A far- and free-ranging meditation on the age-old struggle between underdogs and top dogs.
Beginning with the legendary matchup between the Philistine giant and the scrawny shepherd boy of the title, New Yorker scribe Gladwell (What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, 2009, etc.) returns continually to his main theme: that there are unsung advantages to being disadvantaged and overlooked disadvantages to being “advantaged.” Though the book begins like a self-help manual—an early chapter on a middle school girl’s basketball team that devastated more talented opponents with a gritty, full-court press game seems to suggest a replicable strategy, at least in basketball, and a later one shows how it’s almost patently easier to accomplish more by being a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond—it soon becomes clear that Gladwell is not interested in simple formulas or templates for success. He aims to probe deeply into the nature of underdog-ness and explore why top dogs have long had such trouble with underdogs—in scholastic and athletic competitions, in the struggle for success or renown in all professions, and in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies the world over. Telling the stories of some amazingly accomplished people, including superlawyer David Boies, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, and childhood-leukemia researcher Jay Freireich, Gladwell shows that deficits one wouldn’t wish on anyone, like learning disabilities or deprived childhoods, can require a person to adapt to the world in ways that later become supreme benefits in professional life. On the other hand, children of the newly wealthy who have had every good fortune their parents lacked tend to become less well-equipped to deal with life’s random but inevitable challenges.
In addition to the top-notch writing one expects from a New Yorker regular, Gladwell rewards readers with moving stories, surprising insights and consistently provocative ideas.