So Which One is It, Malcolm?

Malcolm Gladwell in 2008, photographed by kris krüg.

I’ll admit to my fandom for Malcolm Gladwell. Critics of his analysis dismiss him as an oversimplifier of complex ideas, but I view the tactic as making such ideas accessible to more people and bringing better conversations to cocktail parties (as much as that sounds hypothetical, it is a practical observation).  But this time he has gone and contradicted himself and the brilliance for which I have praised him since his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success.

His new book, David and Goliath, Gladwell praises underdogs for their resourcefulness, their often unexpected wit, and their unwavering tenacity, and suggests that the circumstances that categorize them as underdogs in the first place – lack of privilege, strength, training, cultivation, whatever general disadvantage – is their advantage.  He makes a case that overt advantages overshadow underlying vulnerabilities and foster complacency and sloth (my words, not his).

Okay, that’s a fine idea, but it seems to contradict the idea of cumulative advantage that drove the success stories in Outliers.  So which is it?  Is advantage good or bad?  Does it make us softer than our leaner, hungrier competition, or does it lead to greater opportunity to cultivate fine skills and experience, and temper us with better competition?

The answer, of course, is that both situations can be used to great advantage.  We are fortunate enough to have clients who fall under both categories.  Our Davids’ challenges are fun because we relate to them.  We are a small company too, and take every chance to show how we love to be nimble and crafty.  We roll up our sleeves, and specialists become generalists.  We go guerrilla.  We take the craggy back way up the mountain.  We aim for the achilles.  We drink raw eggs (not really, but what’s an underdog story without a Rocky reference?).  But we also enjoy the way large organizations challenge us, with approval processes and committees, influencing decisions to work with project timing, and keeping focus on the customer details to further the practice, and the perception, that each and every consumer and transaction absolutely matter.

My fandom remains intact.  As with Gladwell, variables come into play, stances can change, and great ideas need not be absolute, proving again that there really are no experts, there are only those who test and learn.

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