Slaying the Internal Giants to Maximize Your Career

At the heart of ancient Palestine is the region known as the Shephelah, a series of ridges and valleys connecting the Judaean Mountains to the east with the wide, flat expanse of the Mediterranean plain. It is an area of breathtaking beauty, home to vineyards and wheat fields and forests of sycamore and terebinth. It is also of great strategic importance.

This is how Malcolm Gladwell begins his new book, released last fall, David and Goliath.

The Shephelah, Gladwell notes, was where John Hyrcanus of the Maccabees fought the Seleucid Empire (he calls “Syria”), before forcibly converting the inhabitants to Judaism. This is where Saladin camped and confronted the Crusaders, before his conquest of Jerusalem. But it’s also where David fought Goliath, and won, and where Gladwell gets the title of the book.

"David and Goliath," Caravaggio, 1599

“David and Goliath,” Caravaggio, 1599

The Shephelah is what divides Jerusalem from Gaza in modern geopolitics, and is therefore an area currently under different pressures these days. Gladwell uses conflict in this book to explore challenges in life, and how being an underdog can change people, often for the better. Gladwell also challenges all of the notions of “giants,” or challenges which we face in life,

The battle is won miraculously by an underdog who, by all expectations, should not have won at all. This is the way we have told one another the story over the many centuries since. It is how the phrase “David and Goliath” has come to be embedded in our language—as a metaphor for improbable victory. And the problem with that version of the events is that almost everything about it is wrong.

Gladwell explains how Goliath was expecting to be challenged by another warrior in hand to hand combat, and not by an experienced slinger. The sling, far from being an inferior weapon, was capable of projectiles equivalent to modern handguns. Gladwell then quotes Robert Dohrenwend in The Sling – Forgotten Firepower of Antiquity,

Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an [opponent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol.

Goliath also likely suffered from acromegaly and as a result had impaired vision, a limitation that his opponents were probably oblivious to. David had simply used strategy to overcome his perceived disadvantages in place to ensure success. Gladwell points to an essay by Moshe Dayan, Israeli minister of defense during the 1967 Six-Day War, who said,

David fought Goliath not with inferior but (on the contrary) with superior weaponry; and his greatness consisted not in his being willing to go out into battle against someone far stronger than he was. But in his knowing how to exploit a weapon by which a feeble person could seize the advantage and become stronger.

Gladwell argues that we continue to make erroneous assumptions about what is powerful and continue to misjudge and miscalculate the abilities of those around us.

In Chapter 3 he jumps to 19th century France. A group of independent painters deliberated whether they should conform their style to a norm in order to gain acceptance, and presumably prosperity, or whether they should continue to violate the rules of academic painting for their time, employing “impressionist” techniques which many in the public considered amateurish. They debated this question while living in poverty and near total exclusion from the Paris Salon. This could be characterized as the following dilemma:

Did they want to be a Little Fish in the Big Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing?

… We strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the finest institutions we can. But rarely do we stop and consider—as the Impressionists did—whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest.

Édouard Manet's Olympia (1863), one of the few early Impressionist paintings to be accepted to the Salon.

Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), one of the few early Impressionist paintings to be accepted to the Salon.


Gladwell characterizes the dichotomy of the Salon and a solo show as not just a choice between a best and a second-best option, but a choice between two very different options. He applies this to choices made to attend one of two different universities, who may have very different things to offer. An Ivy League school is like the Salon, but the Salon was a very big pond which accepted thousands of paintings. It was nearly impossible for your submission to be seen unless it met unanimous approval by the reviewers.

We can also extend this analogy to the choice between big law and small/solo practice. One is a “giant,” but it’s not always clear which one that is. The strengths and drawbacks of each are not necessarily obvious, and the choices are very different. Displays are not lost in the crowd in the small pond of a solo exhibition because every artist, or lawyer, is treated is an equal. More importantly, small ponds are places where innovation and individuality are often fostered and encouraged, and where a niche can develop.

Law students also typically face this dilemma. Strong performers throughout their undergraduate career, and often before, they quickly find in law school that they are no longer necessarily the smartest and most talented. This can come as a huge blow to the ego and quickly spiral into inferiority complexes and reactive behaviour, a phenomenon described as relative deprivation.

Our sense of deprivation through any measure, including success, financially, lifestyle, or prestige, is not based in a global context but rather by comparing ourselves relatively to others who are similarly situated. In academia this is referred to as the “Big Fish–Little Pond Effect.”

Gladwell states,

Citizens of happy countries have higher suicide rates than citizens of unhappy countries, because they look at the smiling faces around them and the contrast is too great. Students at “great” schools look at the brilliant students around them, and how do you think they feel?

…The more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities…

…And that feeling—as subjective and ridiculous and irrational as it may be—matters. How you feel about your abilities—your academic “self-concept”—in the context of your classroom shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks. It’s a crucial element in your motivation and confidence.

The career route most often promoted by Canadian law schools is that students should begin their legal career in the largest, most prestigious law firm they can find. They know full well that only a small fraction of articling students in these firms will ever make partner, but its presumed that this is the best environment to learn the discipline and work ethic, and create the foundation for career in a smaller firm or solo practice.

The relative deprivation effect, and its corresponding result on the sense of worth for young lawyers, would suggest otherwise. In fact the positive effects of elite schools, elite professions, or elite firms are probably better observed by the parents of these individuals than it is by their children placed in these situations.

Gladwell explores how this relative deprivation effect actually affects people in the academic world by looking at John P. Conley and Ali Sina Önder’s study on graduate research papers, which appears in “An Empirical Guide to Hiring Assistant Professors in Economics.” They conclude that the top students from what are considered “mediocre” schools almost always perform better in volume of publications than good students from the very best schools. Gladwell’s commentary on this study has implications for those in legal recruitment and retention,

Are you better off hiring a Big Fish from a Tiny, Tiny Pond than even a Middle-Sized Fish from a Big Pond? Absolutely.

…The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them.

Ironically Gladwell relates the story of others in promising fields such as science and physics, who we so demoralized by their educational environment that they became lawyers instead,

We take it for granted that the Big Pond expands opportunities, just as we take it for granted that a smaller class is always a better class. We have a definition in our heads of what an advantage is—and the definition isn’t right. And what happens as a result? It means that we make mistakes. It means that we misread battles between underdogs and giants. It means that we underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage. It’s the Little Pond that maximizes your chances to do whatever you want.

The closing of David and Goliath is just as dramatic as its opening. Gladwell returns to France, this time during WWI, where a small Huguenot village in the south-east, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, resisted efforts of the Vichy government to round up Jews. When the Vichy minister of youth affairs, Georges Lamirand, visited the town in 1942 with the intention of setting up youth training camps, the townspeople delivered him a letter, sent by a group of children, which stated,

We feel obliged to tell you that there are among us a certain number of Jews. But, we make no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. It is contrary to the Gospel teaching. If our comrades, whose only fault is to be born in another religion, received the order to let themselves be deported, or even examined, they would disobey the order received, and we would try to hide them as best we could.

Or as Gladwell states, “We have Jews. You’re not getting them.”

The point that Gladwell makes is that once again the powerful are not as powerful as they seem, and the weak are not as weak as they appear. Le Chambon-sur-Lignon had no independent military power capable of resisting the Vichy government, but they had developed generations of resilience from resisting persecution by the Catholic church. Huguenots who valued their own self-interests had already converted to another faith or moved away a long time ago. Those left were characterized by stubbornness and defiance,

It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish.

If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening. If you bomb a city, you leave behind death and destruction. But you create a community of remote misses. If you take away a mother or a father, you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force. You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose than we ever imagine.

Lawyers who struggle along in small and solo practices, or those growing increasingly frustrated with the turmoils and challenges of big law, are all developing a resilience which can only help them further in their careers if properly channeled.

You are all giants in their own right. You have strength which others have not yet even realized.

Plaque at Yad Vashem dedicated to the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

Plaque at Yad Vashem dedicated to the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.


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