when to stand

Soviet fighter jetYou can’t fight every fight. That is not how fighting works. Not even if you actually are right, every time. (Spoiler: you’re not. You are human and humans make mistakes. I myself once thought the hippo roller was a useful innovation and microfinance would change the world.)

Winning a fight takes strength, and just being right doesn’t give you that strength. It’s not fair but it’s true. Most of your strength comes from social capital – the trust in your judgement that other people develop as a result of 1) knowing you 2) seeing you get things right and 3) liking you.

To win a fight, you need social capital. Otherwise you’re just that woman standing in front of the White House for thirty years, calling for an end to nuclear weapons. She was brave and persistent and had right on her side, but she didn’t have the social capital to win this one against basically the entire world. (wearing a hat made of tinfoil did not help her social capital)

Every fight you lose saps your social capital. Some of the fights you win do too. So every time you want to start a fight, you have to decide – is this the one I am going to spend my credibility on? Or do you want to save that social capital for when your city decides to connect its water supply to actual poison.

It’s not a pleasant process. In fact, I think the technical term is horrible. But if you fight every fight, you lose – or win – pretty much at random. If you choose your battles, you can at least prioritize the things that matter most. (They do all matter. I agree. But they’re not all winnable.)

This core dilemma – when do I stand and when do I yield (also known as “Am I speaking truth to power or am I being an asshole?”) – is about 90% of what I coach people on.  I don’t give people an answer. I just ask a lot of questions until they decide for themselves.

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