Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” Questions the Nature of Power and Advantage

by paulgebel

dg[Ecclesiastes 9:11,12] 11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

If you have followed Gladwell through “Blink”, “The Tipping Point” and the rest, you’ll be expecting something unexpected when you pick up “David and Goliath“. Of course, you’ll find exactly what you came for, but in “David and Goliath” more so than any of Gladwell’s other books, there is a recurring nod to the somewhat supernatural, spiritual or otherwise intangible nature of the axioms that he brings to light. Perhaps more accurately, he brings out something elusive in the falsehood of the misplaced axioms which we take for granted. In summary, he challenges our thinking in the following veiu

  1. Power and strength are always desirable
  2. Weakness and disability are always undesirable
  3. The more advantage you add to disadvantage, the better things will get

Gladwell spends a good deal of time walking us through the “Inverted U-Shaped Curve”. The curve demonstrates that at the very low end of weakness, poverty, disability or resources, we can add power or advantage and see geometric gains in positivity. However, after the plateau at the top of the curve, those very things that we perceive to be good – money, power, individual attention – will actually start counteracting the very thing that we try to accomplish.

In typical Gladwellian style, we walk through vignette juxtaposed on vignette, until we see a patchwork quilt of very compelling evidence on the principle. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s in America, the Three-Strikes referendum in California, the bombing of London in World War 2 – all make appearances. But my favorite parable is the eponymous history which opens the book.

David, as Gladwell says, did not accept the conventions of the single combat duel. He did not accept that he needed armor from Saul, because he never intended to fight according to the “rules”. And the giant, for all his might, is slow, probably visually impaired (“…that you come to me with sticks?…“), and is expecting to take bodily blows to his 100+ pounds of armor. David sees the one vulnerable point in his unshielded forehead and strikes. Goliath stands as much chance of survival facing David’s sling as he would facing a modern .45 caliber handgun. But the world looks in awe at how this “weak” shepherd prevails. How the underdog wins. But David doesn’t think he is an underdog. And he doesn’t fight like an underdog.

So what do we do with the evidence of this hard-to-see principle in action? Like most of Gladwell’s work, it’s difficult to take these principles practically and turn them into a quick tip. But I find myself encouraged. I think I’ve taken away a better appreciation of how the world works. How the “powerful” are only as powerful as the “weak” let them be. And how those in leadership have a high calling. Whether a parent in the home or the leader of a nation, those in power are charged to inspire and protect. But not to over-protect. The axiom is hard to deny.

In one of the most powerful compare-and-contrast vignette pairings, we see Mike Reynolds of “Three Strikes” fame compared to Wilma Derksen, who you’ll never have heard of. Both have had children violently taken before their times. Reynolds over-applies the punishment and rule of law and creates a tyrannically lumbering judicial experiment that is hard to definitively prove effective. Wilma forgives her daughter’s assailant, when she could have become a beacon of child-predator prevention. In the end, her forgiveness and willingness to give the situation over to God preserves her family, her community and her conscience. Reynolds, as portrayed in the book, remains consumed with grief, unable to find any solace, reason or closure – even though his “Three Strikes” referendum accomplished more hard-hitting penalization of crime than any other law in America. “…The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…”

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the original passage for your own edification. Take a read through the account of David and Goliath with a fresh set of eyes. See if you can see a David who was never really an underdog versus a Goliath who didn’t stand a chance.

[1 Samuel 17: 31-50] When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul, and he sent for him. 32 And David said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33 And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. 36 Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37 And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!”

38 Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, 39 and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.” So David put them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.

41 And the Philistine moved forward and came near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42 And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. 43 And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.”45 Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of theLord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.46 This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel,47 and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.”

48 When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine.49 And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.

50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. There was no sword in the hand of David. 51 Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.