Many of us know the story of David & Goliath, with it’s beloved tale of an underdog coming out on top, but what if we have been looking at it all wrong?
In his latest book, David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell uses the classical story of a seemingly impossible outcome to start a conversation. He wants us to think critically while walking through stories of some unique individuals whom appear to be at great disadvantages but rise above them in remarkable ways. Using his unique writing style and investigative techniques, Gladwell finds that there are some curious things to be found if we really look into these underdog situations.
The story of David and Goliath is one you may have heard before with the young shepherd David facing off with the giant warrior Goliath and its counterintuitive outcome. The story shows us that David is greatly disadvantaged compared to Goliath; being young, inexperienced, and entering the fight with none of the classical armaments offered to him it appears Goliath will have an easy victory. This story is used the world over to describe situations where the underdog overcomes and defeats their “giant” against all odds. Using this story for inspiration is not inherently wrong but what if there is another way of looking at these types of encounters, one that changes the way we label advantages and disadvantages?
The lack of a parent always carries significant effects on the life of a child, and we tend to treat children in such situations as being at a “disadvantage” in many aspects of their life. Many studies have shown that children who are raised by a single parent can struggle with emotional health, social abilities, economic status, and have issues in many other areas of life. I know most of this to be true first hand because I never knew my father and was raised by a single mother.
According to statistics I am more likely to have been incarcerated, committed suicide, have a behavioral disorder, and have failed in school. However, I have never been arrested, been diagnosed with any disorder, graduated both high school and college with honors, have a great job and wonderful social life. I am not the exception that proves the rule as there are many others out there that have done well despite being at a “disadvantage” from very early on.
Should you pity me for not having a dad growing up, should I be given preferential treatment because of this apparent disadvantage? I, along with Gladwell, would argue no for some very interesting reasons.
Gladwell spends the first two parts of his book discussing stories of those whose advantages became disadvantages and more interestingly the stories of people whose disadvantages became advantages. Growing up without a parent, having dyslexia, and being a minority are among the adverse circumstances that ended up giving those individuals the upper hand.
Referencing the work of psychiatrist J.T. MacCurdy, Gladwell uses the three groups he applied to victims of wartime attacks to label the victims of life issues. The first group are those killed, whose lives are utterly destroyed in one way or another. The second are the near misses, who may or may not have lasting issues from a devastating attack. The third group, and the one that might just be the most prominent, are the remote misses. People tend to become stronger in the realization that they have survived an attack, and this new found power in turn bolsters them for the rest of their life.
These remote misses are everywhere and in fact come out of the most unlikely of places. In a chapter that with the subtitle “You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child, or would you?” he points out that this learning disability can instill traits that lend themselves to the incredibly successful. Having a tough time reading can make someone spend more time critically thinking about problems at hand instead of taking quick action, a skill that they had to learn to survive through years of school, which can set an individual up to better climb the ladder of success. He points out that one study found many influential people were diagnosed with dyslexia in their youth including; Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, and Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers.
As a man I tend to hate feeling at a disadvantage in any area of life, it feels like being weak and I hate weakness. I know I am not alone in this, many men share similar loathing towards not being the best of the best. My go to response to any of my weaknesses is to wish that they had never existed, but maybe I should be careful what I wish for.
I am a remote miss as I grew up in a single parent home but my life was not utterly ruined by the lack of a father. Instead the hardships brought on by that absence did instill in me some positive traits that are integral to the man I am today. I learned to work hard, be self-sufficient, be comfortable in solitude, how to get attention when wanted and avoid detection if needed, and many other skills during my childhood. It’s a pretty radical concept to think that I owe much of my success in work and relationships to growing up with a disadvantage.
If every person with a disadvantage that many of us would consider as life destroying is counted out then our world would be a very different way. We can and should retrain the way we think about these types of things. Instead of pushing someone aside we could foster their strengths, both borne of trials and not, knowing that their future could just be incredible. Rather than staying down we should pick ourselves back up, knowing that we can survive devastation and are stronger for it.