Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, argues that in a contest between mismatched adversaries, perceived weaknesses can be strengths, particularly when flexed in unexpected ways. In a post-9/11, dot-com, Barack Obama world where institution topplers emerge out of nowhere, this is not exactly news.
It’s certainly not news for entrepreneurs, who are devotees of against-the-odds victories. With that crowd, Gladwell is preaching to the choir. But not the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In Gladwell’s narrative framework, entrepreneurs would be congregants from a humble church in Iowa who take down the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a sing-off thanks to skills they developed performing on the streets to support their impoverished families.
That sounds as if I’m mocking the book, and I don’t mean to. As always, Gladwell spins a great yarn. He makes a smart case for the paradoxically fierce power of nonviolent resistance, like that of the civil rights movement. His questioning of the presumed superiority of prestigious schools--students may fare better at less-elite institutions where their self-esteem takes less of a beating--adds a provocative wrinkle to the hot debate over education. The association of childhood bereavement with success (a disproportionate number of accomplished people lost parents early) is a bit of an eyebrow raiser, but the theme of personal compensation for adversity rings true.
Although Gladwell barely touches on business, David and Goliath is full of ego boosts for the entrepreneurial crowd, who are told, for example, that innovators are open, conscientious, and willing to court disapproval. Readers will smile with recognition at the tale of Lawrence of Arabia leading his ragtag band of Bedouins 600 miles through the desert to take the Turks by surprise. “The Turks simply had not thought that their opponent would be crazy enough to come from the desert,” writes Gladwell. Crazy is high praise for an entrepreneur. Half the fun of making it is proving someone wrong.
Two of Gladwell’s insights deserve more sober analysis. The first involves the “inverted U curve,” which models the inflection point at which the addition of units--of effort, of people, of money--stops making something better; and the further point at which adding units actually makes something worse. Gladwell uses this device to discuss optimal classroom size and family wealth, but it is also a useful conceptual tool for scaling companies.
The second insight concerns remote misses. During the Blitz, Gladwell tells us, Londoners grew largely inured to the bombing. In fact, many were emboldened. Gladwell explains that people who experience the thing they fear most but emerge unscathed feel invulnerable. It’s a phenomenon entrepreneurs should guard against. Just because you’ve escaped a few hurtling boulders and snake-filled pits doesn’t make you Indiana Jones.
Each section of David and Goliath begins with a passage from Scripture attesting to the ennobling power of weakness or the illusory boon of strength. The Bible’s most notable quotable on that subject (“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”) does not appear. Meek, outside of the Gospel, suggests a failure of spirit. Weak, in the Gladwellian context, means starting from adverse circumstances, then using spirit, guile, and everything else in your quiver to triumph.
In his opening chapter, Gladwell writes that “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.” That, of course, is what entrepreneurs do best. They survey the battlefield. They scrabble for weapons. They summon courage. They change the rules.