Lessons From David and Goliath

“One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity.” – Albert Schweitzer

Recently for one of my Masters classes  I read one of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling books called “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants“.  Like many of his other books, there are many interesting insights that we should all should consider. I want to share with you some of my main takeaways from this fascinating book. The important thing is not to agree or disagree with Mr. Gladwell. His talent lies in that he gets us to question many things that are widely believed to be true.

Key Points

Bigger isn’t always better: One of the ways he illustrates this is with an inverted u-shape diagram. It basically shows how something we perceive to be an advantage the bigger it gets at some point the benefit diminishes and eventually we actually experience negative returns. This can be seen with every great empire. Eventually, they reach a point where being the biggest and most powerful works against them and starts their downfall. Easy to see on a graph but a lot more difficult to observe this phenomenon in one’s life.

Our weaknesses can become our biggest strengths: We need to see the bigger picture so that we may discover a way of defeating whatever we are up against. In doing see, we need to be aware of what are our weaknesses and how we can transform them into our advantage.

Things are usually not what they seem: We are all guilty of judging a book by his cover. Just because we see someone who is smaller, poorer, or less skilled isn’t necessarily at a disadvantage. The lesson is this, we need to suspend judgment to have an opportunity to take a penetrating look. If we do we can look beyond the surface and we may find  amazing untapped potential.

Don’t become part of the status quo: Once you assume the group think mentality you are playing by their rules so there is no way of winning. You need to play your own game. You will stick out among a sea of conformity and will slowly get others to pay attention.

Underdog strategies are hard: The reason that David loses more than he wins is that it requires more work than most people can accept. This usually means people who overcome these challenges have no choice, they are desperate and have nothing to lose. You can learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable going against the conventional way of doing things. What is learned out of necessity is more powerful than the learning that comes easily.

There is a sweet spot with numbers: One way this was illustrated was with the size of school classrooms. Over 25 students and classes become increasingly hard to manage and the learning process suffers. Once they fall to less than 10 students creativity and the sharing of ideas can suffer. When building an organization be aware of the size in relation to the goals you are trying to accomplish.

The very best may not be the best for our particular situation: We need to learn to be very self-aware so that we can place ourselves in the best environment and not what society deems to be the best for everyone. We compare ourselves relative to our environment. A bright student in Harvard may drop out because the feedback he gets from his environment is that he is not good enough. In the right environment, the student can thrive.

It’s a matter of perspective so try and see the upside more than the downside:  A person with dyslexia who has  learned to be comfortable with failure is able to take more unconventional risks.

Not all difficulties are negative: A traumatic experience can have two completely different effects on people. Geniuses tend to grow up in adverse conditions.

If you can’t beat them, trick them: This lesson was best illustrated with how the slaves needed to learn to outsmart their owners in order to survive. They passed these lessons down in the form of Trickster tales such as Brer Rabbit. When you have nothing to lose you get to break all the rules.

The Principle of Legitimacy: This idea revolves around people in power who want to control the masses. In order for people to obey authority, they must feel like they have a voice. Second, the law has to be predictable.  Third, the authority has to be fair to everyone. Powerful people have to worry about how others think of them. Excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems. People start to rebel and be defiant.

To me, the ultimate lesson to take away from the book was learning to see the law of the Pendulum working in the Universe.  Things swing from one extreme to the next and eventually things tend to balance themselves out. And to me this balancing force comes from within the individual and not from the external environment. Someone with dyslexia chooses not to see his condition as a disadvantage and learns to grow in other ways and swings the pendulum into the other more successful direction. Power and change rest within the individual regardless of the external circumstances. Everyone can be David in their own way and on their own journey.

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