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Interesting ideas from the book David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

David - Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell

A book that tells you how to win when all the odds seem against you.

The book begins with a confrontation between two people in Palestine: a giant named Goliath and a small shepherd named David. At first glance, the outcome of this confrontation is sealed: Goliath is going to make mincemeat of this shepherd who stands on frail legs. Against all odds, it is David who wins this duel. What is the reason for such a reversal of fortune?

A book (the Bible) tells us only part of the story

First of all, what the Bible does not say is that David is more than a shepherd and that Goliath’s strength comes from a weakness. Remember that in ancient battles, the best warriors of the two armies sometimes clashed in order to spare the lives of thousands of combatants. The fate of a war could therefore rest on the shoulders of soldiers on whom all eyes were riveted. Another thing to know is that ancient armies were most often based on a triptych: infantry, cavalry and artillery. This will be a long established decomposition in the organization of armies throughout history. Each group watches over the other but is vulnerable to the third. Thus, the infantry dominates the cavalry (by using long pikes and other halberds) but is vulnerable to the artillery (throwing projectiles). The artillery is helpless against a cavalry charge. There is thus a game of interdependence that exists between these three bodies of the same army. This relationship was moreover the source of the game: “rock and scissors” or “chifoumi”.

The slingshot is not a child’s game

Given this context, it is clear that the initial balance of power is no longer what we think. David uses a sling, which makes him a member of the artillery. Today, the slingshot is considered a childish object, whereas it was an essential weapon in most ancient armies. Battalions of slingers were formed in provinces (especially the Balearic Islands) of the Carthaginian Empire. They had the reputation of being formidable warriors because of their dexterity. They could alone reverse the course of a battle.

The giant is not what you think

David is far from being a harmless individual, he stands at an ideal distance for an artillery soldier facing an infantryman: he can throw his projectiles without risking being hit in return. Goliath, though massive and well-equipped, is actually in a danger zone without knowing it (he looks down on his opponent of the day). His spear and sword in its scabbard are useless against an opponent who stands at such a great distance. His spear could have been effective against a horseman to throw him off, his sword would have been appropriate to stab an artilleryman who was in his range, but it is not. He is more of a target than anything else against a shepherd seasoned by uninterrupted practice in the countryside with targets as small as partridges. Moreover, his large size is apparently due to a hormonal imbalance caused by a tumor that obstructs his vision. In the situation as it is described, he has every chance of losing this confrontation, even if on the surface it seems otherwise. And that is what will happen. In the space of a split second, David hurls a stone at full speed that smashes into Goliath’s skull, who eventually succumbs to his injuries.

The first lesson of this story is that we often underestimate the strength we possess, either through ignorance or lack of discernment.

Being an outsider (literally) can be your best asset

Another axis of analysis that I find interesting is that the confrontation of David and Goliath symbolizes the art of being unconventional. David is a shepherd and lives among the animals most of his time. Therefore, he probably has no knowledge of the proprieties that apply to duels between the best soldiers of two armies. This lack of conformity allowed him to quickly define the best strategy to win. He went off the beaten path almost instinctively.

Thus, not having the codes of a particular social milieu or group can represent an opportunity because it frees us from possible psychological or cultural barriers.

Malcolm Gladwell uses many examples in his book to illustrate his point. The main lessons from the book are as follows:

  • Unconventional strategies are more successful than conventional strategies most of the time (65.6% of the time, guerrilla strategies win)
  • These strategies remain unconventional (they are not democratized) because they are difficult to implement
    In most cases, an unconventional strategy will only be implemented by those who have no choice but to do so if they want to win
  • Those who are not forced to do so will in most cases use conventional strategies because they are easier to implement
  • A handicap often allows you to develop an unsuspected talent
  • It is better to choose to be big in the small than small in the big because of the concept of relative frustration (or relative deprivation), which is related to the Tocqueville paradox. This concept implies that our sense of abundance or lack is never objective and that it is established only in relation to our surroundings or the people we associate with. Malcolm uses the example of people who have been accepted into prestigious universities and who eventually dropped out of their field of study because they felt that they were not doing well compared to their peers. If they had accepted a less prestigious university, they would almost certainly have continued on the original path they had chosen.

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