The Benefits of Adversity
Writer and BAI Retail Delivery 2013 speaker Malcolm Gladwell says that adversity can make you more successful – if you learn to turn your weaknesses into strengths.
By Kenneth Cline
Writer Malcolm Gladwell has been labeled a “provocateur” for the unexpected conclusions he has reached in probing social science topics in his best-selling books The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers. The New Yorker staff writer promises to do the same for banking when he speaks at BAI Retail Delivery 2013 in Denver on November 6.
To get a flavor for Gladwell’s thinking before the conference, we conducted a short interview with him recently. We started with some of the conclusions that he reached in his latest book, David and Goliath, in which he argues that learning to work through the disadvantages you possess in life can help make you stronger, and more successful, in the long turn.
Q: In your new book, David and Goliath, you explore successful traits of “underdogs.” How can these attributes be applied to advance the typical banking institution?
Gladwell: When you’re talking about banking as a whole, there are obviously dominant players and minor players and different strategies apply to each. But one of the things that underdogs do, generally speaking, is that they find opportunity in adversity. Adversity forces them to come up with strategies that they would never have pursued otherwise.
I tell the story at the beginning of the book about a guy coaching a girls’ basketball team. They’re terrible at basketball so the coach got them to play the full-court-press the whole time, maniacally, every minute of the game. That’s a strategy the team would never have pursued had they had any kind of conventional advantage. I also talk about successful dyslexics who, because they can’t read, are forced to learn how to listen, or learn how to negotiate, or learn how to find alternate ways around their adversity.
It’s all about having a mindset that says, “This is an opportunity to figure out new ways of doing business.” There’s never a better moment to innovate and come up with new strategies than when you feel beleaguered, with lots of obstacles in your path.
Q: So, the idea is to take whatever weaknesses you have, recognize them and see if there’s some way you can maybe translate them into strengths?
Gladwell: That’s exactly right. There are an extraordinary number of successful entrepreneurs who have dyslexia, for example, and if you talk to them, they will say they didn’t succeed in spite of their disability; they succeeded because of it. Facing that kind of obstacle gave them the impetus to try things they would never have tried, to take chances they would never have taken. They told me they never would have achieved the things they achieved without being put into that kind of a risk mode.
Q: Based on your personal observations, how can the banking industry in this country be improved?
Gladwell: There are two things that are happening right now in technology that affect banking. One is that the Internet and digital revolution has allowed banking to become increasingly automated, which has been a fantastic convenience for me. I don’t have to line up in the bank branch anymore. I can do most things from my desktop or laptop or even my mobile phone.
That’s been a tremendous boon for me but the problem is the second aspect of the technological revolution, which is a kind of de-personalization in banking. I do feel that my bank doesn’t know who I am as an individual. To give you one example, I like to pay all my bills by wire; I do them all at once. But it frustrates me that one, there are limits to how much money I can wire, and two, I have to pay a hefty fee each time. Instead of imposing these blanket policies, I wish my bank would speak to me directly and say, “You’ve been with us for twenty-one years; you maintain high balances, so we’re going to waive those fees and limits.”
So, the flipside of automation is that you can get de-personalized. I wish there was some way that my bank could do both – treat me as a human being but also let me use these automated systems.
Q: As you know, the public image of banks was really hurt severely because of the financial crisis in 2008-2009. Any thoughts about how banks might restore some of that consumer trust?
Gladwell: I think the PR problem they have now is the price of deregulation. When investment banks and retail banks were allowed to combine to a certain degree, investment banks came to be seen as retail banks. A lot of public anger was directed toward investment banks, but the entire banking industry got blamed. The problem now is that when a hedge fund guy acts up or a trader acts up, the whole entire sector gets tarred with the same brush and that’s just because of the fact that we call everything a “bank.” Maybe we could stop calling everything a bank and get people to appreciate how much diversity there is in this sector of the economy.
Mr. Cline is managing editor of BAI Banking Strategies.
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