Do you want to win or win the argument?

Today is May 18 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “would you rather win or win the argument?” While navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well you will come across one argument after another. Topics that generally start arguments center around jobs, money, pursuits, and other personal interests. Some examples include “why would you declare history as a college major?” “Why would you quit a job you hated but made lots of money for one that you loved but made less money?” “Why do you want to push yourself and get a graduate degree; that seems like so much work?”

Those who are absolute in their knowledge of all things related to you often lack any substantial evidence of navigating their own chaos. They have the answers but none of the evidence to support what they are saying. They have nothing on the horizon or even in the conceivable future; but they will certainly argue with you.

Why on earth would you engage with such people when you are trying to translate a dream into reality? Every moment counts. And the more you allow the absolutists to rent space in your head, the less room you have for your own thoughts and for the lessons learned from those who successfully navigated the chaos.

If you study how people navigate the chaos you will find most of them, if not all, never care about winning the argument. They simply do not have any time for such trivial matters. In fact, most will not even engage in the argument. They simply let the other person talk. As Jeremy E. Sherman wrote in Psychology Today "If you’re dealing with someone who will say anything to win an argument, you shouldn’t keep arguing with them."

Now the other person could be a spouse, a family member, a friend, a neighbor, or a co-worker. Someone in your life is going to argue with you as you navigate the chaos. That much is guaranteed. So what? Let them argue. Do you care? Are you going to engage in the argument? Do you want to win the argument or win?

Those who navigate the chaos want to win. Let me repeat that. Those who navigate the chaos want to win. Winning an argument? No thank you. Winning a debate? Not interested. Being right all the time and proving to others who smart you are? Those who navigate the chaos have little time for such nonsense. Do you? For those in higher education, winning the argument is sometimes the only thing that matters.

In his book Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, Nassim Nicholas Taleb examines higher education as it applies to this question. Taleb defines the doers of society as the source of all great invention and creativity, while academia remains anchored in a protectionist fashion of their own intelligence. Taleb argues that academics focus their attention on winning an argument rather than winning. Such an observation on higher education, however, has been around for over 70 years and is often known as Sayre’s law.

Sayre's law states, in a formulation quoted by Charles Philip Issawi: "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake." By way of corollary, it adds: "That is why academic politics are so bitter." Sayre's law is named after Wallace Stanley Sayre (1905–1972), U.S. political scientist and professor at Columbia University.

On 20 December 1973, the Wall Street Journal quoted Sayre as: "Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low." Political scientist Herbert Kaufman, a colleague and coauthor of Sayre, has attested to Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, that Sayre usually stated his claim as "The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low", and that Sayre originated the quip by the early 1950s.

Many other claimants attach to the thought behind Sayre's law. According to Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson frequently complained about the personalized nature of academic politics, asserting that the "intensity" of academic squabbles was a function of the "triviality" of the issue at hand. Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt (Sayre's former colleague at Columbia University) was quoted to a similar effect: "Academic politics is much more vicious than real politics. We think it's because the stakes are so small." In his 1979 book Peter's People and Their Marvelous Ideas, Laurence J. Peter stated, "Peter's Theory of Entrepreneurial Aggressiveness in Higher Education" as: "Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small."

The next time you find yourself in an argument, remind yourself to ask the question ‘is my focus on winning this argument or winning in life?’ If you find the two inextricably linked, you may want to rethink the path upon which you are traveling. Ask yourself what will help you navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well: winning the argument or winning in life?