A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called How David Beats Goliath, and the internets rose up in nerdy fury. Like a lot of Gladwell’s work, the article is filled with anecdotes (whatever you may think of Gladwell, he’s a master of anecdotes), most of which surround the notion of a full-court press in basketball. I should note at this point that I absolutely loath the sport of basketball, so I don’t really know enough about the mechanics of the game to comment on the merits of this strategy. That being said, the general complaint about the article is that Gladwell chose two examples that aren’t really representative of the full-court press. The primary example seems to be a 12 year old girls basketball team, coached by an immigrant unfamiliar with the game:
Ranadive was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadive thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?
The strategy apparently worked well, to the point where they made it to the national championship tournament:
The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasn’t playing fair – that it wasn’t right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills. Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuable – that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged.
Most of the criticism of this missed the forest for the trees. A lot of people nitpicked some specifics, or argued as if Gladwell was advocating for all teams playing a press (when he was really just illustrating a broader point that underdogs don’t always need to play by the stronger teams’ conventions). One of the most common complaints was that “the press isn’t always an advantage” which I’m sure is true, but again, it kinda misses the point that Gladwell was trying to make. Tellingly, most folks didn’t argue about Gladwell’s wargame anecdote, though you could probably make similar nitpicky arguments.
Anyway, the reason I’m bringing this up three years after the fact is not to completely validate Gladwell’s article or hate on his critics. As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t care a whit about basketball, but I do think Gladwell has a more general point that’s worth exploring. Oddly enough, after recently finishing the novel Redishirts, I got an itch to revisit some Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and rediscovered one of my favorite episodes. Oh sure, it’s not one of the celebrated episodes that make top 10 lists or anything, but I like it nonetheless. It’s called Peak Performance, and it’s got quite a few parallels to Gladwell’s article.
The main plot of the episode has to do with a war simulation exercise in which the Enterprise engages in a mock battle with an inferior ship (with a skeleton crew lead by Commander Riker). There’s an obvious parallel here between the episode and Gladwell’s article (when asked how a hopelessly undermatched ship can compete with the Enterprise, Worf responds “Guile.”), but it’s the B plot of the episode that is even more relevant (the main plot goes in a bit of a different direction due to some meddling Ferengi).
The B plot concerns the military strategist named Kolrami. He’s acting as an observer of the exercise and he’s arrogant, smarmy, and condescending. He’s also a master at Strategema, one of Star Trek’s many fictional (and nonsensical) games. Riker challenges this guy to a match because he’s a glutton for punishment (this really is totally consistent with his character) – he just wants to say that he played the master, even if he lost… which, of course, he does. Later, Dr. Pulaski volunteers Data to play a game, with the thought being that the android would easily dispatch Kolrami, thus knocking him down a peg. But even Data loses.
Data is shaken by the loss. He even removes himself from duty. He expected to do better. According to the rules, he “made no mistakes”, and yet he still lost. After analyzing his failure and discussing the matter with the captain (who basically tells Data to shut up and get back to work), Data resumes his duty, eventually even challenging Kolrami to a rematch. But this time, Data alters his premise for playing the game. “Working under the assumption that Kolrami was attempting to win, it is reasonable to assume that expected me to play for the same goal.” But Data wasn’t playing to win. He was playing for a stalemate. Whenever opportunities for advancement appeared, Data held back, attempting to maintain a balance. He estimated that he should be able to keep the game going indefinitely. Frustrated by Data’s stalling, Kolrami forfeits in a huff.
There’s an interesting parallel here. Many people took Gladwell’s article to mean that he thought the press was a strategy that should be employed by all teams, but that’s not really the point. The examples he gave were situations in which the press made sense. Similarly, Data’s strategy of playing for stalemate was uniquely suited to him. The reason he managed to win was that he is an android without any feelings. He doesn’t get frustrated or bored, and his patience is infinite. So while Kolrami may have technically been a better player, he was no match for Data once Data played to his own strengths.
Obviously, quoting fiction does nothing to bolster Gladwell’s argument, but I was struck by the parallels. One of the complaints to Gladwell’s article that rang at least a little true was that the article’s overarching point was “so broad and obvious as to be not worth writing about at all.” I don’t know that I fully buy that, as a lot of great writing can ultimately be boiled down to something “broad and obvious”, but it’s a fair point. On the other hand, even if you think that, I do find that there’s value in highlighting examples of how it’s done, whether it’s a 12 year old girls basketball team, or a fictional android playing a nonsensical (but metaphorically apt) game on a TV show. It seems that human beings sometimes need to be reminded that thinking outside the box is an option.