Favourites. Anyone who has engaged in some form of competition be it sport, business, conflict or any other industry, will either have been a favourite or an underdog at some stage of their career. Favourites are the ones whose odds are firmly stacked in their favour; they are expected to win with ease due to their overwhelming quality. Underdogs on the other hand; no positive outcome is expected, as compared to the favourites they are simply not strong enough.
Over the last few weeks Malcom Gladwell’s ‘David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants’ provided some summer holiday reading; a fantastic read which explores the original ‘David and Goliath’ expression and how flawed that commonly used phrase actually is. We’ll look at a few examples that Gladwell provides, and the impact they can have on the way one might next approach a competitive or indeed potentially disadvantageous situation.
David vs Goliath
This ancient battle from the Bible’s Books of Samuels is perceived by many as the greatest underdog story of all time. Goliath was a monster of a being; over six and a half feet, armed with an assortment of spears and swords whilst being protected by a shield and full body armour. David on the other hand, picks up five stones and deposits them into his shoulder bag having refused the sword and shield offered to him by King Saul. It may not seem like it, but something hugely significant has already happened at this point which determines the outcome of the battle. Can you work out what it is? If you’re not sure, read the last line of the first paragraph again carefully….
The key words you might have picked up on are compared to the favourites. When offering David the sword, King Saul compared David to Goliath from a sword vs sword perspective; a like for like. Goliath too expected David to fight him sword to sword, and was insulted when David came with just his bag and his shepherd’s staff. Ironically, Goliath should have been petrified at this stage, and Gladwell explains why:
Infantry > Cavalry; Cavalry > Projectile Warriors/Artillery; Projectile Warriors > Infantry
Do you see? Much like the rock, paper, scissors scenario certain types of fighter beat the other. Goliath would be an example of heavy infantry, and David being a ‘slinger’ (similar to an archer) would be classed as a projectile warrior. So really when you examine the facts a little closer, the real favourite actually was David. The idea of not matching up to the strengths of the opponent – in this case close to close combat – is the vital part however. It also tells us that an advantage of being the supposed ‘underdog’ is that the favourite (Goliath), is naïve to think that power comes in only one form. For David didn’t require strength and power (the sling already possessed that for him); instead he used speed and versatility, opposing the temptation that many before him had done by trying to match Goliath in his perception of power.
Can Dyslexia Be a Good Thing?
Gary Cohn was dyslexic. His early childhood years were blighted by his struggles with reading, and failure consequently resulting in a sustained period of social and emotional difficulties. He was bullied by peers and teachers, and perceived as a disruptive child. Gladwell cites him as saying “you’re in a public school setting, and everyone thinks you’re an idiot, so you try to do funny things to create some social esteem.” Essentially Cohn tried to act out of character by being the ‘class clown’, as that perception was better than the alternative people saw him as – the idiot. On the face of it you might be thinking how on earth can dyslexia be a good thing?!
Fast forward to when Cohn was 22, when he had become interested in trading and found himself strolling down Wall Street on a day off from work, hoping to speak to someone about finding a job. The office was closed, the security gate shut but the extract from Gladwell’s book reveals what occurred:
“…and then literally right after the market’s closed, I see this pretty well dressed guy running off the floor, yelling to his clerk, ‘I’ve got to go, I’m running to LaGuardia, I’m late, I’ll call you when I get to the airport’. I jump in the elevator and say, ‘I hear you’re going to LaGuardia’. He says, ‘Yeah’. I say, ‘Can we share a cab?’ He says, ‘sure.’ I think this is awesome. With Friday afternoon traffic, I can spend the next hour in the taxi getting a job.”
Not only was the guy getting into the taxi a big fish on Wall Street, but Cohn told him he knew ‘what an option was’ when asked, and claimed to know everything and be able to do anything for the man. So by the time the taxi arrived at the airport Cohn had a meeting arranged for Monday with the guy, and to cut a long story short, worked his way into a job, before proceeding to establish a career as a multimillionaire. Gary Cohn is currently the president of Goldman Sachs.
But where does the dyslexia become relevant? Again read his upbringing carefully; was he used to playing a different character to his real self? Yes. How many of us would be used to doing that? Enough to have the confidence to hold a conversation with a stranger for an hour on a profession you know next to nothing about? I doubt it! Was failure something he was also used to from a young age? Yes. The point therefore is that dyslexia played a hugely significant part in shaping Cohn to be what he was. Another person most likely wouldn’t dream of doing what Cohn did, so perhaps there are advantages to disadvantages.
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Let’s look at an example from a cricketing environment, though the concept can be applied to a host of other sporting situations. The ramp shot. A premeditated shot which is becoming more and more common in the professional game thanks to the likes of Jos Buttler, though still a shot which many batters fear with it being one of high risk. What makes the ramp high risk – the fact that it’s a premeditated shot; you’ve already decided you’re going to play it before the bowler bowls. Much like the example of David & Goliath, might we want to stop for a moment and examine the facts a little closer? Key phrase is the professional game – the bowling is more disciplined, accurate and skilful. Hopefully you see where I’m going, but if not answer this – if you’re premeditating a shot, do you want to know where the ball is going to go? Yes of course! So by the bowling being more accurate, this can help you execute your ramp as you know roughly where it will be.
I’ll leave you with one more example, and if you’ve seen Zack Snyder’s film 300 featuring Gerard Butler, you’ll know what I’m talking about. 300 Spartan warriors, superior in skill, armour and metal against over 300’000 Persians sent forth by Xerxes. Even with their fighting skill, how to fight against an unrelenting force of that many? Simple – reduce the deficit; don’t make it 300 vs 300’000. The Pass of Thermopylae (The “Hot Gates”) – a narrow road under the cover of the mountain provided the perfect ‘bottle neck’. The Spartans simply filtered the Persians into the road to slaughter them in their thousands. Like David, the Spartans didn’t assume power equalled strength in numbers. They assumed skill and unwavering ferociousness to be the key, and so they prevailed.
The message out of all these examples is really to stop and consider how you can best negotiate a situation against an opponent. Number one – use what you have at your disposal like Gary Cohn did, and number two – don’t be afraid to break the rules of your opponent; don’t make preconceived decisions about your game plan based on what the opposition have got. Make decisions based on what they haven’t. Maybe then we’ll be better informed of who actually is the ‘favourite’.