How David Beats Goliath

You’ve guessed it; through more effort, and harder work. This is an excellent article by the renowned Malcolm Gladwell, on how underdogs win through unusual tactics, higher levels of fitness and above all, sheer effort. It uses numerous examples of this, from how a small-time Junior basketball team consistently defeated top teams, to Bedouin techniques in warfare, and even the use of cold, artificial intelligence in planning attacking strategies. I’ve included a key passage below:

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.

As described above, the underdog has a highly increased likelihood of winning a battle if they acknowledge their weaknesses. We, in our daily lives, can use the same principles of the underdog to increase our chances of success in whatever we strive for. By doing this, we can work to remove this weakness from ourselves and turn it into a positive attribute. If faced with trying times, know that coming through these obstacles will give you that added experience, that grit to overcome future obstacles.

Another key point made in the above passage (and the article) is the use of unconventional strategy. Playing to your opponents terms will always result in defeat. Go against the norm, and create strategy that is advantageous to your own situation, your own resources. In a broader context, tailor what you do in relation to your needs. Many people follow “tried and tested” routines (both in training and otherwise) that are inconsistent with their own goals. Develop an expertise in your chosen subject area, in order to separate key principles from dogmatic convention, and use this to define your own path.

History favours effort and innovation.

2 thoughts on “How David Beats Goliath

  1. As Thomas Edison famously said: “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration”. And so as you rightly say Osman, this involves both effort as well as innovation. Interesting post!

  2. Thanks Atticus, Edison was certainly right! I’ve always enjoyed reading articles by Malcolm Gladwell, I feel that they sometimes beat about the bush, but in this case, the concept is definitely very well explained.

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