I have often quoted Malcolm Gladwell, who is the best-selling author of books called “Blink,” “Outliers ” and “The Tipping Point.” His latest book is also excellent and in keeping with his style of an outside looking in perspective – “David and Goliath.” Its subtitle elaborates further on its theme – “Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.”
“David and Goliath” helps us question how often and why underdogs are and can be successful. He starts with the biblical tale of how David slew the giant infantryman, Goliath, as one of the most celebrated underdogs. But, as Gladwell points out, David was not necessarily an underdog. David was an expert with a sling and had a history of bringing down large animals who threatened livestock. A sling was one of the artilleries of the day. When King Saul wanted David to wear armor to fight Goliath, he responded that he was not used to fighting in that way and did not care to put on the armor.
Goliath was likely around 6’8″ or larger, quite the imposing figure. He was insulted by the little boy coming down to fight him, but it may have been more than that. Based on observations made by Gladwell from the scriptures about an escort helping Goliath with his weapons, Goliath’s size and other comments the giant man made, Goliath may not have been able to see very well. So, David, whose accuracy with a sling was not unusual for someone who often used one, actually had an advantage over Goliath provided he fought him his way. He would only lose that advantage if he came in too close. Once released by sling, David’s stone traveled at significant speed and with its usual accuracy to Goliath’s peril.
Gladwell uses many other examples in his book about success of perceived underdogs. He highlights several times how people compensate for shortcomings and actually position themselves for success. A good example was the high percentage of dyslexic people who have been successful – David Boies, Charles Schwab, Gary Cohn, Richard Branson, etc. He notes how each compensated for their dyslexia by being terrific listeners, great involvers, and more daring people to get ahead. They also found their way into positions which would not obligate them to spend more time with their weaknesses, but would take advantage of their talents.
Boies became a great trial lawyer, but would have been a horrible corporate lawyer. Why? Because a corporate lawyer needed to read subtleties in printed contracts and documents, while a trial lawyer did not. Being a trial lawyer took advantage of his listening skills and ability to condense a case down into its simplest terms for a jury to understand. His listening skills were paramount as he could pick up on a slight hesitation from an expert witness as a sign of uncertainty. He was renowned for using the opposition’s expert witnesses to benefit his clients. He also prepared his witnesses to use the same inflection on answers to avoid the same trap. Ironically, none of the successful dyslexics would wish their dyslexia on their children, as it makes life hard.
Gladwell’s gift is to help people challenge normative thinking and show that what people believe to be true is not necessarily so. Several times he notes where efforts to accomplish something by a larger, stronger force, has the opposite effect, actually galvanizing the underdog for future success. In one enlightening example, he discussed the Battle of Britain, where the Germans mercilessly bombed London and surrounding areas. Yet, the conclusion by some psychological experts, the Germans would have been better off by not bombing London at all. Why? Outside of those who lost their lives and those who were close to the bombing, the great many who survived each bombing actually became more resolved. The survivalist nature of “I am still here,” had a profound impact. It was the British citizens saying to the Nazis, “is that all you got?” The world owes a huge debt to the British people for standing up against great odds by themselves until others would join in. Their resolve was only bolstered by overcoming the underdog status and still be standing after the bombs were dropped.
There are numerous other examples, but I wanted to give you a taste of the book. Gladwell’s books are a great blend of observation and storytelling with some data mixed in. His observations are grounded in his experience of always being an outsider. When I have seen him interviewed, he notes how different he looks as the son of a Jamaican mother and British father who grew up in Toronto. He said we were always outsiders, so we never accepted the status quo. His books are also a quick read. It is also hard for me to pick a favorite. Start with one and, if you like it, give another one a chance. You will be better for it, as he makes you think.