“What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem.” – Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath
Let’s just say, I’m behind on my reading.
But my decision to catch up couldn’t have come at a better time: right as I was interviewing for my new job and making decisions about my private creative work in 2014. Dubbed David and Goliath, the book is built on the story of the same name, about the giant and the small boy who felled him with a sling. In it, Gladwell explores the hidden power of disadvantages—and why the “weak” may just be poised to win.
Here are a few thoughts that especially impacted me. I hope they challenge you, as well, in the year ahead!
Insight #1: The powerful are not always as powerful as they seem.
This is an incredibly freeing (and sobering) thought. Fear is surely the greatest enemy we face in life, and fear is often tied to the power of others over us. I asked myself, “In how many decisions have I over- or underestimated the strengths of those involved?”
The answer was humbling.
In the creative world, especially, we tend to believe the powerful hold our fates. This is the number one lie I see in young or new writers who ask my advice. It’s one I’ve fallen prey to at various points. We take for granted that somebody at a publishing house or production company has the power to make our dreams come true.
In reality, we underdogs—the unknown and unsung—have so much more power over our futures, if only we’d see it. “He was an underdog and a misfit,” Gladwell writes of one of his examples, “And that gave him the freedom to try things no one else ever dreamt of.”
Freedom is power.
Insight #2: Be disagreeable.
This one might seem surprising. Gladwell relates a study about successful entrepreneurs/inventors and their finest qualities. Shockingly, one of the most frequently-cited was disagreeableness. “These people are willing to take social risks,” he writes, “To do things others might disapprove of.” Disagreeable people change the world.
This sort of disagreeableness has nothing to do with a cantankerous neighbor or intractable boss. It’s a special brand of courage that often characterizes the world’s brightest minds. They’re willing to stand up for what they believe to be right, beneficial, or excellent, despite what others say or think. Why are they able to go against the grain?
Because of the struggles they’ve previously overcome.
The logic goes (with a long list of examples–from civil rights heroes to vaccine inventors to survivors of tragedy) that brilliance only reaches the world because someone struggles. In most cases, whatever a luminary endures to give us his/her greatness pales in comparison to what s/he has already overcome.
No one would wish loss, pain, or privation on anyone. Most of us run from them and try to help others do the same. But while struggle and sorrow may break some people, they make others. And when those courageous souls faced hurdles later, while doing their great life’s work, they are prepared to say “no” to the forces aligned against them.
They are disagreeable.
Insight #3: Apparent disadvantage may not be a disadvantage at all.
This one in particular is precious to me. Gladwell talks about the prevailing notion that Big Ponds are better than Little Ponds, his prime example being the belief that an Ivy-League education is more beneficial than a degree from an unknown institution.
In fact, the research findings are the opposite.
I won’t regale you with his statistics or examples; I’ll give you one from my life instead. Personally, I gambled on this principle when I turned my back on pursuing a traditional career in film and fiction. I started out, like most young artists, doing everything in my power to please the establishment and perhaps, for one small moment, gain the glory of their acceptance. Then, one day, I said “Enough!” of playing someone else’s game. My choice to stop chasing and start charting my own path—while scorned by some—paid off in ways I could never have begun to imagine.
Part of my logic was that I knew I had more chance to meet the right people in my own neck of the country. They’re just more accessible in the Midwest’s smaller creative pool than in the ocean of L.A. glamour. Part of it was because I knew living outside L.A. forced me to use Small Pond tactics and find avenues of entry that folks in the Big Pond wouldn’t see.
After all, if you’re busy just trying to swim around all the other fish, what else can you possibly see?
Out of that choice came so many, many gifts. The very people who told me I was insane now send other artists to me for advice. While I’m no “success” in the traditional sense, I’m thrilled beyond words with the path God has given me.
The very disadvantages I had chafed against have now become my greatest strength.
Overall, I came away from David and Goliath, more convinced than ever that “deficits” of any sort are really just gifts in disguise. It’s not the easiest message to hear. It’s not the easiest message to accept. But the truth always sets us free in the end.
There are giants aplenty in this world. But David and Goliath reminds us again that it’s not the well-dressed warrior who fells them.
Won’t you join me in taking up your sling?