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Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book is a disjointed rehash of already-learnt life lessons.

Written by Mini Kapoor |
November 16, 2013 12:57:48 am

Book: David & Goliath: Underdogs,Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Publisher: Allen Lane

Price: Rs 599

Pages: 305

Who does not crave the comfort of seeing her endeavours,both big and small,pitted against the odds,and therefore,in need of instructions in “the art of battling giants”,that too,from Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell,a writer with The New Yorker,is by now a familiar guide,having taken us through the benefits of counter-intuitive strategies and making buzzwords like “tipping point”,“blink” and “outliers” (all of them titles of his previous bestselling books) part of our lexicon. His new book is somewhat less gripping,less because of its subject and more on account of its disjointedness and failure to present much more than what appear to be the obvious points.

Gladwell says his interest lies in investigating two ideas: “The first is that much of what we consider valuable in the world arises out of… lopsided conflicts,because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second,that we consistently get these conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.” What follows is a collection of diverse triumphs of the underdogs,and the dynamics of the victories. Problem is,Gladwell assembles his material somewhat scrappily — with the now standard template of overlaying life experience and scholarly study,and you often wonder what their connect to the title of the book may be.

There is,predictably,the immigrant’s example to show how being an outsider allows one to challenge conventional strategies. Vivek Ranadive,who grew up in Mumbai on a playground diet of cricket and soccer,turned to coaching his daughter’s basketball team in California. It was a team made of studious daughters of fellow “nerds” (Ranadive is in the software business) and they were decidedly at a disadvantage against more athletic,bigger built competitors. He found that play routinely tended to bunch up at two ends of the court,disadvantaging weaker — weakly built — teams. Ranadive instructed his team in occupying the full court and defending in a manner more familiar to football players.

The point is not just that he thought out of the box,but also that he could stare down purists (or coaches of the losing teams) protesting that it was wrong to encourage 12-year-olds to use such strategies before they had been skilled in the traditional techniques of basketball. (It reminds you about the criticism of Sri Lankan cricketers in the mid-Nineties that they were undermining cricket as civilisation needed it to be,never mind that the innovators were snapping the big one-day titles.) “You have to be outside the establishment,” writes Gladwell,“to have the audacity to play that way.” Ranadive,

immigrant to America and having never played basketball,was.

Gladwell’s other subjects include the misguidedness of believing that a smaller classroom is necessarily better for a child’s education (there needs be an optimal balance between a teacher’s ability to give each child attention and diversity to allow the class to benefit from discussion and competition),and that picking a more prestigious university is better (better sometimes to be the big fish in a smaller pond to,among other things,avoid being dispirited into opting for an easier course). He revisits the American civil rights movement to illustrate the utility of the “trickster hero” who projects the protest to be larger than it is,and thereby gives the confrontation with

oppressive power a higher,and transformative,profile. He takes a census of high achievers whose dyslexia,in fact,trained them to be more,and winningly,attentive.

As strategies of coping against the odds,these are valuable. But don’t expect to be surprised.

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