Defeat Your Giants

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27th Jan 2014

9 min read

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Think of the movie Moneyball back in 2011. Oakland A general manager Billy Beane managed to assemble a successful baseball team for a season on an extremely lean budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players.

Out of nowhere, for that season, Oakland A managed to beat much wealthier, better-equipped teams, by using a new, revolutionary approach for choosing players. The method was so successful that it was later adopted by big teams including the Boston Red Socks.

Think, also, of Susan Boyle, back in 2009. Born in 1961, she only managed to kick start her singing career in 2009 when she first appeared in Britain’s Got Talent, leading to a standing ovation just after her singing the first phrase of I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables.

Immediately after that, there was a huge craze with Boyle, leading to millions of views of her songs on YouTube, over 19 million albums sold worldwide by 2013, and two Grammy Awards nominations.

Now, think of Impressionism. An art movement that started in the dens of 1800s Paris, again and again dismissed by the art critics and art lovers of its time and barred from the Salon – the place to showcase all meaningful and valuable art back then.

It eventually went on to become one of the most recognised, admired, and influential art movements of all time, with its “founding fathers’” paintings selling for millions of dollars.

Coming back to this year – for those that watch the History Channel once in a while, think of the Duck Dynasty.

It’s a reality show about a “redneck” family that built its wealth by producing whistles that help duck hunters attract the birds and other duck-hunting necessities.

it was never thought to do well, but it somehow made it to America’s favourite reality show in 2013.

The fourth season premiere attracted 11.8 million viewers, surprisingly, making it the most-watched non-fiction series in history.

By now you must have recognised a pattern – we are talking about underdogs, and how time and again throughout history, whatever their area of expertise is, these unassuming characters have managed to take on well-established personalities or entities and prove a point to the world – that everyone gets a chance to be great, if only he/she believes in it and uses resources wisely.

WHY DO PEOPLE ROOT FOR THE UNDERDOG?

Researchers Joseph Vandello, Naday Goldschmied and David Richards from the University of South Florida conducted a series of studies to test people’s support for those expected to lose in various situations.

By using sports as well as politics as case studies, the researchers asked the study participants to react to various scenarios where one side was presented as having an advantage to the other.

For example, one such case study used the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, where the participants were given an identical write up on the history between the two sides, but with different maps to reference, one showing Palestine as bigger and one showing Israel as bigger.

In all case studies that were presented to them, participants constantly favoured the underdog to win. In the example above – the ones that got the map showing Israel as having a larger land mass favoured Palestine, and the others that saw Palestine as larger on the map, favoured Israel instead, despite the historical run-down.

Research conducted by University of Tennessee professor Sergey Gavrilets, an ecology and evolutionary biologist, offers an explanation for this. According to his research, we are genetically inclined to help weaker victims against domineering bullies.

Through a mathematical model, Gavrilets has chronicled how the human race may have evolved and is now interdependent, valuing equality rather than the dominance of the strongest.

He goes on to say that our want for equality does not have to do with empathy, but instead is motivated by our own well-being.

His research looks into a long-existing theory that our species was once ruled by a hierarchy that put the strongest at the top, similarly to the animal kingdom. However, over time, our societies have become more cooperative.

Culture has allowed for a society with systems in place that protect the weak ones – evidently to a debatable extent – such as law enforcement and schooling.

At the same time, Gavrilets suggests that there also had to be an instinctive genetic change that came before the evolution of language and communication.

Through examining these tendencies, Gavrilets developed a model that shows that such instincts can be passed through generations to a point that they become a dominant trait. Bullies for example are not so because they are bad, but because it’s in their genes.

“It’s an echo of our past of struggle to achieve a high level of social dominance in a group,” he says. “At the same time, as the model suggests, we also have a counter-dominant (trait) in our genes. It also suggests tendencies to help people.”

WHY DO UNDERDOGS WIN?

When we are born, we are thought to be given a head start in life and be on the road to success if we are coming from a loving, caring family that is able to provide us with all the luxuries, education, and support in the world.

We tend to think that those born in the most unfavourable circumstances are the ones that, will have few chances in life to do well, and will most likely end up on the wrong road, perhaps heading towards prison.

It is indeed strange to discover that some of those born into these “unfavourable” circumstances overtake those coming from the “perfect” background, doing more good in their lives and becoming more successful, and useful to society.

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath explains this phenomenon, and how the “underdogs” manage to battle so-called giants.

Through a series of examples, in his book, he explains how adversities make a person much stronger – of course not always. It takes a strong, persistent individual to overcome some of the difficulties discussed, however, those that do, end up being much stronger than others.

And so, Gladwell narrates the cases of various people that had to deal with something unexpected, and how that made them stronger.

How, for example, can dyslexia make you more successful? By forcing you to compensate by improving another skill such as listening, or even negotiating. Dyslexia takes you through so many ups and downs that you develop a character that dares to do things that you would not otherwise do.

Similarly, being in a community that has always been “the underdog”, like for example the African Americans in the United States prior to the Civil Rights movement, makes you learn how to deal with those stronger than you. As Gladwell puts it, it gives you “the unexpected freedom that comes from having nothing to lose.”

Losing a parent at a young age is a tragedy. However, as Gladwell explains, in some occasions, the loss can make you feel undefeated. There is nothing else you cannot take, nothing you cannot come out the other side of stronger.

A tragedy such as this may make you dare to do things that no one else would ever consider doing – because you know that just like you, those around you can overcome enormous pain and emerge stronger on the other side.

This is similar to what surviving a bombing can do to you too – Gladwell explains how during the second World War, the Germans bombed London, then the biggest power globally, and how everyone, including the British, thought that this would have detrimental effects on the British psyche, rendering the Allies as a whole powerless to carry on the war.

To that effect, the British prepared for the catastrophe, building mental institutions that would aid the survivors of the bombing and help them cope with the horrendous experience they just had.

They planned evacuation strategies so that they could offer the choice of relocation to any survivors of the bombing.

But after months of bombing, the survivors grew stronger. The “near-misses,” that is, the ones that miraculously were not personally affected by the bombing, grew more confident and had a strange sense of happiness.

They believed they could withstand anything. They lost fear – and once you lose fear, you are willing to risk everything to get what you want. And this is exactly what makes the Davids of the world – the underdogs – tougher, and likely to overcome all adversities and win against the giants.

Man with rock

HOW TO BE THE “DAVID”

Of course, it would be insane to wish any of these adversities on ourselves. The truth is that more people get broken by such adversities than those that manage to overcome them.

There are certain things though, that everyone can do to make sure that they have a chance against the Goliaths of this world.

1. Identify your weaknesses

For one, you have to identify your weakness, and see how you can capitalise on it. For example, you are a new company that has just entered into the field of, say, coffee retailing, by opening a coffee shop in a city where a “coffee” culture is already present and well-advanced.

What would your weaknesses be? No brand name to boast about, no experience, and huge competition from already well-established names – either chains or boutique coffee shops that have set the standards.

Your strengths? Well, you have a blank canvas to draw your path on – you are starting from scratch, so you can plan your business strategy, the design of your shop, and the culture you would like to sell with your coffee any way you want.

So instead of following the existing trends of say, industrial-looking, cosy hang-out spots, you can offer something different.

Or, instead of offering the usual blends and usual drinks, you can offer a twist to them by really knowing what you are using (high quality coffee beans, specialist machinery, etc).

Or, you can even revolutionise your customer service by providing a unique experience to your customers – by equipping barristas with the knowledge of storytelling, or encouraging a culture of “sharing” between customer and barrista (think of old American films and how people used to confide thoughts and troubles to barmen).

The truth is, the giants of the world are already set in their ways, and the bigger they are, the longer it takes for them to adapt and change.

As a small-timer, you have more freedom to mend yourself to the shape you want to take.

2. Compensate for your weaknesses Once you have identified your weaknesses, you need to find a way to compensate for them. For example, you have never managed to finish university, for whatever reason.

Granted, something like this can prove to be a big obstacle when it comes to getting certain jobs. You can, however, find a way to compensate for the knowledge you “missed”.

One way is to sign up for an online, free or paid, distance learning course. Another, is to take up a job that is not ideal, but would allow you to gain valuable experience in the field you would like to end up in.

Yet a different approach, a more creative one, would be to use your life experiences and convince the people you would like to hire you that you are the best candidate for the job despite your lack of a degree.

Skills such as negotiation, excellent communication, storytelling, and inspirational speaking will likely come very handy. And I am not suggesting making up stories here – but merely capitalising on the opportunities you were given since you had the university years to do other things.

3 Dare to go for it

Finally, with weaknesses identified, skills to compensate them developed and mastered, you have to have the courage and the belief that you, too, can achieve big things. With enough belief, drive and determination anyone can do the impossible.

With courage, anyone can face one obstacle after the other, conquer their fears and what life throws at them, and come out the other side a winner.

True, not all human beings have the courage, or the determination, for that matter, to succeed against all odds. Most people would give up and surrender to life’s mishaps.

If, however, you manage to overcome the pain, and realise that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, you can go the distance, learn from your life’s experiences, and use those to take on whatever comes your way.

Whether we are talking about taking on a giant multinational with your new start-up, or going up against years-old, long-established rules and conventions within your organisation or industry, or simply getting your dream job despite some personal adversities that might be holding you back, have the courage to realise that you have nothing to lose trying and everything to win if you succeed.

You could go down in history as one of those underdogs that fought the battle and won.

There is something fascinating and awe inspiring about the stories of those that made it in life against all odds. For many more examples of underdogs that went against “giants” and how they did it, pick up Malcom Gladwell’s latest book David and Goliath at all leading bookstores, distributed by Penguin Books. Click here for more articles.
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