Some situations have no good option. Call it the Kobayashi Maru. Call it the no-win scenario. Whatever you name it, the outcome will be negative. When you face certain loss, how you choose to go out can frame the future. While you can always graceful accept your fate, there is another option. Sometimes you just need to burn the house down.
As with one of our earlier adages, this strategy applies to thorny challenges. To put it differently, we cannot just prepare for victory. In fact, when we prepare for defeat, we can manage the outcome better. Instead of clinging to a hopeless cause, we can pivot to a place of safety. If we refuse to consider the possibility, then we limit our options. With this in mind, let’s look at when you may best burn the house down.
Burn the House Down to be Unpredictable
Do you recall The Usual Suspects? This film contains several strategies we can apply. A flashback shows a sequence where Keyser Soze is confronted with a no win scenario. Rather they accept his fate, he turns the table on his assailants. When they threaten his wife and children, he chooses to kill his family. Consequently, his opponents are stunned. Afterwards, he defeats them without difficulty.
Soze’s violence is entirely unexpected. That unpredictability creates hesitation and doubt. If he is willing to do this, then what else might he do. As long as our opponents are off balance, we have an advantage. We can apply this strategy anytime we see an opponent seeking to exploit a weakness.
I ran into a situation where a colleague had harmed my chances for promotion. First off he approached my manager. Then he brought his concerns to the department head. As a result, they asked me a series of very pointed questions. I recognized what had happened. Even though I wanted the promotion, I knew I would not get it. With this in mind, I chose to burn the house down.
Instead of defending myself, I accepted full responsibility. More than that, I provided context for what they had been told. Equally important, I highlighted the shared culpability of my rival. Instantly, I pivoted away from advancement. Instead, I sought respect. That is to say, I was direct and up front. I did not flinch from my mistakes.
Neither of us received the promotion. But when the next opportunity arose, my manager pushed me through. Choosing to burn the house down put me in a better spot.
Burn the House Down to Move On
Let’s move away from business. Even though our personal lives can be a source of great joy, some relationships grow toxic. At the same time, we feel loyalty to those people. Coupled with the natural aversion to change, most people find it very difficult to move on from a broken relationship.
The first step is to recognize when a relationship is unsalvageable. In order to understand when a relationship is broken beyond repair, one must let go of our emotions. To put it another way, you must be dispassionate. Passion drives so much of our decision making. But here it will harm us.
When you know you cannot continue, you should end the relationship calmly. But that doesn’t always work. In fact, I know many couples that break up and get back together all the time. I bet you know such couples too. In those circumstances, the only way out is for one partner to choose to burn the house down.
Burn the House Down for Revenge
Harm comes when we least expect it. Often one we care for deeply delivers it. When this is accidental, we can forgive. When our friend harms us on purpose, we may want to burn the house down instead.
Revenge is messy. The old proverb (a future post to be sure) is that when one sets out on revenge, dig two graves. In the long run, revenge makes little sense. But tactically, exacting revenge ensures our enemies know attacking us comes with a price. That alone is worth the costs of a pyrrhic victory.
In any event, your choice to burn the house down is serious. Whether you need to pivot, move on or make a point, this strategy will work. But overuse limits its effectiveness. As a result your action becomes capricious. Take the time to consider all possible outcomes. In doing so you ensure that you will be respected and feared. Most of all, no one will ever try to burn the house down around you. The cost will be too high.