My favorite sporting event to watch, purely from a fan’s perspective, is college basketball’s March Madness. Once I remove teams I root for, there are really only a few events to watch. The Olympics reminds us of the purity of sport (or, that’s how it’s marketed to us, which is obviously a little ironic). It makes us think of struggle and perseverance and achieving a life’s goal. The Super Bowl is nice for an pure entertainment–the glitz and glamour–perspective. But March Madness has something woven into America’s very fabric: the underdog.
I watch March Madness because, on any given night, a group of players from Northwest Mechanical State College will defeat a big university. It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when it will happen, and how many times. For three weeks each year, some second-rate college basketball players get to thrill in the attention of the nation.
I believe this is what I love because of the culture I grew up in. America. Land of opportunity, where the hardscrabble worker can claw his way to the top, where oppressed immigrants set their faces like flint and forged a nation unlike any other. Yes, I know the flaws in this belief. But it doesn’t mean I don’t love a good underdog.
Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath provides an underdog. Lots of underdogs. And for this reason, for the stories of the underdogs alone, it’s worth picking up. From the introduction, which details how David was actual at an advantage because he changed the rules of the game on Goliath, we’re met with underdog after underdog who triumphed through effort and outsmarting the winner and damn persistence.
He tells the story of a basketball team of 12 year old girls who couldn’t shoot, but who enjoyed incredible success because they instituted a hellish press (on other 12 year old girls). He outlines how the Impressionists eventually set up their own art show, outside the traditional boundaries, in order to get some attention for their art.
Some ideas he lays out are needed in our society. For example, Gladwell tackles the push for smaller and smaller class sizes, insisting that the best learning happens on a bell-shaped curve, and class sizes can become too small, as well as too large. This, of course, is common sense. Think of your favorite class in high school or college. The class where you were challenged to grow and learn the most. Was it the smallest? Or, was it more dependent on the passion and engagement of the teacher?
And, as anyone who has been in front of a classroom can tell you, once a class is under a critical mass, good discussion simply becomes impossible.
Other ideas Gladwell seems to push against common sense. After laying out a strong case that dyslexics succeed at a greater rate than most average Americans–an abnormal of dyslexics are entrepreneurs and hugely successful–he asks if someone might want their child to be dyslexic. The answer, from every dyslexic himself, is no. It’s too much pain. Besides, a lot of dyslexics end up in prison, too. The issues they face to fit in can help them overcome or cause them to act destructively. Sometimes, it can cause both.
These theories–that of describing that advantages of disadvantages (you read that right) and desirable difficulties make up the first two parts of the book. The final part examines the limits of power: it asks when power is beneficial for us, and when it is destructive. Again, the stories are the thing: a little village in France that housed Jews during World War II, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and how the British fostered the Protestant-Catholic divide. Unsurprisingly, heavy-handed power is not beneficial because it ultimately makes a mockery of itself. In seeking to control, it must reach farther and farther, to places where it is finally ineffective to simple acts of resistance.
Gladwell has received a backlash of late. Some of it is deserved, some of it probably stems from baser motives. David and Goliath will only infuriate his detractors more while inspiring his fans to think differently. At the end, he lays out a provocative thesis, but the book suffers from what many non-fiction books do: it runs 100 pages too long. Clearly, this isn’t all his fault (publishers know they can’t sell 100 page books, so they tell authors to write more). Yet, I can’t help but wonder about a thesis that would be more prescriptive than descriptive, which might merit another 100 pages. But of course, now I’m falling into the camp of the detractors.
David and Goliath is worth a read–but read it for the anecdotes and stories. Read it to be reminded of the underdog, and how grit and smarts can always bring down a giant or an empire, or whatever it is you happen to be battling.
And do it just in time for March Madness.