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book review

In some respects, David and Goliath is a complementary sequel to Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller.Simon Hayter/The Globe and Mail

The book isn't even on the shelves and already small businesses are referencing Malcolm Gladwell in their press releases: "It's a classic David versus Goliath scenario, with Igloo positioned amongst traditional software companies like Microsoft, IBM …"

Whether or not Igloo's allusion was biblical or Gladwellian, it speaks to the bestseller author's golden instincts. The New Yorker writer is the masterful dissector of the American Dream, his appeal drawn from transparent storytelling, unique scientific trawling and imperturbable optimism. His secrets of success don't feel dirty: They're oh-so-subtle, in that New Yorker way. While this transplanted Canadian is the Goliath of American business writing, he is also the David of the people, the literate MBA grad's answer to James C. Collins of Good to Great fame.

The populist theme of Gladwell's recent book couldn't come at a more fitting time, an era in which corporate giants rule the Earth, stagnant economic mobility and the hovering towers of the Ivy League ever more distant. The Davids of this world should just put away their slingshots and go home. But no, Gladwell argues. Underdogs, misfits and bumptious personalities succeed not despite their adversities, but because of them. It sets out to be a bootstraps exhortation to ordinary people to muscle through adversity and slay that lumbering giant. "By 'giants' I mean powerful opponents of all kinds – from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune and oppression," he writes. "Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness."

Goliath may have been an intimidating Philistine, but he was a constrained by his heavy armour and clunky approach to warfare: a sitting duck in a 5,000-shekel bronze casing. Unencumbered by armour, David was small, nimble, and eschewed the norms of battle. (Or as they like to say in the biz presentations: He did more with less!) In some respects, David and Goliath is a complementary sequel to Outliers, Gladwell's 2008 bestseller that, put simply, tells us that great people aren't as great as we think. In this case, underdogs are stronger than we realize.

The David parable segues neatly into a fascinating piece about how a motley basketball team coached by an Indian from Mumbai becomes a force to be reckoned with. It works with the story of how the French Impressionists did battle with the Academy and how the tiny Huguenots in Le Chambon took on the Vichy French and their Nazi allies by protecting Jews. While some of these stories are not obscure, he retells them convincingly through the lens of the challenges they had to overcome: Being an outsider or a minority has advantages.

But sometimes the analogy feels stretched: We learn why smaller classes aren't necessarily better than larger classes, why the Three Strikes Law in the United States doesn't work, how two families coped differently with the murders of their daughters. These are empowering tales, but the parallelism is muddled. Sometimes it feels as though Gladwell's love for the inspiring story overwhelms the book's actual focus. It's Gladwell the Goliath versus Gladwell the David.

That same tension lingers in his depiction of the Ivy League as an academic behemoth. He argues that if a student is struggling in the bottom third in her class at Harvard or Brown, she'll likely be better off at second-tier school – a big fish in a small pond – because she will be more confident in her new surroundings and therefore successful. "[W]e underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage," he writes. "It's the Little Pond that maximizes your chance to do whatever you want."

That's the kind of counterintuitive finding (backed up, in true Gladwellian form, with graphs) that will no doubt hearten anyone whom the Ivy League has crisply rejected with a form letter. The debate will fill the dead air at cocktail parties. But the David and Goliath analogy doesn't fit. Are the administrations the Goliaths because they can't identify kids who fall through the cracks? In general terms, the Ivies aren't crumbling giants. They just don't meet everyone's needs. And what, potentially, is the proverbial slingshot for the Davids? They should slink off to what is considered a mediocre school (University of Toronto, Gladwell's alma mater, is on that list here) to feel more empowered?

An underdog school isn't necessarily going to make the kid feel any more secure and smart. With their cavernous lecture halls and overworked TAs, large public schools can be as dwarfing as sitting in room full of apple polishers at Harvard. Go to a small, liberal arts college for the class size, but as Gladwell argues earlier in the book, smaller isn't necessarily better. And in the fog of this war over academic success, it's hard to see either the Goliath, let alone the David. It's just a good story.

Where Gladwell really wows is with the personal dramas. Renowned lawyer David Boies, Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn and Hollywood mogul Brian Grazer all have dyslexia, but it was the illness that allowed them to take nothing for granted and see the world through fresh eyes. But his rendering of the manic medical researcher Emil (Jay) Freireich is the book's masterstroke.

The researcher who helped invent cancer-fighting "cocktails," Freireich lost his father at a young age, hated his mother, barely scraped through to medical school and was fired seven times. Working in hospital rooms painted in blood, keeping his little patients alive with a life-threatening cocktail of drugs and mocked by Harvard-trained doctors and blocked at every turn, he seemed doomed to fail. But it was arguably his own volatile mix of bullheadedness and a Dr. House-like indifference to death that eventually led to a successful treatment of children's leukemia.

Gladwell doesn't exactly follow the sermon he set out to give. If anything, the wider message of the book remains elusive. Maybe it's that nothing is as enticing as it seems, or that no matter how small you are, you're more clever than you think. But none of that is new. What is new is that by the time this book comes out, all the Goliaths will be calling themselves Davids.

Craig Offman is a Globe and Mail features writer.