How to Advance in Desperate Situations

This is the last article on the nine common competitive situations. Practical strategy, in all the previous situations, avoids conflict with others. “Conflict” is defined as trying to damage the position of our competitors in the minds of others instead of trying to improve our own position. Conflict is avoided for a practical reason: it is too costly. It usually damages the position of both parties. However, there is an exception to this rule. It is called “the desperate situation.”

The Desperate Situation represents the class of situations where our position is deteriorating rapidly because of the actions of competitors, that is, those to whom we are compared. These situations are also known as deadly or do-or-die situations. A desperate situation occurs at the end of a campaign to advance our position when our time, alternatives, and favorable conditions are all running out. Practical success strategy depends on quickly adapting, not attempting to control. These conditions pose a threat to our existing established position as well as to the success of the campaign to advance that position.

Sometimes our own mistakes lead us into desperate situations, but we can also end up in them because ultimately most conditions are beyond our control. We must always remember that the environment is bigger than we are. All we can do is play the contests we are given, leveraging the odds. Of course, in human competitions, many contests are designed to seem like a desperate situation: a showdown between competitors. All sports and politics are designed this way. However, we must remember that these situations are artificial and do not represent competition as it normally appears in everyday life. Even in sports and politics, the competitors are considering their longer-term positions. Athletes and teams look at their future, not just a single game. The same is true of politicians.

Desperate situations occur only at the very end of campaigns when we have sunk all our resources into improving our position and no other viable options are left. Perhaps a sports contest in the middle of the season does not represent a desperate situation as much as one in the playoffs. We are not truly in desperate situations if we have other alternatives for the future. In desperate situations, conditions must also be deteriorating rapidly. If the decline is slow, we have time for conditions to change, creating other, less dangerous situations. In desperate situations, delaying our response is fatal.

We must never use desperate responses in less than desperate situations. They are simply too risky.

This drastic response is an opportunity because it advances our position and weakens those to whom we are compared. Our strategic position is how we are seen in the minds of others. A successful response to a desperate situation weighs very heavily in our favor in most people’s minds.

The Desperate Response

The desperate situation is the exception that proves the general rule about avoiding conflict. In desperate situations, everything is at risk, not just the hoped-for advance. The only thing that makes this response best is that it has the best probability of success.

  1. In desperate situations, we instantly and directly challenge our competitor or competitors, threatening them with the damage of conflict.

    When we are in a desperate situation, our competitors are growing relatively stronger over time since we are growing weaker. This makes our position’s demise inevitable. This is a situation where we want our competitors to clearly discover from our response that we are desperate and will do anything to win. We must not only fight with everything we have, but we must do so instantly and very visibly.

  2. In desperate situations, we focus all our resources on the single point of engagement.

    If we face multiple competitors, we must pick only one of them to damage first. If we face multiple battlefronts, we must pick only one. We must then put all of our resources into that point of conflict. This means holding back nothing for defense, nothing for maintaining our position afterward. This type of behavior is foolish in most situations, but it is necessary in desperate situations.

  3. In desperate situations, we seek to damage those who oppose us as much as possible.

    Our response must give opponents something to fear, something to lose. We make it clear that the fight will be very expensive, hoping to raise the risks so that they are no longer worth the rewards. While we are in a desperate situation, the chances are that our competitors are not (except in the artificial worlds of sports and politics). When we demonstrate our willingness to bring down our opponents even at the cost of our own destruction, they have to reconsider their options.

  4. In desperate situations, we seek to surprise our opponents with our seemingly reckless indifference to the long-term.

    As with all late-stage situations, surprise is critical. Our strength comes from knowing we are in a desperate situation before our opponents so that our ferocity of response catches them unprepared. We want them only to discover our desperation from our actions, not before. By surprising our opponents, we seize the initiative. We look stronger than they had supposed. They not only have to reconsider their opinion of us, but they have to reconsider their priorities, and they must do so quickly, choosing their course in an instant because we leave them little time to do otherwise. Most people prefer avoiding loss over winning uncertain gains. Most will have a tendency to back away from extreme conflict. 

  5. In desperate situations, we must not press our luck.

    If our competitors back down, we get breathing room, that is, time for other situations to arise. We must not press for more, hoping to turn a surprise into a bigger victory. In a desperate situation, survival is the only necessary victory. Bulls and bears can live, but pigs get slaughtered. We would not be in a desperate situation if a big victory was possible. In these situations, our definition of success means simply surviving so that we can evade defeat and establish a more defensible position.


For the sake of entertainment, many artificial competitions are set up to appear as desperate situations. Very few really are. A sports team does not disappear if it loses the big game. The athletes still have their careers. Roman gladiators fought in truly desperate situations. When any of our competitive positions are truly in one, we must face up to the grim reality, it truly do or die.