Pop science guru celebrates underdog heroes

Can’t keep them down: Four unlikely stars who overcame disadvantage to achieve great things.

From disabilities to bereavement, a new book by one of the world’s most famous journalists claims our disadvantages can become sources of strength. Is struggle the secret of success?

We all know the story. David is a small, unknown and virtually unarmed shepherd; Goliath is a ferocious giant who has brought Israel to its knees. Yet with God and guile to help him, David vanquishes his terrifying enemy in a single blow. It is the ultimate underdog story.

But there is a problem with this account: according to the best-selling journalist Malcolm Gladwell, the Bible story has it all wrong.

For a start, the slingshot that David used was in fact one of the most powerful weapons in the ancient world. And with his heavy armour and enormous frame, Goliath was too lumbering to escape the fatal stone. The little Israelite was always a safe bet to come out on top. Why? Because the attributes we see as disadvantages were actually his strengths.

According to Gladwell’s new book*, this story is not an isolated case. The idea that the large, the powerful and the privileged are bound to come up on top is wrong, he says. In fact, adversity can even give you an edge.

Studies suggest, for instance, that a disproportionate number of high-achieving entrepreneurs are dyslexic – billionaire businessman Richard Branson being the most famous example. Why? Perhaps because those for whom learning is such a struggle must develop more sophisticated tactics to achieve success. ‘If you take away the gift of reading,’ says Gladwell, ‘you create the gift of listening.’

Another example: it would be natural to expect that the traumatic experience of a parent’s death would cripple a child’s chances of success in later life. Yet sometimes, it seems, exactly the opposite is true. Out of 44 American presidents to date, 12 have grown up without a father. One academic analysed 573 of the people who appear most prominently in encyclopaedias and found that over a third had lost a parent by the age of 15.

Gladwell believes that his message holds true in every field, from pitched battles to basketball: ‘substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life.’

*David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, published by Allen Lane, October 2013

Backs to the wall

Many find this message inspiring: when the odds are stacked against us, we discover resources we never knew we had. Your handicaps may be aces up your sleeve, your struggles can provide you with fuel. Whatever you have had to contend with, there is always hope.

Look around you, say more cynical critics: are the powerful people of the world really the ones who have suffered the most? Or do they in fact tend to have grown up with privilege and prosperity? Mental toughness and hard work, can occasionally overcome a hard start in life; but to call adversity an advantage is absurd.

You Decide

  1. Are people who have to struggle more likely to succeed?
  2. ‘If there’s one cultural quality we have, it’s that we always see ourselves as an underdog.’ What does Bill Gates mean, and do you agree with him?


  1. Think of a weakness or disadvantage that you have and come up with one way you could turn it to your benefit.
  2. Research a famous person whose achievements you admire and write a short biography describing the obstacles they have had to overcome.

Some People Say...

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are you saying that people with dead parents and learning disabilities are actually better off?
Not quite. For many people, especially those who don’t get adequate support, handicaps like this can be devastating. For instance, both of the two groups mentioned are significantly over-represented in prison.
Oh. So Malcolm Gladwell is wrong?
Not necessarily. Big obstacles might topple many, of course; but if you manage to overcome them, research suggests that you may well come out stronger. ‘We as a society need people who have emerged from some kind of trauma,’ Malcolm Gladwell says. ‘All of us depend on people who have been hardened by their experiences.’

Word Watch

Malcolm Gladwell
One of the most celebrated non-fiction writers in the world, Gladwell is famous for his distinctive mix of anecdote and social science. Although he is often criticised by academics, the counter-intuitive conclusions in books like The Tipping Point have made a huge impression on many readers, including powerful politicians like Bill Clinton.
This weapon consists of a small pouch with two long fabric handles attached. By swinging a stone in the pouch and then releasing one of the handles at just the right moment, an adept user can shoot extremely accurately at long distances. In an age when sophisticated bows were rare, such a powerful ballistic weapon could alter the result of a battle.
A tribe in the ancient Middle East who the Old Testament describes as God’s chosen people. They later became known as Jews. The word for people who come from modern Israel, however, is Israelis.
Pitched battles
Even when an army is vastly inferior, its odds are surprisingly good. One recent study of thousands of battles spanning several centuries suggests that a force outnumbered by ten to one or more achieves victory almost a third of the time.


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