We Shall Overcome is one of the greatest civil rights songs. And it is true: some do overcome great odds. But they have to be different – not only courageous and tenacious but also unconventional, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book, David and Goliath.
Underdogs, Misfits and the Art Of Battling Giants is the subtitle of the book – and it is appropriate. This is a book where the underdogs prevail, sometimes by bending the rules.
Gladwell writes about the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King. He recalls a news photo that shocked America – of a police dog lunging at a schoolboy in Birmingham, Alabama.
But the Associated Press photo published on the front page of the New York Times and other newspapers did not tell the whole story unless one looked more closely. The boy was actually about to kick the dog. He grabbed the hand of a police officer as he raised his leg to kick the dog. People seeing the grainy picture in newspapers could not make out all the details. To newspaper readers, it looked like the boy was bravely edging closer to the lunging dog, heedless that it might bite him. Later, Gladwell writes, civil rights activists claimed the boy broke the dog’s jaw, but that’s not what the picture showed.
King and his lieutenants deliberately encouraged schoolchildren to participate in the civil rights movement, writes Gladwell, because children attracted sympathy. If the children were harmed, people would be shocked.
King reprimanded a Life magazine photographer who laid down his camera to go to the aid of children being roughed up by police officers. “The world doesn’t know this happened because you didn’t photograph it,” he told the photographer. “I’m not being coldblooded about it, but it is so much more important for you to take a picture of us getting beaten up than for you to be another person joining in the fray.”
The photographer wanted to protect the children, but King wanted him to photograph the children being beaten up so that people would be shocked by their suffering and feel sympathy for them.
The civil rights movement did win in the end, though King was assassinated by a gunman in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.
The psychologist Jordan Peterson argues that innovators and revolutionaries tend to have a very particular mix of traits…
They have to be open. They have to imagine things that others cannot… They also need to be conscientious. An innovator who has brilliant ideas but lacks the discipline and persistence to carry them out is merely a dreamer…
But, crucially, innovators need to be disagreeable. By disagreeable, I don’t mean obnoxious or unpleasant… They are people willing to take social risks – to do things that others might disapprove of.
Gladwell mentions IKEA’s founder Ingvar Kamprad. In the mid-1950s, Swedish furniture manufacturers boycotted IKEA, angered by his low prices, and stopped filling his orders. So, in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall was going up, he went to Poland to get supplies from there.
What Kamprad did was inconceivable at the time, according to Gladwell.
“The equivalent today would be Walmart setting up shop in North Korea,” he writes. “Most people wouldn’t even think of doing business in the land of the enemy for fear of being branded a traitor. Not Kamprad. He didn’t care a whit for what others thought of him. That’s disagreeableness.”
Gladwell shows how individuals can make a difference. He writes about Mike Reynolds, whose daughter was shot dead by a robber just paroled from prison in Fresno, California, in 1992. In his grief, Reynolds started a campaign that led to the Thee Strikes Law in California, ramping up jail sentences for repeat offenders.
Best of all, I like the story of David Boies, the lawyer who represented the US Justice Department in its anti-trust suit against Microsoft.
How did a dyslexic like him, who had trouble reading and started life as a construction worker, became a top lawyer? Through persistence. Plus, he was a good listener. “Listening is something I’ve been doing all my life,” he said. “I learned to do it because that was the only way I could learn. I remember what people say. I remember words they use.” While others took notes in class at law school, he listened and committed what he heard to memory.
When he became a lawyer, he chose to be a litigator, which required him to speak and listen in the courtroom. And listen and remember he could very well. He, says Gladwell, was “”devastating in his cross-examination of witnesses, because there was no nuance, no subtle evasion, no peculiar and telling choice of words that he would miss – and no stray comment or revealing admission from testimony an hour or a day or a week before that he would not have heard, registered and remembered.”
There are other memorable real-life stories in the book about people succeeding against all the odds. Gladwell writes:
David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants. By “giants,” I mean powerful opponents of all kinds—from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression. Each chapter tells the story of a different person—famous or unknown, ordinary or brilliant—who has faced an outsize challenge and been forced to respond. Should I play by the rules or follow my own instincts? Shall I persevere or give up? Should I strike back or forgive?
Through these stories, I want to explore two ideas. The first is that much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.
Reading this book reminds you that, for some people at least, nothing is impossible.