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David and Goliath

Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

By Malcolm Gladwell
  • Read in 16 minutes
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  • Contains 10 key ideas
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David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath (2013) shares myriad stories of underdogs who won out against all the odds. Throwing out our traditional ideas of what it takes to be a success, it offers unconventional views on subjects such as the downsides to privilege, the benefits of learning difficulties, and how authorities should treat their citizens. These lessons are infused with academic studies, historical examples and detailed interviews with the underdogs themselves.

Key idea 1 of 10

Comparing ourselves to our high-flying peers damages our confidence and stops us from reaching our full potential.

As we grow up we adjust to bigger and bigger schools, from primary to secondary and onwards. At each stage, we encounter more fellow pupils, many of whom have abilities we don’t have.

When we see peers whose skills surpass our own, we want to compete directly against them and become part of the elite; we want to be as good as the best. But this is misguided. If we compete against the brightest people, we feel relative deprivation. Comparing ourselves to brighter peers rather than to everyone causes us to lose confidence in our own abilities.

The lack of confidence brought about by trying to join the elite often leads to our failure in achieving all we want. For example, talented students who step up to elite universities and compete with the very best are more likely to drop out than those who choose a less prestigious university.

So if competing against the elite will damage our confidence, what should we do instead?

We should stop trying to compare ourselves with the best and instead aim to carve a niche for ourselves. In other words, we shouldn’t let the urge for peer recognition distract us from our unique passions. History is full of people who, rather than competing against the best, successfully followed their own paths.

For example, in the nineteenth century the Paris Salon was the most exclusive art exhibition in Europe. Artworks exhibited  there had a huge audience and their value rocketed. Early Impressionist painters tried to have their work exhibited at the Salon, but to no avail: their avant-garde style was not accepted. Instead, they gave up trying to impress the elite and exhibited their pieces themselves –  to great acclaim.

If they had let the Salon dictate what they should paint, they would not have ended up changing the course of art history.

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