The Infinite Cycle of Gladwell’s David and Goliath

I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’sĀ David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. The book is like most Gladwell books. It has a central thesis, and then interweaves studies and anecdotes to make the case. In this one, the thesis is fairly obvious: sometimes things we think of as disadvantages have hidden advantages and sometimes things we think of as advantages have hidden disadvantages.

The opening story makes the case from the Biblical story of David and Goliath. Read it for more details, but roughly he says that Goliath’s giant strength was a hidden disadvantage because it made him slow. David’s shepherding was a hidden advantage because it made him good with a sling. It looks like the underdog won that fight, but it was really Goliath who was at a disadvantage the whole time.

The main case I want to focus on is the chapter on education, since that is something I’ve talked a lot about here. The case he makes is both interesting and poses what I see as a big problem for the thesis. There is an infinite cycle of hidden advantages/disadvantages that makes it hard to tell if the apparent (dis)advantages are anything but a wash.

Gladwell tells the story of a girl who loves science. She does so well in school and is so motivated that she gets accepted to Brown University. Everyone thinks of an Ivy League education as being full of advantages. It’s hard to think of any way in which there would be a hidden disadvantage that wouldn’t be present in someplace like Small State CollegeĀ (sorry, I don’t remember what her actual “safety school” was).

It turns out that she ended up feeling like a complete inadequate failure despite being reasonably good. The people around her were so amazing that she got impostor syndrome and quit science. If she had gone to Small State College, she would have felt amazing, gotten a 4.0, and become a scientist like she wanted.

It turns out we have quite a bit of data on this subject, and this is a general trend. Gladwell then goes on to make just about the most compelling case against affirmative action I’ve ever heard. He points out that letting a minority into a college that they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten into is not an advantage. It’s a disadvantage. Instead of excelling at a smaller school and getting the degree they want, they’ll end up demoralized and quit.

At this point, I want to reiterate that this has nothing to do with actual ability. It is entirely a perception thing. Gladwell is not claiming the student can’t handle the work or some nonsense. The student might even end up an A student. But even the A students at these top schools quit STEM majors because they perceive themselves to be not good enough.

Gladwell implies that this hidden disadvantage is bad enough that the girl at Brown should have gone to Small State College. But if we take Gladwell’s thesis to heart, there’s an obvious hidden advantage within the hidden disadvantage. Girl at Brown was learning valuable lessons by coping with (perceived) failure that she wouldn’t have learned at Small State College.

It seems kind of insane to shelter yourself like this. Becoming good at something always means failing along the way. If girl at Brown had been a sheltered snowflake at Small State College and graduated with her 4.0 never being challenged, that seems like a hidden disadvantage within the hidden advantage of going to the “bad” school. The better plan is to go to the good school, feel like you suck at everything, and then have counselors to help students get over their perceived inadequacies.

As a thought experiment, would you rather have a surgeon who was a B student at the top med school in the country, constantly understanding their limitations, constantly challenged to get better, or the A student at nowhere college who was never challenged and now has an inflated sense of how good they are? The answer is really easy.

This gets us to the main issue I have with the thesis of the book. If every advantage has a hidden disadvantage and vice-versa, this creates an infinite cycle. We may as well throw up our hands and say the interactions of advantages and disadvantages is too complicated to ever tell if anyone is at a true (dis)advantage. I don’t think this is a fatal flaw for Gladwell’s thesis, but I do wish it had been addressed.