Against the Odds: Succeeding as an Underdog

Malcolm Gladwell examines the plight of the underdog in his latest piece for the New Yorker titled “How David Beats Goliath.”  Using a number of examples that support his claims, Gladwell determines that when faced with a disadvantage in terms of ability – this can be anything from talent and physical prowess to money and […]

Malcolm Gladwell examines the plight of the underdog in his latest piece for the New Yorker titled “How David Beats Goliath.”  Using a number of examples that support his claims, Gladwell determines that when faced with a disadvantage in terms of ability – this can be anything from talent and physical prowess to money and infrastructure – the best chance an outmatched opponent has of succeeding is by changing the rules of engagement and trying that much harder. And while his central thesis may seem like common sense, Gladwell finds numerous instances throughout history, the most illustrative come from the fields of battle – from foreign shores to the competition’s home floor – where more often than not, the opposite has been the case. And because of this, the side with greater advantage almost always wins. So then why doesn’t the underdog adopt this strategy more often?

Although society tends to root for the plucky little guy, Gladwell believes they’d rather see him succeed in miraculous fashion – chalk it up to a fluke – as opposed to admitting that he got over with a combination of scrappiness and bending the rules. Which is to say, upsetting the balance of things doesn’t typically sit so well with the establishment, a fact that points to an underdog also needing that one intangible quality that is arguably the hardest to come by, “guts.”

And in the end, no matter how many risks are taken or how much effort is expended, it still isn’t any guarantee of success, but given the alternative – almost certain defeat – doesn’t this at least make things more interesting and perhaps even fulfilling? After all, there are lessons to be learned from losing too.

As an addendum to this piece, we thought a recent email conversation that Gladwell had with ESPN’s Bill Simmons was worthy of note. The discussion centers on the world of sports, but there are a number of insights that are applicable elsewhere. We found the following point by Gladwell about the state of the current draft system in sports particularly intriguing:

The consistent failure of underdogs in professional sports to even try something new suggests, to me, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the incentive structure of the leagues. I think, for example, that the idea of ranking draft picks in reverse order of finish — as much as it sounds “fair” — does untold damage to the game. You simply cannot have a system that rewards anyone, ever, for losing. Economists worry about this all the time, when they talk about “moral hazard.” Moral hazard is the idea that if you insure someone against risk, you will make risky behavior more likely. So if you always bail out the banks when they take absurd risks and do stupid things, they are going to keep on taking absurd risks and doing stupid things. Bailouts create moral hazard. Moral hazard is also why your health insurance has a co-pay. If your insurer paid for everything, the theory goes, it would encourage you to go to the doctor when you really don’t need to. No economist in his right mind would ever endorse the football and basketball drafts the way they are structured now. They are a moral hazard in spades. If you give me a lottery pick for being an atrocious GM, where’s my incentive not to be an atrocious GM?

The New Yorker: How David Beats Goliath

ESPN: Gladwell-Simmons II: Ultimate Rematch

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