Of all the profound mysteries about talent development, here’s one that might be the most mysterious: Why do underdogs succeed so often?
Because they do. Look at the biggest success stories in business, academics, sports, music. An unusually high percentage started out as hopeless longshots — from Shakespeare to Apple computer to the 1969 Mets.
The point is that we all live in a world where underdogs win all the time. They succeed with such clocklike regularity that they pose a fascinating question: what are we missing here? Are the underdogs merely getting lucky? Or are there subtle, powerful advantages — psychological, social, tactical advantages — to being an underdog?
Here’s the question: what if underdogs aren’t really underdogs? What if they’re really the overdogs?
I recently had the privilege of attending the U.S. Soccer Player Development Summit at the Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The meeting was really cool and inspiring — the kind of gathering where a lot of super-smart, committed people come together for their Kennedy Moon Shot moment — the time when they point their compass at some distant goal (in this case, a World Cup victory) and get to work.
On paper, U.S. soccer fits the classic definition of an underdog. American players, while athletic and tactically smart, are not as technically skilled as top players in other countries. As U.S. Youth Technical Director and former U.S. team captain Claudio Reyna pointed out, when you compile a list of the top 100 world players, you will include precisely zero American players.
One of the problems, I think, is that while American soccer is in fact a huge underdog, the players and coaches don’t live the life of an underdog. They don’t feel like underdogs.
Picture the world from a young American player’s point of view. They are born into the middle class. When they are young, they are identified as a promising talent. Parents love and admire them. They make all the best travel teams. The World Cup is a distant abstraction — the real goal is success in their town, state, region. Their life is a steady climb of success and fulfillment, and the cherry on top comes on the big day: when they make the national team and put on the jersey.
Compare that to the story of a European or South American kid, for whom soccer is not a sport, but something closer to a religion. Who grows up seeing every person he knows weeping/rejoicing/freaking out every four years at the World Cup. Who dreams nightly of hoisting that trophy, of being that hero.
The problem U.S. Soccer faces isn’t structural — it’s narrative. Like a lot of us, they are Davids who are living in a world that treats them like Goliaths. They’re missing out on all the psychological advantages of being an underdog.
So the real question isn’t about talent. It’s about, how something bigger and more universal: why is that David story so powerful? And how do we figure out how to plug into it?
While I was thinking about all this David/Goliath stuff, I started playing Angry Birds for the first time. If you don’t know the game, check it out. On second thought, don’t, because it’s highly addictive.
(The game works like this: you use a touch-screen slingshot to launch birds at well-defended green pigs who’ve stolen the birds’ golden eggs. It’s an echo of David and Goliath, if Goliath were a smug green pig.)
So why is this game so fun and addictive? Four things:
- 1) You are targeting a huge, meaningful, distant goal. (Those golden eggs!)
- 2) You are attacking a superior, well-defended force who stands between you and your goal.
- 3) You have the freedom to innovate and experiment — to pick different angles, strategies, tactics.
- 4) You bond. Your birds sacrifice for each other, work together, cheer when something good happens.
I’d like to argue that the reason you put so much energy into Angry Birds is the same reason that underdogs work so hard and win so often. Being an underdog isn’t about merely getting lucky — rather, it’s about tapping into the psychological and social advantages that are built into the underdog story. Aggression. Purpose. Innovation. Social ties. Being an underdog is the equivalent of getting a daily dose high-octane fuel.
(To illustrate this point, imagine if the game were reversed and instead of playing as the Angry Birds, you were forced to play as the Smug Green Pigs, guarding the golden eggs. Would it be any fun? Would you be inclined to put a lot of energy and thought into the game?)
So what do we do to tap into the underdog engine? We could start with three basic questions:
- 1) What’s the Giant Goal — the ultimate, golden-egg target?
- 2) Who’s Goliath? Who’s standing in your way? Who thinks you can’t do it?
- 3) What innovations can you use? Remember, you are on the attack, not the defense.
- 4) Who is with you on this journey — what connections exist, and how can you strengthen those?
The truth is, it’s really difficult to succeed in this world, and if you’re lucky enough to succeed, it’s even more difficult to keep it up. In the largest sense, we are all underdogs. Finding a way to express and communicate the fundamental truth of that situation seems to me to be one of the most important thing a group could do for itself.
So the real question is, What’s your story?