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The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages)

This past weekend I dove into Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and The Art of Battling Giants.

Gladwell, a writer for the New Yorker magazine and author of Outliers and Blink, tells story after story recounting the advantages of disadvantages (and the disadvantages of advantages).

Starting with what really happened between David and Goliath, we learn how Goliath the giant was actually at a distinct disadvantage vis-a-vis David.

Many medical experts now believe that Goliath actually suffered from a serious medical condition caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland.

While this medical condition explains Goliath’s size, it also suggests his inability to see David clearly as the two of them confronted one another.

While most of us usually point to Goliath’s size as a distinct advantage as he confronted David, it turns out there were disadvantages with this perceived advantage, making Goliath vulnerable to the little shepherd boy named David.

Let’s look at a couple of other advantages that after further analysis turn out to be disadvantages.

If we were to total up all the wars over the past 200 years between very large and very small countries, how often would you say the bigger side has won?

While most people say the bigger side wins close to 100 percent of the time, research by political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft found that just under a third of the time, the weaker country wins.

And, when the smaller country uses unconventional or guerilla tactics (in other words, they refuse to show up as expected by the bigger country), the smaller side wins almost 63.6 percent of the time.

Finally, many of us take for granted that smaller class sizes in schools make for better classes. Schools around the world have invested heavily in the last couple of decades in hiring more teachers to reduce the average class size.

What if the research showed that there is no difference in student outcomes relative to the size of the classroom? In fact, some of the studies conducted on the subject have found just the opposite.

Smaller class sizes can result in less diversity and less energy, and in every country except Greece and Iceland, roughly the same number of studies have shown students doing worse in smaller classes than doing worse in larger classes.

What we think is not always true. What do you see as an advantage in your life or organization that is actually a disadvantage? What do you see as a disadvantage that is actually an advantage? Let me know what you come up with.

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