Malcolm Gladwell has always impressed me with his ability to take seemingly disparate elements and link them together to reach a new understanding of a subject. Reading Outliers was like watching a magic trick. This time around, however, Gladwell's book resembles not so much the work of an adroit scholar as that of an aging magician.
David and Goliath analyzes classic and contemporary underdog stories to reveal that, in many cases, the seeming deficiencies of the underdog are what help him triumph.
It's not that Gladwell's formula has worn thin -- it's that it doesn't seem particularly suited to his theme. Reading Gladwell's work is usually inspiring in addition to thought-provoking. Whether it's Outliers ("Don't feel bad -- success is a matter of dumb luck") or The Tipping Point ("You, too, are a part of the chain that makes a successful product") or Blink ("Just go with your gut"), Gladwell has the ability to give the reader a warm fuzzy feeling inside. But with David and Goliath I felt that, if anything, I wasn't enough of an underdog to succeed. Instead of leaving me feeling that my ho-hum life was perfectly acceptable (or at least allowing me to forget about my ho-hum life for a while), David and Goliath left me feeling strangely inadequate.
The anecdotes weren't particularly satisfying, either. Usually, the personal stories that Gladwell uses to exemplify his theme are engaging and, dare one say it, the best part of the book. But few of these were fully fleshed out. For instance, the story of a woman who gave up studies in a STEM field because she felt inadequate in a highly competitive college program was lacking in information. What field is she in now? Does she have a passion for her work? If so, then maybe she didn't have enough passion to continue in her STEM studies and we shouldn't fault, but praise, the program she was in, because it made her realize that she should be somewhere else. (As a side note, this woman does express dismay that she didn't continue in her STEM work, but how can we not discount that as merely middle age doubt without more information?). Another individual profiled by Gladwell seemingly fails to fulfill his potential as well, yet the quotes from him indicate he is perfectly satisfied with his current career. Usually I flow right along with Gladwell's themes, but again and again in this book I found myself questioning his examples.
Perhaps most disturbing is the profile of an extremely poor child who grows up to become the Vice President of Goldman Sachs. This tidbit of information closes a chapter and Gladwell avoids entirely the question: "What happens when David becomes Goliath?" The resulting train of thought is unfortunate and detracts from his theme.
In his next outing, I'd like to see Gladwell tackle the notion of success itself. How do we define it? What, if anything, does one have to give up in order to "succeed"? How often does the individual lose himself in the bargain?
Don't let me mislead you -- David and Goliath is still a good book. Gladwell's writing is exceptional and his ideas intriguing. Kudos to him for having the courage and integrity to say that his research has caused him to (somewhat) change his stance on affirmative action since Outliers. But I'm used to Gladwell producing great books and this just wasn't up to par.
I would definitely recommend David and Goliath. But if you haven't read Gladwell before, start with Outliers first.