Over Christmas break I finally picked up and read a Malcolm Gladwell book after years of hearing great things about his writing. This one was called ‘David and Goliath,’ and it was about ‘underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants.’ Malcolm provides such fascinating short stories that show how traits that look like weaknesses upon first glance can actually be useful strengths.
He starts with the metaphorical story of David and Goliath, where David the shepherd boy and likely underdog goes in to battle against the tall, armored and powerful Goliath. Both armies watching on assume a completely unmatched fight and a guaranteed lights out for David, but the shepherd boy whoops Goliath handily. The story represents an analogy that sometimes the small, less powerful side can win against all odds when facing the bigger and stronger opponent.
But as Malcolm Gladwell sizes up the two adversaries in detail, it becomes clear that David is in fact the superior opponent in the fight, hands-down.
Goliath is slow, heavy, and based on some of his statements, has terrible eyesight. He only performs well in up close, man-to-man combat but David has a sling and rock is able to attack from a far distance. Historical records show that men skilled with the sling can hit a human-sized target from hundreds of feet away with lethal damage. David came down the valley, flung a rock at bullet speed straight to Goliath’s exposed forehead, and the battle was over within minutes.
In the rest of the book he tells more stories of how weaknesses can actually be great advantages. The fundamental reason seems to be that having a weakness forces one to adapt and learn ways to overcome that weakness. Men with dyslexia were actually shown to be more successful on average, as not being able to read forced them to learn body language, memorize data and information, and become exceptionally good speakers.
Martin Luther King and the African Americans in the 1960’s were perceived as the little guy standing up against the big, oppressive white man. But after the many decades of being oppressed, they became resilient, nimble and clever. This helped them make massive change through intellectual, quick thinking, despite so much persecution.
Students who went to Harvard actually had on average less chance of success in their careers, as they were a small fish in a big pond. Although graduating from Harvard appears to be the obvious advantage at first glance, it’s actually much more advantageous to come out an ‘A’ student from smaller, less competitive schools such as Brown or Cornell than scrape by against the nation’s smartest (if you pass at all) and come out in the bottom rung.
This made me think about my ‘weaknesses’ and how they could actually be applied to success rather than hold me back from achievement.
- I make a lot of mistakes: I’ve become used to dealing with failure: and therefore I’m more willing to try new things with less fear of failing
- I change hobbies and activities frequently, and don’t stick to anything for long: so I’m able to learn new skills quickly, find out what motivates me and what doesn’t, and be willing to get involved in new groups
- I grew up quiet and introverted: but this helped me learn how to listen well and ask questions
- I’m forgetful: but this forces me to make lists and get in the habit of looking back when I get off buses or leave the house
So now any time I think, “I can’t build a house because I make too many mistakes / I couldn’t start my own business because I’m not extroverted / I don’t think I should join that team because I’m not good at that sport” or whatever it is, I remember that a weakness is only a weakness if not used to create strength.
Photo from here.