Is your disadvantage an advantage?

Today is May 23 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “is your disadvantage an advantage?” Dutch football (soccer) player Hendrik Johannes Cruijff, arguably one of the best to ever play the sport, proclaimed “Every disadvantage has its advantage.”


W. Clement Stone echoed similar sentiment and wrote “to every disadvantage there is a corresponding advantage.” His 'cup half full' perspective regarding every negative situation reminds us that every disadvantage has an advantage. The key is to focus on the possibilities within the disadvantage and not on the impossibilities.

Stone personified this strategy of navigating the chaos. He was born in Chicago, Illinois on May 4, 1902 and three years later his father died leaving his family in debt. In 1908, at six years of age, he hawked newspapers on the South Side of Chicago while his mother worked as a dressmaker.


Much of what is known about Stone comes from his autobiography The Success System That Never Fails.

In that book, he tells of his early business life, which started with selling newspapers in restaurants. At the time, this was a novel thing to do, a departure from the typical practice of boys hawking newspapers on street corners. At first, restaurant managers tried to discourage him, but he gradually won them over by his politeness, charm, persistence, and the fact that most customers had no objection to this new way of selling papers.

He would eventually drop out of high school to build the Combined Insurance Company of America, which provided both accident and health insurance coverage; by 1930, he had over 1000 agents selling insurance for him across the United States. Stone had three disadvantages: his father died leaving the family in debt, he had to convince restaurant owners to let him do something they never did before; and he lacked a high school diploma.


Money, education, and experience are often viewed as critical advantages one needs to navigate the chaos. For people like Stone, he turned his disadvantages of no money, lack of experience, and no formal education into an advantage and became a rags to riches story. But he is far from the only one.

Academic research supports this strategy of turning a disadvantage into an advantage to navigate the chaos. For example, Ivan Arreguin-Toft, an assistant professor of International Relations at Boston University, analyzed every instance of asymmetric conflict between strong actors — the Goliaths — and weak actors — the Davids — within the past two centuries. The Goliaths, he discovered, were the victors in 71.5 percent of conflicts.


When the Davids recognized their disadvantages and amended their strategies, however, the percentage of conflicts in which they were victors increased from 28.5 to 63.6 percent. Thus, “weak actors are much more likely to win,” Arreguin-Toft determined, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell examines what happens when ordinary people confront giants. Gladwell defines giants as "powerful opponents of all kinds—from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression."

Through each story Gladwell explore two ideas. "The first is that much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give Giants strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable."

To illustrate his point, Gladwell begins his book with the story of David—the shepherd boy who was summoned by his people to defend King Saul’s kingdom against the Philistines.

According to Gladwell David was not the underdog in his historic battle against the six-foot–nine-inch giant, Goliath. Essentially, Goliath was equipped for direct combat, in which he might have deflected strikes with his shield and delivered a stab with his spear, not an opponent whose chief weaponry consisted of a slingshot and stones.

David’s decision to fight with less armor and weaponry, as opposed to Goliath, granted him insurmountable speed and mobility. David had brought a gun to a sword fight. He had recognized his disadvantage of size as an advantage of speed, mobility, and ability.

Goliath, as Gladwell summarized, “was blind to his approach—and then he was down, too big, and slow and blurry-eyed to comprehend the way the tables had been turned.”

The president of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn, understands the value of turning his disadvantage of being dyslexic into an advantage. Having been held back in elementary school due to his reading impairment, Cohn became accustomed to failure. He struggled throughout high school but managed to graduate from American University and launch a career on Wall Street because of his ability to persevere.

“The one trait in a lot of dyslexic people I know is that by the time we got out of college, our ability to deal with failure was very highly developed,” says Cohn. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without my dyslexia.” Like David, Cohn recognized his disadvantage of dyslexia as an advantage of determination and in the ability to deal with failure. Like David, Cohn fared well in his battle against the Goliath that had for years told him he would never succeed.

You can blame the world for your disadvantages. You can cry, scream, and feel sorry for yourself. You can blame your parents, your boss, and even some imaginary foe. Blame away. Doing so, however, will get you no further along the path of navigating the chaos.


If you have yet to think about how you could turn your disadvantage into an advantage, consider this approach as you look towards translating your dreams into reality.