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Malcolm Gladwell: The power of the underdog

Malcolm Gladwell: The Power of the Underdog
Malcolm Gladwell: The Power of the Underdog 12:35

The following is a script of "Gladwell" which aired on Nov. 24, 2013. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Magalie Laguerre Wilkinson and Deirdre Naphin, producers.

Everyone loves an underdog –a tale about a little guy who takes on the establishment favorite. But is our understanding of the underdog accurate?  Can a disadvantage, a weakness, actually lead to a hidden strength?  It’s a question that’s been asked ever since David took on Goliath, an almost 3,000-year-old story that writer Malcolm Gladwell believes we’ve been getting wrong all this time. 

Malcolm Gladwell: When we look at battles between lopsided parties, we exaggerate the strength of the favorite and we underestimate the strength of the underdog.

Malcolm Gladwell believes underdogs win more often than we think because their limitations can force them to be creative.  David couldn’t slay Goliath with a sword, but with his sling he could be deadly from a distance. And Gladwell says, there’s plenty of modern research to explain why.

Malcolm Gladwell: I had a conversation with this ballistics expert with the Israeli Defense Force who had done the math and pointed out that the projectile, the rock coming from David's sling, was moving at about 35 meters per second and would have hit Goliath with the stopping power equivalent to a bullet from a .45 caliber handgun.

Anderson Cooper: How did you find an Israeli ballistics expert who had done this study on the throwing power of David?

Malcolm Gladwell: Because there was a paper presented at the International Ballistics Conference, like, seven years ago, whatever, by—

Anderson Cooper: How did you even hear about the International Ballistics Conference?

Malcolm Gladwell: If you're as much of a nerd as I am, this is the kind of stuff that you—you get interested in, you know.

Anderson Cooper: This is what you do.

Malcolm Gladwell: This is what I do. Yeah.

What Gladwell does has made him hugely popular...and very wealthy. His new book David and Goliath – all about underdogs – has already topped the New York Times best-seller list.

Malcolm Gladwell: When you're an underdog, you're forced to try things you would never otherwise have attempted. Because David—there was no way he could do a duel with swords, he feels emboldened to try something totally outside the box, right? And that's a pattern that you see again and again with underdogs that because they can't do the thing they are required to do, they look for alternate routes.

"When you're an underdog, you're forced to try things you would never otherwise have attempted."

Gladwell began writing about the successful strategies of underdogs after meeting an Indian-born software mogul named Vivek Ranadivé. What interested Gladwell wasn’t software, but how Ranadivé coached his 12-year-old daughter’s basketball team – seen here in white – even though Ranadivé knew nothing about the game.

Anderson Cooper: Growing up in India did you play basketball?

Vivek Ranadivé: I never actually touched a basketball in my life.

Anderson Cooper: Never touched one?

Vivek Ranadivé: Never touched one. When I went to coach my daughter’s team I had physically never touched a basketball.

His lack of knowledge about basketball, wasn’t his only obstacle. His daughter’s team had absolutely no talent.

Anderson Cooper: The girls on your basketball team—they weren't tall

Vivek Ranadivé: No.

Anderson Cooper: Could they dribble?

Vivek Ranadivé: A couple of them.

Anderson Cooper: Could they shoot?

Vivek Ranadivé: Not very well.

Anderson Cooper: Did they have a long experience playing basketball?

Vivek Ranadivé: For the most part, no.

So Randivé relied on his mathematics talent and devised a computer algorithm that turned out to be a winning formula for his girls. The strategy: force the other team to turn over the ball.

Malcolm Gladwell: He says, "Look, I'm not—we're not gonna bother practicing shooting, it’s pointless. We're not gonna practice dribbling. I'm gonna teach you to run around like this the entire game." We’re gonna play the most maniacal defense known to man. And we’re gonna score by stealing the ball and shooting lay ups. That’s it.

Vivek Ranadivé: It didn't really matter that my girls couldn't shoot as well. If I could get the ball under the basket and if I could win the turnover battle, then I could win the game.

Ranadivé’s girls played a never-ending full court press. They won every regular season game.

Anderson Cooper: Your daughter's opponents, they just weren't used to playing basketball like this.

Vivek Ranadivé::  No. No, in fact—the coaches were not used to playing that way.

Anderson Cooper: They didn't like it.

Vivek Ranadivé: They didn't like it. One guy, a big guy—was so upset that he said he wanted to meet me in the parking lot (laugh) after the game—

Anderson Cooper: He wanted to beat you up?

Vivek Ranadivé: Well, he wanted to meet me in the parking lot.

Ranadivé’s underdogs, made it all the way to the state championships.

Anderson Cooper: You clearly started to like basketball after that?

Vivek Ranadivé: I did. I did. I ended up falling in love with the game.

Anderson Cooper: And you're still—a software CEO of a multibillion dollar company. But I understand you recently made a big purchase?

Vivek Ranadivé: Well, I did. I bought the Sacramento Kings.

Anderson Cooper: You bought an NBA basketball team?

Vivek Ranadivé: I did.

An underdog’s disadvantages can be converted into advantages. And Gladwell believes that’s just as true apart from sports. Gary Cohn is one of Gladwell’s favorite examples.

Gary Cohn: I was a troubled student as a young child. And at that period -- this is the early 60s, the world of dyslexia hadn’t been as developed as it is today. You know, I don’t think anyone really knew how to diagnose the problem.

Malcolm Gladwell: He couldn't do school. He was—he acted up in class. He got kicked outta schools. His mother never thought he would graduate from high school. When he graduated from high school, his mother cried. Why? Because sh—it—it was a day she thought would never come.

Cohn still has difficulty reading, but he’s figured out ways to work around his disability, skills that have led him all the way to the president’s office at Goldman Sachs.

Malcolm Gladwell: An incredibly high percentage of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. That's one of the little-known facts. So many of them, in fact, it's like a joke among dyslexic researchers that you go into a room of very successful businesspeople, and you—you have a show of hands on who has a learning disability, it's like half the hands in the room go up. It's fascinating…

Although dyslexia remains a challenge for many people, Cohn figured out a way to overcome it. His disability forced him to become a good listener and made him unafraid to take chances.

Gary Cohn: People that can’t read well, we tend to build a great sense of listening. We also tend to build a great sense of being able to deal and cope with failure.

Anderson Cooper: This is not something though you would wish on anybody else though?

Gary Cohn: No, I would not.

Gladwell is fascinated with people who achieve success by forging their own path, perhaps because that’s what he has done. He is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, but he doesn’t actually have an office. He writes in small cafes in New York, and does most of his research in a library where he hunts out obscure, often dull academic papers and mines them for interesting, counterintuitive ideas.  David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, calls him an original.

Life lessons from the best-selling book, "Blink" 02:11

David Remnick: There are people that cover science. There are people that cover business. There are people that cover trends. But this strange amalgam of reading academic journals, interviewing ordinary people, thinking, storytelling, this is something that Malcolm really—that was a territory that he carved out for himself.

Anderson Cooper: What do you think he’s interested in achieving? Is it that he’s got an opinion and he wants everybody else to agree with it?

David Remnick: Absolutely just the opposite. I think what he’s interested in is testing and pressing against received wisdom, most of the time what we think of our ideas about the world, it’s received wisdom. We’ve read them. We’ve assumed it’s correct. We don’t have time to test everything.

Gladwell’s testing of everything has made him a Goliath in the world of publishing... but he began as an underdog.  Not a particularly strong student, his upbringing in rural Ontario, Canada was… well...a bit odd.

Malcolm Gladwell: We had no TV. We had no stereo. We never went to the movies. We never even went out to dinner. Like—I think—we w—like we once went out to dinner in, like, in sort of the mid-70s. Found the experience not to our liking and didn't go back.

Anderson Cooper: Not to your liking? I mean, what you're—(LAUGHS) what you're describing is a childhood---from the '30s.

Malcolm Gladwell: I thought I had—no I had—I read a lotta books—I thought I had a fabulous childhood… I mean—when I would sometimes get bored and my mother would say, “It's important to be bored. You're giving your brain a rest.”

His Jamaican-born mother is a family therapist. His English father a math professor. Gladwell says being biracial and feeling like an outsider has given him a perspective that still informs his writing.

Malcolm Gladwell: We lived in England. Then we moved to Canada where we were sort of outsiders. And then I moved to America where I'm a kind of outsider. So I feel like I've constantly been in this situation of shaking my head and thinking, "This is a strange place."

Gladwell finds America’s obsession with Ivy League colleges strange. He argues the presumed advantages of Ivy League schools can actually be disadvantages.  Gladwell went to the University of Toronto and says he’s better off for it.

"...I've constantly been in this situation of shaking my head and thinking, 'This is a strange place.'"

Malcolm Gladwell: I have a massive chip on my shoulder. I went to a state school in Canada. You kidding me? I come to New York and all kinds of people who went to Harvard and Yale are mentioning that in every second sentence. It drives me crazy, so -- so I have taken it upon myself.

Anderson Cooper: I went to Yale.

Malcolm Gladwell: I know that, but you haven’t mentioned it until now, so I've—

Anderson Cooper: I never mentioned it. I really don't.

He says the assumption in America that students should go to most prestigious school they get into is simply wrong.

Malcolm Gladwell: If you go to an elite school where the other students in your class are all really brilliant, you run the risk of mistakenly believing yourself to not be a good student. Right? So you—

Anderson Cooper: Even if—

Malcolm Gladwell: Even if you are. Right? It doesn't—if you're last in your class at Harvard, it doesn't feel like you're a good student, even though you really are. It's not smart for everyone to want to go to a great school.

Anderson Cooper: So if you had a child, would you want them to go to Harvard?

Malcolm Gladwell: No, of course not. I'd want them to go to school in—to a state school in Canada where their tuition would be $4,000 a year.

Malcolm Gladwell: If Harvard is $60,000 and University of Toronto where I went to school is maybe six. So you're really telling me that education is 10 times better at Harvard than it is at University of Toronto? That seems ridiculous to me.

He doesn’t like to talk about money, but Gladwell earns millions from his books and lectures.  In person however, there is little sign of his wealth. He lives alone in Greenwich Village on the top two floors of a walk-up brownstone. A self-described hermit, he doesn’t even have a doorbell.  

Malcolm Gladwell:: I don't want a doorbell. I don't want anyone ringing my doorbell. Why-- why—seems to be so intrusive.

Anderson Cooper: So when people come visit what do they do? 

Malcolm Gladwell: They call me on their cell phone.

For all his success, on the streets of New York he’s nearly invisible, save for his signature cloud of curls bobbing above the crowd.

Malcolm Gladwell: People assume when my hair is long that I’m a lot cooler than I actually am. I’m not opposed to this misconception, by the way, but it is a misconception.

[Malcolm Gladwell: Thank you for buying six books!]

At 50, Malcolm Gladwell has reached a level of success few writers ever will.  His previous four books have sold nearly 5 million copies.  His first one, “The Tipping Point,” was published 13 years ago, but remains on the New York Times best seller list. His fans fill lecture halls and companies pay big money to hear about his latest observations.

[Malcolm Gladwell: How do you get to be that person who just is completely indifferent to what everyone around you is saying? And you get to be that person if you have been through the absolute worst the world can throw at you and come out fine, right?]

While readers find his writing accessible and perceptive, his critics say his conclusions can be formulaic and obvious.

Author Malcolm Gladwell responds to critics 02:13
Malcolm Gladwell: I'm not afraid of the obvious. I think the really obvious questions are the gre—are the great ones.

Anderson Cooper: You're a superstar in the world of publishing and you have a lot of people gunning for you. A lot of people probably would like to see you fail with a book. You don't feel like a goliath?

Malcolm Gladwell: Well, I'm not lumbering and—am I? I try not to think too much about what has happened in my career and draw too many conclusions about it. I think it's always best if you pretend that you're exactly the same as you always were. And I'm perhaps as befuddled by my success as my critics are. So in that sense, I see eye to eye with them. When they say, "I can't believe Gladwell did this." I say, "I can't believe Gladwell did that either. How on Earth did that happen?"

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