The bestselling author tells us about his latest book, David and Goliath, and why adversity can sometimes be a good thing
Why did you write David and Goliath?
I guess I became more and more fascinated by how often favorites - people who we assumed would win in any contest - didn’t win. I grew up hearing about the Americans in Vietnam, the British in Northern Ireland and the Soviets in Afghanistan. Those were the wars of my childhood - and in each case hugely powerful countries that everyone assumed would win easily suffered grievous losses. It made me wonder if there was something wrong with the way we thought about advantages and disadvantages.
What is the most surprising pattern you’ve uncovered in the lives of your subjects in writing this book?
There’s a moment in the book when I talk about parental loss: what it means to have lost a parent in childhood. And the incredible thing is how many American presidents and British prime ministers suffered this kind of loss growing up. The rates among those two elite groups are way, way higher than the general population.
Parental loss is very common among society’s losers. But also among society’s winners. When I first read about this phenomenon I was stunned. Is it possible that something so devastating could - in some cases - be advantageous?
How does the subject of underdogs differ from your last topic, outliers?
In Outliers, I was interested in the basic ingredients of success. In particular, I wanted to point out how the notion of the self-made man was a myth. David and Goliath is an attempt to look more closely at the paradoxes of society’s winners and losers.
There’s actually a chapter of Outliers that could fit perfectly into David and Goliath. It’s the chapter about the rise of Jewish lawyers in New York City. A small number of obscure Jewish law firms came to dominate the Mergers and Acqusitions business because they were locked out of the other more traditional forms of law. The disadvantage of being discriminated against turned into an advantage, when the mergers boom began in the 1970s. I remember thinking about that twist when I was writing Outliers, and wondering how common it was. Now I’ve written a whole book about it!
What was your most memorable experience in researching David and Goliath?
I spent a summer in Belfast when I was researching the chapter on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It was a real eye-opener, mostly because I realised how small the disputed areas were. This was a conflict that utterly dominated British politics for thirty years - and many of the most critical neighbourhoods could be walked in ten minutes.
The other thing I quickly learned is that the Troubles may be 'over' and the most brutal episodes may now be several decades in the past, but people haven’t forgotten. It takes a long time for wounds to heal. We ought to remember that when we continue to wage war in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. You make an enemy today, they will remain your enemy for generations.
How do you choose your subjects?
I look for people and stories that challenge me - that make me rethink my assumptions about the way the world works. If someone has that affect on me, there’s a chance they will have the same effect on my readers.
How do we explain it when a Goliath does beat a David? Can the underdog theory still hold true when a superpower triumphs over the little guy?
Oh, Goliaths still win most of the time. But they don’t win all the time, and they don’t win nearly as often as we think they should. So to me the interesting question is - what are the underdogs doing on those occasions when they win?
I have a chapter on the extraordinary number of dyslexics who are successful entrepreneurs. These are people with a neurological disorder! People with serious neurological disorders don’t always end up on top. But when they do, isn’t it worth figuring out why?
After all these years, why do we still misunderstand the David and Goliath legend?
The opening chapter of David and Goliath is about how the true meaning of that story has been lost over the years. Why? Partly it is because we have underestimated David’s sling. It was a devastating weapon. But more, I think, because we are overly in awe of size and strength.
We see a giant and we assume the giant ought to come out on top - whether the giant is a person or a company or a country. Why? Size and strength are only two of a very long list of attributes that are useful in competition. David is younger, faster, nimbler, and way audacious. I kind of think he should be considered the favorite in that battle - the same way I’d pick a software start-up over Microsoft any day of the week.
Do people who don’t face obvious adversities in their upbringings have trouble dealing with issues later in life? Does their lack of disadvantages make them weaker in the long run?
I have a chapter on this very issue. If obstacles and adversities can be useful as learning opportunities, then is a childhood of privilege a disadvantage? I interview a very wealthy man who looked at his children and asked that very question. He had been raised poor and as a result learned a series of lessons that allowed him to succeed. But his children, by virtue of growing up in privilege, will be forced to learn none of those lessons.
I think he’s right. There’s clearly a point when parental wealth stops being an advantage for a child and starts to become a hindrance.
What do you want people to take away from David and Goliath?
I want people to understand how much of what is beautiful and important in our world comes from adversity and struggle.
Finally, what about you? Have you ever seen yourself as an underdog? If so, do you still?
Me? Oh no. I was raised in the Bible Belt in rural southern Ontario - in the calmest, safest, happiest, most functional corner of one of the calmest, safest, happiest, most functional countries in the world. I’m Canadian! We aren’t underdogs.
'A feel-good extravaganza, nourishing both heart and mind ... What unites the stories are the twin ideas that an advantage can sometimes be a disadvantage and that a disadvantage can sometimes be an advantage. Yet there is something more powerful and more uplifting that links them' Kate Kellaway, Financial Times
'I devoured in a single reading' Richard E. Grant
'When you read it, you feel like you can topple giants' Jon Ronson
'An energetic, counterintuitive exploration of why (and how) underdogs succeed' Lisa Appignanesi, Guardian, Books of the Year
'Breathtaking' The New York Times
'Truly intriguing and inspiring' Los Angeles Times
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