David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants.

…because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.

Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.

The reason King Saul is skeptical of David’s chances is that David is small and Goliath is large. Saul thinks of power in terms of physical might. He doesn’t appreciate that power can come in other forms as well—in breaking rules, in substituting speed and surprise for strength.

There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem.

The Israeli minister of defense Moshe Dayan—the architect of Israel’s astonishing victory in the 1967 Six-Day War—also wrote an essay on the story of David and Goliath. According to Dayan, “David fought Goliath not with inferior but (on the contrary) with superior weaponry; and his greatness consisted not in his being willing to go out into battle against someone far stronger than he was. But in his knowing how to exploit a weapon by which a feeble person could seize the advantage and become stronger.”

We have, I think, a very rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is. We think of things as helpful that actually aren’t and think of other things as unhelpful that in reality leave us stronger and wiser.

You have to be outside the establishment—a foreigner new to the game or a skinny kid from New York at the end of the bench—to have the audacity to play it that way.

We spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that prestige and resources and belonging to elite institutions make us better off. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways in which those kinds of material advantages limit our options.

The psychologists Barry Schwartz and Adam Grant argue, in a brilliant paper, that, in fact, nearly everything of consequence follows the inverted U: “Across many domains of psychology, one finds that X increases Y to a point, and then it decreases Y.…There is no such thing as an unmitigated good. All positive traits, states, and experiences have costs that at high levels may begin to outweigh their benefits.”

Inverted-U curves actually have four parts. Stage one, where the curve is linear. Stage two, where “the initial linear relation has flagged.” This is the area of diminishing marginal returns. Stage three, where extra resources have no effect on the outcome. And stage four, in which more resources are counterproductive.

Inverted-U curves actually have four parts. Stage one, where the curve is linear. Stage two, where “the initial linear relation has flagged.” This is the area of diminishing marginal returns. Stage three, where extra resources have no effect on the outcome. And stage four, in which more resources are counterproductive.

We strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the finest institutions we can. But rarely do we stop and consider—as the Impressionists did—whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest.

(Samuel) Stouffer’s point is that we form our impressions not globally, by placing ourselves in the broadest possible context, but locally—by comparing ourselves to people “in the same boat as ourselves.” Our sense of how deprived we are is relative.

Which do you think, for example, has a higher suicide rate: countries whose citizens declare themselves to be very happy, such as Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Canada? or countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, whose citizens describe themselves as not very happy at all? Answer: the so-called happy countries.

An extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. A recent study by Julie Logan at City University London puts the number somewhere around a third. The list includes many of the most famous innovators of the past few decades. Richard Branson, the British billionaire entrepreneur, is dyslexic. Charles Schwab, the founder of the discount brokerage that bears his name, is dyslexic, as are the cell phone pioneer Craig McCaw; David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue; John Chambers, the CEO of the technology giant Cisco; Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s—to name just a few.

One of the most brilliant modern psychologists was a man named Amos Tversky. Tversky was so smart that his fellow psychologists devised the “Tversky Intelligence Test”: The faster you realized Tversky was smarter than you, the smarter you were. Adam Alter told me about the Tversky test. He would score very highly on it.

Sixty-seven percent of the prime ministers in her sample lost a parent before the age of sixteen. That’s roughly twice the rate of parental loss during the same period for members of the British upper class—the socioeconomic segment from which most prime ministers came. The same pattern can be found among American presidents. Twelve of the first forty-four U.S. presidents—beginning with George Washington and going all the way up to Barack Obama—lost their fathers while they were young.

There is a fascinating passage in an essay by the psychologist Dean Simonton, for example, in which he tries to understand why so many gifted children fail to live up to their early promise. One of the reasons, he concludes, is that they have “inherited an excessive amount of psychological health.” Those who fall short, he says, are children “too conventional, too obedient, too unimaginative, to make the big time with some revolutionary idea.” He goes on: “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.”

Take a look again at what MacCurdy wrote about the experience of being in the London Blitz: We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration.…When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air-raid, and, when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.

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.

The prediction we make about how we are going to feel in some future situation is called “affective forecasting,” and all of the evidence suggests that we are terrible affective forecasters.

“Jail helps you to rise above the miasma of everyday life,” he (MLK) said blithely. “If they want some books, we will get them. I catch up on my reading every time I go to jail.”

In the next great civil rights showdown in Selma, Alabama, two years later, a photographer from Life magazine put down his camera in order to come to the aid of children being roughed up by police officers. Afterward, King reprimanded him: “The world doesn’t know this happened, because you didn’t photograph it. I’m not being cold-blooded about it, but it is so much more important for you to take a picture of us getting beaten up than for you to be another person joining in the fray.”

When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters—first and foremost—how they behave. This is called the “principle of legitimacy,” and legitimacy is based on three things. First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice—that if they speak up, they will be heard. Second, the law has to be predictable. There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today. And third, the authority has to be fair. It can’t treat one group differently from another.

“Think about the guy that invented safety belts. Do you know his name? I don’t. I’ve got no clue. But think about how many guys that are safe, or people that are safe, as a result of safety belts or air bags or tamper-proof medicine containers. I could sit here and go right through it. Simple devices that are made by Joe Average, just like me, that have gone on to save numerous lives. Yet we’re not looking for any kudos, we’re not looking for any pats on the back. All we’re looking for is results, and the results are my greatest reward.”

It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish. If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening. If you bomb a city, you leave behind death and destruction. But you create a community of remote misses. If you take away a mother or a father, you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force. You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose than we ever imagine.

 

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