Why You Surrender On Things That Don’t Matter

Some brilliant advice on office politics from the advertising pioneer David Ogilvy:

“In your day-to-day negotiations with clients and colleagues fight for the kings and queens and bishops but throw away the pawns. A habit of graceful surrender on trivial issues will make you difficult to resist on those rare occasions when you must stand and fight on a major issue.”

This kind of thinking can be particularly difficult for Stoics to grasp, being that this is a philosophy of principle and virtue. Shouldn’t we always insist on what is right? Why would we ever compromise when we hold a superior position?

Well, the actual Stoics not only dealt with workplace politics, they were also players in actual politics. Cato, Thrasea, and Barea Soranus were Roman senators. They held positions of enormous responsibility. Yet their Stoic principles could not change the fact that politics are still politics—and compromise is necessary. If you want to get things done, that is.

Cato, for his part, struggled with this idea. He often engaged in long, protracted fights about trivial issues. And when Caesar came and upended the Republic? Yes, Cato bravely stood and fought. But, oh, how might that sacrifice have been made unnecessary had he worked with Caesar and other opponents earlier to solve Rome’s pressing problems? And if that hadn’t worked, how many more people might have seen the direness of Cato’s stand and been inspired to stand with him, had he not developed a reputation as being insufferable by so many?

Point being: Your principles are not a mandate to die on every hill and chase every doubter or critic. Not every disagreement need be dealt with by a duel at dawn. There’s nothing Stoic in being pedantic or controlling or absolute, just as there is none in being the boy-who-cried-wolf.

Know how to give and surrender, and gladly give up pawns. That doesn’t mean you relax the standards to which you hold yourself, but it does mean you don’t need to win every move. Keep your eye on the prize. On winning when it matters and taking the stands that must be taken, to win not the battle, but the war.

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