Be as skeptical about his books as you want, but Gladwell never asserts that his stories explain everything you need to know about the world. And these are such fine stories. They’re extraordinarily easy to breeze through, and everyone should study them to see how beautifully structured a book can be.
Tyler Cowen calls David and Goliath Gladwell’s best book. I liked it better than Blink, Outliers, and Tipping Point. The stories are more interesting and more diverse. For the most part it’s the first time I’ve ever heard any of them, e.g. the work of André Trocmé in France, and the exact conditions faced by the Impressionists. TC takes the central message of the book to be: “here’s how to think more deeply about what you’re seeing,” and that the moral of the work is: “don’t write people off.”
My favorite story in the book was the tale of a girl who went to Brown. The message: don’t try to be a small fish in a big pond. Gladwell calls this the Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder. The illustrations: If you want a science degree, don’t go to an elite college; and if you want to publish papers when you’re an econ grad student, don’t go to Harvard.
Let’s say you love science, and make a living in science. And let’s say you want to go to an elite college, as everyone does. Here’s the argument that you can really only get one or the other.
Unless you’re one of the lucky few who are able to breeze through the toughest classes, this won’t apply. But if you’re like most people then you’ll get discouraged after seeing C’s and D’s after a lot of hard work.
The best of all worlds is to earn a science degree at an elite college. But most of us have to choose one or the other. And it’s probably better to get the science degree than do something less rigorous at an elite college. That’s why you shouldn’t go to an elite college if you want a science degree.
The other interesting part is about econ grad school. Gladwell draws on this paper by Conley and Onder to explain why a talented grad student should go to a non-top-30 school rather than Harvard or Chicago.
If you want to be a professor, then you should try to get published while you’re in grad school. You might expect that the papers published by grad students are all written by students of Harvard and Chicago; after all, they’re the mathiest students with the support of the best professors. But no. Basically, the top one or two students (in a typical class of eight) at each school publishes the same number of papers, and the bottom two or three at each school also publish the same number of papers, namely zero.
It’s a strange result. The least-smart grad student at Harvard may be smarter than the smartest grad student at a non-top-30 program. Yet the former doesn’t publish while the latter publishes two or three articles before he graduates.
The lesson in this chapter: Go to a not-well-ranked school if you’re smart. It’s better to be the top student in a non-prestigious program than to be a bad student at a great program.