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How David beats Goliath
March 19, 2012 6:18 PM   Subscribe

Substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life: Malcolm Gladwell on how unconventional strategies and effort can beat the odds.
posted by latkes (54 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
followup: http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2009/05/malcolm_gladwell_isnt_a_basket.html
posted by Bwithh at 6:23 PM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Malcolm Gladwell gets *everything* wrong. (for arbitrary values of wrong)
posted by symbioid at 6:26 PM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Let the Gladwell bashing commence! I assumed this article was probably overreaching but still thought it raised a bunch of interesting examples that make a compelling argument for effort and creativity.
posted by latkes at 6:27 PM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


It occurs to me that Gladwell is the TED talk of the New Yorker...
posted by latkes at 6:28 PM on March 19, 2012 [15 favorites]


Trying harder at something than the other person doesn't really seem to be an "unconventional strategy" at all. You want to be the best at something, but you're not. You look at who is the best and either copy them, or you work out how you could do it better, or both.
posted by awfurby at 6:34 PM on March 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


1. Effort over ability happens all the time. Between the person who is naturally gifted at computer programming and the person who desperately wants to be a good programmer above all else, my money is on the latter. To some degree, this passion is skill at programming, or the bed from which programming skills grow.

2. The lead example, about the full court press winning against traditional basketball strategy, might not so much be about effort, ultimately, as a specific weakness in a generally optimal strategy. If a full court press fails, the defending side has fewer players defending the basket. I'm no expert (or even fan particularly) of basketball, but I would assume that the logic of rushing to the basket has to do with the fact that it's a place they know the opposing team has to go to, so they rush there in order to set up a favorable defensive scenario as soon as possible. But as with many strategies that pass into tradition as being obvious, they aren't actually that obvious. They involve assumptions that get forgotten, and so it's easy to get confused when they get challenged. Ranadive was generally new to basketball, and his novel way of thinking (plus, yes, the effort he put into the game) found a weakness in traditional basketball strategy.

But as for Davids beating Goliaths all the time? Yeah, that didn't stop Microsoft from lording it over the personal computer industry for many years, it doesn't stop the music industry from wielding Congress like a club against their customers, and it doesn't stop a lot of other things either.

In the article's example about cases where, if a side in a war is 10x more powerful than the other side, they tend to win only 71.5% of the time, I think that's rather a case of the decreasing marginal utility of military power: If you're twice as strong as an opponent, you don't win twice as often, because you encourage your opponent to seek routes to victory that don't depend on military force. Particularly, if you're hard pressed but desparately believe in your side, you tend to use whatever trumps you do have even though it hurts, things like honor and morality among them, in the face of a greater evil.

</ramble>
posted by JHarris at 6:38 PM on March 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


(Things like giving up honor and morality, I should say.)
posted by JHarris at 6:41 PM on March 19, 2012


I hate Malcolm Gladwell.
posted by jayder at 6:43 PM on March 19, 2012


hamburger
posted by jayder at 6:44 PM on March 19, 2012


I like Malcolm Gladwell. Sadly, his observations often fail to stand up to scrutiny. I guess it's time to check out this one.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:51 PM on March 19, 2012


The first page sucked. Get to the point already. And there's 7 more pages of this? Gaahhhh
posted by polymodus at 7:02 PM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I hate this idea that if you fail, it's because you didn't try hard enough, or that you're being unimaginative. History is littered with people that fought hard and failed. The cities of America are teeming with people who are working their asses off and falling behind. To imply that they must be lazy or stupid instead of simply unlucky is cruel.

Sure, if you cherry-pick all the winners, you'll find lots of effort and no small dose of creativity. That's because they're necessary but not sufficient conditions.
posted by Nahum Tate at 7:06 PM on March 19, 2012 [27 favorites]


I preferred the way Terrance Tao said it myself. Ain't completely true of course, but it's more true than either the "you're the greatest" fairy tails we tell children or the inability excuses invented by lazy collage kids.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:06 PM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


80% of success is just showing up. -- Woody Allen
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:13 PM on March 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


My soccer team's best two players are the goalkeeper and one of the center backs, and the guys with the most offensive talent are not speedsters, so we sit back and defend like hell, play extremely physically, and score on counterattacks and set pieces when possible. We rode this strategy (and nine straight clean sheets) into the championship game in our league yesterday, against a much more talented team that had beaten us badly early in the season, and probably belongs one or two divisions above us.

As the scoreless match drew on, they grew extremely frustrated with us, with me digging in hard on their very talented center mid (If I give you space and comfort then you'll be whipping balls into the box all game!). They're screaming at our goalkeeper to pick up the ball and punt it when he has an easy play and a lot of space (run up and put pressure on him and he will!).

At the same time, they're making fun of our (admittedly poor) goal kicks and one of the guys was making a mocking, whooping noise every time someone on our team misplayed the ball. We've been around the block with him before and he's lucky to still have his teeth.

If we played an open game with them then they'd beat us four or five nil, at best. We took them 0-0 to penalties, where they won. No one else held them scoreless this season.

Play the game our way, the gentlemanly was, so we can beat you? No thanks.
posted by Kwine at 7:21 PM on March 19, 2012


In the article's example about cases where, if a side in a war is 10x more powerful than the other side, they tend to win only 71.5% of the time, I think that's rather a case of the decreasing marginal utility of military power

The book being cited is How the Weak Win Wars. The thesis of the book is that the strong don't win wars only 71.5 per cent of the time due to superior strategy of the weak, but because the strong are sometimes prevented from using their optimal military strategy due to strategic constraints beyond the theatre, and that weaker foes can sometimes take advantage of this by having a superior selection of strategies they will employ. The book reiterates that in a conventional war, the strong almost always win.

So unless this article is about how in basketball the weaker team should scatter IEDs across the court before running and hiding in the crowd until the strong team gives up and goes home, and only then dash down and score a few hundred goals on an unopposed field, I'm not sure of the relevance.
posted by kithrater at 7:23 PM on March 19, 2012 [10 favorites]


Interestingly, the youth leagues I coach in do not allow a team to press if they are up by 15 or more. Also, one league only allows a press in the last 4 minutes of the 2nd and 4th quarter. I had a game a few weeks ago where my team lost by 48 points. My team never stopped trying. They worked their butt off. We tried pressing, got smoked. Tried a zone, they shot over it or beat it on a dribble drive. Man to man slowed them down a little, but they were better than us. Their coach even tried to keep the score down by not letting his team shoot. I complained to him that it was more humiliating when they were playing keep away than when we worked hard and they simply beat us.

A week later when we played them again in our gym, I asked my team if they wanted to try a different strategy. They agreed. We had 13 people on our roster, the other team had 7. Seems our strength was number of fouls we could commit and always being able to have fresh legs. Our plan was to fast break every time and drive to the basket. We wanted to put up a shot within 12 seconds of getting the ball every time. Also, we wanted to slow them down and lower their shooting percentage. We accomplished that by fouling them when they had the ball on the perimeter sort of like teams do when they are down with around a minute to go and need to stop the clock. This was 13 year old boys, so their foul shots were not as high percentage as their layups or in close shots they were getting.

5 of my players fouled out. They made about 40% of their foul shots. We pushed the pace on offense as much as we could. By the 4th quarter, we were only down by 10. Then with 4 minutes to go we were down by 8. We had fouled so much that they were in the double bonus and were awarded two free throws for non-shooting fouls. They finally started hitting their free throws. We lost by 12. My boys were going nuts as if we had just won the state championship. The other team was congratulating us as did the refs.

That was the message that Gladwell missed. 12 year old girls should not all be about winning. It should also be about working hard and having fun. BOTH teams should be having fun.

The four rules I had for my team were:
1. Give 100% effort.
2. Have fun.
3. Learn some basketball.
4. Be humble in victory and gracious in defeat.

Boy did we suck, (1-13), but boy did we have fun.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:26 PM on March 19, 2012 [10 favorites]


"You have to be outside the establishment—a foreigner new to the game or a skinny kid from New York at the end of the bench—to have the audacity to play it that way. George Washington couldn’t do it. His dream, before the war, was to be a British Army officer, finely turned out in a red coat and brass buttons. He found the guerrillas who had served the American Revolution so well to be “an exceeding dirty and nasty people.” He couldn’t fight the establishment, because he was the establishment."

Wait, which alternate reality am I living in? I'm so confused.

And in Gladwell's reality, does this plaque exist?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:28 PM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Say something once, why say it again?
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:42 PM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I liked it. I don't think he's saying losers didn't try hard enough. I think he's saying that effort can trump ability more often than we'd like to believe. I find that very inspiring, as somebody with a lot of energy and only modest talent.
posted by joannemerriam at 7:55 PM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why is everybody talking about basketball strategy? All I saw was an overwrought advertisement for TIBCO.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:59 PM on March 19, 2012


There's an obvious flaw in his reasoning: he does not seem to have examined what happens when Goliath breaks the rules. Sun Tzu pointed out that this principle applies to all sides at least 2200 years ago -- "if your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. [...] Rapidity is the essence of war: take advantage of the enemy's unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots."

Unexpectedness is a force multiplier, underdog or not. But it's not just about "effort" -- attacking Medina the conventional way would have involved plenty of that, perhaps more so than taking the long way around. Nor do basketball coaches refuse to adopt the full-court press en masse simply because "they can’t do it"; they could do it, if they trained for it specifically, but if it became a common strategy then it would no longer be unexpected. A "conventional" way to play basketball centered around the full-court press would arise, probably within a couple of seasons, leaving them no better off than before (and probably worse, given that they started with players optimized to excel at long shots). Anyone who has played an RTS game for a long time knows how this works: if an unconventional tactic (siege tank rush!) proves effective, then it tends to become tomorrow's old standby, until someone comes up with something new that breaks it.

In short: good strategy is flexible, adjusting to exploit one's own strong points and the enemy's weak points as they develop on the field. Myopia regarding effort is no better than myopia regarding strength; what happened when Ranadivé's team had to play under the opposing team's ref is a great example of this.
posted by vorfeed at 8:05 PM on March 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


2009 article? Or have I leaped again? Oh boy.
posted by Damienmce at 8:24 PM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


OK I read a little of that. Gladwell appears to have never played basketball.

Full court press = constant sprinting. After five minutes you are puking unless you are in Lance Armstrong or Michael Jordan physical condition. Nobody can full court press for an entire game. It is a desperate panic maneuver strategy.

If it was a great strategy everybody would be using it and nobody uses it because it isn't a great strategy it is impossible.

Apparently unless your goal is to lose by only 20 points instead of 40 in which case go for it I guess.
posted by bukvich at 8:43 PM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


The book being cited is How the Weak Win Wars. The thesis of the book is that the strong don't win wars only 71.5 per cent of the time due to superior strategy of the weak, but because the strong are sometimes prevented from using their optimal military strategy due to strategic constraints beyond the theatre, and that weaker foes can sometimes take advantage of this by having a superior selection of strategies they will employ. The book reiterates that in a conventional war, the strong almost always win.

Right. So the weak play unconventionally. In the article, they did this by pressing constantly, which it states is not conventional basketball strategy. Scattering IEDs would be against the rules, it is unconventional yes, but if you do it you aren't playing basketball anymore. Both are discarding the expected tradition, but one discards much more than the other. This is actually what I mean when I talk about the diminishing marginal utility of military force. Viewing conflict in the sense of being about strength of arms only is reductionist.
posted by JHarris at 8:52 PM on March 19, 2012


...or the inability excuses invented by lazy collage kids.

I am NOT lazy. I swear. I'm just allergic to glue-sticks and construction paper.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 8:55 PM on March 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


Even from the brief summary here this is nonsense. "Unconventional strategy" and "effort" are not the same thing at all! If a basketball team succeeds at pressing (which will never ever happen with professional players) - but when it does work at lower levels, it is exactly because it is an unconventional strategy. They're playing in an unusual way that the other team wasn't prepared to face.

This again comes back to some of the specific racial stuff that lingers around basketball- the archetypes of the (almost always African-American) player who succeeds only because he is very athletically gifted, and the (almost always white) player who succeeds allegedly through "hustle" or "basketball IQ."

posted by drjimmy11 at 9:03 PM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


This again comes back to some of the specific racial stuff that lingers around basketball- the archetypes of the (almost always African-American) player who succeeds only because he is very athletically gifted, and the (almost always white) player who succeeds allegedly through "hustle" or "basketball IQ."

I did catch a whiff of that in this article. From the number of times the girls were described as "blond" and/or "white" to the "indefatigable Irish or Italian kid[s] from the Bronx", "effort" seems to suggest one thing and "born-with-a-basketball girls" seems to suggest another...
posted by vorfeed at 9:17 PM on March 19, 2012


As if having played basketball your entire life doesn't involve any "effort", no less!
posted by vorfeed at 9:18 PM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Right. So the weak play unconventionally.

Well, not quite. The book's theory is that in warfare, the weak sometimes have more strategies to pick from than the strong do, because the strong often have non-military constraints on otherwise good military strategies (democracies don't like long wars, democracies don't like too much barbarity). The weak can sometimes afford to let the strong make the first move, and then react accordingly, and the strong are then unable to change strategies effectively.

In the article, they did this by pressing constantly, which it states is not conventional basketball strategy.

The basketball analogy doesn't really hold to the thesis of the book because it wasn't the case that strong didn't respond effectively to the constant-pressing strategy of the weak due to a cost outside of the game environment (e.g. the players of the strong team would be grounded by their parents if they responded correctly). Rather, the strong didn't respond effectively because they were unprepared.
posted by kithrater at 9:26 PM on March 19, 2012


I'm just going to throw out that if you want to read a captivating story about underdogs winning read chapter 2, "Go For It", in Scorecasting. It's about a high school football coach that wins state championships with measurably less talent than the competition using an extremely unorthodox (and awesome) strategy.

tl:dr; version from sports illustrated
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:47 PM on March 19, 2012


Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball.

Well there's your problem.
posted by Splunge at 10:40 PM on March 19, 2012


Maybe Gladwell just tries harder than other pop-psychology writers who have better, more interesting ideas.
posted by rhymer at 12:22 AM on March 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


Let me see if I understand.

1. Use strategy.
2. Use a strategy that exploits your strengths and your opponent's weaknesses.
3. If you do not already possess dominance in a conventional sense, use an unconventional strategy.
4. Always root for the underdog without exception.

Is that about right?
posted by univac at 1:12 AM on March 20, 2012


Some people work very hard, and yet they never get it right.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:48 AM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


The article belabored a few points in interesting ways, but who seriously cares about the color of the girls' hair? I hit my breaking point on page 7 when blonde was used to set up this bs social construct about black girls playing basketball and how bad it pissed off the other coach that expectations weren't met.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:01 AM on March 20, 2012


Say something once, why say it again?

Goliath only comprehends after many repetitions.
posted by chavenet at 3:38 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


uh bigger armies have bigger supply chains
posted by Yowser at 4:44 AM on March 20, 2012


I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
posted by Segundus at 5:58 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


im in ur base killin ur d00dz
posted by TedW at 6:08 AM on March 20, 2012


The FUCK?

At the University of Kentucky, in the mid-nineteen-nineties, Pitino took his team to the Final Four three times—and won a national championship—with full-court pressure

Pitino? Kentucky?

In 1996, he won the NCAA tourney with a team that sent *nine* players to the NBA. Nine.

This had nothing to do with effort, and everything to do with assembling a staggering amount of talent.
posted by eriko at 6:24 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a great half of an article. The problem is that Gladwell is trying too hard to be the next Norman Vincent Peale or Stephen R. Covey. The useful take home message has nothing to do with extra effort. It's straight up Sun Tzu - Attack where you are strong, defend where you are weak rather than the Zapp Brannigan method of sending wave after wave against your foe.

Someone needs to take the bit out of Cryptonomicon about the Greek goddess Athena, wrap that around a stick, and then beat Gladwell about the head hand shoulders with with until he gets the point. Hercules didn't screw around with a shovel at the Augean stable. It wasn't about trying harder, it was straight up fourth generation warfare housekeeping.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:26 AM on March 20, 2012


So, he's saying that predominantly white kids from one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Silicon Valley -- with a level of professional, financial, and parental support that most kids in poorer neighborhoods could only dream about -- can oftentimes beat kids who might have more experience or raw talent, but who come from poorer neighborhoods and oftentimes broken homes?

Wow. I'm shocked.

So... who's David and who's Goliath, again?!
posted by markkraft at 8:37 AM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Malcolm Gladwell's checklist for determining if young kids are better at basketball:

1> Are they from bad neighborhoods?
2> Are they white?
posted by markkraft at 8:42 AM on March 20, 2012


When the team is coached by an MIT genius, it's hard for me to see how exactly it's an underdog. True, they may not have all the basketball skills at their fingertips, but there's nothing preventing a bunch of clever Silicon Valley kids from acquiring those skills. If they were willing to work hard enough to press, then they would be willing to work hard enough to learn how to shoot, rebound and run some plays on offense.
Pitino's 1996 Kentucky team wasn't particularly thick with talent. Although nine of them went to the pros, that says as much about the NBA's inability to evaluate talent as it does about Pitino's coaching skills. With the exception of Antoine Walker, not one of those players had a distinguished career as a pro. And as a longtime Celtics fan, I can say with some authority that Walker was a key member of some of the worst teams ever to wear the green and white.
posted by walter lark at 8:42 AM on March 20, 2012


I used to carpool with "an MIT genius". While I'm pretty sure she understood the basic rules of basketball, I'm equally sure that she'd read some web pages on coaching basketball rather than try to come up with a de novo strategy if she were suddenly dropped into the position.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the "genius" who comes up with the de novo strategy is the one who gives us all those geniuses are idiots stories.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:58 AM on March 20, 2012


Twelve year old girls and they bring in the experts and run hours of statistical analysis. Anyone else remember when sports were still about having fun as a kid?
posted by Conspire at 9:14 AM on March 20, 2012


Anyone else remember when sports were still about having fun as a kid?


I remember childhood sports. Drunken abusive dad coaches who barely knew which end of a bat was which. Awkward ass patting. Social pecking order bullshit. Low budget house league baseball on ass-chewing gravel fields.

I'll take statistical analysis and sports legend assistant coaches on my do-over please..
posted by srboisvert at 9:49 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


WINNING. It's all that matters.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 10:02 AM on March 20, 2012


Gladwell is arguing that Occupy Wall Street will win.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:33 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


...but that won't matter, because by then the Federal Reserve will have gone to real-time processing, powered by TIBCO TM
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:56 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


A bit more shameless Ranadive self-promotion disguised as a potentially valuable life lesson.
posted by sfts2 at 2:53 PM on March 20, 2012


While that is interesting and generally rings true, it is not quite the big piece of earthshaking wisdom Gladwell tries to puff it up into. Does Gladwell get paid per word? Because that could easily have been said just as well in less than half the space - the repetitiveness gets tiresome. As was pointed out earlier, alternating strategies might be a more accurate description of the phenomenon anyway. Gladwell also seems to have an undercurrent of condescension/contempt for his audience, as if they are not quite bright enough for him to have to go beyond formula, to try very hard himself. (And while I love contrarianism, it's getting a bit old; I think contrarianism may be reaching a point of diminishing returns where most of the easier (and more likely to be true) examples have been already been pointed out).
posted by blue shadows at 12:10 AM on March 21, 2012


What I find most interesting about this is that, according to an interview Gladwell did for Planet Money some months ago, Gladwell doesn't like seeing underdogs win. If you take the article as a Goliath fan trying to come to grips with David's success, I think it makes a lot of sense.
posted by GameDesignerBen at 6:03 AM on March 21, 2012


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