ShareThis Page

Gladwell's 'David and Goliath' cheers on underdogs

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 6:21 p.m.

Here are some facts to chew on: About one in three highly successful entrepreneurs — including the founders of JetBlue, Charles Schwab and Kinkos — is dyslexic.

Two-thirds of British prime ministers at the peak of the empire, and almost a third of all U.S. presidents, lost a parent when they were children.

These are among the arguments for unexpected sources of strength that Malcolm Gladwell explores in his new book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.”

Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker whose previous books include “Blink,” “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers,” has made it his specialty to challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom.

In “David and Goliath,” Gladwell argues that sometimes what we think of as disadvantages can work in our favor. He puts this theory to test with stories of an underdog girls' basketball team that makes it to the nationals; various school class-size experiments; and the Big Fish-Little Pond Effect (in short: your little genius is better off at a regular university than at an Ivy League school).

One of the most famous trial lawyers in the country — who argued in front of the Supreme Court for Bush vs. Gore, the Microsoft antitrust case and the overturning of California's ban on same-sex marriage — is David Boies, who has dyslexia. To get around his difficulty with reading, he developed extremely good listening skills and a formidable memory, Gladwell writes.

There are, of course, plenty of people who lost a parent when they were young, or who have dyslexia, “who are crushed by what they have been through,” Gladwell acknowledges. “There are times and places, however, when all of us depend on people who have been hardened by their experiences.”

One of the book's most memorable characters is Emil “Jay” Freireich, a volcanic, intimidating physician — fired seven times throughout his career — who played a pivotal role in the treatment of childhood leukemia. Gladwell, after taking readers through Freireich's tragic early years, notes: “He experimented on children. He took them through pain no human being should ever have to go through. And he did it in no small part because he understood from his own childhood experience that it is possible to emerge from even the darkest hell healed and restored.”

The book fizzles out in its final section, which reads more like a history book and is devoid of the sharp commentary and compelling observations that make the earlier sections such a pleasure to read. Still, the weak ending doesn't erase the many dinner-conversation takeaways a reader finds in Gladwell's latest attempt to make us look beyond the surface.

Rasha Madkour is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.