Advantages and Disadvantages, or Vice Versa?

I've been a fan of Malcolm Gladwell for quite a while. For those who don't know him, he's an author and speaker, famous for books like Blink and The Tipping Point, a TED Talk about perfect pasta sauces, and rambling email back-and-forths with Bill Simmons (my second-favorite sports writer, after my father). I think my favorite part about his writing is that he tells stories so very well. Gladwell's storytelling prowess is on full display in his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. The book centers around stories like the Biblical account of the shepherd boy facing off against the Philistine. He recounts tales of those who are supposed to be over-matched by others with more advantages. For example, Goliath is a mountain of a man, equipped with weapons meant to kill full-grown men, to say nothing of adolescent sheep herders. The giant has trained for battle his whole life. (When I told this story to campers at Camp of the Hills, I'd often say instead of Kindergarten, Goliath attended Killagarten.) Tiny David, with no armor or sword, looks very much to be disadvantaged in the fight, if not the very definition of underdog.

In the face of these facts, Gladwell pushes his readers to look more closely. David weilds a sling, which is a long range weapon. Goliath's sword, spear, and armor are all formidable, but are based around fighting in close quarters. David wears no armor, seemingly leaving him dangerously exposed, but this also allows him to move freely and swiftly. What are seen as the obvious weaknesses of David and strengths of Goliath actually bring about the eventual victory for the shepherd and the downfall of the warrior. Is it much of a surprise that the God of David is the same God who would later say to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”?

Strength can often be found in weaknesses, and weaknesses often go hand in hand with strength. For example, cites statistics of wars in which one side had ten times as many soldiers as their opposition. This military superiority would suggest a nearly 100% success rate for the better equipped country. Yet the weaker country still emerged victorious in a fair amount of the conflicts. In fact, when the smaller side used guerrilla warfare tactics, their success rate jumped to over 60%. Unconventional tactics were enough to tip the scales in more than half of these wars, even when the odds were significantly stacked against the smaller side.

Another example used in his book was that of children who grow up with learning disabilities, specifically dyslexia. While this would certainly be seen as a disadvantage, as you can see through higher rates of dropping out of school and lower average pay, it has proved to be a boon for some who have had to learn to work around dyslexia. When speaking to a group of high-level executives, Gladwell asked how many had dyslexia or similar learning disabilities. Nearly half of the executives raised their hands. Many suggested that working harder to understand material and process information, while a stumbling block growing up, had helped them gain the skills they had used to reach the heights of business success.

In my everyday work, I do not run into many high-powered executives. I also haven't met many guerrilla tacticians. I don't even run in crowds with many shepherds or giants. But the people I do hang out with are often known as "disadvantaged people." Or the "needy." "Underdogs." And while those descriptors have some truth to them, I have long wondered if such titles don't undermine the deeper truth of these people.

I'm growing to believe that I'm not as good at identifying strengths and weaknesses as I would like to think. A teen with rich parents misses the opportunity to learn from having little. A family forced to live with extended family may have less room at home and may even have more arguments, but can gain strong connections with grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. A child who has lost a parent early in life is certainly missing a huge advantage in life, but the strength of character required to move past such a loss has helped shape a disproportionate number of the United States' Presidents.

This is not to say disadvantages do not exist or have real consequences. This is to say that as a person who believes that God works through weaknesses, I may have been viewing strengths and weaknesses in the wrong light. Maybe we all have.