rebelling against low expectations

Malcolm Gladwell: How David Beats Goliath


Malcolm Gladwell is one of our favorite modern authors. Reading his book “The Tipping Point” was part of what inspired us to start The Rebelution back in 2005. It remains on our short list of favorites — along with his more recent book, “Outliers”.

So imagine our excitement when we read this article in The New Yorker. In it Gladwell uses our favorite sport — basketball — to show that underdogs win by being willing to break from what is expected and, basically, do hard things.

“David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability,” Gladwell writes. He tells the story of a seventh-grade girls basketball team that chose to make up for a lack of skill with hard work — instituting a real full-court press every time down the court.

“[Their] philosophy was based on a willingness to try harder than anyone else,” he observes. And it worked! Despite playing against teams with bigger, stronger, more talented players — who had played together for several years — they kept winning.

Take the time to understand and appreciate what Gladwell says next:

It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing [in a full-court press]. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability . . . because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

The truth that Gladwell gets at in his article is at the very heart of what it means to be rebelutionaries. For the Rebelution to succeed we must be willing to think about what nobody expects us to think about, to care about what nobody expects us to care about, to do what nobody expects us to do — and to never give up.

That is what it means to rebel against low expectations. That is what it means to do hard things. It won’t be easy. We’re underdogs in this battle, like David going up against Goliath. But like David, we have a God who calls us to try. And as we are faithful to give Him our all, He will give us the strength to win the fight.

+ Read the Gladwell Article +

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Photo courtesy of Zohar Lazar and The New Yorker.

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About the author

Alex and Brett Harris

are the co-founders of and co-authors of Do Hard Things and Start Here. They have a passion for God and for their generation. Their personal interests include politics, filmmaking, music, and basketball. They are both graduates of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.


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  • I’m totally using this concept to encourage my high school fencing team (they call me coach) when we face their biggest rivals next week. Thanks, guys!

  • Thanks for posting this! It really encouraged me in the face of many daunting tasks ahead of me. It’s a great reminder right around the finals in school to keep ourselves motivated and willing to give our all during these final weeks!


  • Thanks for this post! I will remeber this everytime I play basketball or any other sport.


  • Thank you for posting this guys. it was a real encouragement to keep fighting and working hard against the odds! Not only in sports, but in every aspect of life. thanks again.


  • This article was fascinating. I have been intending to read “Outliers” for a while. I do have one question/criticism. The first innovation is valid enough, that using unconventional methods bulked by effort is superior than using ability (or what people call “talent”) within the status quo. But the second innovation is this:

    “This is the second half of the insurgent’s creed. Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is “socially horrifying”—they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought. All the things that distinguish the ideal basketball player are acts of skill and coördination. When the game becomes about effort over ability, it becomes unrecognizable—a shocking mixture of broken plays and flailing limbs and usually competent players panicking and throwing the ball out of bounds.”

    Gladwell describes a computer program that discovered the way to win a mock battle was through readily sinking your own ship, a scenario that was unthinkable to the live contestants, who would never use such a socially horrifying tactic. Is Gladwell suggesting the use of immoral means to gain your goal, as long as it is coupled with real effort? I doubt it, but he describes the rules of convention as the rules of the upper crust used to discriminate. Is that always so? Aren’t some of the rules of convention also the rules of God-imposed morality? Is Gladwell suggesting the redefinition of morality?

    Just some quesions for the rest of the readers.

  • I believe that effort does trump ability.There is a girl in my graduating class who is not necessarily smart, but she works really hard and is graduating as valedictorian of our class. There is another girl in my class who is really smart but does not put forth much effort. As a result she was second in line for the honor of valedictorian.

  • Great post! Will use this when I play basketball, tennis, and soccer. Especially tennis. This post not only applies to sports, but other areas too. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Great Post Alex!
    As Theodore Roosevelt said: There is no failure, only a failure to try.

    Phoebe: I do not think that Gladwell is suggesting a redefinition of morality, but I can see how that could come out in the basketball illustration. Correct me if I am wrong because I have not read any of Gladwell’s books, but I think that to employ the use of effort there has to be some ability available. Yes the one girls basketball team were the underdogs, but they were still a team, they most likely had to try-out for the team. If they had no ability or talent at all they would not even be a team.

    I am a dancer, so I know how it feels to be the “underdog” per se. I am definitely not the most talented, sometimes I doubt I have any ability at all, but I look at the level of dancing I am at, and how much I have improved since I started 11 years ago and I know that I did start out with at least some ability. The difference comes when those who are only blessed with a small amount of ability add hard work and an effort to improve that makes them great at whatever they do. It is a passion for what you do that keeps you trying, working, sweating, even when it seems that others can do the exact same thing with a fraction of the effort.

    Rebelutionaries are not necessarily geniuses (forgive me rebelutionary geniuses out there), or insanely smart teenagers, they are ordinary (sometimes below average, like me) young people who have realized that ability and talent are only half of what it takes to make a difference and break from the mold. Rebelutionaries have recognized the other half of the recipe for success, simply hard work. We make a difference by not shrinking from that hard work, but embracing it for the glory of God.

    I am sorry if I rambled, but what you said, Phoebe, made me think, and that is what you wanted, right!

  • I can identify with Eurisko’s “outsider” status. It’s typical for people in my position to send a press release to journalists via a wire service but when I started doing PR a year ago, I didn’t know that. So I just sent press releases directly to journalists, newspapers, and publications.

    Amazingly, one of the press releases took and landed us on the homepage of World Net Daily. Now, this was entirely hit or miss so I can’t pat myself on the back or anything. However, the David principle rung true: I broke the rules of convention and our business was boosted by it.

    Pretty wild!

  • That’s really good, I think it’s something we need to constantly be reminded of.
    It reminds me of the story of the tortoise and the hare, the hare thought that because he was a lot faster than the tortoise, he could just take it easy, but because the tortoise tried his very best, he ended up winning!

  • I saw the Malcom Gladwell thing and I was like, WHOA! I read “Blink” and loved it, I can’t wait to read The Tipping Point and Outliers. 🙂

  • thank you for this article. its come at the right time–ive been feeling demotivated lately, relying too much on certain talents and not working hard enough in other areas. God bless you and use you!

  • Hey what article! thanxs i’m not a very big fan of basketball but
    this encouraged me to try harder!!!!!!! 🙂

  • “It’s ok to be Goliath, but always act like David.” It is ok to have power and ability, but always have courage and faith in God, and with hard work and extra effort, we can conquer ANY Goliath in our life.
    This post and the article really motivated me! Thank you again!

  • I absolutely love that give 100%… never give up attitude. That has been an attitude that God has instilled in me which has been greatly encouraged by my parents, but especially my dad. He is such a model of godly encouragement.

  • The story of the girls basketball team reminded me of Booker T. Washington’s life (I just finished reading Up From Slavery). He started out as a slave, but he was determined to succeed through hard work and discipline. He wanted to show others not to be afraid of work. He did a lot in his life–he went from being a slave as a young boy to meeting the President several times later in life. Just an example of how far hard work can get you. Of course, God’s grace is important, too.

  • Thanks for your response, Tabitha, I don’t think you really answered my question about Gladwell’s possible redefinition of morality. You only say “I think that to employ the use of effort there has to be some ability available.” And I can agree with that and most of Gladwell’s article wholeheartedly!

    The thing is, that the article says that in addition to whatever ability we have, we must add tons of effort, and in addition to effort, we must add creative methods. Sometimes, might those creative methods be somewhat unethical? I am afraid Gladwell leaves that possibility open.

  • I like Gladwell…sorta. Here’s a piece on Gladwell that puts his psuedo-social science in perspective:

    Basically, he’s entertaining, and is good at making his readers feel smart, but he usually draws conclusions from circumstantial evidence. He’s not doing any legitimate research. He’s like the preacher that has great illustrations and can weave thoughts together in a way that listeners love, but is sort of a theological lightweight. Fun to listen to, but not always dealing with the TRUTH.

    At least in my opinion…

  • I’m just reading you guys’ book, so I decided to check out yalls website, and this is the first real blog I’ve read. I love it… I’m going to visit more often. Thank you for being inspirational and helpful in a time when we need it.

  • As someone who has actually beaten a few Goliaths (such as the world’s largest cement company, which spent $60 million on a failed campaign in a small rural town) on repeat occasions, I must say was underwhelmed by this piece. The lessons readers may glean from the article may even be counter-productive.

    Most underdogs imagine that they are going to hit upon some novel scheme or lucky break to beat Goliath, such as finding a Native American burial ground on the site of a proposed Wal-Mart, or some other long-shot “eureka!” strategy. The mostly random hunt for a silver bullet often becomes a substitute for real work. This is almost the inverse of Gladwell’s thesis (that the novel solution is the more difficult path to take).

    The truth is more prosaic, and I just don’t consider examples from either sports or 19th Century warfare terribly germane to modern day David-v.-Goliath strategies, though they make for fun reading. Winning against the odds requires a ton of patient, steady, tenacious and utterly prosaic work.

    Underdogs need first of all to survive the initial onslaught from Goliath, then to drag out the fight long enough to build up the capacity to enact a winning strategy. The longer one is able to harass and delay the outsized opponent (growing your strength and agility all the while), the greater the chance that one can either win conventionally, exhaust the adversary into withdrawing, or in some very rare situations, discover some “novel” way of winning.

    But the novel solutions rarely come readily to hand, unless you first pass the endurance test and do the slow, boring work of reversing the asymmetries with your opponent. As Ben Hogan put it (I’m paraphrasing here): “I’ve had a lot of luck in my career. But the more I practice, the more lucky I seem to get.”

    One of these David v. Goliath battles in chronicled in the PBS/Independent Lens documentary, “Two Square Miles.”

  • wow, thats great!

    im looking for some rebelutionarys who are on Facebook. i would really like to get to know some of you there. just let me know! thanks!

    – Jennifer

  • This was helpful for me because I am a bit short and when I play sports i often think about the things expected of me. So this will help me to overcome the low expectations and do my best in everything

  • This article was really incouraging to me. I just started reading your book “Do Hard Things” and it has really inspired me to get out there and do hard things for Christ! I’m a shy person, and stepping out of my comfort zone to do hard things is difficult for me. But now I’m challenged to step out of my box and be what God wants me to be. Now, I’m going to find the courage and with God’s help, witness to my friend. I thought about witnessing to her before I read the book but now I know I need to do this as soon as possible. Thank you so much for getting me refocused on what’s important in life…

  • This is such an important topic in everyday life. We must not let ourselves remain the underdog forever. We must put forth the effort to overcome the odds and low expectations.

    Thanks for the inspiration guys!!
    >God Bless<

  • “Attitude plays such a big role in this, because you’re going to get tired.” ~quote from Gladwell’s article~

    Hard work = perseverance. If a person isn’t willing to put their heart and soul into their efforts, they will give up. And easily.

    The coach of this basketball team talks about how important attitude is. Could it be that attitude, because it spurs on hard work, is the most important element in our David/Goliath battles? Even MORE important than the action or work itself? 🙂

    Davids will not always defeat their Goliaths. Sometimes Goliaths carry the victory for a season. But if our heart is in the right place, if we hold fast to hope, and faith, we can fight another day.

rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →