We all know the story of David and Goliath, or at least we think we do.
Tiny David, a shepherd with a stone, faced a giant warrior with a sword but because the Lord was with David he was able to pull off the upset of the millennium.
That’s the story we’ve been told, but Malcolm Gladwell says we’ve completely misunderstood the story, and the way we look at underdogs is all wrong. Those ideas are at the heart of his fascinating new book, “David and Goliath, Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants,” which explores how things we often think of as weaknesses are actually strengths. Underdogs who fight in innovative ways can change the odds completely, Gladwell says. He calls the book a guide to facing giants.
Gladwell is of course a publishing world Goliath, but in terms of the life of the mind he’s like David. He likes to show us new ways of approaching things. Gladwell explains that David was an expert slinger and historians told him that in those times, experienced slingers could kill a target 200 yards away. Medieval paintings show slingers hitting birds in flight and in the Old Testament, slingers are said to be accurate within a hair’s breadth.
Gladwell writes that a ballistics expert tells him a stone hurled by an expert slinger from 35 meters away would have hit Golaith’s head with more than enough speed to penetrate his skull and kill him. Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior against an opponent with a .45 caliber handgun. And no one watching the battle shape up, seeing David begin to swing…
…his sling would’ve considered David’s victory improbable because they knew good slingers would always beat infantrymen because they have the advantage of distance. David’s genius was in fighting Goliath on David’s terms.
The giant had demanded and expected hand-to-hand combat but David had changed the way they fought so that he himself had the advantage. That’s how underdogs of all sorts can change the odds in their favor: by altering the nature of the fight itself to better suit themselves.
But why was Goliath so caught off guard? Once he saw that David was a slinger he should’ve known he was in trouble. Well, maybe he couldn’t see that.
Gladwell quotes medical experts who believe the giant was extraordinarily huge because of a disease caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland and a common side effect of that disease is bad vision. Several details in the story back up the idea that Goliath’s vision was poor: for example, the giant being led out to battle by a small man. Goliath couldn’t see well unless you were close to him, so, Gladwell says, the thing that gave him size also gave him his greatest weakness. Which is the case far more often than we realize. Goliath seemed unbeatable but he was primed for a fall if only the right fighter challenged him the right way.
And now you know…