David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell seems to have mellowed a bit in his recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and The Art of Battling Giants. There are fewer certainties or broad generalizations and far more “sometimes” and “in this kind of situation.”

For the first time in my memory, Gladwell acknowledges the limits his stories. They are the surprises, the unexpected that upsets myths. And like all his other books, the stories he tells are amusing and suggest novel ways to understand them.

Consider individuals who are dyslexic and have extreme difficulty reading. Can you imagine becoming a lawyer if you have dyslexia, getting through those enormous law book tomes, case after case of dense, complex details and interpretations? Gladwell discusses David Boies, who is dyslexic and in spite of that one of the leading lawyers in this country who represented IBM and Microsoft against US government prosecutions, Al Gore in Gore vs. Bush in the 2000 Presidential election and many other major legal cases.

Gladwell’s interpretation of Boies success represents the theme of this book: How persons with a disadvantage learn how to compensate for them, often enabling them to outperform or at least perform as well as those who have all the advantages. In Boies case, he learned to read more carefully, to listen intently, asking questions and to practice arguing cases.

Gladwell admits that compensation learning is really hard but if it is attempted intensely it can lead to skills that becomes habitual. Having a disadvantage need not always restrict someone. The qualities that appear to give a person “strength are often the sources of great weakness, whereas for the weak, the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”

Similarly, Gladwell weaves together stories of how a girls basketball team overcame their weakness by applying the full court press, how in 1917 the vastly outnumbered Arabs, led by T.E. Lawrence defeated the Turks stationed by Aqaba by attacking them from the desert, rather than the sea, as expected. Crossing the desert with such a small band of troops was “so audacious that the Turks never saw it coming.”

“T.E. Lawrence could triumph because he was the farthest thing from a proper British Army officer. He did not graduate with honors from the top English military academy. He was an archaeologist by trade who wrote dreamy prose.”

Gladwell calls into doubt the belief that small classes are better than larger classes, that well-endowed private schools, attended by wealthy students are better than less privileged state run schools, and that losing a parent as a young child limits career achievements. Consider this remarkable observation:

Of the 573 eminent people for whom Eisenstadt could find reliable biographical information, a quarter had lost at least one parent before the age of ten. By age fifteen, 34 percent had had at least one parent die, and by the age of twenty, 45 percent.” See Note Below

David and Goliath repeats this theme over and over with entertaining tales, drawn across a wide spectrum. Disadvantages are not always limiting, weaknesses can be overcome, the unexpected can triumph, and “in certain circumstances a virtue can be made of necessity.” Gladwell clearly enjoys telling these stories and the reader enjoys knowing about them, but he is not writing science. Instead, he is piecing together a montage from disparate fragments of evidence.

Recently there has been some discussion of this topic. On the NPR Web site, Robert Kruwich asks, Why are there so many of them?

He cites evidence drawn from several sources, largely case studies. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor lost her father when she was nine. Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, lost his father when he was eighteen.

Gladwell also points out that almost a third of the US Presidents lost their fathers when they were young. A psychologist claims that prisoners are two to three times more likely to have lost a parent when they were young than the population as a whole.

Note the reasoning here. None of it has anything to say about individuals who didn’t lose either parent when they were young. A sizable majority of children are raised in two parent families. Are they any less successful that those who aren't? The answer to that question is essential before we can claim the relationship between childhood parental loss and adult achievement is significant.

Two thirds of American Presidents did not lose one or both of their parents when they were young. I am sure the same can be said of the Justices on the Supreme Court and the majors of the major cities of this country.

Nor can we attribute any causal relationship between childhood parental loss and adult success. Perhaps children learn adaptive strategies for dealing with the loss of a parent. Sotomayor comments that, “the only way I’d survive was to do it myself.” And De Blasio, whose father was an alcoholic, like Sotomayor’s, says, “I learned what not to do.”

Countless factors lead to adult success, some of which we know a little about, others remain unknown, including the matters of chance and luck. While the incidence of parental death or absence seems high among successful individuals, its meaning must be weighed against the far larger incidence of the success of children raised in two parent families.