Nov 26 10:18 AM

Malcolm Gladwell talks to Ali Velshi

Malcolm Gladwell, right, and Ali Velshi on the set of "Talk to Al Jazeera."
Al Jazeera America

Every child knows how the epic battle between David and Goliath ends. The stone from the shepherd's sling strikes the Philistine warrior in the head. David, the poster boy for underdogs, beats Goliath. But in his new book, Malcolm Gladwell says we misunderstand advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps David was not the underdog we all thought him to be. It's the author's fifth book, following his international best-selling works "The Tipping Point" and "Blink." Al Jazeera's Ali Velshi spoke with Gladwell recently about his popular and unconventional theories.

Ali Velshi: Congratulations on the new book, "David and Goliath," an interesting name because you turn the story that we've all thought about as David and Goliath on its head. I think even the most critical thinkers among us would not have thought of an other explanation than it was improbable that David would have beaten Goliath. And you take an entirely different look at this. You're saying that not only was it probable that David would have felled Goliath, but it was statistically likely.

Malcolm Gladwell: Yes. If you go back and sort of read about ancient warfare, you discover that the sling with which David is armed — it's a devastating weapon. It's one of the most feared weapons in ancient times. He's taking a rock, and he is rotating it six or seven revolutions per second in a leather pouch, releasing it. It's probably flying at a speed of 35 meters per second. The stopping power of the rock from his sling is the equivalent of a bullet fired from a .45 caliber handgun. This is an incredibly devastating weapon he's got. Once he decides to change the rules, he has the upper hand. He has superior technology.

Then there's this whole argument about Goliath — there's a sort of fascinating discussion among endocrinologists about whether Goliath has a disability. He sounds an awful lot like a guy who has acromegaly, which is the condition caused by a benign tumor on your pituitary, which causes giantism but also causes vision problems. And in the biblical story, there are all these numerous hints as to the fact that Goliath clearly can't see properly.

So, here we have a shepherd boy who's changed the rules and not told anybody. He's armed with superior technology. He's up against a big, lumbering giant who's got severe deficits in vision. Why is he the underdog, right?

We have exaggerated the advantages of giants and underestimated the advantages of small, nimble, audacious people with cutting-edge technology.

Malcolm Gladwell

He should have won.

He should have won. He's got every advantage in the world.

That changes all of history if you accept that he should have won.

Not all of history. It suggests to us that we have exaggerated the advantages of giants and underestimated the advantages of small, nimble, audacious people with cutting-edge technology, right? Which, by the way, to anyone who's lived in the 21st century, this reinterpretation should not come as a surprise.

You have actually given some thought to how this applies to other things. In fact, you've got some research in the book that suggests that a lot of times, when an inferior army has taken up against a superior army, they've won.

You look at wars between countries that are 10 times difference in size. One country's 10 times greater than the other. And you look at — in those instances where the smaller country has chosen to fight unconventionally, they win the majority of the time. This is going back 400 years. In other words, America is 10 times the size of Canada. If America attacked Canada and Canada chose to fight a guerrilla warfare in response, you should put your money on Canada. I say that as a Canadian, and I know you're a Canadian. That's right. This is pleasing our hearts right now.

These are not two Canadians advocating war between the United States and Canada.  

No, but should it happen, we're going to go back to Canada.

You're saying Canada has a better chance than popular culture would believe it does.

Malcolm Gladwell.
Malcolm Gladwell.
Al Jazeera America

In other words, the fact that America is larger and wealthier and has better weapons is an advantage but not nearly as much of an advantage as we think. If you think about it, if you are Canada and you're invaded by the United States, what weapons would you have? Well, you would have the weapon of anger. You would be willing to fight for your own country in a way that an invader wouldn't necessary be committed to the battle. That's what we saw in Vietnam. They were willing to fight for generations.

You even use the American Revolution as an example, where Washington was succeeding where it was unconventional in the way he was fighting. And when he switched to more conventional methods, he lost.

He nearly lost. The American Revolution was nearly lost because Washington forgot who he was. And what he was, he was an insurgent. He had to fight by insurgents' rules. He did not have conventional advantages. A painful lesson was learned.

But when you think about it that way, it gives one pause in the current day when you think so many things that are going wrong in the world are things done by insurgents, rebels, terrorists — all of whom don't play by established rules.  And if I extrapolate the lesson from your book, they've got the upper hand.

They need to be taken far more seriously as foes than, perhaps, is readily apparent. I think we should get away from language about declaring one side the favorite and one side the underdog and simply say, "When two very different parties battle, you can't have assumptions about who's going to win." Each has their own particular set of advantages, and weapons of the spirit — which are very often motivation, persistence, anger, those kinds of things which are very often the kinds of weapons that the smaller, weaker party carries around with them — are every bit the equal of physical weapons. We can't keep dismissing the fact that, you know, "Oh, it shouldn't matter that the Viet Cong was outraged that America was in their country." That matters a whole lot. That was the difference in that battle. It mattered more than all the millions of tons of bombs dropped by the U.S.

I think we should get away from language about declaring one side the favorite and one side the underdog.

Malcolm Gladwell

How does the average person read this book and apply it to them? Do they say, "Well, I'm poor or I'm of an ethnic minority or I'm otherwise disadvantaged, but according to this, if I change the rules of the game, I can win"?

I mean, the lesson of the original David and Goliath story is that David refused to be passive in the face of the circumstances he was faced with. He wasn't a warrior. He didn't have armor. He had no ability with a sword. But instead of accepting his defeat, what he said is, "Oh, I'm going to change the rules in such a way that I have the advantage." I tell a story about a basketball coach who's coaching 12-year-old girls and does the same thing.

An Indian basketball coach who's never played basketball in his life and his daughter's on this team, this high school team. She's 12 years old.

He watches the three Americans play basketball, and he's puzzled. He thinks it makes no sense. Why do they run back on defense and wait for the other team to come down the court? This makes no sense to him, particularly if one of the teams isn't very good. Why would you let your much better opponent do the things that make them better?

But in fact, it's the way most basketball is played — 94-foot court, of which at any given point you're playing about one third.

You're defending maybe ...

Maybe a quarter.

20 feet of it.  He decides, "No, I'm going to play the full-court press. I'm going to defend every inch of the court every second of the game. And I'm not even going to bother teaching my girls how to shoot and pass and dribble. They can't do that. We're just going to play this maniacal defense. We're going to substitute effort, in other words, for skill. And what happens? He goes to the national championship.

You talk about dyslexia as being a desirable difficulty. Can you explain that?

This is a really interesting idea that a number of psychologists have written about and thought about. It simply says if I give you a task and I make it more difficult, we think that you will do worse on the task, right? And what these guys have pointed out is, actually, that's not true.

There are numerous examples where, if I make the task more difficult, you'll actually do better on it. You'll learn more effectively when I erect certain kinds of barriers, obstacles in your path. And so what they've said is, "Look, there's clearly two kinds of difficulties — undesirable ones that make your life miserable and desirable difficulties which may actually end up making you better off than you were in the past." The question in my book is, for some dyslexics, the difficulty of their disability is desirable — not all, but there's a small fraction of dyslexics who achieve disproportionately. Famously, the ranks of successful entrepreneurs are crawling with dyslexics.

We think that 30 percent of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. If you talk to them, they'll say, "I didn't overcome my disability. I'm successful because of my disability." It was a desirable difficulty. It forced them to learn certain skills and strategies that they would never have learned otherwise.

Not every idea can be presented or tested with scientific rigor.

Malcolm Gladwell

The dyslexia stuff ruffled a few feathers. In fact, you cite David Boies, the famous trial lawyer. He represented IBM against the United States, the U.S. government against Microsoft, Al Gore in his election. He also is dyslexic.

Not every idea can be presented or tested with scientific rigor. It's just not possible. In my book "Outliers," I play with the idea that perhaps something about the culture of rice cultivation in southern China has contributed to Asian success, Chinese success in mathematics. Is that a provable assumption? No, you can't go back and rerun history and see how the Chinese would have done mathematics if they hadn't had rice cultivation. But does that mean it's not interesting or useful to play with that idea? Of course not. People who think that you can only talk about stuff that's been first submitted to seven layers of academic rigor are basically saying the world should be a very boring place. Now, I have no interest in living in a boring world. I think it's fun to play with ideas.

So, in the case of David Boies and dyslexia, what we have is David Boies saying, "This is the story of my life," right? In his case, what he said was, "I could not read as a child, and in order to deal with this very, very serious problem, I consciously set out to do two things. One, I realized I would have to remember everything because I couldn't read it. Two, I would get through school by paying extraordinary attention to the teacher. In other words, the only way I was going to learn was by listening to what our teacher said really closely and memorizing it." Now, can we do another experiment where we run David Boies through his life? No, we can't do that experiment. I don't know why it's useful to say that we should.

But it's interesting, right? You know, there is a strain of people who, I feel, struggle with my books because they're not comfortable playing with ideas. I am.

What are you? Are you a journalist?

Yes.

What else are you, though? If one were being uncharitable, one could say you're a flamethrower with ideas. But if one were being charitable, what's the charitable way of calling somebody a flamethrower?

I think flamethrower is quite charitable. I'll take that. I'm not alarmed when my books cause controversy, because they're supposed to cause — I mean, I write them to get people riled up, you know? Huge parts of this book are intended to kind of, like, poke a stick at people. That's appropriate. I mean, I think there is nothing that is the greater enemy of reason and progress and all good things than complacency.

So, what's the epitaph? What do you want people to remember you as?  If a Martian showed up and said, "Who is this Malcolm Gladwell of whom you speak?"

You would have said fellow Canadian. You would have said, "Has more hair than me." I don't know.

I think you would have just said, "He's someone who's really curious and sought to share the objects of his curiosity with as many people as he could."

 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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