Tina Rozenberg on “Malcolm Gladwell: Guru of the Underdogs”

Gladwell:AtlanticHere is an excerpt from an article by Tina Rozenberg for The Atlantic in which she suggests that Malcolm Gladwell‘s latest gospel of success further romanticizes the Davids of the world and underrates the Goliaths. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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So David had the advantage all along. His victory was not a miracle; the slingshot was the superior weapon. Goliath’s size and heavy armor—his assurance of victory in a close-contact battle—guaranteed that he couldn’t lumber out of the way of a rock traveling 34 meters a second. David won by turning Goliath’s great advantage into his undoing. Therein lies an exhilarating moral, says Malcolm Gladwell, and he proceeds to spin illustrative tales about “underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants,” as the subtitle of his latest book puts it.

Gladwell, who half a decade ago brought us tales of top dogs in Outliers: The Story of Success, is still worrying the same bone: Who gets ahead, and how? His own story exemplifies one tried-and-true formula: keep asking that question and offering inspirational anecdotes as answers. In Outliers, he promoted what he has called “an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea.” Don’t be fooled by the meritocratic myth that success is the product of God-given qualities such as intelligence and talent. In fact, Gladwell argued, the achievements that we chalk up to natural ability or individual resolve owe a great deal to factors we underappreciate: historical timing, the career paths seized by immigrant parents, family wealth, the opportunity to put in thousands of hours of practice. Society has more control over who succeeds than we imagine; our talent pool could be much bigger than it is.

As plenty of reviewers pointed out, there was a flip side to Gladwell’s upbeat message. For genetic determinism, he swapped in cultural determinism—hardly the liberation it seemed. The hidden factors he played up in his account of success are distributed, if anything, even less fairly than talent and intelligence. And the income and class distinctions that govern their allocation are rapidly becoming more inequitable.

But Gladwell is not one to be daunted. In David and Goliath, he’s armed with fables chosen to dispel such fatalism. What we assume to be entrenched advantages, he says, don’t always offer the edge we may expect: top dogs beware. What’s more, personal hurdles, family troubles, social inequities—though they may look like disadvantages—can propel misfits further than risk-averse meritocrats dream. In his pages, the underdogs win, mostly by dint of the sort of upstart individual agency he downplayed in Outliers. Of course they do. That’s why Gladwell includes their stories. Yet you’ll look in vain for reasons to believe that these exceptions prove any real-world rules about underdogs. In life, it’s hard to turn obstacles into blessings, and giants are by now adept at the art of battling insurgents.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Tina Rosenberg is the author, most recently, of Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, and a co-writer of The New York Times’ Fixes column.

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