David and Goliath

Summary Written by Joel D Canfield
"Why do we automatically assume that someone who is smaller or poorer or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage?"

- David and Goliath, page 22

The Big Idea

Our Instinctive Reaction to Apparent Advantages and Disadvantages is Often Wrong

"He doesn't appreciate the power that can come in other forms as well – in breaking rules, and substituting speed and surprise for strength."- David and Goliath, page 13

In a world that focuses on superlatives, biggest fastest richest being, apparently, the goal, it’s easy to lose track of all the times those things don’t matter.

The next great innovation is far more likely to come from a company we’ve never heard of than one we’re already buying from. Spending a fortune to reduce class size in US schools isn’t helpful. “Three strikes” laws did absolutely nothing to deter crime.

The advantages of power or size aren’t as obvious as they once seemed.

On the other side of the coin, a recent study at City University London found that 1/3 of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. A review of major historical figures of the past 300 years reveals that 45% of those for whom data is available lost a parent before the age of 20.

During WWII, Churchill’s greatest fear was that Germany would bomb London, causing panic and mayhem. It was his belief that sustained bombing by the Germans would lose the Allies the war. Instead, people who survived near misses gained confidence, some even refusing to evacuate when it was possible.

Our instinctive reactions to size, speed, intelligence, and other measurables is frequently wrong. These things are often supplanted by things it’s harder to measure: grit, persistence, determination. Some of the anecdotes in the book remind us that when a person feels they’ve already lost everything, they’re willing to take risks the rest of us couldn’t conceive.

And when they succeed, it’s a success we couldn’t conceive.

Insight #1

The Inverted U: When Good Stops Being Good

"[T]here is no such thing as an unmitigated good. All positive traits, states, and experiences have costs that at high levels may begin to outweigh the benefits."- footnote quoting Barry Schwartz and Adam Grant, David and Goliath, page 52

When I was a kid I built plastic models. Started with cars and trucks and quickly moved to the Wright Brothers’ plane, Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, and the clipper ship Thermopylae.

Using model glue you learn that more is not better. You need enough glue to make the parts stick, and not one bit more. More glue just melts the pieces and ruins them.

Chefs know this well. Enough salt is necessary. Too much salt ruins the dish.

Elsewhere in life we’re less aware of the inverted U: at first, more is better. After a while, the benefit levels off. Eventually, though, it crashes, become as bad as “not enough” or even worse.

Being bigger than your enemy is good. Goliath was too big.

It turns out that class sizes, alcohol consumption, wealth (in relation to parenting) and the punishment of crime all follow an inverted U. Up to a point, smaller classes, a drink, money, and punishment deliver a positive outcome. A bit more, and they stop having additional benefits.

And then, they stop having benefits. Too much is as bad as too little.

Balance is rarely touted in business, especially entrepreneurship. Yet all around us is evidence that after a certain point, “more” is less.

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Insight #2

Better to Be a Big Fish in a Small Pond

"Our sense of how deprived we are is relative. This is one of those observations that is both obvious and (upon exploration) deeply profound."- David and Goliath, page 79

College students seek out the best school their money can buy. As a result, students used to being at the top of their class are now average – or even below average.

As a result, these students drop out, change majors, or change schools far more often than lower ranked students who went to a university where they had less academic competition.

Honduras is a poor country. By comparison, the average Chilean has 4 ½ times the purchasing power of a Honduran.

When we compare the happiness of the poorest Hondurans to that of the poorest Chileans (who still have significantly greater purchasing power) the Hondurans are far happier.

The poor in Chile don’t compare themselves to the poor in other countries, the compare themselves to the average Chilean. When they do, the gap is larger than when a Honduran makes the same comparison.

Few of us compare our wealth to the famous rich or our creativity to leading artists. We compare ourselves to our peers. As a result, we may think we’re not doing so well when in fact we’re above average overall, just not within the small group we’re using for comparison.

It goes the other way, too: we may think we’re a star, only to discover in another context that we’re simply the best among a small group of average performers.

For the sake of progress, we need challenging peers. For the sake of contentment, though, we should choose peers among whom we can shine.

Either choice should be deliberate, not unconscious.

As Goliath bellered his challenge to the Israelites, their greatest warriors assumed they would be fighting on his terms, the recognized and accepted norm for warfare in their day.

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Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer with “The New Yorker” magazine since 1996. His 1999 profile of Ron Popeil won a National Magazine Award, and in 2005 he was named one of “Time” Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. He is the author of four books, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference,” (2000) , “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” (2005), and “Outliers: The Story of Success” (2008) all of which were number one “New York Times” bestsellers. His latest book, “What the Dog Saw” (2009) is a compilation of stories published in “The New Yorker.”

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