The Gladwell article on underdogs

Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, etc) is back to doing what I think he is best at – writing long essays (as opposed to writing books which I think are over-stretched long essays). So he is back with his Annals of Innovation column in the New Yorker trying to explain what underdogs need to do in order to succeed.

I hope I have read this right, but my takeaway from this is that your style of play should be dependent on the situtation, your own abilities and the environment, and you should think twice before taking the standard template path. Too many conventions get established. Some of them get written down as processes. Some conventions are even converted into rules – obviously by those who follow the convention. And you have too many people who don’t really think and simply try to follow the convention without thinking whether it is the right thing to do for the occasion.

Conventions are good in the sense that they give you a good starting point. They give you a good initial solution upon which you need to build your own incremental algorithm to come up with the most optimal solution. It is also likely that in a large proportion of situations, doing things conventionally is going to work – that is the reason why they became conventions in the first place. However, deifying conventions and not even thinking of breaking them is too much of a stretch and can lead to disaster.

After I had read the article and tweeted it, one of the first questions I got was with regards to where it fits in with respect to the studs and fighters theory. The ambiguity is caused tue to the primary narrative that Gladwell uses in order to illustrate his point – about a girls’ basketball teams which uses an uncommon technique called the full-press in order to beat their more conventional opponents. While talking about this Gladwell stresses that effort and general ability can compensate for lack of skills (he was talking about running speed, drills, etc.) . Which makes it appear as if he is clamouring for fighterization.

On the other hand, the fighter is the one who follows the convention. One who doesn’t question orders, who just executes what he is told. One who starts running at the sound of the  gunshot without thinking about which way to run. One whose skills are geared towards doing the stuff in the conventional manner. And doing things in a different way, doing unusual things, thinking about what to do, questioning, coming up with alternate solutions are all stud characteristics. Which means Gladwell is asking the underdog to be Stud.

So whether Gladwell is asking the underdogs to be Stud or Fighter depends on how you interpret his message. If you interpret it in the way that I did – that you need to think about your abilities, situation and environment before deciding how to do the stuff, then it is stud. If, however, you interpret it in the sense that effort and strength can compensate for skill, then it is fighter.

Maybe you should read the article and decide for yourself, and inform me. It is a pretty good article, and has a good narrative that makes it a racy read. The problem is that Gladwell (as is his usual style) overstretches the narrative and seems to read too much into it. Just keep that filter in mind and you should enjoy the article.

Preliminary reading on studs and fighters theory:

Studs and Fighters

Extending the studs and fighters theory

3 thoughts on “The Gladwell article on underdogs”

  1. In the basketball case, even if the players had gone all out with hours of practice, they couldn’t have beaten the teams with better physique and skills. That’s when the stud mentor comes in and redirects their effort to increase their chances of winning. Fighters won’t win if their efforts are misdirected. Similarly, stud ideas won’t work if they aren’t backed up by effort. As Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration & 99% perspiration”.

    RR seems to be a similar case. They don’t match up to other teams in the skills dept. But Warne adds the stud element, juggling his limited resources to ensure resource optimization.

    So you basically substitute studness for skill and pray that the opposition relies more on skill than studness 😉

  2. One other book that depicts this stud and fighter behavior very well is ‘The Goal’. It also narrates how a good stud teacher coaches fighter students and in the end they all benefit.

  3. Let’s not forget “best practices” that distract from innovation. 😉 You’re right that rules provide a good starting point when you don’t know what you are doing.

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