RD Interview: Malcolm Gladwell Explains the Truth About Underdogs

Malcolm Gladwell casts doubt on the cult of the powerful, asserting that David can still beat Goliath.

Statue of David by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Mauro Magliano /Corbis

Pop culture pundit Malcolm Gladwell is an idea blender, mixing concepts from vastly different sources (everything from business to science to the Bible) to produce new ways of seeing the world. And with a knack for nifty phrases like “tipping point” and “outlier,” he’s the odd savant whose books routinely top the bestseller list.

In his latest, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell applies the age-old story to modern times. He has chosen his heroes, among them a cancer specialist, a financier, and a Northern Irish mother, because they each overcame a tragedy or disadvantage and went on to great success. Against all odds, they beat the giant, just as the shepherd David triumphed over the warrior Goliath. In Gladwell’s world, the little guy wins.

Over fruit salad and espresso in a neighborhood café one recent afternoon, we asked him if anything in particular inspired this book. “It’s partly a reaction to this very small, very wealthy group who’ve put distance between themselves and the rest of us,” he said. “I wanted to explain why this group doesn’t have nearly as much power as they think.” Then he added, with a smile, “All my books are optimistic!”

Tell us: What is the Reader’s Digest version of your book?

We all assume that if you’re weak and poor, you’re never going to win. In fact, the real world is full of examples where the exact opposite happens, where the weak win and the strong screw up. I interviewed the president of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, for the book. We’re in his penthouse office with these panoramic views. He makes a kajillion dollars. Then he starts to talk about his childhood and how he was written off and getting kicked out of schools, and his mom never thought he would graduate.

When the weak win, however, doesn’t power shift to them? Take Gary Cohn at Goldman Sachs.
He certainly could be considered a powerful man.

I see what you mean, but … my favorite chapter in the book is about a leukemia researcher who had an appalling childhood. He’s a deeply troubled, in some ways tragic, figure who managed to create something of incalculable value in the world. But there was no danger he’d become Goliath. [He’d] never become big and strong and tough and arrogant. With Gary Cohn, you realize that even as he’s accomplished all these things, some part of him is still that terrified, vilified kid.

So even if your fortunes change, your core identity doesn’t.

You can do extraordinary things, but the bittersweet nature of the underdog story is that you carry around your scars with you for the rest of your life.

Do you see yourself as an underdog?

I’ve had the most untraumatic life a human being can have. But I’ve always been drawn to those who have had far more complicated histories. This book is a fan letter to people who have improbably arisen out of [difficult] environments and found a way to make or do something good.

What’s the one thing you’d like us to take away from your book?

That the greatest things in the world come from suffering. It ought to give us solace. A lot of what is most beautiful about the world arises from struggle.

You once said that we are always drawn to charismatic leaders, even though things often wind up badly. Why do you think that happens?

Mistake number one is that we’re interested in charisma. We often simply go for the physically imposing or attractive. Or we choose narcissists of one variety or another. We make all kinds of mistakes when we get carried away in pursuit of a strong personality.

We are also overly in love with certainty as a trait in our leaders. We want someone who can stand up and give us very clear direction even though with most of the problems we face, there is no clear direction. In a perfect world, we would be happier with more thoughtful, introverted, nerdy types. But we revert to our caveman selves, and we want to have the big, strong giant who can swing the club harder than anybody else.

Do you think great businesspeople can be moral leaders?

I’ve written about [Oskar] Schindler, who during the Second World War saved over a thousand Jews by pretending they were useful in making weapons for the Third Reich. Schindler was a terrible businessman. He didn’t put his business first; he put people first. You can’t create a viable, long-term enterprise if your only criterion is saving the lives of your employees. Schindler ran his business into the ground because he was a humanitarian. I think of Steve Jobs as a great man but not a great moral man. I think of Schindler as a great man, but the two of them are great in wholly different ways.

Speaking of Steve Jobs, you’ve said that in 50 years no one will remember him, but they’ll remember
Bill Gates.

I said that because Gates has decided to become the greatest philanthropist the world has ever seen. In five years, people will have difficulty remembering Microsoft Office. But if Gates cures malaria, there will be statues of that man in every major city in the Third World.

Is there a quote you particularly like or that you live by?

There’s one from basketball coach John Wooden. He meant it about basketball, but I think it applies to storytelling: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

The great challenge of a writer is to tell a story quickly—but in such a way that the reader feels like he or she has all the time in the world.

Here’s a Reader’s Digest question: What’s your favorite word?

Hmm, interesting. I’ll say puzzle. I’m probably someone who’s never happier than when I’m given a puzzle. I’ve never gotten over when as a kid you’re working on a jigsaw puzzle and you can kind of see the end—that’s the best feeling in the world. And “puzzle” isn’t “problem.” There’s much more hopefulness and playfulness in “puzzle.”

You probably know how important humor is to our readers. Can you tell me a joke?

I can’t answer that. I never tell jokes. [Laughs] Like all members of my family, I recognize humor and will laugh at it, but I don’t really produce it. We’re appreciators.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest