Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants
Gladwell opens with a re-telling of the classic story of David and Goliath and then goes onto to explain all of the historical inaccuracies in the tale and how this has shaped our understanding of what it takes to beat a giant.
Giants can be such things as a disability, misfortune or oppression. But as you read on you find it is also a basketball team, an education model, impressionist painting, the ability to read, experiencing the death of a parent before the age of 15, power to name a few.
Gladwell proposes that what gives a giant its strength can also be its greatest weakness. Knowing how to identify that weakness to your advantage is how you become David. “the powerful and strong are not always what they seem” “There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there are a set that have to do with the absence of material resources.”
Gladwell examines the press play in basketball matches and demonstrates how Davids how beat Goliaths by being more determined, willing to do the hard work and thinking differently. Then the idea that smaller class sizes lead to better outcomes is disproven in Gladwell’s style of finding the evidence in facts, not myths, of why this isn’t the case. He continues the discussion using parenting and money as another example of when too much is a bad thing in terms of being an effective parent.
Next is whether it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond, the big pond being places like Harvard and Brown University or the top US Private High Schools. Turns out, you’ll publish more and be more successful as a Big Fish in a small pond, not because of your superiority complex, but because your confidence hasn’t been shattered by the best competition. Big fish are more likely to achieve their career goals and publish up to 5 times more than some of the best graduates of Harvard and Brown because to be in the bottom of the class in Harvard is to fail, but it is the equivalent of beating the top performers of the small ponds. The Impressionist movement is another example of people creating entirely new ponds and flourishing, rather than flounder against a tide in a lake of mediocrity.
When is it better to have a ‘disadvantage’ such as dyslexia? The next 3 chapters examine this concept with examples of some of the most successful business creators, Richard Branson of Virgin being one, having dyslexia and how this disadvantage creates a new set of advantages for those who have it. Different skills developed include simplifying complex material, art of persuasion, negotiation skills, listening skills to name few. Losing a parent before you’re 15 can have a dramatic effect on your success and failure. This is to do with the fearless factor that has been found to exist through research of Londoners who survived the bombings of world war 2. The near miss and remote miss, the survival factor, the worst has already happened and I survived factor, creates a fearlessness that would not ordinarily exist if the event hadn’t happened. If you lose a parent as a child, it is devastating (trust me I lost my mum at 8) and Gladwell argues it creates a courage to face anything because the worst has already happened and you have survived it.
This is further demonstrated through an examination of the civil rights movement and tactics used which reflect Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch where Martin Luther King is Brer Rabbit. “These are David’s opportunities: the occasions in which difficulties paradoxically turn out to be desirable.” When you have nothing left to lose David finds a freedom and courage to do whatever it takes to find success.
Part 3 looks at the ultimate Goliath – Power. The Northern Ireland experience is relayed through the eyes of an insurgent as retold by Gladwell. It’s the insurgent that is focussed upon as the David against the overbearing Goliath of power the British. Then to Brownstone New York where the opposite is demonstrated with the Goliath of the police change tactics to combat youth criminality by showing the community that they are not just a force to be hated, but people who care about others, and with this they deliver turkeys for thanksgiving and xmas dinners and presents. The crime rate went down from 90% to 10% in 4 years. Back to Northern Ireland and we see the British over run by collective people power who finally collectively rebelled because children couldn’t get their milk and the women led the revolt. Gladwell is demonstrating that power has rules and when not used justly, its validity is quickly lost. Then to California and the 3 strikes rule which increased incarceration for repeat offenders. Gladwell demonstrates that although an initial significant decrease in crime followed, this policy also reached a point where its effectiveness was lost. The 3 strikes rule came about from one parent’s response to the murder of his daughter, vowing that no other parent should suffer such a loss, and Gladwell reveals to us an opposite response of parents who also lost a daughter to murder, but decided to forgive. The two responses are starkly different and yet both brilliantly demonstrate power as a Goliath and the relativeness of power over people.
The work finishes with a final look at power with the examination of a small town in France, Le Chambon, which continued to harbour and aid in the emigration of Jews unchallenged by French or German authorities. Gladwell reminds us here that not all Goliaths or Davids are what they seem and “that wiping out a town or a people or a movement is never as simple as it looks. The powerful are not as powerful as they seem – nor the weak as weak.”
The appendices are filled with notes on all of the studies that Gladwell has used throughout the work to demonstrate his argument.
The overall theme of the book is that history and general knowledge can make it appear that Goliaths are unbeatable and that Davids don’t have what it takes. Propoganda of any sort is manipulated by Goliaths to reinforce this myth. On closer inspection and study of the Goliath and its ways, David is then armed with the knowledge needed to defeat it.
As with all Gladwell’s works, he demonstrates his arguments with rich historic lessons filled with facts, not the fiction that we believe to be true, and entertains with the re-telling of and descriptive text only he can bring to and take from history.