David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
Gladwell’s latest book (published in October 2013) looks at the probability of improbable events occurring in situations where one outcome is greatly favoured over the other. It contains intriguing psychological theory, backed up by hard statistical data and intertwined with great inspirational stories including the most famous one of David & Goliath. Being a fan of Gladwell’s previous works ‘Blink’, ‘The Tipping Point’ and ‘Outliers’, I was excited to get into this book.
#1 Look for the Advantages of the Disadvantages
As you know, the story of David and Goliath is an inspirational one. It’s the ultimate story of the underdog and the most appropriate place to start with my list of Top Five Takeaways. When we analyse the story, we see how David utilises his perceived weakness (his size and physical weakness compared to Goliath) as a strength (he runs at Goliath because he has speed and manoeuvrability which Goliath cannot counter attack) and by that same token, how the qualities that appear to give the giants strength are often their sources of great weakness. He teaches us that the fact of being an underdog can change us in ways that we often fail to appreciate.
There is an interesting example of the story of Vivek Ranadive who led his team of underdog basketball players to the National Championships using exactly these strategies. Taking advantage of the weaknesses of the top teams and players in the league and optimising the hidden strengths of his team.
#2 Be a Big Fish in a Little Pond
To elaborate further on Takeaway Number One, the entire theme of the book is the idea that there are hidden advantages to our obvious disadvantages and vice versa to that, there are also hidden disadvantages to our obvious advantages. Gladwell touches on the story of Lawrence of Arabia which provided some great insights here but the main example he used to illustrate this concept was the historic rise of the “Impressionists” over one hundred and fifty years ago in Paris (which was then, the centre of the art world).
In the case of the Impressionists, who had been hunting the big prize of being selected and showcased in the prestigious, highly selective, elite, and most important art show in the world (The Salon), they were forced to respond to this outsized challenge and decided to take the risk and follow their own instincts, go against the rules, and create and place themselves in their own “pond”. Albeit a small pond, it was a pond nonetheless and here, they could be Big Fish in a Little Pond as opposed to Little Fish in the Big Pond of The Salon. It seems a simple concept but the evidence and statistical data Gladwell presents – examples throughout history to evidence from the current day education system show us that without a doubt, it is easier to shine and become successful as a Big Fish in a Little Pond (an A grade student at your second choice of University) or even a TINY Pond (an A grade student at a lower grade, unknown University) as opposed to being a Little Fish in a Big Pond (an average B or C grade student in a “Big Pond” University such as Harvard / Yale or UCLA). Lots of data to back this all up, you’ll need to read the book to get those juicy details!
#3 The Inverted U curve
In this part of the book, we learn about the idea that more is not always better. He contrasts an image of a graph showing the relationship between parenting and money such as this (which displays the idea that the more money you have the easier it is to bring up a child):
With a graph like this (which displays the Inverted U curve):
The point here (with regard to money, but also proven using the example of the relationship between classroom size and success of students), is that money makes parenting easier but only up until a certain point, then it stops making much of a difference and then in fact, actually makes things worse! Likewise, in the example of classroom size, having a smaller class makes teaching easier and students more successful but only up until a certain point, then when the class is too small it stops making much of a difference and for a tiny class, things start to get worse! It’s what economists call ‘Diminishing Marginal Returns’. Gladwell states that when looking at the U curve, “there’s the left side, where doing more or having more makes things better. There’s the flat middle, where doing more doesn’t make much of a difference. And there’s the right side where doing more or having more makes things worse.
#4 Relative Deprivation
This is a clever one and probably one of my favourites. It rolls on from the Big Fish Little Pond concept in that it’s about how your self concept is affected when you ARE a Little Fish in a Big Pond. You have to deal with the fact that relative to where you are located, you may be struggling. For example, a student in the bottom quartile of a “Big Pond” school like Harvard, may feel demoralised and out of sorts because they’ve come from a background of having been at the very top of their class all through High School and then all of a sudden THEY are the ones who don’t understand and need extra explanation and are receiving C grades. What these people fail to remember is that someone has to be in the bottom quartile, if they were comparing themselves to the people in the Little Pond (the students who did not qualify to make the Big Pond school such as Harvard), or even if they compared themselves to the rest of the world, they’d probably be in the 99th percentile!
And it’s a tough one because as subjective as it sounds, the way that a person feels about their abilities matters – it shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and is crucial to your motivation and confidence and well, put simply, that affects everything. Gladwell puts story upon story and stat upon stat to prove that being in an environment such as a Big Pond / a Goliath / a Giant of a situation that would traditionally be considered a strength could indeed run the risk of “Relatively Depriving” you, and become a detriment to your success.
#5 Desirable Difficulty
This one is self explanatory. Sometimes, there are difficulties that can indeed shape you to become a person with alternative / unique and highly sought after strengths. One of the examples given in the book (and very well evidenced as usual), is of the dyslexic person’s opportunity to be better at things that normal readers simply have not been forced to do. For example, Gladwell shows us that there are an extraordinarily high number of Entrepreneurs that are dyslexic and poses the idea that even though the struggle of being dyslexic is a difficult one, it could be desirable in that these struggles (or desirable difficulties) force a person to become good at the key skills that just happen to be those that are also most relevant for becoming a successful Entrepreneur. Things such as :
- simplifying large detailed pieces of information and extracting the main points of focus as opposed to reading and analysing the details in the way an academic might
- thinking outside the box and on your feet as opposed to following the rules and procedures
- becoming an acute listener from having to over-use your listening skills to compensate for your reading skills and
- becoming resilient to the possibility of failure from years of having struggled with your reading and/or mathematical efforts.
The central idea that has been explored so far in this book is that there is a certain Art to being the “David” on the outside – the small, weak shepherd up against the giant, the misfit basketball team, enrolled in the less elite school, growing up in the less privileged environment, attending the second choice University, showcased in the tiny gallery that virtually no-one went to compared to The Salon… but when you take a moment to really strategise it, you the ordinary person, can certainly stand up and topple the Giant in your own world.
As always hit me up with any questions in the comments. Thanks for reading and please Like, Comment and Share here on the blog or wherever you are reading this. Talk soon x