An Ode to the Hidden Strength of the Underdog

“It was not the privileged and fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish. If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening. If you bomb a city, you leave behind death and destruction. But you create a community of remote misses. If you take away a mother or a father, you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force. You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose that we ever imagine.”-Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Malcolm Gladwell just wrote a new book. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Everyone hears about it when Malcolm Gladwell writes a new book. Surely, you have to at least skim it to understand which new theories your sophisticated friends are spouting at cocktail parties. Perhaps, I am too harsh. After all, I had only read Tipping Point previous to this one. Regardless, I’m going to explain why you need to read his new book, David and Goliath.

I’ve been reading up on the benefits of smaller armies. One of the big examples that comes to mind is that of Napoleon. Through his radically different war tactics, he was able to conquer vast areas of Europe using fluidity and smaller regimes that are more easily able to react to changes. The parallel to our time that is usually produced is that of Google, always adapting, forever fluid.

Then, of course, there is the cultural narrative that we assign to the “underdog.” You’ve seen it in a million sports movies, and you’re always rooting for the underdog to come out on top. You want Rudy to win. Those kids in Coach Carter, you’re on their side. Disregarding sports films, you’re still rooting for the unexpected, the challenging. Part of the reason that I balled like a baby at the end of American History X was because I expected the underdog to change his ways and turn his life around; right as he was rising above his obstacle, he was taken away. (Maybe that’s a spoiler, but I’m sure it was vague enough for you too enjoy the movie still.

We root for these heroes because we think they need our support. We think that it is them against the world, and we assume their side has less artillery. David and Goliath peers behind that image, and instead, looks at the reasoning for so many underdog victories.

As it turns out, there is such a thing as a desirable difficultly. I’d always suspected it, but as he is famous for doing, Gladwell found an eloquent way to put it into words and back it up.

One thing that I’ve been doing for a while is reading Stoic philosophy (Aurelius, Seneca, etc.). Why? Because I’m a nerd and because it teaches simple, day-to-day lessons, usually involving our perceptions and reactions to obstacles.

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces – to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it – and makes it burn still higher.”-Marcus Aurelius

It’s important to view ‘obstacles as opportunities’, as Tucker Max would say. It’s also important to realize why a lot of these obstacles are opportunities, in the specific sense. Dyslexics like Richard Branson learn to compensate by listening and taking risks. Traumatic childhoods and lost parents produce a mental toughness and obstinate that facilitates ambition and goal reaching. The down and out, disheartened, and oppressed often resort to ‘trickster’ techniques; things that allow them a leg up on their oppressors. It’s this creativity that kills sacred cows and produces innovation.

These things happen on a daily basis. Let me show you:


-The ski racing company that I work for is smaller than Spyder. This, however, is an advantage in the fluidity of our marketing strategy and the personal impact we have with customers. Everything is personal and the loyalty for the brand is tremendous. Even without the massive marketing budget of competitors, we are forced to innovated on the fronts of social media and public relations, which are often times more effective than traditional advertising.


-Craft beer. A few weeks ago my academic adviser and I were talking about craft beer (What else? Classes? No, thanks.) He told me a story of one of his favorite bars in Milwaukee, Roman’s Pub, and how before the craft beer revolution, they had to stock the bar with craft beer. Why? Because the owner of the bar “didn’t get along with” a major distributor of macro beer, and allegedly told them to go to hell. From then on (1996), they stocked with local supply and specialty brews and became an early adopter of the upcoming trend in the beer world. Worked out pretty well for them, I’d say.

-I often lament the fact that I grew up in such a small town in the middle of nowhere. I’m not a fan of that fact. However, it did afford me opportunities that I couldn’t articulate before I read this book. Where my school was so small that it didn’t even have a soccer team (wtf, right?), this obstacle was also an opportunity. In the book, Gladwell talks about the benefits of being a big fish in a small pond. Certainly then, starting a band in such a small town made me a huge fish in a pond with no other musical fish. This was encouraging. Because of this, I had an identity I probably couldn’t have afforded growing up in New York City. Maybe. I mean, you can never say for sure. But, despite growing up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I think I turned out alright and decently cultured, too. Maybe growing up there allowed me to appreciate exploration and other cultures more. I don’t know. But the obstacle part of the equation is overrated.

I know, if you tried, you could think of a million more examples of difficulties being used as benefits. This is a healthy way of viewing the world. Some circumstances are unavoidable. What you do with your circumstances is what matters. To end with another from Marcus Aurelius: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”


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