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Advantages of Disadvantages

Last updated on May 25, 2020

In his book “David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell talks about cases where an apparent disadvantage may have helped an individual to actually perform better. He starts with the example of David, a small-boned shepherd who defeats the giant Goliath. Gladwell reasons that David was very light and quick on his feet, while Goliath was big, clumsy, and had poor eyesight. This, David is able to run fast and hurl a rock at Goliath’s forehead and knock him down.  So in this story, Goliath’s size was actually a disadvantage, while David’s small structure helped him to defeat the larger man.

Gladwell uses this analogy to many other real-life situations where something that is considered a weakness or limitation by conventional wisdom actually turns out to be a key advantage. He writes about a rookie girls’ basketball team that surprises many of their ‘stronger’ opponents by using the unconventional full-court press strategy.

Making A Task Slightly Harder 

An interesting assertion that Gladwell makes is that when you need to work a little harder on a problem, you tend to perform much better. He uses an example of a test in a university where researchers found that by making the questions a little harder to read by using smaller fonts for one group of participants resulted in that group scoring higher points. The reasoning here is that by making the participants work harder to read the questions, you make them focus more on the problem to be solved, which results in better performance.

He also discusses how some dyslexics turn out to be leaders in their professions. He argues that dyslexics have to work harder to read the material they need to study. The extra effort they put into this makes them absorb and retain the contents of what they are reading, compared to others for whom reading is a much easier task. Those who can read fast also tend to forget faster — easy come, easy go.

What does it mean in today’s context where most of the students study material that is easily accessible on the internet, or ebooks, and so on? In the pre-internet days, the students would need to spend time in libraries, looking for books, reading them and taking notes as they studied. That definitely made it harder to study. Did it also mean that the students from decades ago also learned their subjects better and retained what they learned longer? If so, does it mean that well-equipped schools and colleges actually cause students to learn and perform worse than they are capable of?

It would be interesting to do a study focused on this.

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