Book Review: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

How do we beat the odds?  Strategic brilliance.  Accurate assessment of our opponent’s weakness and our own strengths.  Move the game to a playing field where we can win.  Surround ourselves with formidable, brilliant, courageous allies.

Sounds simple.  It isn’t.


Giants are not what we think they are.
The same qualities that appear to give them strength are
often the sources of great weakness.
– Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath:  Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is an invitation for everyone to think outside the proverbial box.  Might doesn’t always make right, and disadvantage can prove to be an advantage.

Our nation was founded by brilliant misfits who refused to play by King George’s rules.  Today they’d be called terrorists.  We call them patriots.  My Loyalist ancestors expected my Revolutionary ancestors to play by Britain’s rules.  My Revolutionary ancestors said “oh, hell to the no!”  It seems that the United States has forgotten our history.

David Goliath

David. . .has no intention of honoring the rituals of single combat.
. . .he intends to fight. . .as a projectile warrior. . .
the battle [Goliath] was expecting had suddenly changed shape.
– Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

We haven’t won a war since World War II.  We lost in Korea.  We lost in Vietnam.  We didn’t win in Iraq, and we aren’t winning in Afghanistan.  We expect the world to play by our rules, and the world is telling us, “fuck you!”  Osama bin Laden knew former Pres. George W. Bush.  They played together as lads.

Osama bin Laden might have been one of the world’s most evil bastards, but he was also ruthless, calculating, and brilliant.  He knew that if he flew a couple of planes into the World Trade Center, his old chum George would bankrupt the US treasury in a futile attempt to defeat terrorism.  He’s dead, but his strategy succeeded brilliantly.

Osama bin Laden knew he couldn’t win if he played by the Defense Department’s rules.  So, for good or evil, he took the game to a playing field where he could win.  His strategies were no different from those that founded our country.

The status quo has always worked for those in power.  It doesn’t, however, work for those outside the loop.

We need to master the rules of the game, however, before we break them.

Civil Rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth

Civil Rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth

Boys step back, and men step forward.
– Fred Shuttlesworth

This brings me to the central premise of David and Goliath:  if your opponent is a powerful giant, it is foolish to engage him in hand-to-hand combat.  If you are a humble shepherd, you’d be wise to employ your skills with a sling to defeat him.  Goliath was infantry.  David was artillery.  In most battles, artillery trumps infantry.

So, what’s your advantage?  Where is the playing field where you can win?

Can you morph a disadvantage into an advantage?

IRA leader Sean MacStiofain

IRA leader Sean MacStiofain

. . .most revolutions are not caused by revolutionaries,
but by the stupidity and brutality of governments.
– Seán MacStiofáin

As I read this book, I thought profoundly of protective mothers.  Most of them ~ due to lack of financial resources ~ aren’t going to win in a court of law.  But, is this the only forum available to them?  A couple of years ago I advised a protective mother who was lucky enough to still have visitation rights to do what she knew how to do best:  love and protect her sons.  I’m sure at the time she thought I was nuts, but she’s likely to regain full custody soon.

When she stopped fighting, she took back control of her life.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but it works.  Surrender.  Forgive.  Move on.  Do the best you know how to do.  When she was no longer available as his victim, her ex-husband unleashed his fury on his new wife.  She dumped him.  He became unglued.  Her sons realized she was their safe haven.  They turned on their dad.  He became more unglued.  He revealed his true colors.


There comes a point where the best-intentioned application of power and authority
begins to backfire.
– Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

Think about it.  What is a woman’s greatest strength?  Her bond with other women.  Her desire to rear her children to the best of her ability.  Her need to protect her kids.  This bond isn’t severed when a divorce is filed.  Grandma might love her son, but she loves her grandkids more.  A wise woman stokes the flames of a grandmother’s love rather than alienate a potential ally.  Grandma knows her son is a shit.  Give her an opportunity for a do-over with her grandkids.  Let her save face.

I was also reminded of how a clever wife set up her abusive husband decades ago.  It isn’t much different from how abusive husbands set their protective wives up to look like lunatics.  The judge in this case was blind.  The prosecutor knew the husband’s hot buttons and pushed them relentlessly.  It didn’t take long for the husband to reveal his true colors.


The powerful are not as powerful as they seem ~
nor the weak as weak.
– Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

An emotional opponent is vulnerable.  We only need to set the trap and wait.

At the same time, we need to keep our own emotions in check lest we be trapped by our opponent’s bait.

This is why we need to surround ourselves with brilliant, cooler heads when we are embroiled in life’s battles.  We make ourselves vulnerable when we allow ourselves to be controlled by emotions rather than cold, hard, strategic logic.  And, we need to teach these coping strategies to our kids.  Dean Simonton was quoted in the book:

Gifted children and child prodigies seem most likely to emerge in highly supportive family conditions.  In contrast, geniuses have a perverse tendency of growing up in more adverse conditions.

David and Goliath challenges conventional wisdom with lessons from history which have been stripped of public relations spin.  It taught me that I need to master my own game and play on a field where I can win.  I sometimes need to surrender and forgive.  I need to pick my battles.  And, I am reminded that love is always more powerful than hate or a need for revenge.


At the end of the day, an eye-for-an-eye leaves everyone blind.  No one wins a war.  We can’t cower in fear.  Nor can we win with false bravado.  We need to pick our battles carefully and know when it is time to move on.

People who have made a dent in the universe often did so with scarce resources and brilliant allies.  This is the premise of one of my favorite books, Organizing Genius:  The Secrets of Creative Collaboration by Warren Bennis.  It is a book about people who morphed impossible into I’m possible.  I was blessed early in my career to work with these guys.  We made a dent in the universe, and we had a lot of fun.


The biggest secret of all isn’t in David and Goliath:  laugh and have fun.  Otherwise, what’s the point?

David and Goliath isn’t a perfect book, but it did make me think.  It forced me to challenge my assumptions, and that’s always a very good thing.  My greatest concern with the book is that it seems to foster the “suck it up” callous indifference and lack of empathy and compassion that is creeping into our culture.  I don’t think any of us have any business being harshly judgmental of people in whose shoes we haven’t walked.

At the same time, I think this book aptly points out that playing the victim or martyr isn’t likely to be a winning strategy.  It is a strategy that invites continued abuse.  It is a strategy that blocks healing.  And, it is a strategy that will ultimately destroy our health.

2 responses to “Book Review: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

  1. Anne,

    Yet another well reasoned piece. I enjoyed reading it.

    I sign all of my correspondence ‘with gratitude’, even to the biggest pains in the ass that I have to work with because I want to remember: With out them, I would not be here, at this place, at this time. Every person, every action, every deed, even the ones that hurt you, motivate you, move you or change your direction. They have an effect. I’ve learned the more appreciate EVERYTHING, the better everything seems to get. Whether it’s because things are actually better, or my tolerance is higher, is irrelevant. I’m happier.

    I am actively seeking to forgive and be forgiven. I don’t care about winning, I want to create.

    Thank you for posting a thought provoking article.

    With gratitude,


  2. Wow! Peter, I am humbled by your response. It takes this post to an extraordinary level, and I am profoundly grateful that you took the time to write it.

    Thank you. Bless you.

    With deepest gratitude,
    Anne Caroline

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