In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell argues that what we often think of as disadvantages may actually be advantages, and that advantages of goliaths may turn into disadvantages. Gladwell shows us that underdog victories are less miraculous (and more achievable) than they seem, and sheds light on how we can reinterpret our own weaknesses to locate new sources of power.
1-Page Summary of David and Goliath
In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, a small shepherd boy conquers a giant by slinging a rock at his exposed forehead. We tend to think of David’s victory as a miracle, proof that sometimes, if he’s lucky, the weak can beat the strong.
But what if underdog victories have less to do with luck and more to do with the very circumstances we view as disadvantages? In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell argues that what we assume are disadvantages might actually be advantages, and vice versa.
Lacking skills can be an advantage.
- You can’t use skills you don’t have. If you lack the skills others think are necessary for the game, and you still want to play the game, you can’t play like everyone else.
- Lacking certain skills forces you to get creative. You have to come up with new approaches to winning. Meanwhile, your skilled opponents have no reason to get creative (and discover more effective strategies) because the conventional way works for them. **Your opponents don’t expect your novel approach. This gives you the edge. **
- For example, David wasn’t skilled with a sword and shield, so he couldn’t battle Goliath the traditional way (the way Goliath was expecting). David had to get creative, using his skill as a slinger to knock Goliath to the ground. Because Goliath wasn’t expecting this tactic, he left himself vulnerable to it.
Having less than your opponent can be an advantage.
- Having too much limits you.
- We tend to believe that if something is good, more of it is better.
- But studies suggest that while qualities such as strength, size, and wealth positively impact our lives in moderation, you reach a point at which all those seemingly-great resources become disadvantages.
- For example, Goliath was covered in armor and loaded with weapons. In a battle, weapons and armor are good things to have. But Goliath’s overabundance of weapons weighed him down. What was an advantage in a limited amount became a disadvantage in a large amount.
- Likewise, having too much wealth could make parenting more difficult, when it becomes harder to pass down your hard-earned values to your comfortable kids.
- Having nothing frees you.
- Occasionally, you have to break the rules to win the game. When you have money, a nice house, a foreign car, and clout in your community, you risk it all when you buck convention. Your desire to hold onto everything you have forces you to play by certain rules, and this constrains you.
- On the other hand, if you have nothing to lose, you’ll try anything. Like David challenging Goliath with a rock and a sling, you’ll take the unconventional approach that’s so crazy (and perhaps morally questionable) it just might work.
Being a big fish in a little pond can be an advantage.
- When choosing a college, most would agree you should go to the most prestigious one that will accept you. This would make you a little fish in a big pond, but who cares?
- You should care. The theory of relative deprivation says that we judge our abilities based on the abilities of those around us.
- If you attend Harvard and struggle in a chemistry class, you may feel that you’re just not cut out for a career in science.
- In reality, your skills in chemistry may be better than 99% of people in the world studying chemistry. But you don’t compare yourself to everyone in the world; you only compare yourself to fellow Harvard students.
- When comparing yourself to your peers at a prestigious school, you lose confidence in your abilities. You may switch to a humanities major, depriving the world of a great scientist.
- Your confidence in your skills may be a better predictor of career success than the prestige of the school you attend. Being a big fish in a little pond can give you this confidence.
Having a disability can be an advantage.
- We generally consider having a disability a disadvantage. However, disabilities force some people to make up for them by developing extraordinary abilities in other areas.
- For people who can compensate, their disability becomes a gift—without it, they never would have needed to work so hard to develop other skills.
- For example, students with dyslexia struggle to read. Because they can’t depend on reading to learn, they often compensate by developing superior listening and observation skills instead.
Living through a traumatic event can be an advantage.
- Social scientists break people who have survived a traumatic event into two groups: near misses and remote misses.
- Remote misses are people who are slightly removed from the trauma. For these people, the death of a parent or an exploding wartime bomb strengthens them. Trauma actually leaves them better off than they were before.
- Because the worst has already happened, they have less to fear. They take more risks because even if they fail, things can’t get worse.
- Enduring something that is seemingly unendurable gives you confidence.
Exerting too much power can be a disadvantage.
- Power isn’t limitless. If you act as if it is and wield power that isn’t “legitimate,” you’ll get defiance from your subjects (or employees) rather than submission.
- Power is legitimate when:
- Subjects feel like their voices are heard.
- The law (or the person in power) is predictable.
- The law (or the person in power) is fair.
- If you are not predictable, fair, and attentive to the feelings of your subjects, you hold very little power over them.
If underdog tactics are so successful, why doesn’t everyone use them?
- Underdog tactics are hard
- They often require you to work harder than everyone else.
- They may call for brain power over brawn. You’ve got to be crafty.
- You need to be able to break from convention and think outside the box.
- Underdog tactics make others angry
- People don’t like it when you win without playing by their rules. You have to be able to tune out what others think of you.
Full Summary of David and Goliath
Introduction: The Story of David and Goliath
For thousands of years, the Biblical story of David and Goliath has given hope to underdogs inspired by David’s miraculous victory against the giant Goliath, with only a rock, sling, and stick at his disposal. The odds were against David…or were they?
In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell argues that we misunderstand underdog victories. We think of David’s small size, shortage of weapons, and lack of battle experience as disadvantages, when these were actually crucial to his success. Gladwell shows us that our various disadvantages–from loss and grief to discrimination and disability–…
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Here’s what you’ll find in the full David and Goliath summary:
- Introduction: The Story of David and Goliath
- Chapter 1: The Advantages of Lacking Skill
- Exercise: Turn Lack of Skills into a Strength
- Chapter 2: The Advantages of Having Less Than Your Opponent
- Exercise: Find Your Advantage in Moderation
- Chapter 3: The Advantages of Being a Big Fish in a Little Pond
- Exercise: View Your Skills Objectively
- Chapter 4: Desirable Difficulty #1 – Disability
- Exercise: Compensate for Skills You Lack
- Chapter 5: Desirable Difficulty #2 – Trauma
- Exercise: Acknowledge the Upside of Your Fear
- Chapter 6: Desirable Difficulty #3 – Having Nothing
- Exercise: Be Tricky and Think Unconventionally
- Chapter 7: The Limits of Power – The Principle of Legitimacy
- Exercise: Use Your Power Legitimately
- Chapter 8: The Limits of Power – The Inverted U
- Exercise: Combine Appropriate Consequences with Forgiveness
- Chapter 9: Summing Up the Limits of Power
- Afterword: Konrad Kellen
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