Malcolm Gladwell on "David and Goliath"

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

An edited version of this conversation with Malcolm Gladwell was aired as part of a best-of episode of The Brian Lehrer Show on November 29, 2013. The segment originally aired live on October 2. 

Why do we value big and strong over small and agile? Malcolm Gladwell, staff writer at The New Yorker and now author of, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants talks about the psychology, history and politics of lopsided conflicts, and how adversity and unconventional tools can be an advantage. He also discusses his larger body of work, and tells Brian that he sees two "Gladwellian" lessons in his own story: the need to put in lots of hours of practice (in his time at the Washington Post); and the benefits of an outsider perspective (as a bi-racial Canadian moving to and starting a career in the US).

In the excerpt below, Gladwell responds to one of the main criticisms of his work -- that he over-simplifies difficult academic concepts. He says that he sees his job as fundamentally different: "I am a story-teller, and I look to academic research...for ways of augmenting story-telling. The reason I don't do things their way is because their way has a costs: it makes their writing inaccessible. If you are someone who has as their reach a can't do it their way."


Malcolm Gladwell

Comments [45]

jf from dystopia

Monsanto made agent orange used on the people of Vietnam, which is still making children be born with eyes outside their skull and misshapen. The US government and Monsanto do not pay reparations to these millions of people effected by their chemical weapons.

Nov. 29 2013 11:31 AM
jf from ny

10,000 indian farmers have committed suicide directly from monsanto actions

Nov. 29 2013 11:28 AM
jf from dystopia

In Utopia Malcolm Gladwell would be drafted into leadership.

Nov. 29 2013 11:21 AM
muir connat from Brooklyn

It is odd to hear a man with a black mother say that his perspective on race is that of an outsider. He has stated that he grew up with it as a non-issue in Western Ontario; thus, he shouldn't be judged on that. However, upon arriving in the U.S., it is an academic dissonance (not a moral one - so I'm not judging him), that he cannot understand himself as a stock figure in the race dealings in this country. He must close his hearing to how neighbors, policemen and others describe him just based on phenotype, i.e. most often in racial terms. From there, the particular failing in the U.S. is to then attribute intrinsic qualities to a person based on phenotype alone. As a person who based his writing on love of academic study, this would seem a significant gap, facilitated by his ease in the character set of traditional NPR-like personalities, largely leaning to white culture while still effectively diving into the milieu of life in these United States. There are no acultural spaces. We can take this not as a slight or a deficit (unless other peoples are artificially excluded from those spaces). We can appreciate - as odd and perhaps polemical as it sounds - that Brian's show and npr in general is a white cultural space in its aesthetic and casting. The victory there is to recognize it and then still be open to the world.

Nov. 29 2013 11:16 AM
MC from Manhattan

Steve Jobs was NOT a genius .. People in the tech industry all knew that "Ipods" and the like were coming back in the early 80's and earlier .. job's company was just in the right place at the right time to be able to push products that were self evident ... IF you knew the technology

Nov. 29 2013 11:11 AM
John from Brooklyn

All you need to read to know who Malcolm Gladwell REALLY is:

And I actually liked the Tipping Point until I read this article!!

Nov. 29 2013 11:07 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Got another, more literal example: 1 reason a lot of people bought SUVs was because they thought a big car would protect them better in an accident. Turns out a smaller, more maneuverable car is safer because it's better for avoiding an accident in the 1st place.

Nov. 29 2013 11:06 AM
MC from Manhattan

HO Hummm David and Goliath is not the real nadir of the bible ... In my mind, it is the whole question of immortality and the way the Bible twists and seeks to undermine the truth of female immortality..
In Genesis, there are two trees, one of knowledge and one for eternal life, Eve choose knowledge because with that knowledge she would know how to procreate with that part of her's and Adam's bodies obscured by their status as neutered "pets" of god. The first thing she realizes is, all that has been obscured was essential to her ability to create an immortal line of women and their descendants. God laments this and says "What if they take the tree of life and become as one of us" But it was already too late, aside from those that would lead us back to the cage, people are "one of us". As we were all alive as individual ovum inside our mothers when she was inside of her mother we are an unbroken line of physical life from the first female thru the ages. As for Men? We are a genetic conversation between women over time.

Nov. 29 2013 11:05 AM
Joanne from Chatham, NJ

He is referring to really dead, hollow model of teaching. Picture yourself with 7 offspring doing an activity. Now picture yourself with 18 offspring doing an activity.

Oct. 14 2013 11:20 AM

An, outlier, like for example, Steve Jobs, can be so crucial to whatever
organization, cause, work that he is a part of, that when he goes,
the project falls apart.

Apple, is not the same since Steve Jobs died.

It just put out the IP5S, which is, with a few differences is the same
as the IP5, certainly not a major difference between the two.

That spark that Apple had, when Steve Jobs was alive, to create
something completely out of the ordinary is not there.

Oct. 03 2013 12:41 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan


Listen to this guy objectively and you begin to realize that he is another NPR cult of personality favorite for the self-righteous Left.

Really .... "there's no there there."

Oct. 02 2013 09:06 PM
Mr. Bad from NYC

@ Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Yes, how about that? How about unmasking Amerika's most prolific PC corporate puppet ?

Oct. 02 2013 06:09 PM
JJ de la Cruz from NJ

About ten years ago, I had a dream that I was Googling the names of different people: celebrities, friends, family, colleagues, etc. Alongside each of the search results, there was what was called a Gladwell Score™, and each person had a score from 0-99.99 based on how much of a "connector" they were. In the years since, I've half-expected Google to implement this kind of functionality, but so far, the closest thing to this that I've seen has been Klout scores, or the number of Twitter followers that someone has.

Is this something that you'd like to lend your name to? You've got a very marketable personal brand thing going on.

Oct. 02 2013 05:23 PM
Miscellaneous from NYC

Ed from Larchmont:

"How about the abortion industry and the pro-life movement as a Davd and Goliath situation."

NOT analogous! If you don't want an abortion, don't have one. It's more analogous to a TV show you don't want to watch. There's an off switch.

Try to stay on topic~

Oct. 02 2013 01:59 PM
Teresa from CT

I have never found anything Gladwell says to be of ANY insight or use. Anyone (any low level slob) who ever worked in Sales or Marketing at any level already knew what Gladwell was declaring as "insights" in "Blink". He reminds me of an academic so far removed from everyday life that his "insights" are always a Day Late and (now) a Million Dollars Short. We The People have silently agreed to allow our society deteriorate at every seam, that we are on the day-to-day POWERLESS over the government & corporate powermongers who control the nation/world. The caller pointing out the egregious destructive behavior of Monsanto was right on the money. This is exactly WHY the Tea Party is brewing, and the Gun Owners fight to keep their; and the revolutionaries claim that it is brewing. Because the Common Man KNOWS he has lost his power and potency in society as it runs today.

Oct. 02 2013 12:21 PM
PHILIOR from brooklyn

Mr. Gladwell,

I appreciate your comment that immigrants have different prospective. When I came to the US 23 years ago it took me a few months to realize that the key problem in this country is its war on drugs.
The underdogs, the narcotraffickers and the narcoindustry as a whole, can and will overcome the Goliath – the United States by using a David’s sling of corruption.
Corruption is a self-supporting and self-promoting phenomenon that cannot be won against.
90% of our problems derive from our falling into the abyss of corruption due to the continuation of our war on behalf of narcoindustry, the only entity that is vigorously opposed to termination of this unwinnable war, as it is vital for their existence.
The corruption has already eroded our politics, our educational system, and our law enforcement. The other spheres of our society will follow the trend.
I am originally from the Soviet Union, and I witnessed firsthand how fast and easy the proliferation of corruption happened in my country during Brezhnev’s era. I can also testify that the US is much more corrupt and cynical today compare to 1991 when I came here.
Mr. Gladwell, during your interview with Brian Lehrer you suggested that the authority of law enforcement should be improved. It’s a noble goal, but it is beyond our reach as long as we continue the war on drugs. And we cannot stop it because we are already screwed. We are beyond the point of no return. The Giant’s fall is a matter of time.
We’ll pay a heavy price for the violation of the basic principle of free market society – the supply cannot be suppressed as long as demand is present. The only effect such attempt can bring is black market and rampant corruption.
Paradoxically, the former Soviet Union was higher on a human rights scale than the US as it was not a crime for any sane adult to consume the drugs. Only their production and sale were illegal.
The beacon of free world, the United States, deprives its mentally capable citizens from a basic right to consume whatever they deem appropriate.
All the rhetoric about toughness on crime and scares that if drugs are accessible as alcohol, all our children will become addicts – are political tools invented by those profiting from the “illegal” drugs.

Oct. 02 2013 12:18 PM
Ed from Larchmont

How about the abortion industry and the pro-life movement as a Davd and Goliath situation.

Oct. 02 2013 12:13 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Oct. 02 2013 12:03 PM
Ben Klaus from Boulder, CO

In Outliers, I found the stories of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to be quite fascinating. Especially the convergence of their 10,000 hours and the budding microchip industry and how their perfect timing helped their success.

Does Malcom have any ideas about which industries budding now will be the canvas for the next Gates/Jobs story?

Oct. 02 2013 11:56 AM

I disagree about giving the perpetrator anonymity. People need to understand WHY things happen. Why did the Virginia Tech massacre happen? Instead of just ignoring it as some generic outlier event committed by some generic individual.

Oct. 02 2013 11:52 AM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

Steve Jobs was NOT a Genius.

The engineers and designers who created the software and hardware that Apple sells are the smart ones.

As Walter Isaacson said, Steve Jobs would have made a great King of France.

Oct. 02 2013 11:52 AM

The fine Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, graduated from Princton AND Harvard Law School with distinction and has litigated in front of the Supreme Court of the United States...

How does THAT work??

Oct. 02 2013 11:51 AM
tombarlow1 from astoria

I relate to Mr. Gladwell's David and Golliath anaylsis: in my field the Goliath is so bound up in past practice to blindness. But these Goliaths's, these oldguard systems, tend to be closed. How does the David find entry into closed systems?

Oct. 02 2013 11:50 AM
sally gil from work, manhattan

Ultimately what makes a difference in a class is the teacher, and its a much more complex issue. I don't agree its a peer at the same level, Im surprised by his simplistic analysis.

Oct. 02 2013 11:48 AM

"Poorest" is NOT synonymous with "struggling".

Oct. 02 2013 11:47 AM
Nora from Brooklyn

Have more recent versions of *The Tipping Point* corrected the fact that East St Louis is in Illinois, not Missouri? :)

Oct. 02 2013 11:46 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Of course, the stories about the persistent innovator who turns out to be right when everyone thought s/he was wrong are the ones we hear. But what proportion are these cases of the total--how often do such people turn out to be wrong? (Hey, look, I'm being contrarian!)

Oct. 02 2013 11:45 AM
John A

Goliaths: Make America aware of it's overuse of military might. Tipping Point: How can we get america to budge on global warming? Otherwise it's just details to distraction from the important work to be done.

Oct. 02 2013 11:45 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Yes, if you are a contrarian AND a genius, like an Albert Einstein or a Steve Jobs, or an Elon Musk, your ideas might indeed be transformative. But if you can't personally implement your "brilliant" ideas, they just go nowhere. You have to be able to DO it not just THINK it.

I personally believe that I had some brilliant ideas, but could not implement any of them, and so they had to wait till others did so later on, because they could DO IT and not just think it.

Oct. 02 2013 11:45 AM

Steve Jobs fits this description completely.

Oct. 02 2013 11:41 AM
Ben from Westchester

Brian, do your research!

Malcolm Gladwell is a phenomenal author, but he didn't invent the idea of the "Tipping Point." It was used by Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling in Micromotives and Macrobehavior quite well and thoughtfully, decades before Gladwell wrote the book of that name, and was a concept even before Schelling.

Any of those works presaged the Internet and Social Networks. So Gladwell is certainly thoughtful, but he didn't predict social networks any better than Schelling or many others did.

Oct. 02 2013 11:40 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Great segment, thanks.
I wonder if Malcolm thought race wasn't an issue when he was growing up, because his black mother was highly assimilated. Also, his light skin/ racial ambiguity has no doubt factored into his level of socioeconomic access.

Oct. 02 2013 11:37 AM
Kate from Hamilton Heights

Love Malcolm's fascinating mind! I always wanted to tell him this:

In one of his books (Blink, I'm pretty sure), there is a test you can take online to test your unconscious racial prejudice - I think he'll remember which one I'm talking about it. He says in the book that the test cannot be "beaten" - ie, if you take the test and you are shocked at your own unconscious white bias, you can't take it again to erase that bias. I went online and found the test and took it. And, yup, I (a white woman) displayed unconscious white bias. HOWEVER, then, I thought about a black woman whom I adore and admire - she is one of the greatest female West African drummers in America and an amazing, loving, spiritual person. I kept her in my heart and mind as I took the test and, voila! the test results were totally different and my white prejudice (for that moment) was gone! I thought Malcolm might be interested in that story.

Oct. 02 2013 11:35 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I grew up in the Housing Projects in Brownsville back in the 50s. The gangs ran everything, though in the early days hand guns were still rare. It was "zip guns" or knives and such. Then in the early '60s came the "saturday night specials" which were cheaply made handguns and things totally got out of hand. Brownsville practically burned to the ground, like Dresden. Much of it was eventually rebuilt.

Oct. 02 2013 11:29 AM
rose-ellen from Jackson Heights

Tumors, gigantism, as commentary on the David and Goliath story? Talk about a man in search of a book topic! Inane, stupid and boring revisionist narrative.

Oct. 02 2013 11:29 AM
Mark from NH from NH

Malcolm: You're saying Harvard students are the smartest, is that true?, i.e., as opposed to the richest, most connected?

Oct. 02 2013 11:27 AM
Amy from Manhattan

If the sling was such a feared weapon in David & Goliath's time, why wasn't it being used all the time? Why was it an unconventional weapon, as Mr. Gladwell just said? Why was David the 1st to use it against Goliath?

Oct. 02 2013 11:26 AM
Sue from NYC

Maybe Goliath is always considered the favorite due to his size and strength because patriarchal society favors those attributes over other (female-associated) strengths.

Oct. 02 2013 11:26 AM
dan k from park slope

Can you ask him why he appears to be on a constant crusade against people who have achieved great things?

What is with his predisposition against those who have strived, through talent and hard work, towards great accomplishment, and why he needs to dissect what they've done and revise their feats into narratives based on luck, coincidence, or merely getting the credit for what their collaborators achieved?

If you look at his research through that lens, you have to believe he looks for evidence to confirm his bias, instead of applying common sense to the fact that there simply are great geniuses, who have worked hard for their station, and should be emulated, not reduced.

Oct. 02 2013 11:25 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

David allegedly had taken down wolves and even lions using a sling. So rocks, accelerated to great volocities, can definitely kill. Indeed. Israeli troops have felt the effects of those rocks hurled by Palestinian Arab kids at them. They don't wear heavy protective gear for nothing. Volleys of rocks hurled at great speed are quite formidable light weapons.

Oct. 02 2013 11:22 AM
Oscar from NY

..also David was very feminin and use to hang out when he was young alone in the forrest with some guy named Stephen..

Oct. 02 2013 11:21 AM
A listener

[[John A I tend to think of Gladwell as the great enabler for shallow-think dimwits, via his "Blink". If this gets me past that judgement then all the better. Oct. 02 2013 11:08 AM]]

Well, you're thinking of him, so he wins. Also, the period goes inside the quotation mark at the end of a sentence.

Malcolm, I often bring up your work when talking to teens at "career day" events. I think it helps focus teens' minds when I can give them a target like "ten thousand hours."


Oct. 02 2013 11:20 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

LOL, a big Brian Lehrer Show welcome to America's foremost pseudo-intellectual, propagandist and big tobacco shill...

Oct. 02 2013 11:18 AM
John A

I tend to think of Gladwell as the great enabler for shallow-think dimwits, via his "Blink". If this gets me past that judgement then all the better.

Oct. 02 2013 11:08 AM
Dorothy from Manhattan

A link to a Telegraph (UK) interview with Gladwell.

Oct. 02 2013 10:05 AM

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