Ev­ery Un­der­dog Has Its Day

India Today - - LEISURE - By Man­ish Sab­har­wal

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.




by Mal­colm Glad­well Allen Lane Price: RS 599 Pages: 305

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