“David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” by Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, especially XXX“The Outliers”XXX and this book continues his approach of conveying his thoughts through stories and idioms. Much in this book deals with perception, or rather misperception of a situation. I’ve pointed out before through works like “Incognito” and “Thinking Fast and Slow”, our brains play tricks on us and as individuals, we must be aware of these tricks and how heavily they influence our decisions.

  1. Much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.
  2. He doesn’t appreciate that power can come in other forms as well—in breaking rules, in substituting speed and surprise for strength. Saul is not alone in making this mistake. In the pages that follow, I’m going to argue that we continue to make that error today, in ways that have consequences for everything from how we educate our children to how we fight crime and disorder.
  3. What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very things that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and strong are not always what they seem.
  4. Some pretend to be rich, yet have nothing; others pretend to be poor, yet have great wealth. ~Proverbs 13:7
  5. There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources—and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former.
  6. Any fool can spend money. But to earn it and save it and defer gratification—then you learn to value it differently. (See more about this in “Rich Dad Poor Dad”)
  7. There is an important principle that guides our thinking about the relationship between parenting and money—and that principle is that more is not always better.
  8. Inverted U-curves have three parts, and each part follows a different logic. There’s a left side, where doing more or having more makes things better. There’s the flat middle, where doing more doesn’t make much of a difference. And there’s the right side, where doing more or having more makes things worse. (See much much more about this in “How Not to be Wrong”)
  9. Nearly everything of consequence follows the inverted U: Across many domains of psychology, one finds that X increases Y to a point, and then it decreases Y… There is no such thing as an unmitigated good. All positive traits, states, and experiences have costs that at high levels may begin to outweigh their benefits.
  10. The Big Fish—Little Pond option might be scorned by some on the outside, but Small Ponds are welcoming places for those on the inside. They have all of the support that comes from community and friendship—and they are places where innovation and individuality are not frowned upon.
  11. We form our impressions not globally, by placing ourselves in the broadest possible context, but locally—b comparing ourselves to people in the same boat as ourselves. Our sense of how deprived we are is relative. This is one of those observations that is both obvious and (upon exploration) deeply profound, and it explains all kinds of otherwise puzzling observations.
  12. The phenomenon of relative deprivation applied to education is called—appropriately enough—the “Big Fish—Little Pond Effect.” The more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities.
  13. That feeling—as subjective and ridiculous and irrational as it may be—matters. How you feel about your abilities—your academic “self concept”—in the context of your classroom shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks.
  14. The best students from mediocre schools were almost always a better bet than good students from the very best schools.
  15. Parents still tell their children to go to the best schools they possible can, on the grounds that the best schools will allow them to do whatever they wish. We take it for granted that the Big Pond expands opportunities, just as we take it for granted that a smaller class is always a better class. We have a definition in our heads of what an advantage is—and the definition isn’t right. And what happens as a result? It means that we make mistakes. It means that we misread battles between underdogs and giants. It means that we underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage. It’s the Little Pond that maximizes your chances to do whatever you want.
  16. Making the questions “disfluent” causes people to think more deeply about whatever they come across. They’ll use more resources on it. They’ll process more deeply or think more carefully about what’s going on.
  17. “Capitalization Learning”: we get good at something by building on strengths that we are naturally given. (Although “Make it Stick” argues effectively that our ability to learn is not genetic and that learning is more effective when more of our resources are challenged. )
  18. Psychologists measure personality through what is called the Five Factor Model, or “Big Five” inventory, which assesses who we are across the following dimensions:
    1. Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous versus secure/confident)
    2. Extraversion (energetic/gregarious versus solitary/reserved)
    3. Openness (inventive/curious versus consistent/cautious)
    4. Conscientiousness (orderly/industrious versus easygoing/careless)
    5. Agreeableness (cooperative/energetic versus self-interested/antagonistic)
  19. Society frowns on disagreeableness. As human beings we are hardwired to seek the approval of those around us. Yet a radical and transformative thought goes nowhere without the willingness to challenge convention.
  20. George Bernard Shaw once put it: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” (Again, look to examples in “The Innovators” where it clearly takes a balance between the conventional and the unconventional to make great strides. But I do agree that most great things come from challenging the status quo.)
  21. Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.
  22. We are al of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produce exhilaration… The contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.
  23. The prediction we make about how we are going to feel in some future situation is called “affective forecasting,” and all of the evidence suggests that we are terrible affective forecasters.
  24. When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters—first and foremost—how they behave. This is called the “principle of legitimacy,” and legitimacy is based on three things. First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice—that if they speak up, they will be heard. Second, the law has to be predictable. There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today. And third, the authority has to be fair. It can’t treat one group differently from another. (These same ideas apply to leadership and managerial skills, more of which can be found in “Work Happy” and “Leaders Eat Last.”)
  25. The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission. (While not a force and legitimacy problem, “Four Fish” talks in great lengths about humans errant need to master nature and tame the untamable.)


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

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