Who's the real underdog?: The truth about David and Goliath

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First aired on The Current (07/10/13)

Most of us are moved by stories of rags to riches, of overcoming disabilities, of personal triumph when many predicted failure. However Malcolm Gladwell believes people have too rigid an idea of what it means to be disadvantaged. Poverty, small size and a learning disability can all be secret weapons, according to Gladwell. The New Yorker writer and bestselling author turns the concept of the underdog upside down in his new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. He discussed the book in a recent interview on The Current.

In the original story of David and Goliath, David is seen as the underdog but Gladwell thinks otherwise. "The giant Goliath is not what he seems to be," he told host Anna Maria Tremonti. In his new book, he outlines an argument popular in academia that suggests Goliath suffered from acromegaly, a syndrome where a gland produces extra growth hormones and results in giantism and sight restrictions. Gladwell said if you go back over the biblical story there are all sorts of little anomalies that suggest Goliath may be at best severely nearsighted, if not partially blind. "The very thing that makes Goliath so intimidating -- his size," is also an indication of "what appears to be his greatest weakness, that he has limited vision."


Gladwell argues that "to conceive of that battle accurately is to understand that David is not the underdog. He is someone with all sorts of advantages and Goliath may appear to be a ferocious opponent but he is deeply compromised." In his book, he goes on to explore "how advantages and disadvantages and power are not what they seem to be."

Gladwell uses the framework of David and Goliath to analyse a few different real-life cases. He acknowledged that these are not the obvious Goliaths. "I didn't want to deal with cartoon versions of Goliath. I wanted to deal with these kinds of subtle variations between the powerful and the not powerful." He profiles a basketball coach who has never played basketball, a cancer researcher who fought against all odds to find the cure for childhood leukemia, and a dyslexic lawyer.

The lawyer is David Boies, the top trial lawyer in America. According to Gladwell, Boies reads so slowly and poorly that he's lucky if he finishes one book per year. When he was a law student he was a real underdog so he had to find ways to make up for his poor reading skills. Boies learned how to listen and developed a superior memory. By the time he became a trial lawyer these abilities gave him a great advantage. Gladwell gave the example of Boies doing a cross-examination and recalling that a witness's testimony conflicts with something he said earlier in the trial. "So here's someone who when confronted with an extraordinary obstacle, a neurological disorder, finds a way around it," Gladwell said.

Boies is part of a small group of people who find workarounds for their disadvantages. And while Gladwell argues that disadvantages can make you stronger he also said that advantages can hurt you. He looks at issues of poverty and social class and finds that material wealth doesn't necessarily bring more advantage to individuals. He uses a concept from sociology called "desirable difficulties" that says we have to distinguish between difficulties that are undesirable and do not make your life better and desirable difficulties that force you to learn skills and develop strategies that you need to succeed in the world. "Much of poverty is an undesirable difficulty. It is not a good thing to grow up desperately poor, no one is better off in that instance, but there are certain obstacles that are desirable," Gladwell said.

So did David and Goliath have desirable difficulties? "The real lesson of the original David and Goliath is that we thought it was this cut-and-dried contest and it's not. It's sort of complicated and difficult in some ways," Gladwell said. On the one hand, Goliath wasn't really as strong as he appeared -- and on the other hand, David used sophisticated technology to win the battle.

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