How being an underdog can work in your favor
gainst all odds” is a phrase often associated with the underdog. When we witness his surprising success, we slap him on the back and cheer him on for his grit and determination in the face of near-certain defeat.
Perhaps the most classic victory of an underdog is that of Dovid’s victory over Golias.
The armies of Klal Yisrael and the Pelishtim are at a military impasse in the Valley of Elah. The Pelishtim suggest a battle with a single combatant instead — your best against our best. They send 12-foot-tall Golias, wearing his magnificent full-body armor. No Jewish soldier steps forward to battle him.
Dovid has been sent by his father to bring food to his three soldier brothers and hears Golias’s taunts. He volunteers to fight him. Shaul Hamelech warns him that he’s but a youngster, while Golias is a seasoned man of war. But Dovid insists, and Shaul attempts to gird him for battle with sword and armor. But Dovid shrugs him off, saying he’s uncomfortable in them.
The slight boy trots out, shepherd’s staff in one hand and slingshot in the other. He tells Golias, “You come to me with a sword, spear, and javelin, but I come to you with the Name of Hashem,” and he picks up five stones from the valley floor and fits one into his slingshot. Then — bull’s eye — he hits Golias on the forehead and knocks him unconscious. Dovid runs up to the felled body and cuts off the head with his foe’s own sword.
Dovid Hamelech was no stranger to hardship. As we know from the Midrash, Dovid’s father believed him to be a mamzer and relegated him to distant fields with the sheep. When Shmuel came to anoint one of the sons of Yishai, they didn’t even consider recalling him from tending the flock.
But those years of isolation, a boy alone with his sheep, forced Dovid to develop certain skills. In those times, Eretz Yisrael was home to many predators. How could a youngster protect himself and his wooly charges? With a slingshot.
Because Dovid Hamelech was, in essence, an outsider, he may not have been bound by the “rules” that penned in everyone else. He sees a massive Philistine taunting his people, and, like Chushim, the deaf son of Dan who beheaded Eisav for his insolence, Dovid acted.
There was no ceremonial donning of armor, no following of typical battle protocol. Dovid, who wasn’t formally trained in warfare, did battle his own way. Dovid had to change the rules of battle because he didn’t have a hope of overcoming Golias if he followed protocol. He was not predisposed to those rules because he was not part of the system in the first place.
In his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell, a noted secular writer, uses this incident with Dovid and Golias as a springboard for his theory that sometimes being in an underdog position and outsider actually works in one’s favor.
In 1888, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated, “Out of life’s school of war — what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”
We see this playing out in real life. A startling number of successful businesspeople have or had learning disabilities and dyslexia. The list includes Richard Branson (Virgin Airlines), Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA), Paul Ofolia (Kinko’s), David Neeleman (JetBlue), Tommy Hilfiger, Bill Hewlett (Hewlett-Packard), Steve Jobs (Apple), Gary Cohn (Goldman Sachs), and Barbara Corcoran (the Corcoran Group). Some have ADHD as well.
Their years in school weren’t pleasant. Many didn’t have a diagnosis — in those times there was little awareness of these conditions, and they went untreated. A child’s self-confidence is often a casualty of his inability to learn.
But, Gladwell explains, there isn’t only one reaction to hardship. Children with dyslexia are familiar with failure from a young age. When you fail so many times, and get up again and again, you can develop what Gladwell terms “rejection resilience.” You no longer fear rejection or failure. That means you’re less afraid to take risks. Once you’ve conquered fears, there’s exhilaration, and then the self-reliance that comes from fearlessness.
Aryeh Greenberg is an example of someone for whom the fallout of his difficulties made him into the person he is. He’d always struggled in school.
“Learning just wasn’t for me,” he says. “The sounds and the letters and the lines of words were a jumble in my brain, and sitting in a classroom for hours and hours was torture. I ran away from school in eighth grade and dropped Yiddishkeit. I bounced from program to dorm to program for OTD kids throughout the rest of my high school years. It wasn’t an easy time for me. I was trying to work out who I was, figure out what life was all about, and keep myself away from all the drugs and alcohol around me, because even though it was a really tempting escape, I also knew it would be my undoing.
“When I was 18, my parents got me an internship with a painter from the local Jewish community. That was the key to my calming down. I enjoyed the work; I had golden hands and a lot of physical strength, so I was an asset to the company. Finally, I was successful at something and appreciated for it.
“All the wandering and all the loneliness and confusion I’d experienced made me really want to settle down and experience stability. I slowly started taking on more mitzvos — putting on tefillin every morning, keeping kosher again, keeping Shabbos, and eventually started a chilled-out evening chavrusa. A few years later, at the age of 23, I opened my own house-painting business, and five years on, it’s booming. I’m a mensch, honest and reliable, and very hardworking, and that brings in clients. And people feel comfortable leaving a member of the Jewish community in their house to paint while they go to work
“If I hadn’t had such a tumultuous teenager-hood, I doubt I would have settled down so quickly and opened a business at such a young age. I was more hardworking and more focused than most young men my age who’d been given everything on a silver platter and hadn’t experienced all the failure and frustration I had. I think that’s why even though I’m only 28, I’m able to run a thriving business.”
Of course, no parents want their child to struggle. But for some, difficulties were also an opportunity. Gladwell also references people who’ve lost a parent in childhood. It’s a horrific experience. But some aren’t pulled down by it. They become stronger, tougher, uncaring of social niceties and restrictions, capable of keeping on the fight longer than others would.
In the Workplace
In addition to developing various positive traits, those who struggle in normative situations often already possess gifts in other areas.
While individuals with autism may have a hard time grasping social nuances, they have their own strengths. In many cases, they’re brilliant with pattern recognition, memory, and math. The neurotypical person may find certain tasks monotonous and boring, meaning they’re prone to error when engaging in them. But some neurodiverse people really enjoy these tasks, and companies and organization are starting to realize that.
Providing that employers don’t have the same expectations of the neurodiverse as they do of neurotypical workers (such as excellent interview performance or working as a team member), they can be excellent employees.
JPMorgan Chase began a program called Autism at Work that recognizes the unique skills of the neurodiverse. James Mahoney, the head of the program, wrote in an article entitled “How Our Autism at Work Program Is Helping to Win the War for Top Tech Talent” that “the embracement of this untapped workforce allows our company to benefit from the unique blend of talents provided by these detail-oriented, rule-bound, logical, and independent-thinking individuals.”
Within the first six months, these employees were nearly 50 percent more productive than their neurotypical work colleagues who’d been at the same job three to ten years.
Auticon USA, a global IT consulting and social enterprise firm, has 300 employees, 200 of whom have autism. In an op-ed published in April 2020, CEO David Aspinall wrote that his autistic employees “have unique cognitive strengths: attention to detail, a systematic way of working, logical analysis, pattern recognition, error detection, and sustainable concentration for routine activities.”
The Israeli army is yet another recruiter of neurodiverse individuals. The members of Unit 9900–Terrain Analysis, Accurate Mapping, Visual Collection, and Interpretation Agency all have autism and are highly valued image analysts. According to the IDF website, “their job is to take visual materials from satellite images and sensors that are in the air. With the help of their officers and decoding tools, they analyze the images and find specific things they need in order to allow those who are planning a mission to get the best data of the area.”
They were brought in by the Roim Rachok program, which recruits neurodiverse individuals for the IDF (previously, all individuals with autism were exempt from army service; now, they’re accepted on a case-by-case basis). Therapists assist the recruits in adjusting to their new surroundings.
Point.AI is a Tel Aviv-based company, a pioneer in its field, inspired by the Roim Rachok program.
“I was disturbed when I heard that it’s difficult for people with autism to find employment, or they’re employed in low-paying, menial jobs, jobs that don’t utilize their unique capabilities,” says high-tech entrepreneur Eli Gorivici, who founded the company alongside his sons Tomer and Assaf (who today are responsible for its day-to-day running).
“I’d been involved in founding a number of high-tech startups and saw a niche for autistic people in Feature Engineering and Data Annotation — building blocks of Artificial Intelligence (AI) — fields in which the work is tedious and repetitive and requires a lot of attention to detail. This kind of work is perfect for people with autism.
“Israeli companies usually outsource these jobs off-shore, to companies in second-world countries. This is cost effective, as the salary expectations in those countries is very low, but the quality of the work being produced is poor, and there’s a high turnover rate of employees.
“We tried an experiment, the goal of which was to create a self-sustaining company that would make a social impact. Profitability was a bonus. Running the company would incur a lot more costs than opening an off-shore branch, as we intended to treat our employees as we would any high-tech start up employees, giving them a nice salary and comfortable offices.
“We also needed to hire social-support staff to handle the issues that come with employing people with serious social and communication deficits, though we make it very clear to them that they’re hired because the AI field needs their skill set, not because we feel sorry for them.”
They deliberately kept the company small — there are 15 employees in the Tel Aviv branch — and they just expanded operations and opened a branch in Haifa, to service the north of the country.
“The experiment was a success,” says Eli, “as our employees produce very high-quality work, and we’ve created a profitable boutique company that steadily provides services to small and large companies in the field of AI.
“Tomer personally traveled to Amsterdam to help a local company that was inspired by the idea to open a similar company. We’ve since had calls from companies in the US and Germany who want to create businesses like our company and were looking for guidance.”
It’s long been thought that those with a missing sense develop stronger reliance on their other senses, and recent studies have confirmed that. Rafael San Miguel is a top industry flavor chemist. He’s also deaf; as a newborn, he received the wrong dose of antibiotics which lead to complete hearing loss. He learned how to speak in St. Joseph’s Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, then went on to attend regular schools, including Texas A&M, where he graduated with a degree in food science and technology.
It had been his childhood dream to become an astronaut, but due to his hearing loss, that career wasn’t possible; he still joined NASA, but became a food developer for astronauts. That lead him to become a flavor chemist for the Coca-Cola company.
He attributes his attuned palate to his lack of hearing. “I can taste flavor changes and modifications far more sensitively than others,” he said to C&EN magazine, “and this allows me to figure out problems and solutions on a much faster timeline. I think the biggest change or adaptation of all that has enabled me to succeed in my field is the transformation of how others who aren’t disabled are beginning to view those with disabilities.”
Changing the Rules
Guerilla warfare is a method of battle that has early origins and is still going strong. Throughout history, when the underdog side utilized it, their chances of success rose considerably. The United States militias were a sorry mess, except when it came to guerilla warfare against the British armies.
In more recent history, look at the Soviet-Afghan War. In 1978, the Afghan Communist party overthrew the government, but many traditionally minded people disliked their reforms. When these Muslim Afghan rebels revolted against the Communist government in 1979, forming a group of fighters known as the Mujahideen, the Soviets’ large and well-equipped army invaded, installing their own choice of government leader.
The Soviet’s plan was to provide light support for the Afghan army, and they expected to be there for six months, at most a year. They ended up stuck in Afghanistan for almost a decade — and didn’t withdraw as victors.
The Afghan army had no morale. They weren’t Communists at heart; they’d joined the military as a job. Under these circumstances, they began to desert. As the Russians made themselves more and more unpopular by bombing villages, the rebel Mujahideen attracted a steady stream of manpower. The Soviets had planned to intimidate the Afghans, but as in London during the Blitz, these attacks roused the civilians to fiercely resist instead.
In addition, the Afghanistan terrain is unfriendly — the guerillas were familiar with it, while the invaders weren’t. Also, because of the Mujahideen’s “underdog” status against their own “Golias,” the Soviets, many nations sent them weapons to help fight them off.
In total, approximately 15,000 Russian soldiers were killed and 35,000 were wounded. This was far more casualties than the Soviets ever expected, never mind the billions of dollars the invasion cost. They retreated.
Those in power often underestimate the underdog, to the point they don’t even realize when they’re on the losing side. Golias was expecting someone half his height to attack him with a sword, while he was protected by armor. He wasn’t expecting projectiles at his unshielded face. Dovid may not have had sword skills, but he was deadly nonetheless.
Golias was also overconfident in his fighting capabilities, and therefore didn’t even consider “little” Dovid to be a threat.
Large businesses can make the same error as Golias. Once they’ve achieved a measure of success, they become complacent and no longer innovate. That’s when a small company, hungry and adaptive, can move in. Underdogs don’t get comfortable. They learn from previous failures; they know that one win isn’t a guarantee of a prosperous future. And their tenacity takes them far.
The Jewish Advantage
Gladwell’s last example in his book on the underdog beating Golias is the French town of Le Chambon, whose citizens protected Jews during the reign of the Vichy government. The town was populated by Huguenots, a sect that had been persecuted throughout history. Gladwell’s theory is that it was those centuries of oppression that made the Huguenots disregard Nazi intimidation while they matter-of-factly saved hundreds of Jews.
But I couldn’t help but wonder, if it was persecution that granted strength to the people of Le Chambon, don’t the Jewish People fall into the same category? We’ve been harassed for at least 3,000 years, so if anything, perseverance is part of our DNA.
My husband and I are both descendants of survivors — all of our grandparents endured the Holocaust. I couldn’t help but conclude that my grandmother qualifies as a “Dovid” according to Gladwell’s theories.
Babi was born in 1916. At the outbreak of World War I, her father fled Hungary for his hometown of Satmar, Romania, to escape the draft. He died there in a freak accident when she was four months old. Her mother, who was always delicate, died in the 1930s during routine surgery.
When the Nazis came, Babi was already an orphan. She took care of her grandmother, her sisters, her nieces, and her nephew. She stole for them and was beaten while trying to protect them. And they all came home after the war.
We joke that there’s no one and nothing stronger than a Klein (Babi’s maiden name). Were they strong because Babi and her siblings were orphaned young? Did they have a “desirable difficulty” that helped them to survive?
My husband’s grandfather was orphaned at the age of five during the Spanish Flu pandemic; he and his siblings were raised by their grandmother. During World War II, he avoided the camps by banding with partisans in the woods. After the war, he signed up with the Joint to help rescue Jewish children from monasteries and smuggled forged passports and visas to Jews on the wrong side of the border. He continued in that highly dangerous work until he was warned that the authorities were on to him; that’s when he relocated to America.
He was relatively young when he had his first heart attack; he lived for over 25 years with heart failure. At some point, in his later years, when he was annoyed with being cooped up in the hospital, the doctor told his children: “He has 15 percent heart function. He’s living on willpower alone.”
What Builds Strength?
The point of Gladwell’s book is to say that these people didn’t succeed despite their disadvantages; they succeeded because of them.
When Hashem came to Moshe and informed him that he’d be the leader, he protested that he couldn’t, for he was “slow of speech and of a slow tongue.” But Moshe was the only one in history who was a direct conduit of Hashem’s word; the only time he didn’t stutter was when Hashem spoke through him, so then the people knew he was relaying devar Hashem.
There doesn’t have to be only one narrative for difficulty. We don’t have to focus only on our supposed shortcomings, on our apparent limitations, personal or circumstantial. We create our own realities. Instead of mourning our limitations, we can embrace them. And excel from there.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 799)
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