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Malcolm Gladwell: Why David Beat Goliath


By Mary Daily

Published Jan 1, 2013 8:00 AM


Photo by: Bill Wadman.

You don't win by pretending to be something you're not. That's the message of the next book from bestselling British-Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell, who was on campus recently in the Institute for Molecular Medicine Seminar Series. David and Goliath explores the art and science of underdogs, much as Gladwell's previous books examined such topics as impulse thinkers and outliers.

In the Biblical story of the boy David and the giant Goliath, David dresses in armor and picks up a sword to fight Goliath on the giant's terms. But then the boy remembers his skill is with a slingshot, not a sword. So he picks up five smooth stones and—bam!—slays the big guy. Everyone is shocked, but Gladwell says they shouldn't be.

"Davids win all the time," says the writer, "when they acknowledge their weakness and choose not to play by someone else's rules." He gives examples from sports. "If you're playing against a team that knows how to play basketball, the last thing you should do is play basketball." You play to your own strengths.

Three of Gladwell's previous books, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference; Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking; and Outliers: The Story of Success, present psychological and sociological phenomena in easy-toread narratives, making extensive use of academic research.

In fact, Gladwell, who is also a staff writer for The New Yorker, gets most of his ideas from scholarly journals when "desperation"—in the form of pressure from an editor or agent—sends him to the New York University library, sometimes for weeks at a time.

The New Yorker requires him to deliver a certain number of words per year. "If you don't get your quota, they claw back your money," he says. He sometimes gets a seed of an idea and holds it for as long as five years until he comes across something related and starts to connect the dots.

"Academics don't, and shouldn't, spend all their time popularizing their work," Gladwell, the son of a math professor, told the roomful of UCLA scientists. "Their job is to do the deep thinking. There's a role then for someone to come along and take stuff and make it accessible."

But it can backfire. When he gave a public lecture at Rockefeller University, he mentioned a particular missile. "When I finished, an old guy with a heavy Austrian accent stood up and said, 'I can tell you you are wrong, and I know this because I invented that missile.' "

So to the UCLA crowd, he said with a grin, "Someone knows more about what I'm going to say than I do—just don't humiliate me."