David and Goliath shifts underdog perspective

The classic biblical tale of David and Goliath tends to be interpreted as an underdog story of a feeble shepherd against a gigantic warrior, the young shepherd winning with only a stone and sling. Since then, the story has come to represent battles between underdogs and giants. Many believe that David’s victory was miraculous. But Malcolm Gladwell disagrees.

In his book David and Goliath, Gladwell challenges how people view obstacles and disadvantages, and shows how sometimes a person’s perceived weaknesses can actually be their greatest strength. Gladwell starts his book by re-examining the fight between David and Goliath. He argues that David actually had the upper hand in the fight for a variety of reasons.

First, David used a sling, a weapon which can hurl rocks at incredible speeds and hit targets up to 200 yards away. David had experience with the sling, as this was his weapon of choice for fighting off lions and bears. David also had no armor, so he could move quickly and freely without any additional weight slowing him down. Goliath, Gladwell argues, was at a disadvantage because of his weight and choice of weapon. Goliath wore a full suit of armor, which meant an additional 100 pounds to carry, as well as a sword. Goliath, expecting close range combat, was not prepared.

Gladwell goes through several examples of disadvantages such as dyslexia, race and loss of parents, and shows how certain individuals actually attribute their success in life to their disadvantages.

Just as perceived weaknesses can at times be strengths, there are times when an advantage can actually be a disadvantage. To make his point, Gladwell uses the example of a student pursuing a STEM major at Harvard University. Getting into an elite and prestigious school such as Harvard, instead of a liberal arts school such as Hartwick College, to pursue a STEM major would be expected to be an advantage, but Gladwell has the statistics to prove otherwise.

Gladwell found that although the bottom third of Harvard students had higher SAT scores than the top third of Hartwick students, the Harvard students had a lower likelihood of getting a STEM degree. The SAT scores of the bottom third of Harvard students averaged at 581, compared to the top third of Hartwick students, who had an average score of 569. Yet, only 15.4 percent of those Harvard students graduated with a science degree, compared to 55 percent of the Hartwick students.

After pondering on these results, Gladwell realized that it is not how smart a student is, but how smart they feel relative to their fellow classmates. Gladwell goes on to another study that shows that the best students from mediocre schools were almost always more likely to be hired than good students from the very best schools.

The world can be a complicated and complex place; sometimes one’s greatest weakness can be their greatest strength and vice versa. Although challenging, Gladwell’s book does a compelling job of explaining these phenomena through the use of history, psychology and powerful storytelling.