The 365 Commitment

Pick Your Battles


Reading some blogs this morning on “picking your battles.” This is a phrase you hear from time to time. I heard my wife admonishing one of our children, to pick her battles. It occurred to me that she might not really know what that meant, and as a matter of fact, did I really know what it meant?

On the outset, I think it means to choose to fight the battles that are actually important and not worry about the trivial things. If you fight every battle, then you are likely to have a tough existence. Good advice for anyone to follow, for sure. However, I wanted to think this through a little more carefully.

When I was a youngster, my father and grandfather had a saying that they repeated quite often, rules to live by so to speak. I really do not know where they came from.

“Make no waves, and back no losers.”

I have done some research on the subject. A book written about Chicago style politics, uses this as the title of the book. It is about the Richard Daley era of politics in Chicago. He was quoted to have used this phrase, often enough. I think that the concept of making no waves is a punch line to a popular joke in the 20s and I feel like these two phases melded together and become a popular campaign phrase during Daley’s hey day.

The origin does not matter, but the phrase is a kin to the idea of picking your battles. So if we were to use this advice we can consider two major considerations when you are attempting to “pick battles.”

First, you do not want to wage a battle what will disrupt your own-self. If you pick a battle, or effectively make waves, you are more than likely to cause a greater challenge for yourself. Making waves, just to make them, is going to get you noticed and that is oft times the spelling of your downfall. It is far better to wage a battle unseen than it is to be noticed by the wrong people. Every child learns this very early. Rather than earn the ire of mom, kids will quickly learn to not make waves that could very well capsize their own boat.

Second, back no losers. When I was a child, I thought this meant losers as in people. Perhaps it does in some way, however, I think the phrase implies not to back losing arguments. This is especially true in politics. If the political view points of the day are in opposition to a policy that you are backing then you are going to lose. You should not back an argument, that is destined to lose just by the mountain of opposition against it. If you are backing something, that is going to result in a battle, and you know that you are going to lose, then why are you fighting for it in the first place? On principle? Daley would call that moronic.

I think these are the first two standards by which to pick a battle to fight. Is it a losing argument? and is it going to make waves that will come back to haunt you? If your answer is yes to either of those questions – then get out of it. However, beyond these two questions I think the first and foremost lesson is to actually go through the process of picking a battle. You see most of us fight battles all day, that are brought to our shores. We are unwilling participants in a conquest that most likely will not have an significant benefit for ourselves. Battles are brought to you, and you fight in them, with really little conscious decision. This is worse than picking a loser or making waves. This is unwilling and reactionary participation. So the first concept of going to battle is to actually pick the battles you are getting into.

This has a been a long standing tradition of American international politics. We fight battles, yes, but only the battles we choose to get into. You can see the disastrous consequences that come from U.S. politicians picking battles to get into, what if the U.S. were to be dragged into every conflict and not just the ones with our national interest in play? Same goes for us on an individual level. Just because you see a battle and just because the battle is having a small impact on you, does not mean that you should engage as a full participant. You must weigh carefully if you should get involved, in just the same manner that the U.S. government weighs such matters.

Some key considerations. First, you may want to think about the battle at hand. Is this really your fight? It is not always wise to pick a battle, when you are not the key participant. You may think it is the right thing to do, perhaps sticking up for someone, but most the time when you take over the fight for another person you are doing damage to them and yourself. Believe me, there is enough battles going on all around you for you to be also taking on all the battles of other people. There maybe an occasion where this is called for, but for the most part, you should fight your own battles and let other people deal with theirs.

Impacts. The second is to think about what the impact will be if you win or lose this battle. If there is no real impact then what the heck are you wasting the energy for? Taking on a battle for only a small short term gain, with no really long lasting impact is just a silly waste of time. The concept of learning to choose what to focus on because you understand the impacts it will have on your long term prospects is a level of maturity that few obtain.

A distant cousin to this concept is you should also consider what the impact would be just to give in. This may sound wimpy, but if you think that way then you have no idea what the Art of War really is. When you go to war, battles are won and lost. Not all battles are won for the victors. The victors are usually better at picking the battles that they must win and conceding the others. Let your enemy waste their time on any and all conflict. You can take your time, resources, and energy and apply it to the battles what will actually have an impact on the outcome.  If it really does not matter if you win or lose a particular battle, then my suggestion is to just give in – let the other party win.

All of this is hard for the empathetic person who is trying to solve the world’s problems. You are worried about the welfare of others and you feel like you need to fight many battles that you should not. I do not know how to advise someone with this type of conflict, however, I will say this. If the impact is not that dire, then you should consider saving yourself for the battles that really do count. You are no good to anyone if you already lay on the battle field defeated before any of the real conflict begins. Conserve your strength, judiciously choose where to invest your energy. Remember, that you should only be involved in the battles that you believe have real consequence.

Guy Reams

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Pat Reams
Pat Reams
3 years ago

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is what I have always tried to live by. If it doesn’t matter in five years don’t stress over it. I have always tried to determine that, although since I’m running out of five years I should change it to one year. lol

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