Lessons from “David & Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell

“David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits and the art of battling giants” is the new book from Malcolm Gladwell which is based on the premise that maybe we have all been looking at the David and Goliath story completely wrong.

david-goliath-malcolm-gladwellGladwell starts by discussing specific details from the Biblical story to build the case that David the shepherd boy should have been the favorite in that battle. We all got it wrong because we were fixated on the giant that Goliath was, because we believed that it would be a close quarter battled where size, strength (of warrior, their sword and armor) would matter. But it wasn’t to be.

He dips back into the classical economic theory to talk about the marginal utility curve being an Inverted U curve. And if we believe that its an inverted U curve, then there comes a point beyond which the marginal returns decrease. Or in other words, the same things that were an advantage at one point may become an advantage on the other extreme of the spectrum.

As always, Malcolm backs his hypotheses with solidly researched stories.

  • One of the interesting stories is that of an Indian software engineer (who had never played basketball before) coaching his daughter’s team to national finals. How this outsider looked at his team – a bunch of self proclaimed nerdy girls, and how he looked at the traditional way of playing basketball. His gameplan – play the full court press – was something that was so unexpected that they just surprised their opponents all the way upto the finals where their opponents did the same to them.
  • The whole debate about class-size vs quality of education is again something where there is no clear answer and the reason is that the impact of an increase(or decrease) in class size depends upon which part of the curve the class currently is. It seems that if the class size is too small – there is no momentum in discussions and the intensity of possible interactions might be overwhelming for the kids. On the other hand, if the class size is too big the number of potential interactions may become too high to manage. Hence it seems the ideal class size is between 18-24. This is a great analysis for all those anxious parents who have been using the teacher:student ratio as a way of convincing themselves that they are giving their kids the best education possible. Apparently there is a simple rule in Israel – as soon as the class size crosses 39, they start another class.
  • Another interesting debate that is brought up is whether its a good idea to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. And Malcolm does this on a very sensitive topic. Should you always choose to go into the top most college that you have an offer from. I am sure, you know what he is hinting at. And apart from some well curated data on college choices and subsequent career success, he also brings forth the choice that the emerging bunch of impressionists made in Paris. The economic principle discussed here is Relative deprivation – comparing with peers and then deciding how we want to feel.
  • Capitalization Learning Vs Compensatory learning: There is a detailed discussion on the lives of some very successful people who were dyslexic and how they managed to “compensate” for this apparent disadvantage. It seems that people who can build on compensatory learning (which is actually a very had and difficult approach) develop their own set of tools to thrive in their chosen fields. E.g. the trial lawyer who couldn’t read properly but had compensated this by listening and remembering things.

Watch the Video from Talks at Google here:

The key lesson that I took away from this book is that start-ups in garages would continue to dethrone big companies because beyond a certain point, their size, capital, processes, existing customers – start becoming their biggest disadvantage.

And when going head-to-head with a Goliath, don’t play by their rules. Make your own rules, where their disadvantage can be exploited.

What the dog saw – Malcolm Gladwell

what-the-dog-saw-Malcolm-GladwellWhen my cuz mentioned about this Gladwell book, my first reaction was why the funny title. It seems the title is inspired from Gladwell’s efforts to get inside the other party’s head. He talks about the ‘Dog Whisperer’ the guy with the magical effect on unruly dogs, and wonders how it would be to decode the magic by understanding what the dog saw in the ‘Dog Whisperer’.

The book is actually a collection of stories Malcolm wrote when he was a staff writer at The New Yorker. Each one is backed by powerful research and has powerful stories that make for a very interesting case-study.

Some of the interesting lessons I found in this amazing book:

  • While pitching remember who is the star. When a celebrity endorses a product, the star in that commercial or pitch is the celebrity. The Pitchman who made a million dollars in an hour selling a kitchen appliance on TV, made sure that the product was the star. Always.
  • Study who is using your product and how. Kids do not control what they get to eat. Hence they cherish Ketchup with most meals, because it helps them control some bit of what they eat. Heinz noted how kids reached out to Ketchup bottle more often than adults . One of their senior team was out studying consumer behavior and noted how the kid was told not to handle the bottle on her own. Heinz noted this and ensured that their bottle became the kid-friendly EZ Squirt bottle.
  • We have a strange way of processing probability. In a chapter around Nassim Taleb and his counter-intuitive trading strategy, Gladwell talks about a small social experiment done. A set of individuals were given two options – A: Get $100 or B: Throw a coin & if you win get $200. Most opted for option A. When the experiment was reversed, surprising results came in. Now people were told that they could choose from C: Pay $100 or throw a coin and pay $200. Most people now wanted to test their luck and take a chance at losing their money.
  • To sell pain killers, you need to understand the person in pain and not just the pain. A classic example given talks about how a company found that its pill was being used both by people suffering from head-aches and stomach-aches. It took an advertising firm to discover that the consumer was in completely different mindsets. A person suffering from stomach-ache tends to blame himself for overeating etc and hence considers himself to be the culprit. A head-ache patient on the other hand is more in the victim mindset. Even if the same tablet can help both, you need to understand what to say to them in each scenario.
  • Puzzles vs Mysteries. Malcolm talks about how we currently live in a more open world where there is an explosion of data and information. In most instances these days, it is not a challenge to get more information, but to figure out patterns and make sense of the maze of data. The former is referred to as a puzzle and the latter scenario as a Mystery. While this was written way back in 2007, I think Gladwell was talking about Big Data as we know it today.
  • Bell Curves are misleading. While I agree 100% with the abusive nature of Bell Curves in the corporate set-up, Malcom brings up a more relevant aspect of it in policy making. It seems that most social challenges have few outliers who take up most of the cost of the program e.g. few polluting cars if removed can bring down the pollution significantly. Hence the approach should not be to manage all cars and check them, but find the polluting ones (in a smart way) and addressing them. I think the key point he makes is that with a bell curve we assume that each car is contributing in some way to the problem, where as the problem is limited to just a small subset of population on the extreme end of the graph. So no point making a policy for the whole distribution.

Its a great read with stories on the how the Birth-Control Pill evolved, how fight against Breast Cancer is a study in human evolution. You can buy it on Flipkart here