Book Review #1845. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Reprint edition (April 7, 2015). Malcolm Gladwell. New York, NY: Back Bay Books. 352 pp. $18. ISBN: 978-0316204378. Review by Jessica Pfeiffer, EACPHS Office of Student Affairs, Wayne State University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has written several books that emphasize the intersection between personal stories and their implications on related research in the social sciences. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is one such book that offers insight into the various paths to success through a critical discussion on historical perspectives and modern day examples of those who have conquered challenges in the face of adversity. Gladwell begins with the familiar story of David and Goliath to introduce the idea of an underdog taking the win through calculated consideration of his environment. He bridges this concept with a more recent example of a girls’ basketball coach with very little experience who uses a creative loophole in the game to lead his also inexperienced team to the championship. Thus begins his discussion on the misconception of disadvantages vs. advantages and how these terms are often incorrectly defined to limit our view.
Gladwell is quick to explain that what one person views as an advantage may actually be perceived as a disadvantage by another (or vice versa). One example Gladwell uses is that of a high achieving high school student who decides to attend Brown University rather than staying close to home at the University of Maryland. It may seem like a great advantage to be accepted to a prestigious institution, but the student quickly found that she could not keep up with her science coursework and felt like an outcast in comparison to her classmates. Gladwell analogizes that she became a little fish in a big pond, when she was used to being a big fish in a little pond at high school. This experience led her to change from a science major to one in the humanities. She was asked what she believes the outcome would have been if she attended the University of Maryland instead and stated she would have most likely remained a science major because her feelings of inadequacy would not have been as high. Gladwell labels this idea as an inverted U curve, where an advantage actually becomes a disadvantage after a certain point.
There are also several examples of ways in which an individual has turned a disadvantage into an advantage, such as how a now very successful attorney struggled with his dyslexia as a child. Rather than dwelling on his trouble with reading and writing, he honed his listening skills. This change in thought process served as an incredibly beneficial tool during law school and throughout his career. A historical perspective on the same topic comes from the story of a boy who lost his father at a young age and then continued to have childhood abandonment issues. The boy developed a lack of empathy as an adult after receiving little nurturing as a child; however, he excelled in academics and became one of the doctors to develop a multi-treatment chemotherapy protocol. It was his lack of emotional connection with patients that allowed him to push through experimental procedures on children with leukemia, eventually leading to a ground breaking treatment for cancer patients. Through these and other examples, Gladwell questions the definitions of advantage vs. disadvantage.
As advisors, this perspective can help us better understand students from all walks of life and remind us that just because a student may be presenting a certain way, does not mean we know their struggles and background story. It can allow us to assist students in understanding their own advantages and offer a different view on how to utilize perceived disadvantages to their advantage. Finally, this book is beneficial to the advising community because it shines a light on strategies of successful individuals who have faced challenges in one form or another and have persevered in spite of them.