How to Repay Your Enemies

September 4, 2012 — 18 Comments

How do you repay the people who fucked you over?

It is a little harder to get into one post just because there are so many ways that people can wrong you. There is the overt action: the attack, the theft, the lie, the deliberate slight. And then there is the let down, the negligence, laziness, and occasionally, there’s someone with contagious bad luck. Most of the time, we ignore it. As we should. But sometimes, we can’t.

Imagine you are Sam Zemurray. You try to give friendly advice to the company you love, try to contribute through the proper channels, but they slam the door in your face. They are running your baby into the ground. You know what must be done.  So you go to the board meeting in New York City, you sit there quietly. Then you raise your hand and speak. They laugh in your face, mock your difficult accent. You storm out, maybe they think they’ve won.

When you return, it’s armed with the stock proxies for a majority share in the company. “You gentlemen have been fucking up this this business long enough. I’m going to straighten it out.” And now it’s time to drop the hammer: “You’re fired. Can you understand that, Mr. Chairman?” as you fling the bag of proxies across the table.

Sometimes an aggressive strike, or even revenge, is not emotion—but strategy (like a co-worker who is steadily encroaching on your projects despite discussions, or perhaps you need to generate a little controversy to get press). Robert Greene calls this “knowing when to be bad.”

One element of mastery is the ability to no longer need to react emotionally. To know what you need to do and not be distracted by immediacy. Repaying your enemies properly—and effectively—maintains that rule.

Only the top predators can afford to toy with their prey. As Ambrose Bierce once said, real skill is to “stab, beg pardon and turn the weapon in the wound.” Only the best can manage effective action as an artistic statement. But those who can, have all the fun.

A sad part of it all is this: people do you wrong out of incompetence a lot more of than they do out of malice. If they were consciously trying to harm you, believe it or not, they’d probably have done less damage. I’m not saying that because it take the sting out of it. Rather, that you can’t get back at someone who already lost—who can’t get things right even when they try. These people, you must ignore.

But as for the rest of our lives, there is one unescapable political fact: People will fuck with your stuff. They will treat you bad. Mess things up. Try to disrespect you or keep you out. What happens? You get pissed and you feel like murdering them. You sit there and stew and rage and rant. You’re only tipping the scales further out of your favor.

As I tried to explain to myself a few years ago in exactly one of these moments, this is no reason to grind your teeth. Smile, they just gave you an opportunity. Not an excuse, but a justification.

Enjoy it. Learn from it. Remember, as Plutarch one titled an essay, How To Profit By One’s Enemies. In a world, where so much will go wrong and sadly, so many people will wrong you, you better know how to turn it something positive or at the very least, into a cathartic game. Or you will be one angry person.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

18 responses to How to Repay Your Enemies

  1. In the Chinese religion of Taoism, there is such a thing as wu-wei (action through non-action), which is to say that you act without necessarily being attached to your action. This makes it a freer action.

    I think if there is going to be some kind of payback, then emotion has to be left out. I agree with you about this Ryan. It is payback without payback, so to speak.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

  3. How about how to handle the man that slept with your wife?

  4. “One element of mastery is the ability to no longer need to react emotionally. To know what you need to do and not be distracted by immediacy.”

    Love that. Too many people act on their emotions without any regard of consequences or a sense of effectiveness.

  5. I have this quote stuck on my wall:

    “The reason for forgiving your enemies is not for their benefit but for your own benefit. Holding grudges against other people doesn’t hurt them; doesn’t even bother them much – in fact, even pleases them if they are still mad at you. It is not in your enlightened self-interest to hold grudges, regardless of whether it bothers the person you hate or not.” – Brad Blanton, Radical Honesty

    The problem is telling yourself “forgive your enemies” is like telling yourself “be more confident” or “stop caring what other people think of you” – very good advice, very hard to actually put into practice.

  6. Great lesson again Ryan.
    As you say here: instead of grinding your teeth, smile. Shrug it off.
    I always remind myself of this Marcus’ quote when I feel like smashing someone’s face:

    “Isn’t it yourself you should reproach – for not anticipating that they’d act this way? The logos gave you the means to see it – that a given person would act a given way – but you paid no attention. And now you’re astonished that he’s gone and done it. So when you call someone ‘untrustworthy’ or ‘ungrateful’, turn your approach on yourself. It was you who did wrong. By assuming that someone with those traits deserved your trust. Or by doing them a favor and expecting something in return, instead of looking to the action itself for your reward.”

  7. I was so focused on destroying my competitors for SO long. I had this fantasy that had me acquiring them or something. Having the moment where they’d yield to me.

    But I had the jobs to do and I didn’t have time to get the attention. I was seriously motivated to get through jobs faster so eventually I would have the time to really get a Tech Crunch post that devastated them or whatever. (I still have these thoughts).

    My competitors will never go away, and I’ll never be in charge. Stupid fantasy. But, by focusing on getting through jobs, I got better at running my own company, and I’ve transcended a few of them. They are irrelevant, they don’t trade in the same space.

    I think that the natural course of mastery is simple transcendence. You get better and better, and you just leave them behind because you focus on craft/product/business/whatever.

  8. The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.
    -Marcus Aurelius

    • That’s the best revenge, but it’s not always the best course of action. If that makes sense.

      • I’d like to unpack it more, you seem to be advocating for revenge as strategy over emotion. However I would argue this still damages you by wanting to harm someone else, even if it is unemotional. What sort of values does strategic revenge imply? Sam Zemurray might have “won,” but was he valuing the right things in his life? Did this lead him to the happiness he sought? (I actually don’t know much about his life, so I might be a bit off).

        Certainly mastery leads to happiness, at least the research certainly indicates this. But the other two aspects are good relationships and doing good in the world. I think even strategic revenge leads to disregarding these two important values.

        • We all have a purpose–Zemurray’s (and I am way simplifying this because was a morally complicated dude to put it lightly) was running United Fruit. This is how he achieved that.

          • Then it appears Zemmuray is another example in the search for where to draw the line between pragmatism and idealism, similar to Marcus Aurelius himself. On one end you have enlightened hedonists (the default philosophy of consumerist culture) and on the other you have the ancient cynics who rejected having anything to do with the purposes of society in order to prove those purposes were indifferent.

            For my part, I think fulfillment (eudaimonia) is my purpose, and whether it happens to align with the purposes of society or not is indifferent.

  9. Thought I would add another quote…..

    I and the public know
    What all schoolchildren learn,
    Those to whom evil is done
    Do evil in return.
    – W. H. Auden

  10. Forgiveness and compassion are better action than revenge, especially if emotions are left out.

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