Pick Your Battles

Here’s a battle:

Happiness vs. Righteousness.

You have to pick one. “Both” is not an option. Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?

Yes, it’s a facile question. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive. But the point is that, win or lose, battles come at an unequivocal cost. Most of the time that cost is simple energy, and as humans, we’re equipped with a limited stash of the stuff each day. So it behooves us to spend wisely.

But there are longterm costs as well. Battles harden us, particularly the garden-variety kind that seem to pave the road of life. Someone cuts you off during the morning commute. A disagreement at work. An impasse over what color to paint the kitchen. A bad customer experience. A missing TV remote. A relative with opposing political views. The neighbor’s dog who won’t stop yapping. And on and on. The more we engage, the more inclined we are to be combative. The more combative we become, the more polarized our worldview, the less we’re able to empathize and try and see things from another’s perspective.

Then there are the truly destructive costs. Friendships that dissolve, families that splinter, careers that derail because of an office blowout or a festering problem with a coworker. And the self-inflicted wounds add up, too; the fatigue of all those battles turns into stress and affects one’s physical health.

So do we avoid conflict altogether and happily wander through life in a state of total nirvana?

Well, that wouldn’t be the worst thing. But no. Some battles are worth fighting. Some demand our involvement. But most of them can be dealt with either by turning the other cheek completely, or in a low-cost, uncontentious way, the equivalent of saying “I disagree, but I’m not going to get into it, so have it your way”.
So how do we know when and how to pick a battle?

There are some fundamental questions we should ask ourselves. The first is, “How important is the outcome?” Are we deciding where in the house to hang a Georgia O’Keefe print? Or is there a presentation at work, and you have it on good authority that the client will not respond well to a certain part of it? Or are you about to dive headfirst into a Facebook debate that, no matter what, will not change anyone’s mind nor make the slightest dent in the universe? In other words, is the outcome a matter of personal taste, or is it more objectively related to a greater good? Or is the outcome irrelevant, and what really matters is a sense of superiority?

Another question is, “Why do I feel compelled to fight this battle?” More often than not, the answer traces back to either pride or principle. No one likes to be wronged, but that alone isn’t a great reason to go to battle. Principles are trickier. They’re good to have, and worth fighting for, but be wary of the cost; standing up for “what’s right” can quickly become a thankless and full-time job. Not to mention it assumes you’re on a higher moral plane, which, rightful or not, is an unpopular position with others.

Lastly, ask yourself, “what’s the cost of this battle?” And not just the cost to you. A reproachful email may only take 5 minutes to write, but the consequences could be resounding. Or, what if you’re absolutely certain you’re in the right on something, but battling over it causes friction between you and someone else? Is the friction worth it? Maybe, maybe not.

Understanding the implications of a battle, taking an honest look at our involvement in it and weighing the costs will help us decide if we should pick it or move on. There’s no rulebook that dictates which battles to pick, and there’s nothing that says you can’t pick them all. Just remember that for every battle you win, you lose something else in the process. And that something may be worth more to you than victory.