Giants aren’t always as invincible as we think they are. Many times, the qualities that appear to give them their strength are the sources of their weakness as well. This was the central theme for David and Goliath, the book our YMC Book Club read this past month. Since our agency—and many of our clients, for that matter—are smaller than others in our industry, this book’s message proved especially relevant and resonated with our entire team.
Written by Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath reminded us that being an underdog can change people in ways we often fail to appreciate. While most people are impressed by giants’ size and resources, those seeming advantages can make the big guys immobile and defensive before they even realize it.
So, what is that gives the underdogs, the David’s—or in the financial world, the credit unions—the opportunity to win? While mobility, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge, and courage give underdogs a fighting chance against the giants, Gladwell suggests that it’s the willingness to try harder than anyone else that helps underdogs defy the odds. But despite their passionate determination, many still fall into a dangerous trap.
“When you are a little fish in one of the deepest and most competitive ponds, the experience of comparing yourself to all the other brilliant fishes will eventually shatter your confidence,” said Gladwell. “It makes you feel stupid, even though you aren’t stupid at all.”
I see this kind of self-defeating comparison so often in the credit union world. It usually stems from a feeling of inferiority based solely on asset size. Yet, as I love to point out, the top five fastest-growing credit unions that we work with are all small credit unions. Sometimes the apparent disadvantage of being an outsider in a marginal world turns out not to be a disadvantage at all. Consistently having the deck stacked against you can develop a remarkable resilience that transforms a liability into an asset.
To illustrate this point, Gladwell shared that, by the time they get out of college, many people with dyslexia exhibit a highly developed ability to deal with failure. As a result, they are more likely to see the upside in situations where others may see only the downside. This optimism can make them appear naturally courageous. And while they very well may be courageous, courage isn’t an inherent quality that makes someone brave when the tough times start. Courage is a trait that’s forged by going through the tough times and discovering they aren’t so tough after all.
What’s interesting to note is that even though courage is admirable, it can often be misconstrued as unreasonable. That’s why it’s important to remember that sometimes doing the right thing means we have to risk being misunderstood. George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Like David (quite possibly history’s most unreasonable man), we need to realize that many times the status quo, also known as “the way we do things around here,” is simply the result of people in positions of privilege closing the door to those on the outside. Faced with ridiculous odds, David had nothing to lose. Because of that, he had the freedom to thumb his nose at the conventional rules set by others. His results speak for themselves—which is why we’re still talking about them thousands of years later. If you find yourself in an overwhelming situation like David, you have to think outside of the box and use whatever you have at your disposal. More often than not, you’ll discover you’ve had what it takes all along.
The human psyche naturally follows the path of least resistance. We like to do whatever comes easy. Too often, that means we follow what everyone else is doing, which turns out to be the way we’ve always done it. Now, more than ever, that is the most dangerous course you could be taking. The approach you think is safe can be a death warrant for your credit union. What you feel is less risky is most likely the riskiest course to follow.
When you think you’re just too small to compete, that you don’t have the resources of the big guys, remember David and Goliath. The condition that gave Goliath his great size is the same condition David exploited to take him down.
You can do it. You need to do it. And most importantly, this is your year to do it.