How Artist Underdogs Succeed

Very often the traits we perceive as weaknesses hold the key to how artist underdogs succeed.

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

The book’s guiding premise is that the underdog in any situation or conflict is often the entity possessed of the greater advantage … provided they cogently take stock of their situation, then choose to play to their strengths. 

Gladwell cites many examples to illustrate this point. But one of the most fascinating is that of T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

The movie poster for the iconic film “Lawrence of Arabia.”

In the early 1900s, Lawrence, a white British citizen, led a force of Bedouin tribesmen to decimate the superior military might of their sworn enemy, the Turks.

This feat was surprising for dozens of reasons. 

Lawrence was not a soldier by trade but an archaeologist who happened to speak fluent Arabic.

The British Crown regarded the Bedouins as savages, inferior. But instead of looking down on them, Lawrence honored their ways, adopted their form of dress, and learned to ride a camel like nobody’s business.  

Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence, with Omar Sharif.

T.E. Lawrence understood that most of the Bedouins in his command had never picked up a rifle, let alone shot one. But he also knew they could survive in the desert for days on end, with each man carrying only a small sack of flour and a pint of water.

He knew the Bedouins could travel 110 miles a day over the worst terrain imaginable. That they also possessed an esprit de corps which Europeans — and even most Middle Easterners of the day — struggled to comprehend, let alone emulate. 

In short, Lawrence proved the assertion made by the 18th century Polish military strategist, Maurice de Saxe, in his memoir, Reveries on the Art of War.

Wars are won by “legs over arms.” Meaning: speed, fleetness, and maneuverability far outstrip a combatants position, entrenchment, and defensive capabilities.

Gladwell writes:

“There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources – and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former. For some reason, this is a very difficult lesson for us to learn. We have, I think, a very rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is. We think of things is helpful that actually aren’t and think of other things as unhelpful that in reality leave us stronger and wiser.” Malcolm Gladwell (David and Goliath, pg 25)

So what does this have to do with how underdog artists succeed?

If you’re like most artists I know, you tend to make mountains out of your molehills. You regard yours successes as grains of sand while treating your every failure as an unscalable Mt. Ararat.

But what if we flipped that around?

Are you an actor with a strange or distinctive voice? Christopher Walken fits that mold. He turned that “weakness” into one of his most tradable assets.

Do you suffer from some kind of physical handicap, which you feel certain will hold you back from success? Tell that to Stephen Hawking, the late astrophysicist. Though confined to a wheel chair for most of his life with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Hawking became one of the most influential theoretical physicists of the 20th and 21st centuries.

(For anyone claiming that Hawking wasn’t an artist, I disagree entirely.)

Or what if you’re a writer who works very slowly?

Working with analog tools can slow your writing down. That’s the point!

In this case, maybe the strength of your work isn’t brevity but thoroughness. These days, thoroughness is one of the rarest things we encounter in life and craft. I count it a strength, indeed.

One of my favorite illustrations of the underdog scenario involves Leonardo DaVinci.

DaVinci’s famous self-portrait, done in red chalk.

An underdog, you say? How can that be? DaVinci is the patron saint of creative. He was an inventor, musician, painter, sculptor, anatomist, engineer … name an art form, this polymath not only tried it, he mastered it.

Despite his brilliance (or perhaps because of it), DaVinci worked very slowly. And this became a problem when he painted The Last Supper.

In traditional fresco work of that time, artists quickly applied their paint to fresh, wet plaster. But DaVinci worked so slowly, his paint would harden before he could work with it. So he made up a new technique and called it secco, meaning “dry.”

Secco allowed DaVinci to paint as nobody had before. Thanks to secco, he painted in layers that built on each other, creating new depth of detail.

The results are pretty impressive.

“The Last Supper” by Leonardo DaVinci

So this is how underdog artists succeed: by taking their greatest weaknesses and turning them into their greatest strengths.

My fellow Creatives, please keep this in mind.

Deficiencies are illusions. You are whole and you are awesome!

Damon DiMarco

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Damon DiMarco

Damon DiMarco (born October 16, 1971), is a New York City author, actor, playwright, and historian. His oral history work has been compared to that of Studs Terkel. He was born in Princeton, New Jersey.

2 thoughts on “How Artist Underdogs Succeed

  • April 4, 2020 at 2:35 am

    Damon, your writing is amazing. You are gifted! I can’t say enough about your speech at Bill’s service!
    In this time when so many things are new and scary it is important to go in a new direction. So, on line rehearsals, on line acting classes, on line audition coaching was feeling impossibly wrong to someone like me. I did very little on line and I LOVED THE LIVE CONNECTION AND GROWTH. I will do on line my way and make it slow and steady with new ideas to overcome old ways. Thanks pal!!!!!

    • April 5, 2020 at 2:03 am

      Mimi, great to hear from you! Yes, do it your way. How could you do anything but? Online acting work is all the rage now anyway. I avoided it, too, for a while. Then I thought … it’s just another skill to learn in a craft I love. And that seemed to help. Wishing you and yours all the best! D


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