Triumph of the Underdog.
David and Goliath

Triumph of the Underdog.

Malcolm Gladwell offers a thoughtful, readable look at underdogs in history and how they triumphed.

Best-selling author and New Yorker magazine regular Malcolm Gladwell possesses a singular genius: He can take the contents of a fairly interesting, to-the-zeitgeist, feature-length magazine article and expand it into a readable best-selling book. His straightforward, conversational style, direct reader address and constant citing of impressive-sounding studies transform even minor insights into thunderbolts. His observations – such The Tipping Point’s contention that you must practice 10,000 hours to achieve true skill in any endeavor – become social clichés and appear in pretty much every subsequent book or article that comes near a subject Gladwell once addressed.

Give credit where it’s due: Gladwell created his own successful niche, and he works it unceasingly. This entertaining collection of pronouncements and the anecdotes that illustrate them illuminate an ancient yet contemporary theme: the triumph of the underdog.

King David

The Biblical David’s defeat of the giant warrior Goliath using only a sling and a stone serves as Gladwell’s archetype of the underdog’s triumph. But Gladwell turns the usual interpretation of that confrontation on its head. He insists that people misunderstand underdog stories. Gladwell posits that people have long regarded the victory of a David over a Goliath as far more rare than it really is. He holds that being an underdog has unappreciated advantages.

Being an underdog can change people in ways we often fail to appreciate. It can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.Malcolm Gladwell

Building on that idea, Gladwell rummages through history for stories of determined underdogs and how they earned their victories, even in unbalanced battles.

Lawrence of Arabia

Gladwell turns to Thomas Edward Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – as a model underdog. An English scholar of Middle Eastern antiquity, Lawrence became one of the 20th century’s most successful guerrilla tacticians. When the English inserted Lawrence into the Arab Revolt as a consultant to its Arab leaders, he led his agile, camel-mounted force of Arab fighters against the Turkish army that held the Middle East in World War One.

The Turks had an enormous army, a large mobile force, desert forts, mechanized troops, and a railroad for resupply and moving soldiers. Lawrence’s Arabs – most of whom had not shot a gun before – each had one weapon, 100 rounds of ammunition and “45 pounds of flour.” Mounted on camels, these fighters could cover 110 miles of desert a day. Their advantages, Gladwell notes, included the ability to move quickly and to appear where the Turks thought they were not. As classic underdogs, they had less power, but between surprise and ferocity, they mustered more force. In a single 14-day period in 1917, they launched nine separate attacks against Turkish installations across a wide territory.

The Turks’ advantages in men, gear and forts made them appear unbeatable. But their resources held them back. Their chain of command hindered spontaneous responses. Because they had well-equipped forts, they stayed in them. Here, Gladwell explains, a lack of resources can be as great an advantage as an abundance. Those lacking resources must outsmart their foes.

Lawrence’s success reveals a paradox in conventional thinking. You may fall prey to believing that certain factors are advantageous when, in fact, they are hindrances.

We have, I think, a very rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is. We think of things as helpful that actually aren’t and think of other things as unhelpful that in reality leave us stronger and wiser.Malcolm Gladwell

That is the core message – the crucial nugget – Gladwell wants to impart. Every chapter illustrates how apparent disadvantages can become advantages. The most important factors in this transformation are self-confidence, courage and a clear sense of the nature of your struggle.

Dr. Emil “Jay” Freireich

Jay Freireich’s father likely committed suicide shortly after the crash of 1929. His mother took a sweatshop job sewing hat brims for two cents per hat. She worked seven-day weeks and 18-hour days to earn rent for an apartment for her family. Freireich, also a Gladwell archetype underdog, grew up on Chicago’s streets with no adult supervision.

At age nine, Freireich had his tonsils removed. The doctor was the first clean, adult male dressed in nice clothes he’d ever seen. He inspired Freireich to become a doctor. He needed $25 to go to college, but his mother had “never seen $25.” Unexpectedly, a woman she barely knew gave her the money. This helped form Freireich’s optimistic view of life.

Drafted into the US Army in 1955, he served at the National Cancer Institute. His first patients were children with leukemia. Since the Institute would not give him enough fresh blood to transfuse his patients, he found blood donors. Freireich fearlessly took on every challenge, whether medical or bureaucratic.

What does it take to be that person who doesn’t accept the conventional order of things as a given?Malcolm Gladwell


Gladwell quotes psychiatrist J.T. MacCurdy, author of The Structure of Morale, who studied the Nazis’ World War II bombing of London – the Blitz, about which he wrote, “We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to be afraid of being afraid.” Gladwell argues that people are not so much born with courage as that they develop it. Surviving difficult times and learning that  difficulties don’t destroy you builds courage. He points to Freireich’s hard life as the source of his fearlessness. What could he possibly encounter as an adult that would be worse than what he faced as a child?

This chapter presents the essence of Gladwell’s approach. He tells a fascinating story – Freireich’s life saga from overcoming life as a child of the streets to becoming a pioneer in the fight against childhood leukemia. But Gladwell interrupts the biography to insert details of the London Blitz. His conclusions about the perseverance and courage that the Blitz fostered are interesting, but they seem out of place amid Freireich’s story. 

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France

One crucial idea running throughout David and Goliath is that excess force delegitimizes the powerful and always sparks “defiance, not submission.” Gladwell discusses how the French Huguenot (Protestant) town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon resisted the Nazis. Led by their heroic pastor, André Trocmé, the villagers hid Jews, created false papers for them, took numerous Jewish kids into their schools and smuggled Jews over the Alps into Switzerland.

The powerful are not as powerful as they seem – nor the weak as weak.Malcolm Gladwell

Trocmé’s conscience and his dedication to the truth led him to risk his life to help Jews – and to let the Nazis know flat-out that he was doing it. When the youth minister of the collaborationist Vichy government came to town, the community held a welcoming ceremony. A group of Le Chambon children chose that moment of triumph for the Nazi collaborators to hand the visiting minister a letter Trocmé had helped draft. The last line read: “We have Jews. You’re not getting them.” Despite threats, arrests and life-threatening time in internment camps, Trocmé and his flock never wavered. Later histories suggest that a senior Gestapo official protected them.

Gladwell discusses the town’s acute awareness of its own history since the Reformation as a haven for the oppressed and tortured – Protestant French citizens hunkering down during the murderous holy wars pitting Catholics against Protestants. This brave, foolhardy, steadfast community of cultural outsiders in Catholic France illustrates Gladwell’s overall theme that no matter how strong powerful people are, you can resist them.

Trocmé’s community proves another aspect of Gladwell’s examples: “The marginal and the damaged” – society’s underdogs – often turn out to be the bravest, most charitable people. Gladwell’s defiant, stirring heroes and heroines speaks powerfully to anyone who needs inspiration or who is facing an apparently superior foe. Just think of David and Goliath.

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