Bob and Weave

Musings of an impostor. Welcome to the masquerade.

Book Review: David and Goliath

Posted by flyingbk on 01/09/2014

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

First things first: Gladwell remains a terrific writer. He is a master at interposing multiple stories with the points he’s seeking to make. He’d probably make a fantastic preacher since he would always nail the right moment to bring back the slice of his illustration that reverberates with said point. Each time I finish one of his books, I feel like I’ve learned a few things new about how we humans truly live, and found some good sermon illustrations to boot (including one I used in this past Sunday’s message, in the final excerpt below).

The book, of course, is based off the famous battle in the Bible. Gladwell’s main point is that the underdog (a la David) possesses several advantages while the one with power (Goliath) is more limited than we think. For those who face challenges, it’s the old cliche of it not being an obstacle, but an opportunity. He utilizes examples such as a coach who employs full-court pressure when his team is much smaller; a dyslexic man who is inured to failure and therefore finagles his way to a high-paying Wall Street job; and a doctor who suffered at an early age from the death of his father, but overcame and thus succeeded in finding a cure for childhood leukemia with his dogged experimenting.

Gladwell focuses on the idea of “desirable difficulty,” which at first glance is an obvious idea. But he presents it in a balmy and cogent fashion that makes you appreciate what people go through and how they are able to overcome. It also provided me with a fresh lens to view and understand people and how we truly are shaped by the hardships of our lives.

The most powerful part of the book is in the penultimate chapter, where Gladwell juxtaposes an unforgiving father that helps bring about The Three Strikes Law with a Mennonite couple that  is able to forgive the man who killed their daughter. Here’s Gladwell’s conclusion: “A man 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.” (p. 262)

A bit tidy? Sure. But it does show how we can win when yielding power rather than seizing it. Weakness often does become strength. Hmm, I think I’ve read that somewhere elseThere are some stories and points that aren’t as applicable, and in totality, there is less to glean here than Gladwell’s previous books (all of which I would highly recommend). But that’s a minor quibble. This book is worth your time.

Notable excerpts:
“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 you 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. Most 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.” (p. 113)

“In the book Amish Grace, there is a story of a young Amish mother whose five-year-old son was struck and critically injured by a speeding car. The Amish, like the Mennonites, are heirs to the tradition of Dirk Willems. They suffered alongside the Mennonites in the early years of their faith. In the Mennonite and Amish tradition, there are countless stories like this one:
“As the investigating officer placed the driver of the car in the police cruiser to take him for an alcohol test, the mother of the injured child approached the squad car to speak with the officer. With her young daughter tugging at her dress, the mother said, “Please take care of the boy.” Assuming she meant her critically ill son, the officer replied, “The ambulance people and doctor will do the best they can. The rest is up to God.” The mother pointed to the suspect in the back of the police car. “I mean the driver. We forgive him.” (p. 262)

The verdict: 4 out of 5 stars.

Next up: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

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