Wednesday, July 9, 2014

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell was such an easy and joyful read. He is an amazing storyteller and writer. The subtitle states “Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants” and that is exactly what the book is about.

He begins by retelling the original “David and Goliath” story. Except this time he exposes the reality we have missed. David was an underdog, but by playing to his strengths and Goliath’s weaknesses, he overcame the giant. David had the skills of a sniper and came running to Goliath with courage and faith. The giant was mostly blind, lumbering, and expecting a conventional hand-to-hand fight. By “taking a gun to a knife fight,” David reversed the odds and won the day.

Through the similar stories that follow, Gladwell states, “I want to explore two ideas. The first is that much of what we consider valuable in our wold arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the source of great weakness.”

Part One: The Advantages of Disadvantages (And the Disadvantages of Advantages)

It may seem surprising, but in the last 200 years, when unmatched sides battle in war, the underdog triumphs in roughly 1/3 of the cases. It appears that when the ostensibly weaker side takes the David strategy, rather than the conventional strategy, and plays to his strengths and the enemy’s weakness, he greatly increases his chance of success.

Lawrence of Arabia exemplified this principle. He and his band of misfits approached the Turkish help port town of Aqaba from the direction of the dessert. Only a fool would do that and so the Turks never saw them coming. He refused to have a rigid definition of what an advantage was and didn’t assume the battle was already lost. 

Next Gladwell moves on to a touching story of Vivek Ranadive and his Silicon Valley girls' middle school basketball team. He had never played basketball, and his girls were awful. But he used his engineer’s analytical skills to deduce that most of the court went uncontested in a traditionally played game. He worked his girls hard to produce endurance and stamina and introduced them to the full-court press. If the other team could not get the ball in bounds in time, they would never have a chance at a shot. It was ugly and the other teams hated it, but the girls went all the way to the championship! 

So why doesn’t everyone use the full-court press. Because it’s hard! It’s physically exhausting and it can be overcome by a good team. But if you are a really bad team, it may be the best option. One thing about winning as an underdog is you must be so bad as to have no option to fight conventionally. You must be desperate. 

Sometimes even advantages become disadvantages when you have too much of them. Gladwell introduces the concept of the “U-shaped world.” Basically it states that there can be too much of a good thing. He uses the illustration of very successful Hollywood producer. The man grew up poor and learned to work hard. He learned the value of money, how to grow it, and how to take risks. His kids would never learn these lessons. No matter what, they would never have to put in the back-breaking work he did to learn the value of money. They simply would never want for anything. 

Other things, like class size, operate on a U-shaped curve as well. Too small, too suffocating and not enough interaction and discussion; too big, not enough attention and kids get lost. Yet we blindly assume smaller is better. 

He also tells the wonderful story of the Impressionists. Unable to garner much attention or acclaim in the traditional way, they opened their own gallery. Once exposed as big fish in a small pond, their fame and admiration grew. Similarly, he describes the life of Caroline Sacks. Although very gifted in science from an early age, she ended up in the field of accounting. She was accepted by her dream school, Brown. But once there, surrounded by other brilliant students, she became a very small fish in a big pond. Failing and flailing in her science classes, she dropped them and went another directions. Had she gone he lower-tiered University of Maryland, she would have stood a very good chance at becoming a respected scientist. 

Small fish in a big pond. Big fish in a small pond. Sometimes, in order to succeed, underdogs need to be big fish in small ponds.

He details a fascinating study comparing “Hartwick All-Stars” (those at the top of a no-name lower tier school) to the “Harvard Dregs” (those at the bottom of the most prestigious university.) Again and again, the Hartwick All-Stars outdid the Harvard Dregs. Why? Big fish in a small pond = success.

Part Two: The Theory of Desirable Difficulty

Sometimes an overwhelming obstacle can lead to the greatest success.

Gladwell tells the tale of David Boies, a very accomplished lawyer, who has dyslexia. By learning to memorize very well in order to hide his reading disability, read body language cues, simplify ideas to their most basic concepts, and listen intently, he rose to success. The case can be made that although a disadvantage like dyslexia cannot always be turned into an advantage (many with dyslexia end up in jail), for those who can, it may be better for them than if they had never had it. 

Being an outsider, standing apart from society and having to innovate and take risks in order to do what comes naturally to others, is a big factor in those who experience phenomenal success. 

He goes on to demonstrate other difficulties that, if overcome, can become a desirable thing. Losing a parent as a child, experiencing a near-miss, or growing up in very adverse conditions, can often propel people to unimaginable heights. The stories Gladwell tells to illustrate these are wonderful and inspiring.

Part Three: The Limits of Power

Power, itself, can create an underdog to oppose it when it is misused and becomes illegitimate. Legitimate authority is based on three things: people must believe they have a voice and will be heard, the rules must be predictable, and authority must be exercised fairly. 

Gladwell uses the heavy-handed crack down on the Irish by the British. They turned ordinary people in rebels with their brutal, unfair, and unpredictable tactics. In the same way, the Three-Strikes Law in California gave rise to push back when it appeared capricious and unfair. Despite the best of intentions to crack down on law breakers, in both cases, more law breakers were created. He points to a group of Mennonites, and their unbelievable power of forgiveness, as a potentially better way to react to injustice. 

The U-shaped curve show up again in the limits of power. Sometimes too much exercising of power leads to the opposite of the intended effect. Sometimes, when people are backed into a corner, with nothing to lose, and the power that be have lost their legitimacy, the weak become strong. 

Brilliant book. Easy to read. Wonderful storyteller. I highly recommend this!

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