Wednesday, 3 June 2009

How to Win According to Malcolm Gladwell, Luis Vaz de Camões and David: Do the Unexpected and Do It with Fire

In the May 4 New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell has another of his fascinating articles about how to accomplish things, “How David Beats Goliath.” (The special issue was about innovation and I took it with me on my trip: great reading for long airplane flights.) This time he takes off from a story about an unlikely basketball coach and team that won big because they played very hard using unexpected tactics.

“David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly,” Gladwell writes. “It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases.”

How? By looking for the enemy’s weaknesses, not playing by the enemy’s rules, and working very, very hard, Gladwell concludes. While basketball pervades the article—and provided fertile ground for a wealth of comment on Gladwell’s blog—he also uses Lawrence of Arabia and war games to make his point.

It seems to me that over the last few years Gladwell has been preparing a large body of advice for people who want to change the world. I intend to do an essay on that for the online magazine Rover soon, but suffice to say now that I find him one of the most subversive writers around. And the wisdom of his argument in this article came home, as I delved into the other reading I took on my trip, The Lusiads by Portugal’s great epic poet Luis Vaz de Camões. That’s how the Portuguese won many battles against the Moors, the poet says—by wily intelligence, unexpected tactics and valour.

Old ideas, it seems, sometimes are the newest thing.

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