We all know the story of David & Goliath – the giant soldier felled by the lowly shepherd, proving that underdogs shouldn’t be underestimated. What if we’ve got that story the wrong way round though, what if David wasn’t in fact such an underdog? This is one of the questions posed by Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book, as he challenges the reader to consider whether our perception of what makes an underdog, or what constitutes a disadvantage, is actually correct. In the case of David the shepherd, could it be that he was in fact ideally suited to fighting Goliath on his own terms, and that the soldier was doomed the moment the lowly shepherd stepped up?
To help answer these questions, Gladwell gives us a number of case studies looking at a range of people from a family living through the Troubles in Northern Ireland to a headstrong doctor working to find a cure for Leukemia and a girl whose choice of school had a huge impact on the rest of her life. Throughout all of these we’re asked to consider how we would react to the circumstances in question, then guided through the implications of the decisions we might make. What all of these people have in common is that they have experienced something which goes against our natural assumptions regarding what is good or bad, or what is positive or negative. Not all of them have come away stronger, but there are positives to be taken from each and every one. The ways in which they reverse the assumed order are fascinating in their own right, and as stories of real people in real situations these are powerful, emotional and thought-provoking.
The point Gladwell is making is that it isn’t always better to have more. Being bigger, stronger, faster, more privileged, more successful…these are generally assumed to be desirable, while weakness, illness, deprivation, these are considered undesirable. Sure, nobody’s going to want to suffer from an illness or live through a war, but sometimes hardships can generate amazing reactions. Apply that principle to everyday life and you reach the conclusion that making the obvious choice isn’t always a wise move, and that what we might otherwise perceive as weaknesses or disadvantages can, under the right circumstances, become our greatest strengths. If nothing else, this is a keen reminder to keep an open, enquiring mind and wherever possible to question the commonly-held assumptions that we all make.