Malcolm Gladwell: What's The Real Story Of David And Goliath? The story of David and Goliath has transcended biblical origins to become common shorthand for unlikely victory. But, asks author Malcolm Gladwell, is that really what the story is about?
NPR logo

What's The Real Story Of David And Goliath?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What's The Real Story Of David And Goliath?

What's The Real Story Of David And Goliath?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR and I'm Guy Raz. And our show today - misconceptions - things you know to be true until they aren't. Is there something you always believed and then you found out it was wrong?

MALCOLM GLADWELL: Well, I sort of feel like that's true all the time. I feel like what I believe about the world today is so different from what I believed five or 10 years ago.

RAZ: Yeah. But there are things that we - like, we're sure are true. We're convinced they are true like there was a brontosaurus. But in fact there was never a brontosaurus because kids now learn about the apatosaurus. But there was never a brontosaurus.


RAZ: There was never - it was just two apatosauruses from different parts of the body. And they just discovered that that's what it was. It was no brontosaurus.

GLADWELL: I didn't - you know, I did not know that until you said that right now. My world has now been rocked. I feel like - no brontosaurus. Brontosaurus was a permanent part of my kind of intellectual arsenal, and now it's gone.

RAZ: Gone, completely gone from Malcolm Gladwell's life. And this is what he does. He writes books about all the things we thought we knew to be true that turn out to be wrong. I'm sorry to have broken this to you like this.

GLADWELL: Well, this is what I'm saying. I mean, you're never more alive than when things get turned upside down. I love the feeling actually of getting my applecart overturned.

RAZ: And on the show today, things that might possibly overturn your applecart as well - five misconceptions about things we are convinced are right. So let's start with Malcolm Gladwell's TED talk.


GLADWELL: So I wanted to tell a story that really obsessed me when I was writing my new book. And the reason the story obsessed me is that I thought I understood it. And then I went back over it, and I realized that I didn't understand it at all. Ancient Palestine had a...

RAZ: So you know this story. It's a famous battle which may or may not have taken place sometime in the late 10th, early ninth century BC. The Israelites, they were led by King Saul, and they were fighting the Philistines. And they were locked in a stalemate across the valley. So they decide to settle it, once and for all, in one epic battle between two warriors. The Philistines go first.


GLADWELL: And the Philistine who is sent down, their mighty warrior is a giant. He's 6-foot-9.

RAZ: He's got armor, a sword, javelin, a spear.


GLADWELL: He is absolutely terrifying.

RAZ: And none of the Israelites want to take him on. Except...


GLADWELL: This young shepherd boy. And he goes up to Saul, and he says, I'll fight him. Saul says, you can't fight him. That's ridiculous. You're this kid. This is this mighty warrior. But the shepherd is adamant. He says, no, no, no. You don't understand. I have been defending my flock against lions and wolves for years. I think I can do it.

RAZ: So Saul says, OK. And the boy, he picks up a few stones...


GLADWELL: And puts them in his shepherd's bag and starts to walk down the mountainside to meet the giant.

RAZ: And from a distance, the giant sees this tiny little man holding a shepherd's staff.


GLADWELL: He's insulted. And he says, am I a dog that you would come to me with sticks?

RAZ: The shepherd boy says nothing. He just lines up his sling, and with only one rock, he hits the target.


GLADWELL: Right between the eyes.

RAZ: And the giant...


GLADWELL: Falls down, either dead or unconscious. And the shepherd boy runs up and takes his sword and cuts off his head. And the Philistines see this, and they turn, and they just run. And of course the name of the giant is Goliath, and the name of the shepherd boy is David. And the reason that story has obsessed me over the course of writing my book is that everything I thought I knew about that story turned out to be wrong.

RAZ: I mean, everything you thought you knew about this was wrong.

GLADWELL: The emphasis is all wrong. The story is dramatic in - I think it's more dramatic when you know the hidden story.


GLADWELL: David in that story is supposed to be the underdog, right? In fact, that term, David and Goliath, has entered our language as a metaphor for improbable victories by some weak party over someone far stronger. Now why do we call David an underdog? Well, we call him an underdog because all he has is - this giant is that - is that Goliath is outfitted with all of this modern weaponry, this glittering coat of armor and a sword and a javelin and a spear. And all David has is this sling. Well, let's start there with the phrase, all David has is this sling, because that's the first mistake that we make. In ancient warfare, there are three kinds of warriors. There's cavalry, there's heavy infantry and there's artillery. And artillery are archers, but more importantly, slingers. And a slinger is someone who has a leather pouch with two long cords attached to it.

And they put a projectile, either a rock or a lead ball, inside the pouch. And they whirl it around like this, and they let one of the cords go. And the effect is to send the projectile forward at - towards its target. That's what David has, and it's important to understand that that sling is not a slingshot, right? It's not a child's toy.

When David rolls it around like this, he's turning this sling around probably at six or seven revolutions per second. And that means that when the rock is released, it's going forward really fast, probably 35 meters per second. More than that, the stones in the Valley of Elah were not normal rocks. They were barium sulfate, which are rocks twice the density of normal stones. If you do the calculations on the ballistic - on the stopping power of the rock fired from David's sling, it's roughly equal to the stopping power of a 45 millimeter handgun, right? This is an incredibly devastating weapon. From medieval tapestries, we know that slingers were capable of hitting birds in flight.

They were incredibly accurate, right? When David lines up - and he's not 200 yards away from Goliath - he's quite close to Goliath. When he lines up and fires that thing at Goliath, he has every intention and every expectation of being able to hit Goliath at his most volatile spot, between his eyes.

It's not just that we misunderstand David and his choice of weaponry. It's also that we profoundly misunderstand Goliath. Goliath is not what he seems to be. There's all kinds of hints of this in the biblical text, things that are - in retrospect, are quite puzzling and don't square with his image as this mighty warrior. So to begin with, the Bible makes special note of how slowly Goliath moves. Now that is weird, right? Here is this mighty warrior. And then there's that strange comment he makes to David, am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks? Right? Sticks? David only has one stick.

Well, it turns out that there's been a great deal of speculation within the medical community over the years about whether there's something wrong with - fundamentally wrong with Goliath, an attempt to make sense of all of those apparent anomalies. So Goliath is head and shoulders above all of his peers in that era. And usually when someone is that far out of the norm, there's an explanation for it. So the most common form of giantism is a condition called acromegaly, and acromegaly is caused by a benign tumor on your pituitary gland.

Do you remember the wrestler Andre the Giant? Famous - he had acromegaly. There's even speculation that Abraham Lincoln had acromegaly. And acromegaly has a very distinct set of side effects associated with it, principally having to do with vision. The pituitary tumor, as it grows, often starts to compress the visual nerves in your brain with the result that people with acromegaly have either double vision or they are profoundly nearsighted. Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks? He sees two sticks when David has only one. So the Israelites up on the mountain ridge looking down on him thought he was this extraordinarily powerful foe. What they didn't understand was that the very thing that was the source of his apparent strength was also the source of his greatest weakness. Goliath is a sitting duck. He doesn't have a chance, right? So why do we keep calling David an underdog, and why do we keep referring to his victory as improbable? And there is, I think, in that a very important lesson for all of us. Giants are not as strong and powerful as they seem, and sometimes the shepherd boy has a sling in his pocket. Thank you.

RAZ: I mean, I ,like - I feel like I've been thrown a little bit off balance.

GLADWELL: Good. I like that. I take that as high praise.

RAZ: But then a part of me is, like, you know, surely most underdogs don't come with the advantages of David, you know, like facing a partially blind adversary who's lumbering and slow.

GLADWELL: Well, although, maybe not. I mean, so you have all kinds of software companies out there that do battle against the giants like Microsoft and have done very well in recent years. And if you asked them why, well, they would say, well, the giant is kind of lumbering and blind and slow. I mean, I don't think we - there are any shortage of examples of countries or companies or individuals who have gotten very, very successful and as a result become vulnerable to a more nimble, hungrier opponent armed with the weapons of the spirit. I mean, I still think that's the narrative of our age.

RAZ: So why is this misconception - I mean, why is that our narrative?

GLADWELL: I think that there's a thing, particularly when a story turns into a metaphor, it becomes very difficult to displace. And once something turns into a metaphor, I just don't think we bother to revisit it anymore, you know. We kind of - we get lazy. And that's probably half the reason right there.

RAZ: So does that mean we're all going to want to be Goliaths?

GLADWELL: Well, no. It just changes the definitions. What we should think of is not underdog versus favorite. It is rather the difference between established and powerful and large, and a nimble audacious outsider. It's the startup versus Microsoft. It's Tesla versus BMW. And once you rephrase it, you get away from this simplistic way of saying, one guy's supposed to win and one guy's not. It's not that. It's that their arsenal is profoundly different, and there'll be different outcomes depending on how the battle is configured.

RAZ: Malcolm Gladwell. You can see his full talk at His new book about all this is called "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants." More misconceptions in a minute. I'm Guy Raz and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.