Are You Adversarial … or Realistic?

Two approaches to life characterize the majority of human interactions. One is the adversarial mentality, and the other is the realistic mentality. The adversarial mentality rests upon illogical but (to some people) emotionally appealing ideas about how human beings get along with one another. Based on my experience over the years, I have isolated four mistaken assumptions that an adversarial person makes in his or her interactions with others:

Assumption #1: People are unworthy of trust until proven otherwise; they are guilty until proven innocent. Not realistic. Trustworthy people exist in most settings. If you start with the premise that nobody is trustworthy, then you will treat people in a manner consistent with that expectation. You will be abrupt with them; you will act suspicious towards them; you will not maintain eye contact or show that you have any regard for them. Your expectation then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as people react to this, and they can eventually become your enemies rather than your friends.

Assumption #2: Everyone is dishonest, so I might as well be dishonest too. Dishonesty is often exposed over the long run, so once you develop a reputation for dishonesty, people will not be comfortable doing financial or emotional business with you. Even more fundamentally, dishonesty creates a breach between you and reality; between you and the facts. That disconnect is not only stressful to maintain but also harmful to your self-worth. The basic dilemma about lying should not be, “Will I get caught?” but rather, “Do I want to live in reality?” To a rational, life-valuing individual, the answer is obvious.

Assumption #3: Conflicts of interest are inevitable and unavoidable. If one defines self-interest as doing whatever you feel like for any reason, then conflicts of interest will be inevitable. If I feel like stealing your car, and you do not want me to take your car, then there exists a conflict between your interest and my interest. If, however, one defines self-interest in rational and objective terms, then no such conflicts can exist among sensible, honest people who respect others’ psychological boundaries and property rights. A rational person wants to pursue his goals, but he also expects – indeed, wants – to pay for it and does not want to impose force or fraud on anyone else. So, if a rational person covets your car, he’ll figure out a way to purchase his own. Likewise, if you can find a work environment where people respect each other and are appropriately punished for failing to do so, then conflicts of interest need not be inevitable.

Assumption #4: Resources are limited; life is a zero-sum game. Quite the opposite is true! Given the nature of reality, positive side-effects often result from otherwise negative events. Losing a job can afford you the opportunity to try something different. Living in the city has the advantage of access to more cultural resources, but being transferred to the country allows the advantage of less crime and often friendlier people. One type of job offers one set of opportunities; another job offers another.

Tradeoffs are everywhere. Even in tragic circumstances, such as death of a loved one, individuals have reported (after the grief subsides) that they discover opportunities to pursue relationships and activities they previously had not attempted. Life is not a zero-sum game where one person’s gain is another person’s loss. Many self-serving politicians employ the “us against them” rhetoric based on this patently false idea. Sadly, “divide and conquer” has become much of what we see from politicians nowadays.

If your neighbor makes a million dollars honestly, he has not taken something from you. He earned money because he worked hard. Similarly, if your neighbor or coworker is happy, you should not resent him for taking more than his “fair share” of the nonexistent happiness pie. Instead, try to figure out what he did and then apply those principles to your own life. The happiness pie offers an infinite number of slices.