David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.
In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”
It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them march to the sound of a fife-and-drum corps than it is to have them ride six hundred miles through the desert on the back of a camel. It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coördination.
The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider. Why did the Ivy League schools of the nineteen-twenties limit the admission of Jewish immigrants? Because they were the establishment and the Jews were the insurgents, scrambling and pressing and playing by immigrant rules that must have seemed to the Wasp élite of the time to be socially horrifying. “Their accomplishment is well over a hundred per cent of their ability on account of their tremendous energy and ambition,” the dean of Columbia College said of the insurgents from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side. He wasn’t being complimentary. Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David.
“In the beginning, everyone laughed at our fleet,” Lenat said. “It was really embarrassing. People felt sorry for us. But somewhere around the third round they stopped laughing, and some time around the fourth round they started complaining to the judges. When we won again, some people got very angry, and the tournament directors basically said that it was not really in the spirit of the tournament to have these weird computer-designed fleets winning. They said that if we entered again they would stop having the tournament. I decided the best thing to do was to graciously bow out.”
It isn’t surprising that the tournament directors found Eurisko’s strategies beyond the pale. It’s wrong to sink your own ships, they believed. And they were right. But let’s remember who made that rule: Goliath. And let’s remember why Goliath made that rule: when the world has to play on Goliath’s terms, Goliath wins.
This is a lesson that remains extremely basic and frequently forgotten. But let's review some of the larger implications.
1. Conflict is inevitable Whether personal, professional or political, as long as people have individual identities and agendas, and as long as humans are social creatures, they're going to happen.
2. Someone's going to be bigger And because there are these conflicts, some side or person will win them or at least come out on the favorable side of a deal (most conflicts, movies aside, aren't fought to the bitter end). "Status quo," after all, literally means "where things stand" and they stand that way because the current queens/kings of the hill used a strategy or had some advantage that allowed them to take that spot. There will always be a bigger predator to push against.
3. The point of conflicts is to win them This may seem extremely obvious, but it's not. One of the most common failings in the world is to view conflicts in terms of abstract theory, ego, and self-mythologization (e.g. most modern protest culture), instead of dogfights over differing goals.
Note that winning doesn't mean "destroying the hell out of the other person/group." In fact, that's usually a bad strategy, because it often involves so many resources or rancor that it makes long-term victory (the only important kind) difficult or impossible.
4. Fight to your strengths Again, this seems obvious, but Gladwell's article above reveals how often "Davids" fight on the terms of their opponents because "that's the way it's done" instead of assessing where they're stronger and how great the backlash against them will be. So, if you've got numbers, technology, personal charm or an unusual work ethic, use it. This is old as Sun Tzu, it's also never going to be obsolete.
Suffice to say, if more up-and-coming cultural movements tried to work by these principles, we'd have a far different world.