Culture TED Talks

David, Goliath and the appeal of the underdog: A Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell on this often-misunderstood story

Posted by:

MalcolmGladwell_Q&AFor 3000 years, the story of David and Goliath has seeped into our cultural consciousness. This is generally how the tale is told: a young shepherd does battle with a giant warrior and, using nothing but a slingshot, comes out victorious. But is this really what the Bible describes?

Malcolm Gladwell: The unheard story of David and Goliath Malcolm Gladwell: The unheard story of David and Goliath In today’s talk, Malcolm Gladwell — whose new book is titled David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants — takes a closer look at this classic story, digging into the details which are easily lost on a modern audience. Overall, he asks: was David really the underdog in this fight? It all begins with a closer look at that sling (which is not the toy slingshot we might picture), and at the five rocks David picked up to use in it.

“The term ‘David and Goliath’ has entered our language as a metaphor for improbable victories by some weak party over someone far stronger,” says Gladwell in this talk. “Everything I thought I knew about that story turned out to be wrong.”

Fascinated to hear more, the TED Blog called Gladwell to unravel why the underdog story has such resonance and why rethinking David and Goliath is important now. (As a bonus, we also asked him what pasta sauce he prefers.) An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

How were you first introduced to the story of David and Goliath?

My mother read me biblical stories at night. And it’s funny, this was not my favorite — my favorite story was Daniel in the lions’ den. It’s a similar kind of story — at least, it’s a seemingly impossible encounter that turns out differently because of one party’s faith. I was drawn to these kind of stories from the very beginning.

What made you decide to zoom in on David and Goliath? What showed you this story was something you wanted to explore further?

I started with it because it’s the original myth, right? It’s where the whole idea of underdogs comes from — it’s all shaped by this extraordinary, memorable encounter between these two guys thousands of years ago. So originally, I just wanted to kind of reference it, and then move on. But the more I thought about it, the more interesting it became. I began to dig around and I just uncovered all of these fascinating facts — both about David and about Goliath — that really radically changed my understanding of what happened that day in the Valley of Elah.

What was the radical change?

Well, I don’t want to give away the talk, but I will say this: that Goliath is not what we think he is in a profoundly crucial way. The thing that makes Goliath seem strong is the source of his greatest weakness. This is something that was hinted at in the original accounts of the battle of David and Goliath, and that has been confirmed more recently by modern scholars. And David is also not what you think he is. Part of what’s fascinating is how many scholars, particularly Israeli scholars throughout history, have been fascinated by this story and written accounts of what exactly David’s weapon was. And we now understand that his weapon was not a child’s toy. It was a devastating weapon. So devastating, in fact, that the minute he decided to use a sling against Goliath, the tables were turned. He’s not the underdog anymore.

Once you understand that Goliath is much weaker than you think he is, and David has superior technology, then you say: why do we tell the story the way we do? It becomes, actually, a far more meaningful and important story in its retelling than in the kind of unsophisticated way we’ve done it for, I think, too long.

Why does the way we’ve traditionally told this story have such appeal?

The appeal of the story is the boy gets the giant, right? The outsider against the insider. So that remains unchanged in the retelling. But I think what we did was that we were content with a certain explanation of the story. It seemed to us more romantic to imagine that David’s victory was wholly improbable whereas I think that any contemporary of David’s — had they been watching the duel that day on the valley floor — the minute David takes out the sling, they would all have said David was the favorite.

The closer you read the biblical account, the more you realize that the authors of the original account have a pretty sophisticated understanding of what’s going on. There’s all kinds of references to Goliath that do not square with the unsophisticated way we’ve read that story. We’re a long way from ancient Palestine. We have lost some of the nuances that would have been obvious to someone in that era.

Why do you think the idea of the underdog has such appeal?

Because it makes the world seem just. If the strongest win all the battles, there’s no hope for the rest of us, is there? If the same people who have all the power and all the money and all the authority are also going to win every contest, what’s the point of going on for the rest of us? So the underdog story gives all of us who are not on top hope. Occasionally we do get to come out on top. I think that is profoundly true, that’s what the underdog is all about.

Which do you think is stronger: the desire to root for the underdog, or the desire to be with the winning team?

Well, I think this is one of those contradictions that we carry around in our heads without ever fully resolving. We want both. We want to be on the winning side, and we also want to root for the underdog. I think it makes sense. I mean, if I can be in the position of power, I’d like to have that. If not, I’d like to be the underdog, you know? It’s a kind of fallback position that we have.

The underdog winning is the romantic position. Like I said, it’s the one that gives us hope. But the minute we acquire resources, wealth and authority, we want very much to believe that those things which we’ve earned will prove to be decisive in any contest. We begin to increase our faith in those measures of results.

Why do you think it’s important that we rethink this myth now? What is it about our current time that demands it?

This book is really about power. Where does advantage lie? These questions are at the center of everything from the wars that we fight overseas, to the way we educate children, to the way we fight crime at home, to the way we understand disabilities. There’s almost no part of public policy that isn’t touched by this kind of understanding. If you’re trying to build the most advantageous educational system, what does that look like? Well, that definition depends a lot on how you define advantage. If you think advantage lies in resources, then you think the best educational system is the one that spends the most money. If you’re with David and you think, actually no, having audacity and a fresh perspective are better than being big and powerful, then you might reach a very different conclusion. So I think these are very, very relevant questions for the world we live in.

Can you maybe give an example of something — a corporation, a person, a government — that we define as a Goliath that retelling this story might help us rethink?

Well, the United States. What this book tells you is that Goliaths have more weaknesses than you think. I think that would help people to understand why the foreign policy objectives of the United States have been so difficult to accomplish in recent years. Why we had such a hard time in Vietnam, and again in Iraq and now in Afghanistan? These are countries that we dwarf — they are a fraction of our size. And still, we struggle to achieve our objectives there. I think this book will help people understand why. That just because you’re big and strong doesn’t mean you can do what you want.

We’re very interested in ideas in our office, and are curious: how do you know when you’ve stumble upon something that you want to really dig into?

You’re taking a massive gamble. You’re hoping it pans out. Whenever you start something, you only have a tiny glimpse of how interesting it could be. You’re really acting on faith. And you trust that you could find hidden angles and unlocked doors and all kinds of things that can flesh out that idea. And sometimes you can’t. If you lose your way, you have to fight your way back. It’s complicated, but I have been doing this for long enough now that I think my instincts are pretty good. I don’t worry as much as I did when I was much younger. I know I authors always say that their most current book is their favorite, but this is really my favorite. Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce I think there’s more fascinating and weird stuff in this book than in my previous books. I’m really happy with it.

This is a question we’ve all wondered since your last talk, Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce. Which pasta sauce do you prefer?

I make my own. I never buy store pasta sauce, but I do like my pasta sauce thick and hearty, so I know which one I would choose if I had to.

Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness And is there a TED Talk that comes to mind that you’d love everyone to watch at least once?

There are so many. One of the old standards: Dan Gilbert’s talks over the years have stayed with me. I think he has done a better job than almost anyone of making academic work accessible and useful to people. I really think that his talks on happiness have actually changed lives. I think that people who see them, many of them went away and were happier as a result. If you can do that, man, that’s a great thing.