A Tissue Box Catapult - Revelations after reading David and Goliath

Recently, I was introduced to the book David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. The story really opened my eyes, and despite only reading a few chapter in, the contents have greatly changed my perspectives.  Essentially, Gladwell's novel is one in which he discusses why society always perceives the so called "underdogs" to be at a disadvantage and are surprised when they come out on top. The world believes David's win to be a miracle when it fact it should not have been a surprise (I won't spoil the book for those who have not read it yet).

One central idea to the David and Goliath is that we often think in a very fixed way, and believe in one set way of doing things, or one set of rules when it is easy to find a solution that could be out of the box. Reading the novel made me think of one of the most profound things that occurred to me as a young student in history class. Now, I realize the lessons I learned from the incident can be applied to life and society at large.

Back in grade 4, we had to do a catapult project for history class. All students in the class were required to build a free standing catapult smaller than the size of a desk that could hold and launch a marble. The winner would be the one who could launch the marble the furthest. Excited, I got my dad to help me. We found bright yellow painted wood pieces, drilled, cut, bought springs from the hardware store, assembled, and the finished product was beautiful. My dad has experience in architecture, and engineering, so naturally my project was far superior to the other projects my fellow students brought in, or so I thought.

On the day all the projects were brought in, I looked around and smugly noted that no one else's catapult looked as good as mine. The others were smaller, and weak looking. I thought with pride about how I would be able to win the competition. One girl's catapult in particular, surprised me. Her catapult was made with only 3 materials. A tissue box, a bendy ruler, and a condiment cup. I was surprised at her "catapult" and thought with some surprise and annoyance that she had clearly not understood what a traditional catapult was supposed to look like.

The shock came when the catapult demonstrations began. Naturally, my catapult was far superior to the others. When it came time for the tissue box catapult demonstration, it shot out of the condiment cup when the bendy ruler was pulled back and the marble went surprisingly far, only falling short of my catapult distance by one or two inches. This blew me away.

Yes, in the end, I did win the competition, and the tissue box catapult was second place. The teacher was so impressed with my catapult that he asked to keep it to show to future students. But, if one compares the time, effort, material cost, and simplicity of my catapult with the tissue box one, I think that the latter is far superior. My classmate's catapult, which was the underdog, actually won in the end. It fulfilled all of the requirements of the project, was cheap and easy to produce, and yielded incredible results.

I didn't know it then, but that tissue box catapult is the perfect analogy of what is happening in our world today with things like Uber, and Air BNB and other disruptive technologies and businesses. My classmate took a problem, and solved it in a way that was very outside the box. It may not yield the absolute best results, but it is of  high quality compared to the majority of other products, while also being much simpler, and more easily reproducible.

In the end, the key takeaways are that:"Underdogs" shouldn't be underestimated, and that there are multiple ways to complete a task. Some of the most brilliant are outside the box solutions. It is always enlightening to realize that life experiences can teach you a lesson you didn't notice before. Funny how things connect as we grow older and wiser :)


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