The Power of Picking Fights

picking fights

There is nothing more effective for getting people to follow (and buy from) a leader than the existence of a common enemy.

While this doesn’t mean you should go around calling on people to commit acts of violence or cruelty, those who aspire to lead—and to sell— need to publicly take a bold stand about what they are against, in addition to talking about what they are for.

The founders of Basecamp are a case in point.

For a long time, it was taken as a given that making better software was a function of programming it to do more. If you were designing a new word processing software, spreadsheet tool, or project management system, you would work to give it additional features and functions. Why would anyone, the thinking went, want to buy a tool that did less?

The founders of a web development company called 37signals saw things differently. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson developed a project management tool called Basecamp for their internal use. When clients began asking to buy it for their own purposes, Fried and Hansson shifted into selling Basecamp full-time. Today Basecamp is one of most popular and lucrative pieces of software in its category. And it has fewer features than almost any other comparable product on the market.

From very early on, Fried and Hansson promoted a philosophy of technology and business as something that could be an antidote to the prevailing givens in their industry, which they felt caused great harm.

In a tech-startup world where six-day weeks and 10-hour days were viewed as the easy way out, the founders preached streamlined, efficient work schedules. They followed through by giving their teams every Friday off in the summer. In the midst of a climate where falling asleep at your desk was a badge of honor, Fried and Hansson encouraged their employees to work at home (years before catastrophic global events made it a necessity). And as we’ve already discussed, they advocated for technology that had a few strong features and functions rather than always adding more with each update.

The founders of 37signals (later renamed Basecamp after their main product) promoted bold views that were the opposite of what everyone in their orbit was likely to expect. They blogged about these views, gave interviews about them, and wrote books about them. If there was a sacred cow, they found it, slaughtered it, and ate it with a generous helping of A.1. Sauce. As a result, word about their ideas and products embodying those ideas, spread like crazy.

By all accounts, Fried and Hansson believed everything they said. But the partners were also consistent in their roles as provocateurs. They kept people guessing. They made people angry. And the angrier people got, the more sales Basecamp achieved.

Why Picking Fights Works So Well

During a series of excavations of early human settlements on a promontory off the coast of South Africa called Pinnacle Point, anthropologist Curtis W. Marean developed a theory of why we are so strongly wired to interpret the world through an adversarial lens. It was there that he uncovered evidence of habitation it would seem was the refuge of the remaining members of our species—a small handful of tribes—that were not wiped out during a mass extinction event.

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What kept the members of these tribes from going the way of the rest is that they uncovered a dense population of shellfish in the area. The only real impediment to getting their hands on that food source was the other tribes that were competing for it. Under these conditions, people who had a high propensity to cooperate with those they considered to be like them but to act aggressively to those they perceived were not tended to survive at a higher rate than others.

Once conditions improved, the descendants of these survivors spread to every corner of the globe. Their outlook is now encoded in our internal chemistry. For example, we form emotional attachments as a result of a neurotransmitter called oxytocin. When your brain secretes oxytocin in the presence of someone you are forming a relationship with, you experience a feeling of closeness, warmth, and commitment to that person.

But oxytocin has another, lesser-known function as well. The same brain chemical that cements bonding with people inside your circle also causes you to experience feelings of hostility toward those outside your tribe. In other words, on a purely physical level, fomenting an us-versus-them dynamic creates stronger and stronger bonds between the leaders who spark divisions and those that follow them.

Our tribal tendencies may not be rational, but their pull is incredibly strong. If you’re able to accept this facet of human nature, it puts you in a powerful position. We live in a society that calls on us to relentlessly sell ourselves. But as the demands on us to self-promote grow more pressing, people are getting better and better at tuning out the self-serving messages they are bombarded with all day long.   

However, what our brains cannot disregard are messages that tell us to take sides.

A Foolproof Method to Making Money by Making Enemies

Ask yourself the following two questions: What point of view do you often encounter in your field that is so wrongheaded that it literally makes you angry? And what point of view in your field are you 100 percent, unshakably confident in?

The trick is to pinpoint a point of view that you’ve always disagreed with and that you strongly suspect a sizable number of others do too but aren’t speaking up about. Are there business gurus out there that you believe are enriching themselves by giving bad advice? Take a public stand against them. Are there popular ideas floating around that you’ve long felt are absurd or harmful but that no one seems to be talking about? Be the one who does.

What you’ll find is that when you take these sorts of bold positions, the many people who feel the same way you do will gather around you. And that’s how movements are built. People follow

other people with a point of view. Get one. Find a prominent figure in your field whose view you disagree with and point it out. Publicly. Repeatedly. And make sure you offer a viable alternative. If you can show people why a commonly held belief is causing more problems than it solves, they will come to see you as the leader of a new movement.

Does this mean that you need to continually insult and attack those who differ from you? Not necessarily. But it does mean you need to draw clear lines between yourself and others.

Once you figure out the answers to these questions, they can serve as the nexus around which you build your tribe. Find people who differ from your point of view and challenge them on social media. Write articles disagreeing with commonly held orthodoxies in your industry. Pick fights with the gurus and thought leaders in your realm that have been around so long that no one thinks to challenge them anymore.

If you carve out a contrarian and challenging position, you will cause those who tend to see the world your way to rally around you and evangelize your ideas, even if others vehemently disagree with you. At the same time, this powerful strategy cannot exist on its own. If all you do is go around making enemies wherever you go, there will be no one to help you when you need it. Successful hype artists also cultivate relationships with great acumen.

Staking your career on the ability to pick fights while embracing personal connectivity is a paradox. It is how well you navigate this paradox that will ultimately determine your success.

About the Author

Michael F. Schein

Michael F. Schein is the Head Hype Man at MicroFame Media, a company that specializes in making consultants and coaches famous in their fields. His writing has appeared in Fortune, Forbes, Inc., Psychology Today, and Huffington Post.

His book “The Hype Handbook: 12 Indispensable Success Secrets Form the World’s Greatest Propagandists, Self-Promoters, Cult Leaders, Mischief Makers, and Boundary Breakers” published by McGraw Hill, appears where books are sold.

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