The book is a take on how we look at the world and brand something as an advantage and something as a limitation. The things that we attribute as advantages sometimes become limitations and vice-versa. There are three parts to the book and each part has three stories.
Part I: The advantages of disadvantages (and the disadvantage of advantages).
The three stories mentioned in this part of the book go on to illustrate that we are often mislead about the nature of advantage. We think of things as helpful that actually aren’t and think of other things as unhelpful that in reality leave us stronger and wiser.
Vivek Ranadive : A computer nerd who trains a basketball team (David) to play against strong teams that play conventional basketball( Goliath). By combining unusual strategies that sometimes ONLY suit a disadvantaged, his team goes on to win many matches against supposedly strong teams.
Shepaug Valley School : A story that illustrates the inverted U principle. Something that we think of an advantage beyond a point becomes a disadvantage. I think this is applicable in quite a number of situations like more money is good for success, but beyond a point, it is actually detrimental for the success. In a similar way shrinking large class sizes is good but beyond a point it is in fact negatively correlated to academic achievement. Being born in a middleclass family is actually better than being born with silver spoon. A similar sentiment is echoed in Geet Sethi’s book, “Success Vs. Joy” where he says that his middle class status actually was one of the reasons that motivated him to practice more than usual hours. Had he been born in a super rich family, he says he would not have become a world class billiards player.
Caroline Sacks: This is a story of a girl who was interested in science, ends up choosing a prestigious institute instead of a second rung institute, thus choosing to be a small fish in an ocean than a big fish in a pond. What was the consequence? She drops out of science and decides to graduate in a different field. The book gives the reason as “relative deprivation”. Gladwell cites a raft of research that says that it’s how smart you feel relative to others in your classroom that matters. The bottom quartile/decile of top universities has been found not to be as productive as top quartile/top decile of fairly average university. Going by pure academic achievements and IQ levels, it should not be the case. But it is. I think this small fish vs. big fish is a valuable thought to be kept in mind while choosing many other aspects in our lives – Where do you go to school? / Where do you choose to work? / What do you choose to work on? etc. While taking these decisions, we inevitable weigh the advantages and disadvantages of various options. In that process what we think of as an advantage might actually be a disadvantage and vice versa. Let’s say a good reason to work in well known company is the money, the infrastructure, the prestige etc. that come with it and one might think that it is a great advantage to keep working in that company as a small fish. It might be beneficial for certain type of people, but for some, a smaller firm with constraints on money/ infra and loads of uncertainties, can actually spur them in to doing creative stuff.
Part II: The theory of desirable difficulty
The three stories mentioned in this part of the book illustrate that we are often mislead by what we perceive as disadvantages.
David Boies(Successful trial lawyer), Ingvar Kamprad(IKEA)Gary Cohn(Goldman Sachs) : All these people have one common thread. They were dyslexic. Gladwell talks about “compensation learning”, a technique adopted by those who cannot pursue “capitalization learning”, ( work on what’s one good at and keep working at it). All the stories illustrate one message those who have inherent disadvantages in the traditional education/career setting can actually force them to develop skills that might otherwise have lain dormant.
Emil Jay Freireich : A story of a man, who had a troubled childhood, never grew in an environment of empathy, and turns out to be the inventor of a successful cure for a certain type of cancer. When we see an orphan or a child who has lost his parent(s), we might think they are disadvantaged. Gladwell argues that these types of people are what he calls,”remote misses”. The fact that a person has lost his parent and has survived a bit brings in him a sense of accomplishment and that in turn feeds in to growing cycle of courage and self-confidence. There are a number of research findings that say that most of the successful people had lost one or both of their parents in their childhood. Something that is an obvious disadvantage for having a happy childhood can actually be beneficial.
Wyatt Walker : A story that illustrates that disadvantaged, sometimes have nothing to lose and go all out and achieve extremely improbable events
Part III – The limits of power
The three stories in this part of the book illustrate the inherent weaknesses of power. The same inverted U principle applies to power too. British army assumed that too much of power would make insurgency go away; however power, after a certain point in time goes from being effective to ineffective. There’s a story of Joanne Jaffe, a police officer who transforms Brownsville using not more power but less power. The story of Mike Reynold shows that an aggrieved parent can marshal forces to have an entire law enacted, in this case, a law called “Three Strikes Law”, which looks good on paper but fails completely over the long run. As a parallel story, Gladwell cites the example of another aggrieved parent, Wilma Derksen, who chooses a completely different path, and the outcome was a happy outcome.
If you are a Gladwell fan and like his way of writing, this book is a nice treat peppered with 9 stories that revolve around the theme – “There are things that we might think are helpful but actually aren’t and there are things that we might think are unhelpful but in reality leave us stronger and wiser”.