Malcolm Gladwell’s update of David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell’s update of David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for almost 20 years.  He is a superb writer, researcher, storyteller, and creative out-of-the-box thinker. His books  –Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw – stay on the New York Times best-seller lists for long stretches of time with good reason.Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is a fascinating foray into many people’s very human efforts to meet challenges and overcome troubles in a sometimes unfair world – resiliently. Gladwell challenges us to view perceived advantages and disadvantages, obstacles and setbacks in a new light.  Gladwell brilliantly demonstrates how much of what is beautiful and important in the world arises from what looks like suffering and adversity.

May these reflections be useful to you and yours.


Gladwell begins with research into the real story of David and Goliath – that David was an expert in using one of the most powerful military weapons of his day: the stone from his shepherd’s slingshot, travelling at more than 100 feet per second, could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of two hundred yards.  Goliath’s giantism may have been caused by a benign tumor pressing on his pituitary gland, causing the overproduction of the human growth hormone, but also pressing on the nerves leading to the eyes, causing a kind of double vision.  Goliath, so heavily weighted down with armor that he couldn’t move quickly, probably couldn’t see David charging him to get within firing range.  David’s stone would have accurately hit Goliath’s forehead with the power of a bullet fired from a fair-sized modern handgun.   Says historian Robert Dohrenwend, “Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an opponent armed with a .45 automatic pistol.  [See Gladwell’s TED talk  on David and Goliath for the details and drama of the full story.]Gladwell continues with stories of turning the very real difficulties with dyslexia (slower processing of the sounds of words that slows down reading that slows down comprehension; it might take three hours to read a chapter of a book) into compensatory strategies – listening to people, listening to nuances in communication – that may allow people to rise to the top of their professions.  Research by Julie Logan at City University of London found that approximately one-third of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic, among them:  Charles Schwab, founder of the Charles Schwab brokerage firm, David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue; John Chambers, CEO of the technology giant CISCO, Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s.  [See Stories to Learn From below for the story of David Boies, one of the most successful litigators in the United States despite – because of? – his dyslexia.]

And stories of why it might be better to be a top-ranked student in a second-tier college than to flounder in the bottom of the class of a prestigious university.  Why larger high school classroom size, with more dialogue and diversity of perspectives, leads to better academic performance than smaller classes. Or how a completely inexperienced junior high girls’ basketball team made it to the national championships based on relentless pressure on their opponents and their philosophy: “One, two, three, attitude, hah!”

And more stories of how sometimes there really is post-traumatic growth; that people can respond to tragic loss with a fierce refusal to give up against overwhelming odds – winning the battle against childhood leukemia – or to turn away from pain and suffering – the entire Huguenot village of Le Chambon sheltering 330 Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation of France.

One of my favorite sections was Gladwell explaining the unexpected growth in morale and fortitude among Londoners during the nightly bombings of the blitz in World War II, perhaps because I used the motto of the British government at the time – Keep Calm and Carry On – in my book Bouncing Back. Gladwell says, “Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start.  Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”  And that the Davids of the world can battle the Goliaths of the world, and win.


[one of my favorites forever…]

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor-


But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now-

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

– Langston Hughes


[excerpted from Chapter Four: You Wouldn’t Wish Dyslexia on Your Child.  Or Would You? from Part Two: The Theory of Desirable Difficulty]David Boies grew up in farming country in rural Illinois. He was the eldest of five.  His parents were public school teachers.  His mother would read to him when he was young.  He would memorize what she said because he couldn’t follow what was on the page.  He didn’t begin to read until the third grade, and then did so only slowly and with great difficulty.  Many years later, he would realize that he had dyslexia.  But at the time he didn’t think he had a problem.  His little town in rural Illinois wasn’t a place that regarded reading well as some crucial badge of achievement.  Many of his schoolmates quit school to work on the farm the first chance they got.  Boies read comic books, which were easy to follow and had lots of pictures.   He never read for fun.  Even today, he might read one book a year, if that.  He watches television – anything, he says with a laugh, “that moves and is in color.”

His speaking vocabulary is limited.  He uses small words and short sentences.  Sometimes if he’s reading something out loud and runs into a word he doesn’t know, he will stop and spell it out slowly.  “My wife gave me an iPad a year and a half ago, which was my first computer-like device, and one of the things that was interesting is that my attempt to spell many words is not close enough for spell-check to find the correct spelling,” Boies says.  “I can’t tell you how many times I get the little message that says, ‘No spelling suggestions.'”

When Boies graduated from high school, he didn’t have any great ambitions.  His grades had been “ragged.”  His family had moved to Southern California by then, and the local economy was booming.  He got a job in construction.  It was outside work, with older guys,’ Boies remembers.  “I was making more money than I could ever have imagined.  It was a lot of fun.”  After that, he worked for a while as a bookkeeper in a bank while playing a lot of bridge on the side.  “It was a great life.  I could have gone on like that for a while. But after our first child was born, my wife became increasingly serious-minded about my future.”  She brought home brochures and pamphlets from local colleges and universities.  He remembered a childhood fascination with the law and decided that he would go to law school.  Today David Boies is one of the most famous trial lawyers in the world.

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 analyses – 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 story, 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.

Boies started college at the University of Redlands, a small private university an hour east of Los Angeles. Going there was his first break.  Redlands was a Small Pond. [As opposed to a big-name presitigious school.]  Boies excelled there.  He worked hard and was very well organized – because he knew he had to be.  Then he got lucky.  Redlands required a number of core courses for graduation, all of which involved heavy reading requirements.  In those years however, one could apply to law school without completing an undergraduate degree.  Boies simply skipped the core courses.  “I remember when I found out I could go to law school without graduating,” he says.  “It was so great, I couldn’t believe it.”

Law school, of course, required even more reading.  But Boies discovered that there were summaries of the major cases – guides that would boil down the key point of a long Supreme Court opinion to a page or so. “People might tell you that’s an undesirable way to do law school,” he says.  “But it was functional.”  Plus, he was a good listener.  “Listening,” he says, “is something I’ve been doing essentially all my life.  I learned to do it because that was the only way that I could learn.  I remember what people say. I remember words they use.”  So he would sit in class at law schools – while everyone else furiously made notes or doodled or lapsed into daydreams or faded in and out – focusing on what was said and committing what he heard to memory.   His memory by that point was a formidable instrument.  He had been exercising it, after all, ever since his mother read to him as a child and he memorized what she said.  His fellow students, as they made notes and doodled and faded in and out, missed things.  Their attention was compromised.  Boies didn’t have that problem. He might not have been a reader, but the things he was forced to do because he could not read well turned out to be even more valuable.  He started out at Northwestern Law School, then he transferred to Yale.

When Boies became a lawyer, he did not choose to practice corporate law.  That would have been foolish.  Corporate lawyers need to work their way through mountains of documents and appreciate the significance of the minor footnote on page 367.  He became a litigator, a job that required him to think on his feet.  He memorizes what he needs to say.  Sometimes in court he stumbles when he has to read something and comes across a word that he cannot process in time.  So he stops and spells it out, like a child in a spelling bee.  It’s awkward.  It’s more of an eccentricity, though, than an actual problem.  In the 1990’s, he headed the prosecution team accusing Microsoft of antitrust violations, and during the trial, he kept referring to “login” as “lojin,” which is just the kind of mistake a dyslexic makes.  But he was devastating in the cross-examination of witnesses, because there was no nuance, no subtle evasion, no peculiar and telling choice of words that he would miss – and no stray comment or revealing admission from testimony an hour or a day or a week before that he would not have heard, registered, and remembered.

“If I could read a lot faster, it would make a lot of things that I do easier,” Boies said.  “There’s no doubt about that.  But on the other hand, not being able to read a lot and learning by listening and asking questions means that I need to simplify issues to their basics.  And that is very powerful, because in trial cases, judges and jurors – neither of them have the time or the ability to become an expert in the subject.  One of my strengths is presenting a case that they can understand.”  His opponents tend to be scholarly types, who have read every conceivable analysis of the issue at hand.  Time and again, they get bogged down in excessive detail. Boies doesn’t.

One of this most famous cases – Hollingsworth v. Schwarzenegger – involved a California law limiting marriage to a man and woman.  Boies was the attorney arguing that the law was unconstitutional, and in the trial’s most memorable exchange, Boies destroyed the other side’s key expert witness, David Blankenhorn, getting him to concede huge chunks of Boies’s case.

“One of the things you tell a witness when you’re preparing them is take your time,” Boies said.  “even when you don’t need to.  Because there will be some times when you need to slow down, and you don’t want to show the examiner by your change of pace that this is something that you need time on.  So – when were you born?”  He spoke carefully and deliberately.  “It…was…1941.’  You don’t say, ‘ItwasMarchelelventh1941atsix-theiryinthemorning,” even though you’re not trying to hide it.  You want your response to be the same for the easy things as for the harder things so that you don’t reveal what’s easy and what’s hard by the way you answer.”

When Blankenhorn paused just a bit too much in certain crucial moments, Boies caught it.   “It was tone and pace and the words he used.  Some of it comes from pauses.  He’d slow down when he was trying to think of how to phrase something.  He was somebody who as you probed him and listened to him, you could hear areas where he was uncomfortable – where he would use an obscuring word.  And by being able to zero in on those areas, I was able to get him to admit the key elements of our case.”

Boies has a particular skill that helps to explain why he is so good at what he does.  He’s a superb listener.  But think about how he came to develop that skill.  Most of us gravitate naturally toward the areas where we excel.  The child who picks up reading easily goes on to read even more and becomes even better at it, and ends up in a field that requires a lot of reading. That’s “capitalization learning.” We get good at something by building on the strengths that we are naturally given.

But desirable difficulties have the opposite logic.  When Boies was learning to listen, he was compensating.  He had no choice.  He was such a terrible reader that he had to scramble and adapt and come up with some kind of strategy that allowed him to keep pace with everyone around him.

Most of the learning that we do is capitalization learning.  It is easy and obvious.  If you have a beautiful voice and perfect pitch, it doesn’t take much to get you to join a choir.  “Compensation learning,” on the other hand, is really hard.  Memorizing what your mother says while she reads to you and then reproducing the words later in such a way that it sounds convincing to all those around your requires that you confront your limitations.  It requires that you overcome your insecurity and humiliation.  It requires that you focus hard enough to memorize the words, and then have the panache to put on a successful performance.  Many people with a serious disability cannot master all those steps.  But those who can are better off than they would have been otherwise, because what is learned out of necessity is inevitably more powerful than the learning that comes easily.


Gladwell doesn’t offer exercises in any of his books.  So I’m offering one from mine, that I do believe resonates with the paradigm shift in thinking offered in David and Goliath.Wiring for Resilience by Making Mistakes

Knowledge rests not upon truth alone, but upon error also.
– Carl G. Jung

Resilience is based on learning new, more adaptive ways of coping.  Researchers have found that one of the best tools we have for recovering resilience now is to learn from mistakes in the past.  The wisdom of “Good judgment is based on experience; experience is based on bad judgment”  – Mulla Nasruddin can be a comfort when we’re faced with yet another AFGO – Another Fricking Growth Opportunity – or fear of one.

Our brain rewires from the experience of making a mistake.  When our choices turn out to be problematic for ourselves or others, we can learn from them by asking, “What did I not see? What could I have done differently?  What can I do differently now?”  As the neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer says, “We turn a regrettable moment into a teachable moment.” We can learn to find the gift in the mistake in the form of a belief that “I am learning; I am coping.”

It helps to de-brief a mistake by talking it over with other people.  Different perspectives help us discover the gift in the mistake and reduce our agony or self-condemnation over it.  When we’re having to deal with consequences that we would never wish on ourselves or anyone else, we can find some equanimity in knowing we are strengthening our capacities to cope.  We may not wish to have to become so bravely, tenaciously adaptive in our lives, but we can rejoice that we are.

Exercise: Finding the Gift in the Mistake

Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.
–  John Wooden

1. Ask a small (safe!) group of friends to come together to “look for the gift in the mistake.”

2.  Each person shares common mistakes first, the sort of mistakes that anyone might make:   getting distracted and running a red light, accidentally deleting all the e-mails confirming travel reservations; forgetting to enroll in a health plan by the deadline now having to appeal.  Find some comfort (not judgment) in the universal imperfections of being human.

3.  Expand your sharing to include mistakes that had bigger external consequences – putting off going to the doctor until “just a cough” landed you in the hospital for a week of pneumonia – or internal consequences – the guilt you feel because that hospitalization caused you to miss your daughter’s gradation from college.

4. Let the compassionate reflection of others in the groups, as well as your own, allow you each to “own” the mistake, discern what lesson could be learned from it, and help you to find the gift in it:

a) this is what happened;

b) this is what I did to survive (understandable, even brilliant);

c) this has been the cost (compassion making it safe enough to even look at that);

d) this is what I have learned (a new narrative of self that allows us to live with, even be proud of, ourselves;

e) this is how I can respond to life now (be resilient going forward).

Even if the “gift” is a deeper intention to pay attention as we careen through our days, or to be kinder to ourselves in our imperfect humanity, we have found the gift.

The Neuroscience of Finding the Gift in the Mistake

One of the major functions of the pre-frontal cortex – the CEO of resilience – is to integrate the many messages and stories we tell about ourselves and our behaviors – who we are, how we got to be here, what we’re proud of, what we regret – into one coherent narrative. We have to come to terms with the whole shebang in order to rest easy in our window of tolerance.  Re-framing our mistakes as learning not only helps us learn – preparing us to cope more skillfully and resiliently the next time – but it helps us relax into the self-acceptance that contributes to our equanimity, enabling us to keep calm and carry on.

Success is not final; failure is not fatal.  Success is moving from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.  It is the courage to continue that counts.

– Winston Churchill


The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  Little Brown and Company, NY. 2000.Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Little Brown and Company, NY. 2005

Outliers: The Story of Success.  Little Brown and Company, NY. 2008

 What the Dog Saw: and Other Adventures.  Little Brown and Company, NY. 2009

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Little Brown and Company, NY 2013.

Gladwell’s TED talk on David and Goliath

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