Apostle Paul

This is the second part of the post about the book by Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

This is the link to the first part of David and Goliath.

The 327 pages of the book are divided into three parts and nine chapters. In the first part I focused on Part 1 of the book or The advantages of disadvantages (and the disadvantages of advantages).

Now I want to review a few more ideas and stories from the other two parts.

Part 2: The Theory of Desirable Difficulty

Part 2 is about The theory of desirable difficulty. The idea of desirable difficulty suggests that not all difficulties are negative. The chapter starts with a biblical verse from the Apostle Paul,

I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

In other words, challenges and personal limitation can be a serious challenge, and some of them stay with us for our entire life, no matter what we do. However, these same weaknesses or limitations can be a blessing and a source of strength and not necessarily only an impediment. They can become stepping stones, because what makes as weak can at the same time help us develop other skills. This is the message of the second part of the book David and Goliath.

David Boies and Dyslexia

The first example is the story of David Boies who became a successful lawyer and the chairman of his own law firm, Boies, Schiller & Flexner.

The chapter dedicated to him starts with this provocative question: You wouldn’t want dyslexia on your child. Or would you?

Dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by problems in processing words into meaningful information. This is most strongly reflected in difficulty in learning to read. The idea of desirable difficulty suggests, however, that not all difficulties are negative, and this may apply to having dyslexia.

For example, because of the problems David Boies had understanding what was written on a page, David Boies developed the ability of memorizing what others were saying or reading.

After working for a while in construction, David decided to study law. It may seem crazy for someone who has problems reading to decide to study law. However, because of his limitation, he had to make extra efforts, and think of shortcuts and strategies to overcome his problem.

His memory became the key to his success. He became a litigator, a job that requires him to think on his feet. He learned to memorize what he needed to say in court, and because he couldn’t read a lot, he had to simplify the arguments to their basics. By so doing, he transformed a weakness in a strength, because by simplifying his cases he more easily connects with judges and jurors, who are not experts in the issues discussed, and who may get confused by complicated explanations.

Gladwell discusses the finding of the psychologist Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer who observed that giving students a test printed out in a font that was hard to read, would result in higher scores than when the same test was printed in an easier to read font.

The explanation of this apparently strange finding is that,

Extra effort pays off. As Alter says, making the questions “disfluent” causes people to think more deeply about whatever they come across. They’ll use more resources on it. They’ll process more deeply or think more carefully about what’s going on. If they have to overcome a hurdle, they’ll overcome it better when you force them to think a little harder.

Similarly to David Boies, other dyslexic people, by the time they got out of high school or college, have developed an ability to deal with failure. Because of that, when they look at most situations, they see much more of the upside than the downside. This ability is very valuable in the business world, where the possibility of failure is a constant threat.

This may explain why there is a much larger percentage of successful entrepreneurs who are dyslexic than in the general population. For example Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, Charles Schwab, John Chambers at Cisco, David Neeleman at JetBlue, and many others.

Several of these successful business people believe that they didn’t succeed in spite of their disability, but because of it.

However, there is also a disproportionate number of dyslexic people in prison. This shows that challenges are not always a positive push to do better. Clearly, there is an appropriate level of adversity that helps people do better, but in some cases it can be overwhelming.

Gary Cohn at Goldman Sachs is dyslexic, but he has a very high IQ and had a pretty strong family around him. He had the needed support to go through a lot of challenges in school and still overcome them. However, someone with a below average intelligence and with a family that isn’t supportive, probably wouldn’t be helped by having dyslexia on top of his other serious challenges.

The last two chapters of this fir part include the stories of Emil “Jay” Freireich, and Wyatt Walker.

Part 3: The Limits of Power

Part 3 of David and Goliath is about The limits of power, and includes the several stories, including those of Wilma Derksen, André Trocmé, and Konrad Kellen.

“It has been said that most revolutions are not caused by revolutionaries in the first place, but by the stupidity and brutality of governments.” –

Sean MacStiofain

These are some of the ideas from the last part of the book:

  • We often think of authority as a response to disobedience, however, disobedience can also be a response to authority.
  • When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters – first and foremost – how they behave.
  • The principle of legitimacy is based on three things. First, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have the voice – that if they speak up, they will be heard. Second, the law has to be predictable. There has to a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today. And third, the authority has to be fair. It can’t treat one group differently from another.
  • Power has an important limitation. It has to be seen as legitimate, or else its use has the opposite of its intended effect.
  • The inverted-U curve is all about limits. They illustrate the fact that “more” is not always better; there comes a point, in fact, when the extra resources that the powerful think of as their greatest advantage only serve to make things worse.

This final lesson about the limits of power is not easy to learn. It requires that those in positions of authority accept that their greatest advantage has real constraints.

  • The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.

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