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Pick Your Battles

Spend your energy in conflict only when it's important. Fight for the things you believe in, but don't fight if it's not important.

The notion of a Pyrrhic victory comes from the story of Pyrrhus, a king of Epirus who lived in the third century B.C. In 279 B.C. he decided to take on the mighty Roman army. Before sailing for Italy, Pyrrhus had the following conversation with his chief ambassador, Cineas, as recorded by the ancient historian Plutarch [20] (edited here for brevity):

Cineas: The Romans are reported to be great warriors and conquerors of many nations. If the gods permit us to overcome them, how shall we use our victory?

Pyrrhus: That is an easy question. Once we conquer the Romans, there will not be any city in all of Italy that will resist us.

Cineas: Once we have Italy, what next?

Pyrrhus: Sicily, which is a wealthy island, should be easy to take.

Cineas: You speak what is perfectly probable, but will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?

Pyrrhus: Carthage and Africa would then be within reach, and once we have them, who in the world would dare oppose us?

Cineas: No one, certainly. And then what shall we do?

Pyrrhus: Then, my dear Cineas, we will relax and drink all day and amuse ourselves with pleasant conversation.

Cineas: What prevents us from doing that now? We already have enough to make that possible without any more hard work, suffering, and danger.

But Pyrrhus didn't get it. He attacked and defeated the Roman army at Asculum in Apulia. He won, but his casualties were so heavy that he wryly observed: One more such victory and I am lost. Later his weakened army attacked Sparta and lost. Pyrrhus was hunted down and killed by an angry mob in the streets of Argos.

You're an [Evangelist] or [Dedicated Champion] struggling to introduce a new idea into your organization. You may have given some [Brown Bags], tried to [Do Food], or had some successes by starting to [Just Do It], and a [Trial Run] and shared some experiences in a [Hometown Story]. You're meeting some especially irritating resistance as you talk up your new idea.

Even if you had the time and the energy, you lose credibility if you fight every battle. Those who support your ideas will find themselves reluctant to get caught up in every little skirmish or worn out with trying.

It's easy to lose focus and become distracted by all the little annoyances and blow them way out of proportion. You may be torn between doing what you believe is the right thing and saving your energy in a world of too many tasks. It's hard to compromise when it comes to things we deeply care about.

We'd all like to live in a conflict-free environment. Perhaps getting to this point is a matter of figuring out what is really important, what is worth fighting for (and what's not), and perhaps being a little more open-minded and accepting of those around us. This may involve reevaluating our priorities; for most of us, it's uncomfortable to question and compromise our ideals. We may feel that these priorities define us, and being flexible with them destroys an important part of what we are.


Stop. Take a deep breath and think for a moment. Ask yourself if the current conflict is worth the effort. Know who you are and what you believe in. Make a conscious decision to fight only for those things that will make a difference. Maintain your integrity, so that at the end of each decision moment you are proud of yourself.

Ask yourself:

  • Can I win? If there's no hope for victory, what will you really gain? Choose wisely. You have limited resources. Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself what abilities are needed in this situation and whether you have them. This may be a battle worth fighting, but do you have the skills it takes to win? Even when you feel you're compromising deeply held principles, it's important to live to fight another day. History is full of examples of armies that won the battle but lost the war. Don't risk this fate by standing your ground for every tiny skirmish. At the end of the day, it's not about the battles fought and won; it's about making progress in the overall struggle to reach your goals.
  • Should I win? Consider the importance of the relationship with your opponents. It might be of more value to support this relationship than to win the current decision. Often you can block your group's progress and perpetuate conflict because you're holding out for a win—you're so sure that you're right and the others are wrong. Compromising can mean that the group moves on, rather than being stuck. Winning isn't necessarily what it's all about. Seeing movement in the right direction is. Sometimes it's important to lose now in order to win later. You don't have to have the last word. Often it takes a bigger person to let the conflict go. Sometimes this can be a turning point—let the opponent win, and you may win a convert.
  • What's it all about? Maybe it's a simple misunderstanding. If it's worth fighting over, it's worth spending time to understand the real issues. Check your terms. Make sure that your opponent really said what you heard, and make sure that your opponent really heard what you said. Things are rarely black-and-white. Try to see the many shades of gray. Be more open and accepting when others' values are different from yours. Try wearing De Bono's six thinking hats [21] to force yourself to consider all the sides. You can learn a tremendous amount about your own cause by doing this.

You'll create opportunities to live to fight another day, since you're not worn out by battling constantly. You won't put resources into something you're un likely to win. Focusing on the important issues will help you to achieve your long-term goals, since you'll be far more effective in winning the battles that truly are important to you. Choosing your battles wisely will lead to a more peaceful existence and will likely strengthen your interpersonal relationships, within both your working and home environments.

However, this approach does take work, and, as with any lifestyle change, sufficient motivation to make it work. It can be difficult to implement. It's easy for our brains to deceive us about whether we can win, since we're overly optimistic about our abilities, and we're rarely objective about our motives. It's an easy thing to see in others, but really hard to do for ourselves.

Another downside with this pattern is that your decision to avoid fighting a certain battle may be the wrong one and have significant impact. You don't always have all the facts you need to make the right decision. History tells many stories of negotiators who chose "peace at any cost." Neville Chamberlain, Conservative British prime minister, thought Hitler was someone he could appease. After Hitler had re-armed the Rhineland, after he had "annexed" Austria (both in violation of the Treaty of Versailles), Chamberlain cut a deal with Hitler—the infamous Munich Accord of September 1938. Chamberlain agreed to allow Hitler to take over a large chunk of Czechoslovakia. After acquiescing to Hitler, Chamberlain declared, "A British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time. […]Go home and get a nice, quiet sleep." Chamberlain didn't rush in. He gave this battle his time and consideration, but his decision was wrong.

Ben Thacker-Gwaltney, community organizer in We Make Change, explains: "I think organizing is a pragmatic profession. If you're too idealistic, you're not going to make it. You're going to get disillusioned. You have to cope with failure and compromise on all the rest." [22]

A group of students were standing on the street, attempting to get as many signatures as possible on a petition to legalize gambling in North Carolina. When people reacted negatively to their ideas, the students didn't argue with them. In some cases, they took a little time to listen to their concerns, but in most cases, they politely thanked the naysayers and moved on to the next pedestrian who might be a potential advocate for their cause.

As a parent, I have to recognize and respect the fact that peer pressure is real and that I have to deal with it. Constantly fighting with my child is counterproductive. If I criticize everything my child and his peers are doing, I risk shutting the door on communication permanently. It's not easy to live with an outrageous hairstyle or a baggy and sloppy wardrobe, but it may be better at times to let these things slide and to save my strength for the more important life struggles such as stealing, alcohol, or drug abuse.

My husband was a serious bike racer and entered a number of races where he could always see some overzealous, extremely competitive rider who couldn't bear to be left behind. The aggressive but not very tactically savvy rider would always burn out because he forced himself to stay at the front and would exhaust all his energy before the race was over.

Linda has been interested in the difference between the cultures of the chimpanzees and the bonobos. The chimp culture is alpha-male-dominated, aggressive, and hierarchical. They are territorial, have been observed killing members of neighboring communities, and it's a common tactic for a new alpha to kill infants to make their mothers available to him. Bonobos, on the other hand, are peaceful, non-aggressive, female-dominated, and resolve conflict with sex. When the community is upset over anything, the first order of business is for everyone to have sex with everyone—males with females, males with males, females with females, young with old—and then the conflict doesn't seem so important anymore. A good lesson. Maybe there are few battles really worth fighting.

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