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Malcolm Gladwell explains how being the underdog can give people a leg up

Author Malcolm Gladwell.

Neville Elder/The Globe and Mail

According to Malcolm Gladwell, each of his books has been more complex and interested in the world than the last. Which explains why, with David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, published this week, he has moved from reminding us all to practise for 10,000 hours to master something toward a range of more complex questions: Was it right for civil-rights activists to bait racist police? How do you help a team of athletically disinclined 12-year-old girls win basketball games while learning about life? And what should we do with the knowledge that, contrary to widely held belief, smaller class sizes do not yield smarter students?

In each of these cases, the answer is something unexpected – though that is the very thing that Mr. Gladwell's influential books have taught us to expect. His success can be measured in the millions of books he has sold, but is better quantified by the extent to which his impish, not-what-you-thought brand of science writing has become the norm.

His latest hypothesis is quite simple: What if being disadvantaged, being an underdog, is actually an advantage? As usual, Mr. Gladwell illustrates his argument with lots of fascinating studies and charming stories. But, unlike his previous books, David and Goliath feels especially resonant, perhaps because it arrives at a moment – of income inequality, government shutdowns, the Tea Party, the Occupy movement – when disadvantage is an ever-present reality.

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Mr. Gladwell spoke with The Globe and Mail from Atlanta, at the beginning of a long book tour.

You've called this a moral book. Why?

It's a story about individuals and the choices they've made, the things they learn. And a lot of those situations are moral ones. When I'm discussing crime or Northern Ireland or Wilma Derksen [whose daughter was abducted and killed] or [pacifist French pastor] André Trocmé, these are all people or issues whose framework is fundamentally moral. Or at least the questions they're dealing with are fundamentally moral.

Why make a more moral exploration at this point?

I never really know why I get seized by certain kinds of questions. Maybe it's a more reflective moment in my life. I feel like each of my books has gotten more engaged with the broader world. The Tipping Point was the most practical and business-friendly. And each one that's followed has gotten more complex and harder to define.

In the wake of the news this week that U.S. health-care reform will leave two-thirds of poor black citizens and single mothers without health insurance, is the U.S. at this point a machine that makes underdogs?

It is striking how it feels a lot like the 1920s right now in the U.S. You have a combination of sharply increased privilege at the top end, and yet even as the privileged are extending their lead over everybody else, they are simultaneously angry. Angry at the system, feeling cheated – the Tea Party movement is not a movement from the bottom, it's a movement from the top. It's upper-middle-class white people who have somehow contrived to be angry in the face of the way the country is moving. These are not people who you would have thought to be the principal sources of social protest and complaint. There is something really weird and screwy going on in American culture right now around these questions of power and advantage.

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You make the point that power "has to be seen as legitimate, or else its use has the opposite of its intended effect." Elsewhere you note that 77 per cent of Americans agree that we should have smaller class sizes, and point out that it's virtually impossible to get 77 per cent of Americans to agree on anything. Given that truth, and given your idea about the perception of legitimacy of power, can we expect any government to be able to function as anything other than a Goliath? Is there such a thing as a David state?

There's a distinction between agreement and consensus and a shared perception of legitimacy. Legitimacy has very little to do with the content of ideas being expressed. It's really about the process by which they're expressed. You might be in power, and I might disagree with every one of your policy prescriptions, but still concede your legitimacy depending on how you behave, whether I feel like I have a voice, even if that voice, ultimately, does not prevail. Or even if things are not in my best interest, I don't feel like someone else is getting a better deal. Or whether there is some consistency in the way people are treated. The reason democracy works, in the West, is because of its extraordinary level of consistency. You know when there is an election, there's going to be another one coming relatively quickly, within four or five years. And that's happened like clockwork over and over again for hundreds of years, so we have faith in the system. Even if we don't like the guy now, we know there's a chance we'll get someone we like later. There's all kinds of room for legitimacy to exist in the absence of consensus. I do agree that, in America, and in some senses Canada, there's probably more disagreement over policy than ever before. But that doesn't necessarily mean that there ought to be a diminution in the perceived legitimacy of the state.

Your book abounds with convincing and moving stories that demonstrate your central points. But there must be lots of exceptions – students who did really well in tiny classrooms, or dyslexics whose lives are constant struggles. What lessons did you learn from them?

The interesting question is what distinguishes the people who overcome adversity from the people who don't. A lot of it has to do with the magnitude of the adversity. With the stories of the dyslexics who made it, they're all intelligent people from middle-class homes. You're not looking at people who have multiple sources of disadvantage. They have one basic source of disadvantage. Every single one of the successful dyslexics I talked to had one person in their life, at least, who always believed in them – their grandmother, a teacher along the way. They all came back to this one person. So that's also a minimum condition for making it: You can't have seven problems, obstacles. When you look at those who don't make it, what you see is the multiplication of problems, the severity of problems.

You tell the story of the basketball team made up of inept girls who went to the national finals because they always played the full-court press, essentially shutting down their more capable opponents, and argue that they're better off being disadvantaged, but wily, or well-coached. But wouldn't they actually be better off being better? Goliath himself, as you point out, was severely limited physically, leading to his downfall. So being a David is better than being a Goliath. But wouldn't the best be to be a really good Goliath?

In the case of the girls, no. Because what that experience teaches them is a much more important lesson, which is that you don't have to be passive in the face of disadvantage. This is what was behind the whole philosophy of the coach. He was seeing beyond the basketball game. And he was interested in teaching his team a really important lesson about life: that most of the things you're going to do in life you're going to be outgunned and overmatched. That doesn't mean you should roll over and give up. Coming out of girls' basketball, the better-equipped players for life are the ones who've had to come up with a compensatory strategy for their lack of ability. Not the ones who float in with every advantage. You're asking a broader question, though, which is, in general, is the best condition to be perfect? Yes, of course. But how many of us get to be perfect? Very few. So it's more realistic to talk about what one does with imperfection.

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So, best-case scenario, be LeBron James?

Best case, be Brad Pitt. Other than that, we've got to work around our problems.

You also tell the story of a Hollywood mogul who believes his wealth has caused his inadequacy as a parent. You are a person of considerable privilege yourself – hard-earned privilege, I'm sure, but privilege all the same. What would you do if you had children of your own?

I worry a lot about this. Would I be any better at it than the man from Hollywood? Should the man from Hollywood and every other really rich person have stopped acquiring money, or given it all away in order to make their children's lives more meaningful? Maybe. But no one does that. If I have kids, am I going to renounce 10 per cent of my earnings? I won't. Should I? Maybe. It would be much worse, of course, to have no money at all. But you have to agree that if you are someone who has privilege, too, your job as a parent is going to be harder, so you have to take the job of parenting more seriously.

How would you hope people apply the lessons of your book?

This book is in part about the idea that as much can be learned or gained from adversity as from advantage. So I hope that people would find some degree of sustenance in that. That's a really beautiful idea: That you can succeed because of your shortcomings.

So one of the dyslexics becomes a trial lawyer, not a litigator.

Yeah, exactly. You see your particular strengths and weaknesses for what they are, and come to an acceptance of what niche you belong to.

So self-awareness, that would be the book's greatest application?

Yeah. That, and the great lesson of the basketball girls: Don't be passive. Don't passively accept your lot in life. Just because we don't have any talent doesn't mean we're going to lose every game.

Just the last one.

Yes! They might have lost in the finals, but they were thrilled to win even one game!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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