1-Page Cheatsheet: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm GladwellI thoroughly enjoyed the book. Gladwell’s storytelling is better than ever. While Tipping Point had a greater influence on how I view the world, and I found Outliers more engrossing because it featured entrepreneurs like Ron Popeil and Bill Gates, David and Goliath [Amazon Kindle] is a pure expression of Gladwell’s desire to tackle Big questions and answer them in an entertaining, breezily analytical way. He’s like a kind, witty 21st-century Socrates, pushing us to think big and think different.

His arguments and stories are so nuanced, so artfully woven together, that it would have been impossible for me to write an accurate summary without everything being a vulgar generalization. My goal, instead, is to showcase a small selection of his insights and stories. If the book is a 12-course meal at a 2-star Michelin restaurant, this is like the amuse-bouche before drinks are served. I should just call it the 1-page amuse-bouche instead…

David had a gun and Goliath was partially blind

Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defense Forces, recently did a series of calculations showing that a typical-size stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of thirty-five meters would have hit Goliath’s head with a velocity of thirty-four meters per second—more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him unconscious or dead. In terms of stopping power, that is equivalent to a fair-size modern handgun.

What many medical experts now believe, in fact, is that Goliath had a serious medical condition. He looks and sounds like someone suffering from what is called acromegaly—a disease caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. The tumor causes an overproduction of human growth hormone, which would explain Goliath’s extraordinary size. And furthermore, one of the common side effects of acromegaly is vision problems.

Underdogs change the rules, usually because they are outsiders

David refused to engage Goliath in close quarters, where he would surely lose. He stood well back, using the full valley as his battlefield. The girls of Redwood City used the same tactic. They defended all ninety-four feet of the basketball court. The full-court press is legs, not arms. It supplants ability with effort. […] You have to be outside the establishment—a foreigner new to the game or a skinny kid from New York at the end of the bench—to have the audacity to play it that way.

Smaller classes don’t mean better students; better teachers do

Fifteen percent find statistically significant evidence that students do better in smaller classes. Roughly the same number find that students do worse in smaller classes. After sorting through thousands of pages of data on student performance from eighteen separate countries, the economists concluded that there were only two places in the world—Greece and Iceland—where there were “nontrivial beneficial effects of reduced class sizes.”

The one thing that all educational researchers agree about is that teacher quality matters far more than the size of the class. A great teacher can teach your child a year and a half’s material in one year. A below-average teacher might teach your child half a year’s material in one year. That’s a year’s difference in learning, in one year. That suggests that there is much more to be gained by focusing on the person at the front of the classroom than on the number of people sitting in the classroom. The problem is that great teachers are rare.

Nature is run by the Inverted-U; our brains tend to ignore it

Psychologists Barry Schwartz and Adam Grant argue, in a brilliant paper, that, in fact, nearly everything of consequence follows the inverted U: “Across many domains of psychology, one finds that X increases Y to a point, and then it decreases Y.…There is no such thing as an unmitigated good. All positive traits, states, and experiences have costs that at high levels may begin to outweigh their benefits.”

Here’s my write-up on that paper.

Being a bigger fish in a smaller pond can be better for your career

The very best students at a non–top 30 school—that is, a school so far down the list that someone from the Ivy League would grimace at the thought of even setting foot there—have a publication number of 1.05, substantially better than everyone except the very best students at Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and Chicago.

Imagine two black law school students with identical grades and identical test scores. Both are admitted to an elite law school under an affirmative-action program. One accepts and one declines. The one who declines chooses instead—for logistical or financial or family reasons—to attend his or her second choice, a less prestigious and less selective law school. Sander and Taylor looked at a large sample of these kinds of “matched pairs” and compared how well they did on four measures: law school graduation rate, passing the bar on their first attempt, ever passing the bar, and actually practicing law. The comparison is not even close. By every measure, black students who don’t go to the “best” school they get into outperform those who do.

An underdog’s early difficulties can serve as the source of later strengths

Sixty-seven percent of the prime ministers in her sample lost a parent before the age of sixteen. That’s roughly twice the rate of parental loss during the same period for members of the British upper class—the socioeconomic segment from which most prime ministers came. The same pattern can be found among American presidents. Twelve of the first forty-four U.S. presidents—beginning with George Washington and going all the way up to Barack Obama—lost their fathers while they were young.

Losing a parent is not like having your house bombed or being set upon by a crazed mob. It’s worse. It’s not over in one terrible moment, and the injuries do not heal as quickly as a bruise or a wound. But what happens to children whose worst fear is realized—and then they discover that they are still standing? Couldn’t they also gain what Shuttlesworth and the Blitz remote misses gained—a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage?

Underdogs have less to lose and can take bigger risks

Dyslexics compensate for their disability by developing other skills that—at times—can prove highly advantageous. Being bombed or orphaned can be a near-miss experience and leave you devastated. Or it can be a remote miss and leave you stronger. These are David’s opportunities: the occasions in which difficulties, paradoxically, turn out to be desirable. The lesson of the trickster tales is the third desirable difficulty: the unexpected freedom that comes from having nothing to lose. The trickster gets to break the rules.

Germany’s Blitz bombing of London backfired

So why were Londoners so unfazed by the Blitz? Because forty thousand deaths and forty-six thousand injuries—spread across a metropolitan area of more than eight million people—means that there were many more remote misses who were emboldened by the experience of being bombed than there were near misses who were traumatized by it.

More punishment may not lead to less crime; it may be an Inverted-U

Prison has a direct effect on crime: it puts a bad person behind bars, where he can’t victimize anyone else. But it also has an indirect effect on crime, in that it affects all the people with whom that criminal comes into contact. A very high number of the men who get sent to prison, for example, are fathers. (One-fourth of juveniles convicted of crimes have children.) And the effect on a child of having a father sent away to prison is devastating. Some criminals are lousy fathers: abusive, volatile, absent. But many are not. Their earnings—both from crime and legal jobs—help support their families. For a child, losing a father to prison is an undesirable difficulty. Having a parent incarcerated increases a child’s chances of juvenile delinquency between 300 and 400 percent; it increases the odds of a serious psychiatric disorder by 250 percent.

In the mid-1990s, the IRA was organizing daily bus trips to the prison outside Belfast, as if it were an amusement park. “Almost everyone in the Catholic ghettos has a father, brother, uncle, or cousin who has been in prison,” the political scientist John Soule wrote at the height of the Troubles. “Young people in this atmosphere come to learn that prison is a badge of honor rather than a disgrace.”


Citizens of happy countries have higher suicide rates than citizens of unhappy countries, because they look at the smiling faces around them and the contrast is too great.

The psychologist Jordan Peterson argues that innovators and revolutionaries tend to have a very particular mix of these traits—particularly the last three: openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. Innovators have to be open. They also need to be conscientious. But crucially, innovators need to be disagreeable.

Thanks for reading! And thanks to those who have emailed me comments, questions, book recommendations, and even cool research papers. I love to nerd it up.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.