Malcolm Gladwell Plays the Odds By Studying Underdogs

By Jim Higgins
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

As he pulled together nonfiction stories about underdogs and people who overcame great obstacles to achieve success, Malcolm Gladwell thought he’d tie the package together with the conventional tale of David vs. Goliath, the shepherd boy who defeated the giant Philistine warrior with his slingshot.

But the more Gladwell dug into biblical history and scholarship, “the next thing I know, I was talking with Israeli ballistics experts,” he said with a laugh, the more he realized the smart money would have been on David.

Gladwell’s new book is “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” (Little, Brown).

In the opening chapter of “David and Goliath,” Gladwell explains that he wants to explore two ideas: “The first is that much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. … Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.”

In the case of Goliath, the giant was a master of hand-to-hand combat. But David, an accomplished slinger, fought the battle on his own terms.
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Gladwell profiles underdogs from the entertaining, the dad who coached a team of ordinary girls to basketball success by making them run a full-court press all the time, to the deadly serious, a French village that openly defied the Vichy regime by not turning over any Jews.

In a telephone interview, Gladwell said he likes to find “the person one layer below the visible surface of any enterprise or problem,” and tell a story through that person.

One of his favorite chapters in “David and Goliath” is about Wyatt Walker, a Baptist minister whom Gladwell calls the “nuts and bolts” man and fixer for Martin Luther King Jr.

Gladwell casts Walker as a trickster figure who goaded the racist Birmingham, Ala., lawman Bull Connor into overreacting, destroying his credibility.

As Gladwell depicts him, Emil (Jay) Freireich, the child of Hungarian immigrants, became a breakthrough cancer researcher because of the deaths and abandonments he lived through as a child. His beyond-reasonable refusal to ever give up on child patients led to breakthroughs in leukemia treatment. “It’s amazing to me nobody knows about Emil Freireich,” Gladwell said. “He’s a hero on a huge scale. His work with leukemia inspired whole fields.”

Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, fits right in line with the magazine’s tradition of excellent nonfiction storytelling. But his books, including “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” have made him a popular speaker for business audiences.

“I’m really just a journalist,” he said, adding he still thinks of himself the same way he did when he worked as a reporter for The Washington Post.

“It has been pointed out to me (that) I write about the notion of success in various forms,” he said.

As for why business audiences might be drawn to his stories, Gladwell believes they’re “looking for a glimpse into the world outside their own.”

The past 25 years has seen “the growth of a very powerful intellectual curiosity about other disciplines,” which Gladwell calls “an extraordinarily healthy development.”

Business leaders today understand that psychology or sociology or history can sometimes tell them as much about how to do their jobs as economics or finance can, he said.
(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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