Author and lecturer Malcolm Gladwell told one of his favorite underdog stories Wednesday night. It’s about an overmatched girls basketball team that played its own unorthodox game and won.
So unskilled were they, Gladwell said, that the coach decided the only hope for the team of 12-year-olds was to play exhausting defense — all the time. To Gladwell, that’s a great David-and-Goliath story.
“How do you win?” he asked a sold-out audience of 1,300 from the stage at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. “David does what this coach does, he changes the rules of the game.”
The event in Helzberg Hall, a conversation with Rainy Day Books’ Vivien Jennings, kicked off Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest Forum, which continues Thursday and Friday. Gladwell’s 2013 book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants,” is now out in paperback.
Gladwell said that surprising ideas arise when you look deeper into the stories of underdogs who prevail and favorites who fail.
One is that “desirable difficulties” — a traumatic event in childhood, for example — can lead ultimately to victories. A seemingly good thing, such as an Ivy League education, might not serve as an advantage.
Gladwell’s fans love how he challenges conventional thinking, dissecting social science research to discover the counterintuitive. He’s been on Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people.
Gladwell said that despite his interest in how underdogs succeed, an outcome most everyone hails, he tends to root for the favorite. He knew a track high-jumper who lost a meet he was expected to dominate. Gladwell said such psychological pain would be excruciating.
“It’s not as painful for the underdog. He expected to lose,” Gladwell said. “But nobody ever buys this argument.”
The conversation ranged widely. When Jennings asked his opinion about the current state of electronic communication, he said he saw upsides. A typical 17-year-old is writing many more words every day than Gladwell did at 17, he said.
And good writing survives, he said, including on television.
“Ever watch television in the 1970s?” he asked, laughing. “If you watch an episode of ‘Dallas’ and compare it to an episode of ‘Empire,’ it’s like a different century. Well, it actually is a different century.”
Gladwell, 51, has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1996. His best-selling books, starting with “The Tipping Point” in 2000, have sold in the millions. “Blink” followed in 2005 and “Outliers” in 2008. Gladwell grew up in Canada and lives in New York.
The popular author and lecturer has his critics, including some reviewers of “David and Goliath,” who wondered if Gladwell had merely expressed the obvious in a new way.
Jennings asked Gladwell about such critical reviews. He said he accepts the ideas that at times he simplifies too much and that he won’t always be right.
“I don’t mind being wrong,” said Gladwell, noting that people who don’t “flip and flop” at times probably aren’t learning anything. “I’m also uninterested in being consistent.”
Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest Forum Thursday and Friday features more than 50 speakers and panelists. Go to middleofthemapfest.com.