David and Goliath

I've recently been reading Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, David and Goliath. Gladwell really took my understanding of the David and Goliath story and turned it on it's head. Take this quote from historian Robert Dohrenwend, cited in the book, which reads:

Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an [oppo­nent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol.

Didn't expect that, did you? You'll need a little context. In the book, Gladwell explains that ancient warfare in many ways was a game of rock, paper, scissors, the way the infantry, cavalry, and artillery balanced one another. With long spikes and armor, infantry could stand up to calvary. Cavalry, moving quickly on horseback, moved too fast for projectile warriors, and lastly projectile warriors were deadly against sitting duck infantrymen. David was a slinger, a projectile warrior, and Goliath was heavy infantry. According to custom, the best warrior from each army would fight in hand-to-hand combat, with the losing side surrendering to the victor. David, however, didn’t play by the rules. Another excerpt:

Goliath is heavy infantry. He thinks that he is going to be engaged in a duel with another heavy-infantryman. David, however, has no intention of honoring the ritu­als of single combat. When he tells Saul that he has killed bears and lions as a shepherd, he does so not just as tes­timony to his courage but to make another point as well: that he intends to fight Goliath the same way he has learned to fight wild animals—as a projectile warrior.

He runs toward Goliath, because without armor he has speed and maneuverability. He puts a rock into his sling, and whips it around and around, faster and faster at six or seven revolutions per second, aiming his projectile at Goliath’s forehead—the giant’s only point of vulnerability. Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defense Forces, recently did a series of calculations showing that a typical-size stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of thirty-five meters would have hit Goliath’s head with a velocity of thirty-four meters per second—more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him unconscious or dead. In terms of stopping power, that is equivalent to a fair-size modern handgun. “We find,” Hirsch writes, “that David could have slung and hit Goliath in little more than one second—a time so brief that Goliath would not have been able to protect himself and during which he would be stationary for all practical purposes.

Underdogs like David often learn to think differently, to change the rules of the game. When facing incredible odds what are your options? Certainly a hand-to-hand fight with a powerhouse will lead to failure. But this is where underdogs have a distinct advantage. The threat of sure failure leads to creativity, determination, and incredible courage. David was able to conquer Goliath by changing the rules of the game, and by the same vein many heavy underdogs can succeed in business by using their position as a strength.

Larger excerpt available at 'David and Goliath': Understanding the dynamics in a power struggle.
Book available on Amazon.

Another point Gladwell makes is about what most of us know as the big fish in a small pond effect. His ultimate point is that he is against someone attending a prestigious university just for the name. To choose the "elite" university more often than not means choosing to be a little fish in a big pond, since only a few will shine among the best. Gladwell believes firmly that people are generally better of being a part of a lesser known institution or company where they have a great chance of standing out.

I think this point is especially true at BYU. BYU isn’t ivy league, but it does brings out some of the best students from around the United States and from around the world. Many students, accustomed to straight A’s and the frequent praises of their professors and parents, struggle when facing B and C grades for the first time in their life. I'll be honest, I was no exception. As a computer engineering student who was top 25 in my high school class, I struggled heavily when the concepts did not come easy to me and I faced low B grades. I felt dumb and it made want to quit. After trying my hand at a mobile development class in the Information Systems department I did well and regained some confidence. Rather than trying to be the small fish in the engineering pond I decided to switch majors to Information Systems, where the business topics came easy and the technical topics were not so rigorous (or low-level). The largest personal benefit from this move was the feeling of confidence and empowerment. I no longer felt dumb among my peers, and the confidence led to great success in the classroom and earned me qualified positions at local software development companies. Now, officially one day from completing my last class at BYU, I am very grateful that I decided to make the move to Information Systems.

Gladwell explains this phenomenon as relative deprivation. The worst STEM students at Harvard are likely to be the top students in other programs, but Harvard students compare themselves to their peers and as a result have similar dropout rates as all programs across the county. In Gladwell’s opinion, it is better to attend a non-elite institution and leave feeling successful, then to have been a small fish in a big pond. Similarly, companies should not hire based on a name alone. Top performers - at any size institution or company - prove to be better employees than average performers at top ranked institutions and companies.

Based on what I've read of David and Goliath so far, I'd recommend grabbing up a copy. Gladwell taught me a couple history lessons and opened my mind on how you can turn disadvantages into strengths.