Best Advice: Choose Your Fights Carefully

Best Advice: Choose Your Fights Carefully

Confrontation is a natural mode for many humans, even nerd-variants like myself.

It's a useful emotional vent, but can also be quite profitable by polarizing interested parties, and then selling one's services to one side or the other. Lobbyists and consultants in Washington generate a lot of billable hours that way.

Me, well, I've learned the hard way that confrontation frequently fails, and that I lack the motivation and skill level to render it effective or profitable.

Over decades, I've learned that sometimes I want to stand up for the right thing but that it's a bad idea to do so. There are situations I just can't win, due to lack of resources or skills. There are situations with unintended consequences which I can't anticipate or handle.

For that matter, some things really don't matter. To take a trivial case, at heart, I'm a grammar thug. I hear me some bad grammar, and I want to fix it. However, that's rarely worth doing; maybe only if I help a friend avoid some embarrassment. Nowadays, I suppress that urge, or channel it through my sense of humor, using phrases like "I hear me some bad grammar" or works like "gotta" or "shoulda."

The first battle where I remember consciously thinking about this was in 1977 at IBM Boca Raton. Bell Labs wanted Unix (Linux/Android precursor) on the Series/1 minicomputer. I figured that porting Unix to S/1 would be fairly easy, fast, and cheap, resulting in far superior software. After suggesting that, I was informed that it didn't matter, since it was an unwinnable effort. I made a stab at it, didn't go anywhere.

In retrospect, I should've fought anyway, along with others with similar opinions. The whole industry would be different.

Down the road a bit, at IBM Detroit working with GM Research, manufacturing customers told me they wanted Unix on IBM systems. While considering suggesting that, I was told to pick my fights carefully. I tried gently suggesting the idea, and accomplished nothing but pissing people off.

Later, when a traditional system was proposed for a big dealership application, I quietly suggested a Unix system, and was told that would piss off people even more, so I held my tongue.

Nowadays, there are many opportunities to confront people—for example, public agencies whose role is to help vets. I just don't confront people; I'd prefer to show respect to the participants and work with the people who want to get stuff done. Turns out, that's what they want, and the whole thing gets results.

(If my approach works, you'll hear little from me, and a lot from other people who I want to get the credit.)

Other situations include press involvement; I'm often in situations where bad actors fake the news, including making up quotes or selective editing.

Sometimes correcting a lie just repeats it and makes it worse, so I'm just avoiding fights altogether. That's too bad for the publication, since it provides an illustration of untrustworthy behavior which will return to haunt 'em.

So, sometimes fighting is the right thing, if the cause is right, and you have a shot at winning. You don't want to make things worse.

More frequently, you show respect and work with the people who still believe in what they do, and that works for me. You can try that also.

Photo: Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock


Helping the Disabled

I agree that picking your battle will undoubtedly increase your (in a general sense) chances of success but any fight is worth the battle if you're passionate enough about it. Besides, your efforts might be noticed by others and down the road may impact their lives in a positive way. As you said: "In retrospect, I should've fought anyway, along with others with similar opinions. The whole industry would be different." You just never know who's watching.


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