Saturday, 14 December 2013

The art of battling Giants : A book review of Malcolm Gladwell's 'David and Goliath:Underdogs, misfits, and art of battling Giants’

Malcolm Gladwell, the “Goliath” of non-fiction writing, has become a publication phenomenon with five critically acclaimed best sellers. His books and ideas are revered by business schools and have been assigned as a must read in many institutions. His ability to turn the simple observations of the events of our multifarious social life into ‘actionable ideas’, has catapulted him into a position of unprecedented reverence in the field of non-fiction genre (which informs us that the world is not necessarily what we think of it).
His latest book ‘David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and art of battling Giants’ starts with the biblical account of the battle between David and Goliath at the valley of Elah, and Mr.Gladwell uses this biblical story as his central metaphor in the book. Subsequently he builds up his ‘theory’ with adroitly told anecdotes of real life Davids and connects those anecdotes into various causal relationships to suit his theory. Though, these connections are often ‘overarching’ and often not very convincing.
We all know what happened at the valley of Elah. All odds were against David, the Israelite shepherd boy, when he faced Goliath, the philistine Giant. The fact that David won in that impossible battle only asserts divine intervention and serves the purpose of establishing David as the true king of Israel. The battle was just a beginning and the story was just another ideal ‘Evil Vs Good’ tell, where all ends in the favor of good.
But in his latest book Mr.Gladwell urges us to look into the epic battle with a different perspective, which he refers to as ‘the advantages of disadvantages’ and ‘disadvantages of advantages’. Mr.Gladwell informs us that for the strong, "the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness," whereas for the weak, "the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty."
For us, David, the Israelite shepherd boy was an underdog. Our intuition made us believe that David had a very minuscule chance of winning in the battle with giant Goliath. It was most likely that the king Saul and rest of the Israelite present in the battlefield also thought in similar way about the chances of David winning in that heavily tilted battle. But history proved all of us wrong. David won against all odds. Overwhelmed by this not so obvious outcome, we concluded that the David’s win was by chance or a mere random outcome and some of us believed in divine intervention as the cause.
‘History looks more predictable when we look backwards’, than the future when we look forward. Yet ‘we’ (excluding Mr. Gladwell of course) concluded that the outcome was unexpected, since most of us would have predicted in favor of Goliath, even when we looked backwards. So far we have got this underdog business completely wrong, until Mr.Gladwell comes up with his brilliant and ingenious theory of ‘advantages of disadvantages’ (and disadvantages of advantages) and explains that David’s win was a predictable outcome indeed.
‘We’ very often miss the obvious facts. In my opinion this mystery about the obvious facts is very intriguing. Steven Levitt, the author of Freakonomics, correctly says-“sometimes the things that should be completely obvious, turn out to be the hardest one to see”. According to Mr.Gladwell we have misread and misinterpreted the ‘advantages’ of disadvantaged David. Mr.Gladwell argues that, David had clear advantages that have often been overlooked: “His mobility against the stationary and heavily armored giant, his choice of weaponry, his skill with the sling, his cunning in fighting the odds in his own terms” had already elevated him to the vantage point. According to Mr.Gladwell David’s win was not a chance win, it was a predetermined win and the outcome of the war was decided in that very moment when David volunteered to fight. Gladwell argues that it was Goliath, who was the vulnerable one. The giant, probably was suffering form acromegaly was slow, clumsy and half blind.  The only way he could have beaten David was in close combat – but David had no need to go anywhere near him. David had a sling, the ‘most devastating weapon in ancient world’. So far the assumptions seem reasonable and conclusions to somewhat convincing, but where Mr.Gladwell fails is that he forgets or purposefully avoids considering other alternate possible assumptions or even obvious facts.
According to the biblical account Goliath’s fall was caused by the stone that was struck on his forehead. Archaeological accounts suggest that ‘Philistine helmets generally had a forehead covering, in some cases extending down to the nose’. Now the question arises that, why would David target that impenetrable spot? And why would Goliath fall? An alternate explanation by British rabbi Jonathan Magonet suggests that, the misinterpretation was caused by Hebrew word Meitzach (which means forehead), a word almost identical with a word mitzchat, ‘translated as "greaves" — the flexible leg-armor that protected Goliath's lower leg (see I Samuel 17: 6)’. Hence the alternate explanation of Goliath’s fall was that the stone “sank down behind Goliath's leg-armour (as his leg was bent), making it impossible for him to straighten his leg, and causing him to stumble and fall. Then David removed the head of Goliath to show all that the giant was killed”. Also author’s assumption that Goliath was suffering from acromegaly could seem farfetched considering the fact that Goliath’s stature grew at the hands of scribes or narrators-which ranges from "four cubits and a span" (6 feet 9 inches) to "six cubits and a span" (9 feet 9 inches).
“Cherry Picking” of the data to suit his narrative is blatant in Mr.Gladwell’s book ‘David and Goliath’. It is time for Mr.Gladwell to find a different strategy; otherwise World will think that -the World does not work the way Mr. Gladwell thinks it does.