Choose Your Arguments Wisely!

By Marshall Goldsmith

The #1 bad habit of successful people is winning too much. It is easily the most common behavioral problem I observe in successful people. You might think this is okay. How can winning too much be a problem? Isn’t winning too much why people are successful?

No, not really, it’s oftentimes in spite of it. Winning too much is the #1 challenge for many of us, because it underlies nearly every other behavioral problem. For instance, when we argue too much, it’s because we want to win!

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Some arguments are a waste of time and don’t accomplish anything, but there are some issues worth arguing over. The key is to know the difference.

Let me share with you a personal story about a time I engaged in a perennially pointless argument trying to fulfill my desire to win.

I have always taken some foolish pride in the humble nature of my upbringing. For many of us, it’s part of being an American: reveling in how poor we were and how much we had to overcome to achieve our current status in life.

Since Horatio Alger wrote his stories of characters heroically pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to “success,” this has been part of the American Dream. It’s the reason parents still lecture their children with memories of their childhoods that begin with “When I was your age …” There’s nothing 

wrong with a little of that if the lecture imparts some useful instruction — and the children aren’t rolling their eyes thinking, “Dad’s at it again.” However, in general, this is a waste of time.

While “I had it so tough!” is bad at home, it can be even worse at work. When we do this, all we’re doing is trying to elicit other people’s admiration for our having had it rougher than they did. It’s pointless, almost perverse bragging — and what does the “winner” of the argument really win?

I embarrassed myself when I got into a contest with a client about which one of us was poorer growing up. After laying out all the necessities of modern life that we lacked in Valley Station, I tossed down my trump card: “The first three years in grade school,” I said, “we had an outhouse.”

My adversary countered, “In West Virginia, all we had were outhouses. What’s the big deal? And by the way, we had dirt floors in my home!”

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“You know what?” I said. “You win. I can’t top dirt floors.”

I felt like a fool afterward. And I suspect that the winner didn’t feel any better. That’s what happens when you try to glorify your past for all its deficiencies and all the suffering it brought upon you. It’s no different for any debate about details in the past, even the good times. All you’re doing is creating a contest of competing memories. Except for its limited self-entertainment value, what’s the point of that?

The lesson here: If we argue too much, it’s because we want our view to prevail over everyone else’s (i.e., it’s about winning) – the result is that no one really wins.

In the series of video blogs that accompany these articles, I’ve been interviewed by Nathan Lyons Nathan is a high potential from Gen Y who sought my insights on a number of topics from my book Triggers with the critically important angle of “advice I might provide to the younger generations”. I’m excited to share this series of short interviews with you and of course I hope you enjoy my written thoughts on the topics as well!

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