David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

By Malcolm Gladwell

 

Synopsis

When people come to the realization that their weaknesses can be their biggest strengths, they realize that they can move mountains. If we’ve learned anything from the story of David and Goliath, it’s that the underdog can slay the giant when he identifies his opponent’s weaknesses, and when he plays by his own rules. The very weaknesses that cause someone to feel like they don’t fit in or that they can’t win, can be the driving force for taking their stronger opponent by surprise and winning the game. Remember that the underdog only loses when he plays by the giants rules!

 

Summary

The prevailing tale of the underdog coming out on top, gives everyone hope, and proves that a person’s weaknesses are often their biggest strengths. The story of David and Goliath shows how important it is to break the rules in the giant’s game. When David fought Goliath, he found the giant’s weakness; his eye sight. Using his speed and maneuverability, he was able to avoid the giant’s sword and break the rules with the only weapon that would not be within the giant’s reach. Most people can’t seem to implement this lesson in real life because they view the giant as all powerful and they believe that the giant’s playing field is the only turf where they can compete. When the underdog finally realizes his power and how to flip the script, he can be victorious.

 

Historical Cases of Underdogs Beating Giants

Redwood City’s Girl’s Basketball — Vivek Ranadive was the coach for the National Girls’ Junior Basketball team. The team couldn’t win a game, and he knew it was due to inexperience. Noticing that that every team only used 24 feet of the entire court, he spotted the weakness in the giant’s game. When the coach trained his team to run a full court press, his team won. This move surprised the other coaches, giving his team the advantage.

The Salon — In 1874, every artist wanted to get their work seen at the Salon in Paris, France, known for showing the greatest art in the country. The Ministry of the Imperial House and Fine Arts shunned impressionist art in favor of accuracy, forcing artists to conform to their rules. When French impressionists, Renoir, Monet, and others, grew tired of playing by those rules, they created their own art gallery, where over 3,500 people showed up, marking the beginning of the impressionist era.

 

Measures of Success

Sociologist Samuel Stouffer said that people measure themselves compared to others versus any other measure. The “n” Curve and Little Fish in a Big Pond theories show that being bigger is not always better.

The “n” curve — The “n’ curve theorizes that that too much can be just as bad as too little. This pertains to most anything, and surprisingly to wealth. Many believe that more money equals more happiness, but according to the “n” curve, an income of $75,000 sits at the very top of the “n.” Either side, whether it be more money or less money, did not make someone happier.

This theory also applies to class size. It is often said that a smaller class size is better, giving each student more attention, but a class that is too small lacks peer interactivity and diversity. Therefore, a class size of 3 is just as bad as having a class size of 40, where diversity is abundant, but attention is lacking

Little fish, big pond — The comparison of a little fish in a big pond versus a big fish in a little pond is a dilemma many people have faced. The story of Caroline Sachs gives us insight into how this can play out. At the top of her class, Caroline was a big fish in her high school pond. When accepted to Brown University and the University of Maryland, she had a difficult choice. Like most students in her situation, Caroline chose Brown. She knew the power it would have on her resume. When she got there, she became a little fish in a big pond of over-achievers. She floundered with her major and found herself switching to something that was not her passion. This impacted her for the rest of her life.

 

Compensation Learning

A natural phenomenon happens when we lose one sense. Other senses become enhanced. A blind man has a better sense of hearing. A wheelchair bound person may extraordinary upper body strength. This is known as Compensation Learning. Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, David Boies and Gary Cohn all suffered from dyslexia, but became tops in their fields using their weakness to their advantage, and overdeveloping other skills to propel them to the pinnacle of greatness.

David Boies — Attorney David Boies suffered from dyslexia causing him to listen extremely well and to memorize things. As an attorney he can now hear the weakness in other attorneys’ voices, detecting the slightest difference in tonality which helps him to win cases.

Gary Cohn — The president of Goldman Sachs was also dyslexic. He was used to failing, which led him to take more risks. With nothing to lose, he got into a cab with a high end stock broker and was able to convince the man that he was a successful trader. He endedup with a job that led to his riches.

 

What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger

Nietzche coined the phrase “That which does not kill use makes us stronger.” People are broken into three groups when something bad happens, similar to the results of a bomb falling in wartime. There are those who are direct hits and perish, then there are those who are far enough away to not be affected, and last there are the near misses. It is the near misses who become empowered.

Most successful people have been through adversity:

  • Twelve US Presidents lost a parent before they were 16 years old
  • 25% of some of the most popular creatives, such as Wordsworth, Keats, etc., lost a parent by age ten.
  • Emil “Jay” Freireich was used to rejection throughout his difficult childhood. As a doctor working with child leukemia patients, he challenged the current treatments and instead brought his patients close to death with a strong drug cocktail. With children who only had six weeks to live, he felt he had nothing to lose and as a results saved lives.

 

Conclusion

The moral of the story is that through adversity we build strength, through weakness we strengthen other skills, and when we dare to play by our own rules, we knock that giant on his proverbial a$$.