell Allen Lane Price: RS 599 Pages: 305