Why do underdogs sometimes end up leading the pack? Malcolm Gladwell explores this question in his latest book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.” The bestselling author joins us in studio for a discussion about turning your disadvantage into a winning advantage.

Interview Highlights

Malcolm Gladwell, staff writer for The New Yorker; author of "The Tipping Point," "Blink," "Outliers," and "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants"

  • Romulus

    Could it be that the secret to a Malcolm-the-underdog’s success is in tying his wagon to the guide star of Big Tobacco or some other big, mean corporation that harms the 99%?
    This is in reference to Malcolm’s being supported by Big Tobacco.

    What is the impact on Malcolm’s current work of his previous employment working for neoconservatives and cigarette makers?

    Maybe this is why he lauds Merge and Acquisitions lawyers, who are a destructive force.


  • Niketana

    As much as I’ve enjoyed Outliers and other works by Gladwell, I feel that his recipes for success or masterful achievement are sometimes a bit romantic. Also, it’s tricky to group athletes with, say, musicians as evidence of some of Malcolm’s claims about practice and opportunity. A very short basketball player, for example, needs to be very quick, fast, and skilled as a ball handler to make it. Small running backs also sometimes star. Why? Because they are so elusive, and the defense can’t see them behind the wall of the offensive line. As for the 10,000 hour rule, other factors have to contribute to the formula for success, and talent IS one of them. In addition to his commitment, intelligence, and passion for practice, MJ had huge hands, jumping ability, quickness, and speed. Many impassioned athletes or aspiring athletes have logged 10,000 purposeful hours of practice and not started on their high school teams. Why? The gifts aren’t there. Likewise, many people do all the right things to achieve the American Dream yet fail to do so? Why not? Lack of luck, timing, circumstances beyond their control. I’d love to see Gladwell write a book about the fleeting glory of fame or mastery–the author who pens ‘just’ one great book; the athlete who rapidly fades from stardom; the actor/actress who disappears from the movie marquee. He might also distinguish between fame or material “success” and quiet mastery as recognized by one’s peers in the field. (Sorry to ramble. Again, I like Malcolm’s work and look forward to more.)

    • Bob Fry

      True, but I read his books as not “recipes for success”, but simply interesting ideas that we’ve either not noticed or have not clearly articulated. He does both in an interesting manner; it’s up to us to take it further in our own lives, if we want.

      • Romulus

        Bob, some people like you miss the larger context. Gladwell is a guy who has worked for Neoconservatives and Big Tobacco, both of which have done society and indeed the world great harm.

        Then he turns around and says here’s how to deal with hardship.

        It’s like the drug dealer telling people how to cope with addiction.

      • Niketana

        I agree, Bob. That’s why I teach them and will read the new book. But I also ask my students to critique the “recipe.” We take the practice-rule to heart, but we also know that the Beatles are really a rare phenomenon.

        I still think that Gladwell underestimates the importance of passion and talent. And luck.

  • Ben Rawner

    What of the opposite experience. Where people’s parents overshadow the child’s experience with their own “hard” experience. I knew someone who could never get it together because they kept measuring their own lives against their parents

    • Mrs. Eccentric

      Very good point. It is so hard to hit the ‘sweet spot’. steph

    • Romulus

      Or consider the Buddha, who grew up a rich kid and was pampered, but decided to become a wandering pauper in order to experience hardship.

    • Niketana

      I agree. A related situation is parents trying NOT to do what was done to them. The intentions are great, but the agenda might cause problems.

  • Mrs. Eccentric

    it’s true. undergoing really very difficult, even horrifying experiences can develop a well of inner strength which never runs dry.

    at the age of 15, i started to cough, grew ‘listless’, and lost about 20 pounds in a month. The docs at Kaiser said i’d be dead or well in a month, nothing to do, except maybe a barium swallow – which they could schedule in about 8 weeks.

    So my loving, wonderful parents took me to doctor after doctor, following a chain of referrals starting from a GP who was a family friend. Mom had to leave town for a week to go let her father die from pneumonia, while i hung on by a thread, school, band, walks outside just because, all a fading memory. I remember walking down a street in San Francisco, going to see Dr. Abba Terre, as the Jonestown numbers rose from one newspaper stand to the next.

    Lucky me – Dr. Terre knew a brainy young pulmonologist who had the heart to say “i have no idea what’s wrong with your daughter, Mrs. Q, but i’ll make her well.” And he got me thru. (And later on went to national prominence in his field.) It was hellish, and it took a type of will on my part that i had no idea existed. But – i know i can do just about anything. And i know that if i can help, i will do my best.

    I like that mr. G calls himself a ‘popularizer’ – we need more! After all, one can always go look at the original research 😉 Enjoy this gorgeous weather – fall around here is something else, steph

    • Niketana

      This is a great personal example, but I would think that loving parents were instrumental in your resilience. Without that support, children befallen by this kind of adversity might not ever recover. No?

      • Mrs. Eccentric

        Hi Niketana! Exactly. (see my reply to Ben Rawner). In my own unique situation, loving parents, good health insurance which allowed them the ability to trundle me around to doc after doc, a familial tendency to extreme stubborness, a doc who took an hour every week for months to talk to me about life in general, and many other factors (luck) contributed to my survival and ability to thrive. And of course this stew worked because of who i was at the time.

        The whole key is to look at what works generally, and also to look at what works specifically, then do our best to find out the connections between the two. What will kill one person will less than noticeable to another. Have a great one, steph

  • Fyza Parviz

    I wonder what urged Mr.Gladwell to start writing series of books on how humans can survive and achieve success in the face of obstacles and without any divine intervention? Does he consider his work in a category of humanism?

  • fadista

    In regard to the London bombings, is there any evidence to suggest that perhaps part of the reason Londoners coped with the bombing so well is that this shared experience helped to create stronger bonds than had previously existed?

  • Niketana

    What does Gladwell think of authoritarian parents of privilege, like Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, who push, even force, their kids to be “successful” to take advantage of the opportunities that come with their wealth and opportunity? (I don’t think Chua’s main motivation is to prevent her daughters from being complacent, but I do wonder about this ‘method’ of parenting as a way to make kids into Goliaths.)

  • peter di Donato

    Pietro di Donato (my father) raised 7 brothers and sisters as a mason from the age of 12 when his father was killed in a construction accident. At the age of 27, 1939, he wrote the best selling novel, Christ in Concrete, with a 7th grade education, but it was a mixed picture as he was a most troubled person.
    Peter di Donato

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor