Disabilities are a part of the diversity that is found in society. While a disability may bring with it functional limitations, societal stereotyping, and lack of opportunity—it may also bring certain advantages in the right situation. In fact, the advantage may be so dramatic that others fail to see the disability at all. In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell (2013) discusses the nature and history of being an underdog. He begins with the Biblical account of David and Goliath, and follows with additional stories of people who defied insurmountable odds along the way to achieving great and unexpected feats. However, for the purposes of this paper, the story of David and Goliath will be the focus.
According to the story, the Philistines and the Israelites were set to go to war with each other. Instead, the Philistines sent their best warrior to take on any willing soldier amongst the Israelites. This Philistine warrior’s name was Goliath—he “was a giant, six foot nine at least, wearing a bronze helmet and full body armor. He carried a javelin, a spear, and a sword” (Gladwell, 2013, p. 4). In addition, he had an attendant who carried his shield. His opponent was a shepherd boy and skilled slinger.
Though David was small, he was agile. In fact, he refused to wear bronze armor offered to him by King Saul, because it would weigh him down and force him to fight conventionally—which is what Goliath wanted. However, David set out to fight the battle on his terms—the same tactics that helped him snatch sheep from the mouths of lions and bears. He gathered “5 smooth stones” and charged off with faith and confidence that victory would be swift (p. 8). He hit Goliath with a stone and most likely rendered him unconscious. David then seized Goliath’s sword and cut off his head.
Generations of people have been telling this story from a religious perspective: trust in God, and ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results. However, there are additional lessons to be learned from this legendary account. First, perceptions can be misleading. Goliath was viewed as a fierce warrior based upon little more than his size. However, upon careful analysis, this view is questionable. For example, for a battle tested warrior, Goliath moves very slowly. He also tells David to come to him. In addition, he has an assistant that carries his shield. What are the reasons for these facts?
Gladwell (2013) offers up convincing evidence that Goliath was not a fierce warrior at all; in fact, he may have had a debilitating disease known as acromegaly (p. 14). Acromegaly is a “disease caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland,” which “causes an overproduction of human growth hormone” (p. 14). Another side effect of acromegaly is vision impairment. More specifically, “people with acromegaly often suffer from severely restricted sight and diplopia, or double vision” (p. 14). This may explain why Goliath had an attendant: under the guise of carrying his shield, the attendant “was his visual guide” (p. 14). Additional proof of Goliath’s vision impairment can be seen when he shouts “Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks?” (p. 14). The problem with this statement is that David is carrying only one stick, while Goliath sees multiple.
Secondly, David may not have been the true underdog in this situation. The fact that Goliath was slow and wearing “over a hundred pounds of armor” put him at an incredible disadvantage for combat that was not with another “heavy-infantryman” (Gladwell, 2013, pp. 10-11). Furthermore, David’s small stature and agility gave him an edge—he was too fast for Goliath. He was also a fierce opponent in his own right. For example, “in the Old Testament Book of Judges, slingers are described as being accurate within a hair’s breadth” (p. 9). In addition, “an experienced slinger could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of up to two hundred yards” (p. 9). Gladwell (2013) reinforces this point by citing a ballistics expert who claims that “a typical-size stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of thirty-five meters would have hit Goliath’s head with a velocity of thirty-four meters per second—more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him unconscious or dead” (p. 11). The expert goes on to compare the slingshot’s power to a “fair-size modern handgun” (p. 11).
To be clear, Goliath did not have much of a chance against David and “the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness” (Gladwell, 2013, p. 15). This is further proof that the “powerful and the strong are not always what they seem” (p. 15).
Gladwell (2013) proceeds to examine the case of David Boies—“one of the most famous trial lawyers in the world” (p. 108). Boies is dyslexic; however, he compensated for his limited reading ability by becoming a good listener with a strong memory. He explains this advantage in the following manner: “If I could read a lot faster, it would make a lot of the things that I do easier” (p. 110). However, “not being able to read a lot and learning by listening and asking questions means that I need to simplify issues to their basics,” which is helpful in “presenting a case [jurors] can understand” (p. 111). In effect, a disadvantage according to some, turned out to be an advantage in Boies’ case. The term “desirable difficulties,” coined by Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, “two psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, captures the essence and beauty of “how underdogs come to excel” (p. 102). Difficulties or limitations are often highly functional in specific situations, and this theme is found throughout David and Goliath.
In sum, individuals who are deemed to be at a disadvantage may possess some trait or characteristic that makes them the perfect person to confront an otherwise daunting task. The traits that society often values are not necessarily the traits that enable one to dig down deep and stretch themselves to meet a challenge. Being strong and skilled in one domain may be a liability in another domain, just as being weak in one situation may be an asset in another. Therefore, in all situations, individuals should scratch beneath the surface to identify what the scenario requires for a successful outcome. In addition, before assuming one has an advantage or disadvantage, it would be wise to analyze how context can distort reality.
By Joseph Barrett