Saturday, May 09, 2009

Gladwell: Relentless effort trumps skill, and underdogs win more than you think

One of the best ways to win against someone who superior skills is with relentless effort.

That's how underdogs win: they take the fight to their opponent in a socially unacceptable way to trump their opponent's superiority.

Malcolm Gladwell has a good feature in the New Yorker on this topic.

Here is a great slice of his story:

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

Some lessons for politics and advocacy: relentless effort for the underdogs is a requirement to win. And when the other side looks strongest, don't play by those rules.


Reed said...

Very interesting! However, I want to quibble a bit with the numbers as I read them. I have to imagine that, on average, the Goliaths in these cases are the invaders nearly 100% of the time. Perhaps there are some more neutral territory conflicts such as civil wars, but I can't imagine a David invading a Goliath (save the Falklands of course).

Furthermore, I have to imagine that it is much easier to defend one's own territory than invade another. So the overall numbers are likely increased because of this difference.

Of course this doesn't change his point about unconventional tactics at all. And certainly doesn't take the victory away from these Davids.

And I certainly agree with your overarching point. Give 'em hell!

Anonymous said...


I read this yesterday. A great piece. And a great idea on your part to draw a lesson for political underdogs.

Good job.


UliPele said...

I just ran across this post. Thanks for the pointer. Love Gladwell, and am glad for a fresh idea to keep myself in a positive frame of mind. No longer will I let myself feel like I'm spinning my wheels ... Set the course due due diligence and ingenuity!

This reminds me of a passage in the book, "How to Lobby Congress," which discusses how grassroots lobbyists might not have the access that big money pros have, but we have the dedication to the cause, and the passion that keeps us plugging away, refusing to give up.

Thanks again,
Uli Pele