Underdogs win a lot more often than you think. Malcolm Gladwell explains how.

We’re all familiar with the story of David and Goliath, where David stood before the giant of the Philistines and survived to tell about it. For forty days, Goliath had been dispensing soldiers with relative ease, until David came along. David rose to the challenge and, at first, girded himself with a helmet and mail and sword. But David recognized that waging this battle using conventional warfare would be suicide against Goliath. So he changed his strategy to take advantage of this strengths.

Malcolm Gladwell, in an article for The New Yorker, argues that this simple act of adjusting strategy is the key for weaker opponents – the Davids – to win against foes that greatly overpower them. He tells a compelling story of Vivek Ranadivé, who took on the job of coaching his daughters woeful basketball team, a bunch of “little blond girls” from Menlo Park, daughters of computer programmers. He says, “They weren’t all that tall. They couldn’t shoot. They weren’t particularly adept at dribbling. They were not the sort who played pickup games at the playground every evening.” Yet he was able to take them from obscurity to a national championship by changing the way they played: Instead of playing to the strengths of opponents, the adopted a relentless full-court press strategy and crushed the better-abled competition.

Gladwell suggests successes of this type aren’t all that uncommon. In fact, 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. Thinking about the original David, who took off the heavy, unfamiliar armor and picked up five smooth stones, 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.”

Which begs the question, what should you be doing to change the game to play to your strengths?

[Read Gladwell’s article, “How David Beats Goliath“]

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