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Turning Disadvantage Into Advantage

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In his most recent bestseller, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell encourages a different understanding of adversity -- to recognize disadvantages as genuine advantages.

In his introduction, Gladwell makes the case that David -- the shepherd boy who was summoned by his people to defend King Saul's kingdom against the Philistines -- was not the underdog in his historic battle against the six-foot-nine inch giant, Goliath. Essentially, Goliath was equipped for direct combat, in which he might have deflected strikes with his shield and delivered a stab with his spear, not an opponent whose chief weaponry consisted of a slingshot and stones.

David's decision to fight with less armor and weaponry, as opposed to Goliath, granted him insurmountable speed and mobility. Additionally, "Goliath had as much chance against David," writes the historian, Robert Dohrenwend, "as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an [opponent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol." David had brought a gun to a sword fight. He had recognized his disadvantage of size as an advantage of speed, mobility and ability. Goliath, as Gladwell summarized, "was blind to his approach -- and then he was down, too big and slow and blurry-eyed to comprehend the way the tables had been turned."

In a sense, those who were disadvantaged in some way, including a world-renowned lawyer, the president of Goldman Sachs and a prominent chemotherapist, managed to use their handicaps -- whether they be dyslexia or poverty -- to their advantage.

David Boies is one of the best trial lawyers in the country. His work has included defending IBM against antitrust charges brought by the Justice Department and representing Al Gore against George W. Bush in the Supreme Court case that effectively determined the results of the 2000 presidential election. Boies' has often attributed such legal success to his having dyslexia, but how, exactly, could a reading impediment improve one's success in a field built upon cases, opinions and scholarly analyses?

Quite simply, Boies turned his disadvantage into an advantage. His reading deficiency was ameliorated by his becoming an exceptional listener. "Listening," he explains, "is something I've been doing essentially all my life. I learned to do it because that was the only way that I could learn." Eventually, Boies became a litigator. Sometimes, in his opening statements or closing arguments, he encounters a word that he is unable to decode, "so he stops and spells it out," Gladwell explains, "like a child in a spelling bee." In fact, when representing the Justice Department in an antitrust case against Microsoft, Boies referred to the term, "login," as "lojin." Even so, Boies made sure to listen closely to witness testimony throughout the trial and, after his spirited cross-examination of the witnesses, essentially guaranteed that the court would rule in favor of the Justice Department.

The president of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, had similar experiences. Having been held back in elementary school due to his reading impairment, Cohn became accustomed to failure. He struggled throughout high school, but managed to graduate from American University and launch a career on Wall Street because of his ability to persevere. "The one trait in a lot of dyslexic people I know is that by the time we got out of college, our ability to deal with failure was very highly developed," says Cohn. "I wouldn't be where I am today without my dyslexia." Like David, Cohn recognized his disadvantage of dyslexia as an advantage of determination and in the ability to deal with failure. Like David, Cohn fared well in his battle against the Goliath that had for years told him he would never succeed.

Another example of a successful person who has learned to use disadvantages to his advantage is Emil J. Freireich. Freireich, the director of the Adult Leukemia Research Program at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, has won numerous awards for his breakthroughs in leukemia therapy and clinical research techniques. A prominent chemotherapist, Freireich was raised in inner-city Chicago during the Great Depression. Having lost his father, as well as the support he provided, Freireich did not perform well in medical school and was fired from ensuing jobs at least seven times. His childhood of boundless poverty and neglect, however, accorded him an indestructible will. Eventually, Freireich began experimenting with the administering of a combination of medications to children with leukemia in an effort to combat each trait of the disease. Freireich's "drug cocktail" required him to encounter suffering and dying children on a regular basis, but is now utilized as a basic cancer treatment that has helped save thousands of lives. As Craig Offman of The Globe and Mail summarized, "it was arguably [Freireich's] own volatile mix of bullheadedness and a Dr. House-like indifference to death that eventually led to a successful treatment of children's leukemia."

Ivan Arreguin-Toft, an assistant professor of International Relations at Boston University, recently analyzed every instance of asymmetric conflict between strong actors -- the Goliaths -- and weak actors -- the Davids -- within the past two centuries. The Goliaths, he discovered, were the victors in 71.5 percent of conflicts. When the Davids recognized their disadvantages and amended their strategies, however, the percentage of conflicts in which they were victors increased from 28.5 to 63.6 percent. Thus, "weak actors are much more likely to win," Arreguin-Toft determined, "even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn't."

In sum, those who are disadvantaged -- David, in his size and strength; Boies and Cohn, in their reading abilities; and Freireich, in his system of support and access to opportunity -- learned to succeed because of their novel approach toward understanding adversity. In a way, Goliath had no chance against David, and leukemia, poverty and neglect had no chance against Boies, Cohn and Freireich, for all four learned, as Gladwell phrased it, "the art of battling giants" -- to make use of that which is meant to debilitate.

But what does this mean for us, students? It means that, in any encounter with overwhelming odds -- whether they be academics, relationships or financial situations, we often misconstrue our true strengths and weaknesses, for the same qualities that appear to weaken us are often the sources of our greatest strength. We may confront the stronger, smarter and more talented in our time here and hereafter, but rather than mistaking our relative weaknesses, fatuities and inabilities, we ought to appreciate that our apparent inadequacies will serve as advantages in the long run.

Realizing this will not only change us in ways that we often fail to appreciate, but will make possible that which might previously have seemed unimaginable.