Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath Rethinks Our Thinking

By on December 15, 2013
David and Goliath, Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants bookcover image

By Jill Demby Guest –

I have a crush on Malcolm Gladwell’s brain. Like all successful inventors, artists, business leaders, Doctors, scientists, politicians and writers, he just “thinks different.” If Apple ever revises that commercial, they should add him to it.

Malcolm Gladwell has mastered the art of “thinking different.”

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Whether it’s using epidemiological studies to track trends (The Tipping Point) or examining how first impressions tell you more than you think (Blink) or how your environment can predict future success (Outliers), we all end up thinking a little differently as a result.

In his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell asks us once again to reconsider our assumptions about what we believe is probable in the way we define the strong from the weak and the possible disadvantages of having too many advantages. He takes a hard look underneath external appearances and shows us what appears to be the sure thing isn’t necessarily so.

This time Gladwell frames his ideas in a biblical context, using the story of David and Goliath as his vehicle. While there have been many successful business books based on religious figures, I wondered if it was part marketing strategy or if Gladwell had something else up his sleeve using religious figures in his telling.

As only he can, Gladwell deftly guides us with a masterful hand to “unthink” our thinking as he once again turns our world a little bit inside out, shepherding us to view the world in the laser sharp focus of his flashlight, often resulting in a Gladwellian “Aha” moment.

I had the Gladwell “Aha” moment myself when I went to see him in conversation with Tim Long (The Simpsons) at Live Talks L.A.  With just one question, I got to rethink my own assumptions and experience Gladwell’s thinking in action.

In my years of interviewing successful people and gleaning their stories, the most authentic and moving ones always emerged from some dark personal wound that had been unearthed. And somehow, because of their struggles, they had managed to find a higher ground and thrive. My assumption was that there was probably some early drama that had captivated Gladwell and pushed him to write this book.

When I actually got to ask him this question his answer was surprising.

Here is my Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell from Live Talks L.A.:

JDG: Was there anything personal for you in the subject matter of underdogs and misfits in a story that you’d be willing to share?

MG: These are people who’ve dealt with adversity and were forced to come up with a strategy in face of loss. My life is so devoid of dramatic trauma or obstacle. I grew up in a bucolic community with the kindest, sweetest, parents in the world and I had this wonderful career. I’m so not an underdog in any remote sense of the word. This book is about my fascination with people who’ve had to deal with such adversities.

In his answer I saw that my assumption that some early drama had driven him was wrong. A personal trauma was not at play here. There was no underdog story moving him forward, no tortured writer slaying dragons.

Instead, what propelled him was a more altruistic and spiritual motive. Here was a person who had no identification with the underdog yet was genuinely on their side rooting for them.

Even though Gladwell had been stopped by police when he grew an afro several years ago, even that fact did not plummet him into underdog or misfit status.

He seemed truly honored to have had a window into the lives of the people he described with a pure heart that in turn inspired and nourished his soul in some very profound way.

Had he undergone some kind of religious conversion?

There was something different about Gladwell from the last time I had seen him interviewed for Outliers. His whole being appeared less edgy, softer, more glowing and open.

Further research showed that he had indeed gone back to his Mennonite religion during the writing of this book. In Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s interview for Religion News Service, Gladwell says the following:

“I was so incredibly struck in writing these stories by the incredible power faith had in people’s lives, it has made a profound impact on me in my belief. That’s been the completely unexpected effect of writing this book. I am in the process of rediscovering my own faith again.”

“I felt it was important that people who read my work knew the perspective that I came from. It changes how people read you if you believe in God. It gives insight into your motivation, how you look at problems and how you deal with people.”

“The theme of the book is that much of what is beautiful and powerful in the world comes from adversity and struggle. The other theme is that people who appear to have no material advantage are much more powerful than they appear.”

When asked how Jesus would fit in he said, “He is almost the perfect illustration of this idea that you have to look in the heart to know what someone’s capable of.”

As the pieces started to come together, it felt particularly fitting that this interview was held in a place of worship at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. Paintings of biblical figures lined the walls.

Finally, I was elevated and moved by the purity of his passion for his subject. He was like a benevolent teacher gently taking us to places we might not venture to go on our own so we might experience the world with new eyes. And that is what all great thinkers ask us to do. It is their magic at work. And that is a very good thing.

Malcolm Gladwell

Video Interviews: “Think Different” commercial

Live Talks L.A. full video Interview: Malcolm Gladwell with Tim Long

Link to Malcom Gladwell’s TED Talk on David and Goliath.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about his Afro.

Full text interview with Gladwell on his return to faith.

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Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath Rethinks Our Thinking