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Malcolm Gladwell Explains Why It Often Makes Sense to Put Your Money on David, Not Goliath

The latest book by the best-selling author examines the power of 'underdogs'

Q: Your family moved from London, England, to Ontario; then you moved to the U.S. Did all that relocating make you feel like an outsider or underdog?

A: Not an underdog. An outsider, yes. I was interested in writing about underdogs because they've had such a different experience than I have. I have not had a difficult life at all — I've had a life of real privilege. I mean, to grow up in middle-class Canada and then immigrate to the United States: Compared to 99.99 percent of humanity, that's a pretty good deal! So I don't make any claim to be anything like the people I write about in this book.

Q: Vivek Ranadivé, the basketball coach you profile from Mumbai, took his daughter's California middle school team to the national championship specifically because he knew nothing about the game. Yet his very effective methods — he taught his girls to beat the deadlines for the inbounds pass and moving the ball past midcourt — never really caught on among other coaches. What makes conventional wisdom so persistent?

A: Underdog strategies are difficult. They don't come with any promise of victory; they simply improve your odds of doing well. Most of us would rather do what's comfortable than do what maximizes our chances of winning. It's a sad truth about human nature that it takes a special kind of person to follow this road.

Q: You just turned 50 — has that changed your worldview at all? What are some seeming disadvantages for people over 50?

A: Older people as a group are both Davids and Goliaths. On the one hand, the demographic to which I now belong, as you point out, has most of the wealth in the world and most of the power in the world. At the same time, we have an enormous concentration of the opposite: the most vulnerable, the most neglected, the most thwarted people in society.

People in their 50s and 60s are at a disadvantage in reentering the workforce once they've lost a job. They have enormous potential and experience, yet they face these incredible obstacles in getting a chance to demonstrate them. At the same time, though, virtually every CEO in America is over 50. So there's this strange variability in the roles the elderly play, and the stereotypes that are attached to them, because they're both the most powerful and the least powerful.

Q: As you grow older in your job, you often become the underdog or misfit yourself — if you work for a tech company, for example, you can easily find yourself outside the circle of "cool kids" running the place. How should older workers react or think in such a situation?

A: We have to rethink getting older, because we have systematically undervalued judgment and experience. One of the key underappreciated facts about the Amadou Diallo shooting [in 1999, which Gladwell covered in Blink] is that the [four] officers who shot him were all very young. They all had very limited experience on the force. And in talking to police officers, I came to understand just how important experience is. There are situations that you're put into as a police officer that you can interpret properly only if you have the benefit of a great deal of experience — if you've seen it many times before.

Next page: Is Malcolm Gladwell a David or Goliath? »

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