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David and Goliath
Photo courtesy of Bill Wadman

Smaller class sizes yield less engaged students. Having dyslexia can make you more successful. A diploma from a state school is preferable to a fancy Harvard degree. Such are the claims made in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.

Like Gladwell’s previous pop-science romps, David and Goliath picks a seemingly counterintuitive thesis and proves its merit by example. Everyone thought Goliath had the upper hand, but his lumbering size and false confidence were really hindrances--and David’s plucky ingenuity was an advantage. In other words, when we assume certain traits are beneficial (and others are disadvantageous), we’re cheating ourselves from achieving our full potential.

This is interesting all on its own, but Gladwell is at his best when he’s relying on statistics, and his smartest chapters let the numbers do the talking. (Particularly intriguing is a study showing that top students at bottom-tier schools are ultimately more successful than mid-level students at top schools.)

Things get thornier, however, when he veers into less quantifiable territory: Many esteemed world leaders experienced childhood adversity, Gladwell maintains, but we’re left wondering how many non-traumatized folks he conveniently forgot to mention.

Nonetheless, it’s the fun-spirited reporting you’d expect from the author of Blink and Outliers--and a rallying cry for all the underdogs out there.

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