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Critique of David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath, like his previous others, is a riveting read. Like always, his assertions are backed by research, compelling evidence and packed in a fluent story-like narrative. He heavily draws on the theory of ‘relative deprivation’, originally coined by Samuel Stouffer in WW II to describe how people measure themselves not in absolute terms but rather in relation to others. Gladwell postulates, that it is good to be a large fish in a small pond and suggests that it might not be a great idea to be an average student in a top school. Rather, it is better to be at the top in an average school.

Gladwell cites the example of a student under the pseudonym of Caroline Sacks who studied Science at Brown (A prestigious IVY League institution). There she earned mediocre grades and felt like she was nobody compared to her over-ambitious and all-excelling peers. While in the whole world she might be in top 1% in Science, she felt like a loser (compared to her peers) at Brown and eventually quit!

In response to Mr. Galdwell, let me cite example of another student. Lets call her Nanda Merchant. She was determined to go to Stanford for her engineering studies – one of the most difficult colleges to get into. Worse, she wanted to study Computer Science. She was not even a US resident; and with her average grades and not so emphatic academic narrative, she should forget getting into Stanford; leave alone studying and competing with ‘A’ graders in Computer Science at that ‘hard-to-get-into’ school. (Let us for a moment forget how she gets into Stanford. She had a magic lamp (aka Alladin) and the djinn helped her get into Stanford.) Once inside, she felt like a loser from day one. While, in the whole world, she was in the top 25 percentile in Computer Science; at Stanford, she was at the very last! She tried but she could not compete against the uniquely gifted, hard-working and extra-smart Stanford Computer Science students. Like Mr. Gladwell’s Caroline Sacks, she thought of quitting but (thankfully) did not. She found a mentor who held her hand and helped her grow. She quickly realized that the old world adage of competing against others is no longer true. She stopped trying to outshine and outsmart others. Instead she started focusing on improving herself. At Stanford, she got tremendous opportunity and exposure and every passing day she became a better version of her old self. At the end of four years, while she still finished last in the class, she was way better than where she started from and was confident of taking the world on her own terms. Last year she started with Google in their autonomous-car driving division and is excited to take mankind to the future of driverless cars. For Stanford, she says, ‘best decision of my life.’

Similar to the logic that Malcolm Gladwell outlined in his previous book, Outliers – 10,000 hours of effort will make you world class and make you the best in your chosen field, if you continue to work at yourself, you become better. And it is a no-brainer that if you want to become better, it’s a better idea to go to Stanford rather than ABC school. A big fish in a small pond still is confined to a smaller perimeter while a small fish in a bigger pond has much more fun and a richer life! Choose where you want to be!!


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