According to Malcolm Gladwell, we’re surprised by underdogs because we have bad definitions of advantage. Last week Malcolm Gladwell was up in Winnipeg and interviewed with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation before speaking at the city’s Centralia business conference, where he talked about his upcoming book on underdogs.
As Gladwell said to the CBC’s Terry MacLeod:
“One of the things that’s puzzling about conflict of any kind or competition of any kind is how often the people we expect to win don’t win. Why does America keep losing wars to people who are a fraction of their size? How can the people of Afghanistan have humbled the two largest superpowers in the world in sequence?
…there’s sort of countless examples of this and each time it happens we’re baffled, and what I’m trying to say is that maybe we’re only baffled because our definitions of advantage and disadvantage are unsophisticated.”
Certain privileges like wealth or military power are easy to see, and we tend to overestimate them. The little known advantages of the underdog, held by Afghanistan and other examples Gladwell gave at the talk — like Steve Jobs early in his career or Israel early in its existence — are twofold.
First, there’s a sense of desperation. Steve Jobs faced huge competitors like Xerox, Afghanistan faced the Soviet Union and United States. The stakes were much higher for them than for their relatively complacent opponents, and they responded in kind.
Also, underdogs have to get around huge obstacles with fewer resources. While coming up with those solutions, they learn skills those with all of the advantages don’t.
As to what we can learn from these underdogs, Gladwell said “at the most basic level we can rearrange our categories of what counts as an advantage and what doesn’t. And we can get over our I think unhealthy obsession with certain kinds of privilege.”
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