David & Goliath

Wait, what if the sling was actually deadly? Also, 7 other things worth your time.

More subscribers! I love you guys, welcome and thank you!

Please share Understandably with friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, people you randomly meet at the grocery store if you’re still going in person, etc. They might want to subscribe too!


I once wrote about an entrepreneur — I can’t even remember who it was, but it doesn’t really matter — and I called his tale a real “David vs. Goliath” story.

Oh man, did I ever hear from readers. And it got me thinking that we still tend to use “David vs. Goliath” all wrong.

This isn’t a unique thought; in fact, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book about the idea.

But if you think about the number of times we refer to an underdog story as “David vs. Goliath,” and suddenly realize that we might be using this phrase backward, it’s pretty interesting.

Here's the deal. You might envision David versus Goliath as the story of a weak shepherd defeating a mighty warrior. I always did.

However, it turns out that's maybe not what the story is about at all.

So, in the interest of not making bad business decisions because you didn't pay attention during Sunday School, let's explore another interpretation, and what it would mean.

1. Goliath can't see.

Let's start with the fact that Goliath is a giant: a mighty, 6-foot-9 Philistine warrior.

He's a big guy by modern standards, and he would have been absolutely colossal in Biblical times.

It turns out scientists wrestled with that detail, and have debated for decades whether Goliath might have had a disorder called acromegaly. This condition leads to a person growing extremely tall--but also often leads to double-vision and severe nearsightedness.

Lo and behold, in the Biblical story, as Gladwell points out, Goliath has to call out to David in order to fight him:

“Come to me that I might feed your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field.”

Why does he have to guide Goliath like that? Perhaps it’s just a literary device—but also, perhaps Goliath can't see David.

It’s a bit inspiring to think about how big competitors' perceived advantages can often mask their even bigger disadvantages.

2. Goliath is powerless.

Why are David and Goliath fighting to begin with? Because the Philistines have proposed to send their toughest warrior against the Israelites' toughest warrior to settle a dispute in “single combat.”

As Gladwell put it in his TED talk:

[T]he Philistine who is sent down, their mighty warrior, is a giant. ... He's outfitted head to toe in this glittering bronze armor, and he's got a sword and he's got a javelin and he's got his spear. He is absolutely terrifying.

And he's so terrifying that none of the Israelite soldiers want to fight him. It's a death wish, right? There's no way they think they can take him.

On the other hand, David is a lowly shepherd boy—and yet he's the only person willing to fight Goliath. He also refuses to wear armor.

Why? Maybe he just doesn’t have armor. But, perhaps David is also the only person in the story who realizes that heavy armor weighs a warrior down.

Goliath could easily kill David with his sword—but he can only do that if David were foolish enough to walk right up to him. Of course, that's the last thing David plans to do.

3. David is deadly.

The final misconception is the idea that David goes into battle with “only a sling.”

When we hear that with modern ears, we might think of a child's toy—a slingshot.

However, that's not what David has at all. Instead, he's carrying a sling, which is a simple but highly effective weapon. Armies used it in battle, and shepherds like David used it to protect their flocks from wild animals.

Once more, to Gladwell’s words:

[A] sling has a leather pouch with two long cords attached to it, and ... a projectile, either a rock or a lead ball. ... It's not a child's toy. It's in fact an incredibly devastating weapon. ...

If you do the calculations on the ballistics, on the stopping power of the rock fired from David's sling, it's roughly equal to the stopping power of a [.45 caliber] handgun.

This is an incredibly devastating weapon. ... When David lines up ... he has every intention and every expectation of being able to hit Goliath at his most vulnerable spot between his eyes.

In fact, that's exactly what David does—walks right up to Goliath (but still far enough away that Goliath's swords and javelin are useless) and kills Goliath with a single shot to the head.

It's like when Indiana Jones shoots the intimidating swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Take a look at the story again. If you study the Bible and take it literally, that’s fine; I respect you. And I understand you might have a different interpretation.

But if you look at it this way?

The lesson isn't simply that when a powerful competitor takes on a smaller one, the smaller one might sometimes win. It’s that the smaller competitor almost always wins.

And that’s a pretty inspiring idea to take away.


Wow, only 6 days left until the U.S. presidential election! As of last night, just over 70 million ballots have already been returned. Texas (officially now, a “tossup”), is at 86.9 percent of its total vote for 2016. Remember: Don’t vote by mail at this late date—it’s probably too late! 70,032,485


Correction from yesterday: Virginia Military Institute is the college where the superintendent resigned after an investigation into an alleged culture of racism. I wrote, “Virginia Military Academy.” Thanks to a reader (who is also an alumnus) for pointing it out. Mea culpa. I assume I have to do push-ups now?


7 other things worth your time

Photo: I know this story was about David and Goliath, not Davy and Goliath, but I couldn’t help myself. Also, I wrote about David and Goliath a long time ago at Inc.com. If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, what are you waiting for? Please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com.

And of course, please share Understandably! Seriously, if you’ve wondered, What can I do to help Bill? That’s the #1 thing I need—for people who enjoy this newsletter to encourage friends and family to sign up as well. Thank you!

Share Understandably

One-click review and feedback: