Malcolm Gladwell's 'David and Goliath': Big Thoughts of an Intellectual Giant


“Think Different,” the late-90s slogan for Apple, might also serve as a slogan for Malcolm Gladwell. His books consistently promise to reveal and upset conventional channels of thought. Like Apple products, the originality of Gladwell’s work has been questioned (has he just been repackaging the work of more serious academics?), but his books' crisp, lively style is irresistible. His most recent book, David and Goliath (out October 1st), is cut from the same cloth. Based on a 2009 article, the book riffs on the titular tale to explore typically massive questions: why people succeed, why predictions fail.

Gladwell’s muses have ranged from baby nappies to t-shirts to ketchup. His books follow a similar structure: he reintroduces his reader to the mainstreams of their everyday lives, and then startles him or her with an entirely new perspective on their world. Always, his premise is paradoxically surprising, counter-intuitive, and formulaic (his book, Blink, is subtitled "The power of thinking without thinking"). His writing pulls together theory and terminology from economics, cognitive psychology, sociology, and marketing. It all encompasses his vision of late-capitalist society: knowing ourselves as humans depends on knowing ourselves as consumers.

Yet the disruptive theories Gladwell often substitutes for our daily realities often compel less than the anecdotes he uses to support his arguments. His first hit, The Tipping Point, introduced the public to an economist’s term for the moment any given commodity hits it big; the follow-up, Blink, shifted scale from society to the individual in its exploration of the underestimated power of instantaneous decision-making. Outliers – source of the famous 10,000 rule, the claim that it takes so many hours to master any particular skill set – explained brilliant successes through both quirky environmental factors and good old-fashioned work ethic. Prior to this parade of hits, Gladwell wrote many of his best-known articles for The New Yorker

Gladwell’s role in shaping today’s intellectual climate can’t be underestimated. Today, ideas are big business – and in the clamor of start-ups and TEDx, thinkers must hustle to be heard. Relevance, elegance, energy, and an abundance of illustrative anecdotes earn an audience. Some thinkers scorn Gladwell’s alleged lapses into glib, obvious thinking — pieces meant to be linked to rather than ruminated on. Such snobbish backlash ignores the benefits of Gladwell’s commitment to looser, larger arguments. Rather than attempt to hammer a single argument into undeniable fact, Gladwell gives play to all possible explanations awakened by any statistical or human anomaly. And by explicitly pinning bigger ideas to tangible facts of life, he invests readers in the significance of finding patterns in how people believe and behave. The argument of his books is almost always a way of thinking rather than a specific thought. His arguments may not always shake the world, but Gladwell is chief architect of at least one Copercurian revolution: rather than believing that “great ideas” are mystically determinate, he sees them as corollaries to the facts of the lives led alongside them.