A Bad Break in Life Can Produce a Winning Edge

Saturday, February 1, 2014 - 10:10

Beating a much bigger opponent or turning a hopeless situation around are better odds than you think, according to intriguing research by bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, as Gerard McManus reports

The idea of unlikely victory, of the insignificant defeating the mighty and of triumph over adversity, is part of the human condition.

They are the things that give people the hope to persevere – against all odds.

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest work, David & Goliath, examines this in a new light and his conclusions are intriguing, provocative and in some cases troublesome. For example, Gladwell says it is statistically provable the loss of a parent at an early age – one of the worst things that can happen in life – often predetermines success for political leaders. He argues such setbacks and severe disadvantages force people to adapt in unexpected and successful ways.

Citing research by Marvin Eisenstadt, who has spent a lifetime researching super achievers, Gladwell reveals 25 per cent of a list of historical super achievers had lost one parent by the age of 10. By 20 an extraordinary 45 per cent had one parent die.

Even taking into account the higher mortality rates before the last century, the correlation between parent-loss profiles and remarkable achievement was undeniable. Similarly, 12 of the 44 US presidents – from George Washington to Barack Obama – had lost their fathers while they were children.

The problem, however, is the numbing loss of a parent at an early age is far from a guarantee of success. Other research shows prisoners are between two and three times more likely to have lost a parent in childhood.

The point is, some people can overcome great losses which can be triggers for their ultimate triumphs. Difficulties bring out the best in many people. Yet, the unexpected turnaround in life can happen in other areas as well.

The underdog’s preparedness to play by different, unconventional rules can help outflank a much larger adversary. Gladwell argues in David & Goliath the biblical story of David’s victory over his gigantic opponent was practically inevitable by providing the historical context to the real story. In other words, in certain circumstances, the improbable outcome is explainable and people and organisations can use the “advantage” of being the “little guy”.

This is why small business still has an advantage over big business: the smaller player can be more innovative, quicker to change and adapt, do unconventional things and take less calculated risks.

Many of Gladwell’s ideas are arresting, particularly in education – one of his chief pre-occupations. For example, he shows that, contrary to popular belief, engineering a slightly smaller classroom size does not result in children learning more or getting better results. In fact, too small a classroom size is detrimental to learning outcomes. Gladwell is a highly successful writer who backs his theories with deep research from social science and psychological studies.

He has written several influential books including OutliersThe Tipping Point, and What the Dog Saw – books that have moved into the mainstream, promoting sociological concepts such as the “10,000 Rule” of practice for getting to be great at something in any field, “Dunbar’s Number”, the magic maximum number of 150 people you can maintain for social groups and the “80/20 Rule” which says that (in one of its many variations) 80 per cent of the work will be done by 20 per cent of the participants.

His ideas are not always original, but in each book Gladwell tips conventional thinking on its head. His true gift as a writer is to turn sociology into a suspense mystery novel, inserting lots of unexpected twists and turns, intrigues and anticipation that keep the reader waiting for what comes next.

Wharton management academic and author Adam Grant described Gladwell as the “most spellbinding non-fiction writer of our time”, but argues the stories are backed by serious research.

“What makes him most interesting is not the narratives themselves, but the ideas behind them,” Grant wrote. “When an idea confirms our current beliefs we are bored, but when an idea is counter-intuitive, we are intrigued.

“Our curiosity is piqued, and we are motivated to ask questions: how could this be true? Is it really true? What else might explain this?”

Gladwell’s ability to challenge common assumptions is what has made him so successful. InDavid & Goliath, negatives are turned into positives and disadvantages become advantages.

Who would have thought the crippling disability dyslexia could turn out to make people more successful? Yet that has been the case for many highly successful business people (as well as those in other fields), forcing them to develop other abilities in areas such as creative problem solving, acting, listening and rule-bending.

Business people and entrepreneurs with serious reading disabilities such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalclia include Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, William Hewlett (co-founder of Hewlett-Packard), Charles Schwab, Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg and Nelson Rockefeller. Australian entrepreneurs who struggled with conventional reading include Kerry Packer, Kerry Stokes, Dick Smith and Lindsay Fox.

David & Goliath draws on stories from history, science and psychology that make connections largely overlooked and that can be used to leverage the unexpected outcome.

Grant expands on this theme: “Gladwell challenges us to rethink how we raise our children, how we build our workplaces and how we live our lives. He gives us hope that if we practise enough, we can become great musicians or athletes. That if an idea is worthwhile, we can make it take off. That if we change the way we evaluate people, we can overcome stereotypes and give disadvantaged people an equal chance. That if we face disadvantages of our own, we can draw strength from them.”

Gladwell’s book tells us often things don’t go by the rules and don’t need to. It reasserts the fundamental truth: we are not robots, humans do have free will, can determine their destiny and adversities can be overcome. And this can all happen in unexpected ways.