How David Beats Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell writes in 5/11/09 New Yorker “How David Beats Goliath.” Against all the odds of the big institutional players — the Goliaths — sometimes the little guy — the underdog David — wins. I think about this in conversations I’ve had lately about “big radio” refusing to play anything that doesn’t fit their formula. I think about it when I look at my friends who are/were/wish to be entrepreneurs in fields dominated by big corporations. I think about it when I see pirates capturing tankers and peasants whipping our asses in Central Asia.

The Goliaths write the rules of the game, then develop their stately conventions and expectations around them. The successful Davids don’t imitate the Goliaths; they see just the rules and interpret them to their advantage. They risk being “horrifying.” A basketball team of short white girls made it to the National Finals by using a full court press all the time and confusing their taller, savvier opponents.

We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability… because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

Relentless effort, yeah! But apparently there are a lot of skilled Davids out there who simply poop out.

It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them march to the sound of a fife-and-drum corps than it is to have them ride six hundred miles through the desert on the back of a camel [Lawrence of Arabia’s surprising march to Aqaba]. It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing [basketball’s full court press].

In my life I’ve had people brush off my success at this or that by saying “Oh, you’re just so smart.” Smart, sure — but I also worked my butt off. I always liked the credit for doing the work more than for just being brainy. Maybe it’s a petty thing. But it’s nice to see that effort can be the difference between scoring against the Goliath or just whining about how big he is.

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2 Responses to How David Beats Goliath

  1. Kathleen says:

    You’re an outlier! I love Malcom.

  2. madinpursuit says:

    An outlier! I take that as a compliment! (Even if it means I’m weird.)

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