Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath

  • 44-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 9 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a published author with a degree in English Literature
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David and Goliath Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 44-page guide for “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 9 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Giants Are Not What They Seem and Difficulties Can be Advantages.

Plot Summary

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2013 book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is an investigation of the relationship—often distorted, in Gladwell’s view—between underdogs and giants. Taken from the Biblical account of David and Goliath, underdogs are cast as those battling (and overcoming) seemingly overwhelming odds, and giants are their adversaries. David and Goliath was a bestseller, but some critics and scholars found Gladwell’s conclusions unsatisfying and the stories he draws from unsubstantiated.

The book unfolds over three parts. Part 1, “The Advantage of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages),” is an investigation of how the very things that appear to make an enemy strong—this can be a person, a corporation, a belief system, an army, etc.—may actually be weaknesses. Apparent strengths can be exploited and revealed as vulnerabilities. Gladwell makes his argument using the stories of Vivek Ranadivé, Teresa DeBrito, and Caroline Sacks.

Vivek Ranadivé, despite having no experience coaching or playing basketball, was able to institute an unorthodox approach—full court pressure, all the time—to his daughter’s team, eventually helping them reach the Nationals level of competition. Teresa DeBrito is the principal at a middle school whose students appear to suffer academically as class sizes grow small, which runs counter to the intuition that a smaller class allows a more intimate relationship with—and extra attention from—the teacher. Caroline Sacks chooses an elite Ivy League university for her science degree, but eventually leaves science entirely.She cannot help but measure herself against the other elite students, which damages her confidence in a way that a smaller university might not have. At a different institution, she could have been the top student.

Part 2, “The Theory of Desirable Difficulty,” introduces the idea that there are some weaknesses that force people to improve in a way that others who do not share the apparent weakness cannot access. Gladwell demonstrates the theory with the stories of David Boies, Emil Freireich, and Wyatt Walker. Boies is a dyslexic man who nevertheless became a powerful lawyer. Gladwell posits that his dyslexia was an advantage because it forced Boies to focus on his powers of memorization, persuasion, and adaptability, which are sometimes of more use to a trial lawyer than the ability to dissect the minutiae of contracts and legal briefs. Emil Freireich was a doctor had a tumultuous childhood but overcame his fears in order to develop innovative treatments for children with leukemia. Wyatt Walker was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief strategists during the dramatic protests in the South during the height of the civil rights movement. Walker was forced to use tricks of deception and misdirection in order to gain traction for the movement, employing strategies similar to the trickster heroes of folk tales. He turned their weakness in numbers into a need for cunning.

In Part 3, “The Limits of Power,” Gladwell presents the theory that a misunderstanding of what power can achieve can weaken those in power. He gives the cases of Rosemary Lawlor, Mike Reynolds, Wilma Derksen, and AndréTrocmé as examples. In the 1970s, Lawlor was a young newlywed and mother during the conflicts in Northern Ireland. She witnessed firsthand how the mismanagement of the British Army—sent in to preserve order—worsened the situation and the violence. Mike Reynolds helped institute the Three Strikes law for criminals in California, after his daughter was murdered, which appeared to lower crime. Wilma Derksen also lost a daughter to a murderer, but chose to forgive him instead of seeking retribution and justice. André Trocmé was a pastor in World War II France who never made a secret of hiding Jews and defying the Nazis publicly at every opportunity. In each case, those in possession of power are unable to wield it for their desired results.

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