The Secret to Success

In an article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about when Davids are able to beat Goliaths. When are guys who lack brains, strength, or technique able to win against those who have those attributes in spades? He says when they don't play by the traditional rules, have great attitude, and work harder than the Goliaths. He cites research on this topic:

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.

Gladwell also looks at how a team of untalented, short girls made it to the Nationals for high school basketball. He says the the key factor was that the coach, a dad of one of the girls, changed up the rules. I think that money was also a factor. The dad was a CEO a big computer company and hired big shot experts, but Gladwell doesn't give that factor much attention.

Elsewhere Gladwell and David Brooks have written about the limits of IQ. Gladwell explains that the research shows that a base level IQ is required for success, 130 or something, but after that, it doesn't matter. Other factors are more important in explaining success. Brooks says the latest research shows that practice is more important than IQ.

Why are we talking about IQ and underdogs and effort? Because in the new economy, it is much more difficult to know what to do to be successful. The old routes to success are dead-ends. And career success depends more on a mysterious combination of factors. College dropouts are billionaires. Poor immigrants are Silicon Valley super heros. Traditional employment options are going Chapter 11.

I had a long chat with a dad on the edge of a rainy soccer field on Sunday. I have to figure out how to write about that conversation while respecting his privacy and his world perspective. He's a Vietnam vet and a contractor who hasn't been able to get any work for two years. In his early 60s, he's struggling to support his five kids and pay his taxes. I like the man.

As part of this long conversation, he told me that I should have Jonah join the Boy Scouts, because he would be able to put Eagle Scout on his resume, and it would help him find a job. He told me that employers care about those things. I just nodded. I didn't have the heart to tell him that it didn't matter. Steve's an Eagle Scout and I seriously doubt that any employer gave a crap about that. The rules have changed, and my friend has no idea what the new rules are. Hell, I'm not sure what the new rules are.

8 thoughts on “The Secret to Success

  1. “I just nodded. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it didn’t matter. Steve’s an Eagle Scout and I seriously doubt that any employer gave a crap about that. The rules have changed, and my friend has no idea what the new rules are. Hell, I’m not sure what the new rules are.”
    But what if Steve were a contractor rather than a white collar guy? These things are going to carry different weight, or value in different worlds. Take, for instance, military service. If you want to be in civil service, it’s traditionally been very important to be either a veteran or a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. However, based on such things as that college training video showing a TA being menaced by a student who is a veteran, or that Napolitano report, it looks like certain sectors of US society view military service as a negative rather than a plus.


  2. I’m in the classroom (students on computers researching) and don’t have the time to pull up the link now, but the head of Delta Airlines was talking in the NY Times about how things like that *do* matter.


  3. The wars that come to my mind where David won without the direct participation of stronger allies are cases like Russia-Finland (round 1), Russia-Afghanistan, U.S.-Vietnam, France-Vietnam, and France-Algeria. Aside from David winning, the other commonality is that the winner lost a high percentage of its population.


  4. I know the one you mean, Wendy:
    This CEO doesn’t talk about Eagle scout status as a good thing as much as he mentions core skills he’s seeing — and they are non-traditional. It was an interesting piece and really made me re-think my resume!!
    I also couldn’t help but notice how much the reporters at the New York Times seemed to trumpet the fact that their primary skills — writing, grammar — were being called out by this guy. Very interesting.


  5. It’s very hard to know what will enable our kids to make a good life for themselves, in the worrisome future. I am pretty sure that a degree from Chico State in Womyn Studies, or from Kent State in Sociology, will get you a job as a cashier at Home Depot, and you will be reporting to a store manager who is your age and came on after high school and rose in the ranks.
    I think there is going to be a global levelling in the rewards to many kinds of skill, and in this country that will mean levelling down. One of the things which can help keep our kids from falling behind the curve is to have a skill which cannot be competed from outside the country. ‘Radiologist’ is not so good – films can be sent to Australia and India to be read overnight. Who would have thought? ‘Orthodontist’ looks safe, for the moment, but it is vulnerable to clinics with nurse practitioner equivalent dental techs. The doc-in-a-box model is going to move a lot of physicians’ more routine work to nurse practitioners. ‘Building inspector’ probably can’t be sent to India.
    The wild increase in civil service pay for cops, etc., relative to other occupations, and which you wrote about a few days ago, cannot be sustained as the people who pay taxes to support them see their own supports crumble. At least, it will be uneven: Vallejo will go bankrupt, New Jersey looks unsteady. New York has taken on many ongoing programs and employees which are hard to maintain if the financial industry pays less taxes. Wyoming will tax coal coming out of the ground and will do fine – maybe the smart thing for my kid to do is to move to Wyoming and be a police lieutenant? Who would have thought. Police departments like Eagle Scouts.


  6. ” or from Kent State in Sociology”
    I know some one with practically this degree who is now a full professor at a a top-ten private university. The person was also told by their high school counselor that they would never amount to much. So, I think you’re wrong about the undergradute degree from chico or kent (both of which have the serious benefit of being lower cost than other degrees). I think the key here is that everyone, always, can no longer prepare now for a long term future. We’re always gong to have re-train, re-invent, play new odds. I think that’s what people (especially people trying to plan for their children’s future) are finding so frustrating.


  7. The Post reports this morning that enrollment is up 25% at a bartending school in Arlington VA.


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