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Gladwell’s David-Goliath and Buddha’s Raft


Read this pretty interesting book from Malcolm Galdwell. David and Goliath.

In his very insightful style, Gladwell explains why underdogs are not really underdogs sometimes and how a larger size can become disadvantage at times. I could not help but see the similarities in the 27 year war I wrote about in the previous posts.

What was really striking was Gladwell’s discussion about the inverted U curve. You have to read the book to get the details. But here is the gist. A “three strikes law” was passed in a state in USA. According to that law, criminals were put behind bars for life after committing three crimes. Assumption was that the criminal must be a repeat offender and beyond correction. For a while this lead to decrease in crime, but beyond a certain point the law started proving ineffective and in fact turned counterproductive. It led to increase in crimes. When social scientists studied the details, they noticed that the kids of fathers put in jail for life were much more likely to be criminal themselves when they grew up without fathers- a disadvantage of putting criminals in jail for life that was not foreseen.

Similar observation was made about the salary and happiness relation. Up to a certain point, increase in salary contributes to improvement in quality of life. Beyond a certain point, more money actually erodes the quality of family life and so on.

Conclusion: Every corrective action has a limited scope within which the action produces  benefits. Beyond that, the same action actually hurts the objective.

Reading this remind me of the parable of raft in Mahayana Buddhism texts.

In Mahayana texts or Zen texts, this parable is found frequently. A raft is very helpful for crossing the river, but once you cross the river and insist in keeping the raft with you, it becomes hindrance for your walk on land. According to the texts, any religious doctrine or law or commandment has benefit only within a certain context. Once the context is gone, the rule stops being helpful. Instead it turns into obstacle for further spiritual progress, like a raft on the land.

What is interesting to me is that all over the world, people come across same insights via different roads. Gladwell came across his insight after studying some incidents he mentioned and crunching some numbers. Buddhist monks came across the same insight most likely by means of reflection and contemplation.

What both these insights highlight is the importance of open mind. No measure, no rule, no doctrine is too good to be reexamined every now and then to ensure that it’s still serving the intended purpose.

It really makes me wonder. How is it possible that the same thoughts or same pattern of neural signals fire in the brains of people separated by vast distances in time and space? If exposed to a sufficiently large number of events whether they are events objectively studied about someone else’s life, or subjectively studied about your own life, are we destined to draw same conclusions?

Are these fundamental truths of human life and we just need the prophets that speak our language to tell them to us?

Don’t know. But there is something reassuring. Even if people don’t get it now, or even if these valuable insights are forgotten tomorrow, in time someone else will stumble upon them again. Knowledge will never be lost as long as there are curious people with open mind.



2 Responses

  1. “even if these valuable insights are forgotten tomorrow, in time someone else will stumble upon them again.”

    This reminded me of the teachings of the sages in India when they said Knowledge is already there in the “ether” it is up to us to be receptive and assimilate it. Taken to the logical conclusion we can argue that since it is in the “ether” knowledge (not wisdom) can be obtained by anyone irrespective of when or where a person is and that all that is needed is right perspective.

  2. […] my previous post, I wrote about the parallelism of insights – the metaphor of raft in Buddhism and  what […]

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