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

April 30, 2014 at 11:35 am

image1For three thousand years, the story of the shepherd boy David felling the warrior Goliath personified the battle between underdogs and giants. In his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell challenges our view of what we accept as disadvantages and obstacles when powerful opponents were faced throughout history and now in our daily lives.

Beginning with the title story, Gladwell explores what happens when ordinary people confront giants. These powerful opponents range from mighty warriors and armies to the challenges of disability, misfortune, and oppression. When do you play by the rules or follow your own instincts? When do you persevere or throw in the towel? When do you strike back or forgive?

Gladwell discusses two main ideas: 1) The act of facing overwhelming odds and confronting lopsided conflicts produces greatness and beauty. 2) Our perception of these conflicts is inaccurate. We misread the conflicts and the giants. The same qualities that appear to give giants their strength could create a flipside of great weakness. Being an underdog changes people in ways we may miss and fail to appreciate. It can produce opportunities and make possible what seems unthinkable. In his book, Gladwell offers a better guide of what we should consider when facing giants.

Consider the famous battle between David and Goliath. The giant warrior wore an elaborate tunic  made of hundreds of overlapping bronze scales  that probably weighed over a hundred pounds, along with bronze shin guards, bronze feet coverings,  a heavy helmet and three weapons designed for close combat. David chooses five stones for his sling and descends into the valley carrying his shepherd’s staff. Goliath is heavy infantry facing a skilled slinger. The battle advantage suddenly switches to David.

Additionally, Gladwell describes how many medical experts believe that Goliath suffered from a medical condition of acromegaly – a disease caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. This can cause severely restricted sight and double vision. Goliath said to David, “Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks?” when David is only holding one shepherd’s staff. This vision problem may also explain why Goliath was led into battle by an attendant. Goliath’s giant size becomes a disadvantage when facing a projectile warrior. Power in terms of physical size may not stand against a fighter who breaks rules and substitutes speed and surprise.

Battles with the powerful and strong are not always what they appear. What we view as advantages and disadvantages can change how we confront everything from education to fighting crime. Gladwell offers inspiring stories of how people met foes that initially appeared to be of overwhelming odds.

Vivek Ranadivé coached his daughter’s basketball team of mostly twelve-year-old girls by two principles: 1) He never raised his voice. 2) After considering the qualities of his players, Ranadivé knew they weren’t all that tall, they couldn’t shoot, and they weren’t particularly adept at dribbling. Considering these disadvantages created his second principle. His team would play a full-court press every game, all the time.

Gladwell explains that using unconventional or guerrilla tactics raises the weaker party’s winning percentage from 28.5 percent to 63.6 percent. Do not automatically assume that someone smaller, poorer or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage. Ranadivé’s team began to win basketball games and at nationals they won their first two games. That is, until the referee concurred that it was not basketball when they played to deny the inbounds pass. The referee began to call four times as many fouls on Ranadivé’s team. The coach had to call off the press and when they played basketball the way basketball is supposed to be played, his team lost. However, not before proving what can happen when his team played aggressive defense and emphasized increased effort over ability. It can make a familiar game unrecognizable and make a Goliath not quite a giant.

Gladwell uses other examples of reconsidering advantages versus disadvantages. When discussing education, he illustrates it is not always an advantage to have a small class size and that attending an academically selective school can create mixed results.

In Part Two, he describes the theory of desirable difficulties. His examples illustrate how adaptation to dyslexia can help people develop other skills, such as improved listening and memory. Desirable difficulties can force people to compensate, thus demonstrating how underdogs can excel.

Part Three reveals the limits of power. In one example, Gladwell discusses how the British made a simple mistake in Northern Ireland, believing because they had the resources, weapons, soldiers and experience that they would dwarf the insurgent elements. They weren’t concerned with what the people of Northern Ireland thought of them. Instead, in the principle of legitimacy, when people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters first and foremost how they behave. People asked to obey authority have to feel that they have a voice and will be heard. The law has to be predictable and the authority has to be fair. Gladwell explains what actually matters are the hundreds of small things that the powerful do – or don’t do – to establish their legitimacy. When the law is applied in the absence of legitimacy, it does not produce obedience, but leads to backlash.

Gladwell reminds us to reevaluate power, difficulties, assets, leverage, and obstacles when facing our daily challenges. The improbable may be possible and setbacks may lead to success. In this way, we can turn the world upside down.


Debbie L. Fuehrer, L.P.C.C.

Complementary & Integrative Medicine Program

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