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Winnipeg told to embrace underdog role

It's all good, Gladwell says

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Winnipeg is an underdog city, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, who says not being on top is actually a good thing.

Gladwell was in Winnipeg Wednesday night to give the keynote address at Centrallia, a global business conference, at the Winnipeg Convention Centre. He's the Canadian author of four bestselling works of non-fiction, including Outliers, which analyzes patterns that that make certain people successful.

On Wednesday, Gladwell focused on society's obsession with being first, whether it be winning a competition or getting a patent for a new idea. The longtime New Yorker staff writer said being the first person to come up with a new idea is sometimes overrated, and he explores this idea in his forthcoming book. Gladwell said he's intrigued by how often underdogs win, and the connection between how a perceived weakness can actually be a strength.

"Winnipeg is an underdog city," he said, adding, "Being an underdog is a lot better than it looks."

Here's a glimpse at some of the examples Gladwell used to explore this theme:

  • Being third can pay off: In the early 1970s, Gladwell said Xerox's office in Silicon Valley was a hub for the brightest computer scientists, who were given endless budgets to come up with the next best thing. They did, he said, and developed everything from the personal computer and the laser printer, software for the personal computer and PDF documents.

While Xerox was first to develop the technology, Gladwell said it was Steve Jobs who saw the potential to take their ideas and make them better when he first visited the facility. He said Jobs had something the Xerox staff didn't: He was desperate as his company was struggling to compete with huge firms. Gladwell said Jobs was never the first to develop anything, yet he built on the ideas of other companies.

  • The billionaire example: Gladwell said he's interviewed self-made billionaires who have a common background: They had little money and many obstacles to overcome in order to get where they are. He said people who learn how to engineer their way around obstacles end up learning many things in the process that help them get ahead.
  • The Winnipeg connection: Gladwell said Winnipeg is featured in his upcoming book, as he became very interested in how Wilma Derksen was able to forgive the man who murdered her daughter, Candace. Candace, then 13, was killed in 1984 after she disappeared on her way home from school. Her killer, Mark Grant, is now in prison. Gladwell said he is intrigued by this forgiveness, and its connection with the Mennonite culture. He said Mennonites have been persecuted for generations, and from this, developed the strength to forgive.
jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 11, 2012 B3

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