Strategies for David, Versus Goliath

At some point in your life, you’ll be dealing with someone a lot more powerful than you are. Most of the time these people will likely have a neutral impact, or even help you in your life and career. But sometimes — just sometimes — they can have bad intentions. Here are some tips for dealing with that.

To start off, I’d like to give a bit of context. I’m surprised by the amount of content “in the literature” the focuses on telling stories about powerful people slaying their enemies, but not how the rest of us can prepare against that. The closest I got to was reading The Power Broker, where Caro gives at least some examples of the people who escaped Robert Moses’ wrath, though these examples are few and far between. Most of the guidance I give in this post is based on these examples, though it’s also of course in part inspired by the implicit guidance given in the David versus Goliath folk tale. Anyway, let’s move on to the meat of the subject.

Assess the person’s power

A lot of the lessons gathered from The Power Broker was the result of men realizing how little control Robert Moses really had. He was the park commissioner. Of New York. If you wanted Moses to stop screwing with you, you just moved away from New York. A person’s power might be vast, but it comes from a source — what they’re good at, where people listen to them, who their followers are. The first step is understanding all these things — only then to the cracks begin to form.

Stand up to the bully

There’s a rather funny anecdote in The Power Broker that inspires this tip. Robert Moses was primarily known for his fits of rage, and he’d go down to the New York City government offices, walk right up to the person he had issues with, and start pounding his fists and yelling. For most people, this worked. They didn’t know how to respond, and so they shied away, embarrassed and defeated.

One day, a man on Moses’ hitlist had an idea. When Robert Moses walked right up to him and started yelling, instead of shying away, he tried something else.

He yelled louder.

Robert was shocked. To an extent, the rest of the office was shocked as well. Then Robert did something strange.

He didn’t know how to respond, and he shied away, embarrassed and defeated.

A lot of powerful people — bullies in particular — have a lot of offense and very little defense. Sometimes it’s as simple as the Moses story where you simply scream louder and scare the man off. Other times it is more subtle, but the rule still applies.

Use the press

This is actually what Robert Moses used in his early years when he was still a french fry. The man might have been a park commissioner, but that did come with its advantages — parks represented nature, the Mother of All, the beautiful yet delicate force from which we all owe our existence. If a person attacks you or tries to stifle you or throw you overboard while you’re park commissioner, what do you do? You go to your nearest press agent and say that person is trying to destroy our parks. 

If you don’t remember a single one of these other tips, then at least remember this one. There is nothing else that drives up rage, fear, and emotion more than the story of a powerful individual or organization placing their thumb and squashing someone who is much more weak and innocent than they. This is the only tip on here that works universally so.

Match your strengths against their weaknesses

This is, of course, the main lesson of the actual David and Goliath story. David is able to win because his size allows him to become more agile than the Goliath, who is beefy yet slow. Everything on planet earth has a main strength and a main weakness. If you’re up against a bully, look for their weakness by assessing their power, and then figure out how to get to them that way. That will provide you your best bet. 

Understand what’s at stake

The last lesson here is to realize what really matters in all of this. The people who fell to Moses were the ones who felt that a job in the New York public system was their destiny — that it was make or break — and so they fell under his thumb. But the ones who made it out realized that it would be much easier just to leave and live life on their own terms than to deal with Moses’ wrath. Of course, this one is easier said than done, and there’s plenty of examples where simply leaving isn’t a viable option. Still, it pays to think: what’s at stake? What’s the most you can lose?

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