Alpha Mom Book Club: David and Goliath
Although I host the Alpha Mom parenting book discussion group, the truth is that I do not often read non-fiction for pleasure. I enjoy a good story, I like dialogue, I love plot twists. So I was surprised that I raced through Maxwell Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants in a record-breaking, medal-earning sprint. But maybe I shouldn’t have been. After all, the book has plenty of plot twists, some snappy dialogue and it’s one hell of a story. Or actually, many stories of people who should have been bested in battle and yet, weren’t.
The premise is simple—Gladwell looks at what happens when ordinary people confront giants. The giants are literal (Goliath) and metaphorical (challenges such as dyslexia, surviving the childhood death of a parent, living during the London Blitz, and the conflict in Northern Ireland.) Gladwell’s conclusions are the type of stunning that are often followed by a “well, of course. That makes sense!” Challenges are good for us. Surviving a bombing intact showed the people of London that they were not really afraid. It’s the whole “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” which absolutely has its place on a throw pillow, but how many of us parents want to rear our children like that?
Although Gladwell devotes a significant portion of the book to discussing the Civil Rights Movement, during which the underdogs had achieved success at least in part through resorting to trickery, and other historical battles in which the traditionally weaker party as victorious, it is the analysis of the more traditional parenting issues that I found the most significant.
Ordinary people do surprisingly well when faced with adversity. At times they even flourish. “[T]he act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty,” Gladwell writes and of course it makes sense. Strife often leads to resolution, to progress. Heartache fuels art. Something that is seen as a traditional disability, an undesirable trait, encourages thinking outside the box and can produce revolutionary results.
Gladwell’s question, posed early on: “Why do we automatically assume that someone who is smaller or poorer or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage?” seems ridiculous at first blush. We assume it because it is true. Because it is harder to be poorer and less-skilled. Because it is better to have more resources and a higher education. That is just common sense. And unfortunately it is also wrong.
Through a series of anecdotes, we see a man identified by Gladwell as “one of the most powerful people in Hollywood”, whose family growing up struggled financially and who was motivated to succeed now has the kind of money that has made it unnecessary for his own children to seek out work. They are millionaires many times over, they will never have to work for a living but the tradeoff for that financial security is that they are not motivated. “People are ruined by challenged economic lives. But they’re ruined by wealth as well because they lose their ambition and they lose their pride and they lose their sense of self-worth.” That is not unimportant. And I think most parents understand the necessity of not giving their children everything that they want, of encouraging aspiration. But it is the way that Gladwell exalts the benefits of not having that makes it seem less like a struggle and more like a sound parenting choice.
There’s a question of “would you wish dyslexia on your child?” The statistics are staggering—frustration with reading can lead to low self-esteem and higher rates of depression, and according to Gladwell, children with dyslexia are more likely to end up in the juvenile system. And that is not even addressing the heartbreak of having a child who struggles academically. Yet Gladwell recognizes dyslexia as a “desirable difficulty”—citing a study that estimates that approximately a third of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic, including David Boies, Charles Schwab, the founder of JetBlue, and the founder of Kinko’s. Gladwell proposes two possible explanations for this. The first, which I was immediately drawn to, was that these are all talented people who succeeded despite the challenge of dyslexia. The second, which Gladwell advocates, is that the success came at least in part because of the dyslexia. Because knowing their difficulties with reading, some of these people were forced to develop skillsets to compensate for it. There are instances of someone becoming an excellent listener and having incredible memory. This is valuable because, as Gladwell explains, “what is learned out of necessity is more powerful that the learning that comes easily.”
And that is both comforting and inspiring when our children are struggling.
Questions for Discussion:
1.Gladwell notes that “Virtually everywhere in the world, parents and policymakers take it for granted that smaller classes are better classes.” Is his argument that class size can be too small convincing? Aren’t the dangers of over-crowded classrooms worse than of those with too few students?
2.Gladwell discusses the dangers of being a Little Fish in the Big Pond and explains the fallacy of attending the best university. Does this ring true? Would you encourage your children to attend a less well-known, prestigious school so that they could potentially have a greater chance of success?
3. David and Goliath explores the concepts of Advantages of Disadvantage, Desirable Difficulty and the Limits of Power. How applicable are his theories to modern parenting? Are the examples of extraordinary success that he documents about people succeeding despite and because of their challenges cherry-picked and is he overlooking the struggle and devastation that others so challenged endure?
Please join us in July, when we discuss Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.