Gladwell Believes in the Underdog's Advantages
Malcolm Gladwell has good news for underdogs: There probably is a way to win. But it’s definitely not the easy way.
“Most people who are running a weak team would rather do the easy thing and lose than do the hard thing and win,” Gladwell said Wednesday at Nielsen’s Consumer 360 conference in Phoenix.
The author gave a preview of the themes from his upcoming book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants”—in which he finds that advantages in life aren’t always … advantageous.
Case in point: A successful tech executive named Vivek who, in coaching his 12-year-old daughter’s basketball team, had several things going against him. First, he was coaching a team of girls who were far from top athletes. And more importantly, he knew nothing about basketball, having grown up in Mumbai.
But Vivek’s outsider status made him see basketball in a way most people didn’t.
“He decided the way Americans play basketball is completely mindless,” Gladwell said.
Vivek’s solution? Push the limits of turnover rules to keep their more-skilled opponents from moving down the court and getting near the basket.
In other words, Vivek’s strategy was to play full court press for the entire game.
“He told the girls, ‘We are going to run around maniacally with our hands in the air and we’re going to make sure that no one can pass the ball within five seconds,’” Gladwell said.
Parents from other teams were furious at what Vivek’s team was playing, saying it violated the spirit of the game.
But the strategy worked immediately: The team won its first game: 6-0. Yes, 6-0. They still had little ability to dribble, pass or shoot.
But they improved and won their next games 12-0, then 15-0 and 25-0—and at the end of the season, the team of 12-year-olds was playing for the national championship. (They lost.)
Gladwell says Vivek’s example is fascinating because his innovation came because it was his only card to play—his team had no talent.
“Real breakthrough innovations come from having nothing,” Gladwell said. “They start from coming from ground zero. Not from having some advantages.”
And great innovators usually aren’t popular, as Vivek’s fellow basketball parents can attest. Gladwell said great innovators all have these three traits: They’re creative, they’re conscientious, and most of all, they’re disagreeable.
And being an underdog can foster these traits, out of necessity.
“Adversity and what we call disadvantages can actually be very advantageous,” Gladwell said.
So, what’s Vivek up to now? The onetime basketball novice, who Gladwell revealed is actually TIBCO Software Chairman and CEO Vivek Ranadive, last week led a group that bought the Sacramento Kings.