Friday, November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination. It is a sad day in U.S. history, but many (including our friends in Dallas) are choosing to commemorate what was meaningful about his life. JFK was a giant among men, but many forget that he was also an underdog. Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a compelling book, David and Goliath, about this very topic – the giants and underdogs among us. He did not reference JFK specifically, but did note that many giants in industry and politics were once underdogs. He hypothesized that many turn a difficulty in their youth – e.g. illness, learning difficulties, or the death of a parent – ultimately into a strength. It is not widely known that despite having a privileged upbringing, JFK endured many physical challenges surrounding his back pain and Addison’s disease; in fact, he was given last rites at least four times in his short life. Historians theorize that this struggle with constant pain and seemingly endless medical treatments instilled him with a metaphorical spine – one that withstood the ultimate challenges of his time.

In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell challenges the reader to think differently about the biblical tale of David and Goliath. He has three main points that are relevant for us to consider in the social sector:

  • First, he discusses the advantages of the disadvantages. In these chapters, Gladwell describes the inverted U curve, which quite simply shows that more is not always better. He uses the analogy of parenting and money. If you don’t have money, it is harder to be a good parent. Then, as you acquire more money, parenting becomes easier – up to a certain point. However, money’s effect eventually has a diminishing return and then inverts as you pass the threshold into affluence. Gladwell also challenges our current thinking about why American students are not pursuing STEM careers. He posits that it is best for all of us to fish in the right-sized pond. He argues that big ponds (e.g. large, competitive schools) can be demoralizing to some students and that they would perform better as “big fish in a smaller pond” where they can first feel and then be successful. This is not to discourage underdogs or anyone else; instead, the idea is to suggest different paths for people to achieve their goals in life. In other words, this is a proposed means to an end, not a limitation on the end itself. I encourage everyone working in the STEM field to read this chapter – it presents an important and counterintuitive argument that deserves serious consideration.
  • Second, Gladwell shares the theory of desirable difficulty as discussed above. He shares stories of famous people (e.g. Richard Branson, Brian Glazer) who overcame obstacles, which in turn gave them a drive that most do not attain. He notes that “[t]welve of the first forty-four U.S. presidents – beginning with George Washington and going all the way to Barack Obama – lost their fathers while they were young.”
  • Third, he illustrates the limits of power. Gladwell discusses the legendary criminal justice experiment of California’s Three Strikes Law. It was alluringly logical in theory and deceptively simple in application – imposing progressive sanctions for criminals to deter future criminal activity, with the third strike resulting in mandatory sentences of 25 years. However, the law arguably created many unintended consequences, including a staggering increase in the prison population without a corresponding decrease in crime. As a result, in November 2012, Californians scaled back the law in a state referendum. Therefore, the David vs. Goliath concept applies not only to social actors, but also to the solutions they propose. I encourage us to carefully review this case study and use it to better understand how to engineer more effective social solutions.

Alluding to the lesson of David and Goliath, Gladwell artfully opines that “[w]hat we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.” He has produced a compelling book that challenges many of the assumptions we make about what makes individuals (or their solutions) successful. Heroes can come from any direction and arise under any set of circumstances. As we celebrate the greatness and beauty of JFK’s Camelot on Friday, let’s also elevate our thinking and rededicate ourselves to real action that improves the circumstances of all.

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