Pyrrhic Victories are a Waste of Time: Here’s How to Avoid Them

Pyrrhic Victories are a Waste of Time: Here’s How to Avoid Them

Not all arguments are worth winning.

Winning an argument with a friend, for instance, may mean losing that friend. To lose a friend over an argument isn’t wise. We try to avoid it.

Even when our friends are wrong, we keep quiet.

To win an argument and lose a friend is a victory we try to avoid. History calls this type of win where the cost of winning is too high that any gains become insignificant, the Pyrrhic victory.

In 280 BC and 279 BC Pyrrhus of Epirus, the Greek conquerer, won against the Romans in the battles of Heraclea and Asculum. Though Pyrrhus won, he lost key men in his army that he could not replace.

As a result, Pyrrhus became weaker after the war.

The Romans, on the other hand, was not affected. Though they had lost more men from their army, they had enough in their reserves to replenish the men they lost.

At the end of the war, Pyrrhus declared, “Another such victory and I come back to Epirus alone.”

The harrowing experience had cost Pyrrhus too much. Should the battle be repeated a third time, he would be done.

* * *

Stories of ancients teach us about human nature. Our selfish and egoistic natures remain unchanged across times and cultures.

These stories may have taken place thousands of years ago, but may well be played out today with modern characters. And they can take place in wars where not a single drop of blood is shed.

Pyrrhic wars can happen in our personal or professional lives:

Scenario 1: A man borrows US$20,000 to buy stocks, expecting them to go up.

They go down, but he does not want to sell. ‘What if it goes up?’ he thinks.

To pay the US$20,000, he sacrifices his monthly mortgage payments. The stocks keep going down for the next six months. His wife tells him to let them go.

He insists on keeping them, believing they will reach the peak he had predicted. He is behind on his loan payments.

He loses his home. His wife leaves him.

Finally, after one year, the stocks go slightly higher than his initial buying price. He won himself a small profit, but lost his home and wife.

Scenario 2: A student is in his third year of law school. He realises that he does not want to be a lawyer, but this would mean giving up his chance to look victorious in front of his family.

He wants to save face. So he continues reading law and goes to bar.

He becomes a lawyer. His family is proud of him. But he goes to work every day feeling miserable, thinking about ‘what could have been.’

The lawyer has won the approval of his family, but lost his meaning in life.

Scenario 3: A businessman wants to expand his business by cannibalising his competitor. He creates a new business arm and allocates a set amount of resources to build this arm.

As the arm develops, he finds that the resources he set to be insufficient. The arm cannot continue growing without more resources.

Wanting so much to cannibalise his competitor, he takes away resources from his other, more profitable arms and directs them into the new arm.

His profits go down while he builds the new arm.

After five years of building the new arm, he finally gets the win: his competitor dies.

But because he had pulled away too many resources from his other arms, his overall business becomes smaller than it was before.

This gives the businessman a lesson the next time he wants to go all out on a competitor: beating a competitor in an area they are good in may come at a cost that may not always be worth the win.

* * *

You have no time to fight needless wars

Pyrrhic victories have one thing in common: the net result of winning is negative.

The more you fight, the more you lose.

They are victories of ego: you fight to feel good, disregarding the consequences until you have to face them.

Fight too many Pyrrhic wars and win too many Pyrrhic victories and you may end up with so little you might as well not started fighting in the first place.

Your goal then is to be able to tell the difference between the wars you need to fight and the wars you fight only to pat your ego.

To avoid them, you must first learn to see them. Awareness is key to a discerning mind.

Know when to cut your losses

Humans become attached easily, even to things that are bad for them.

Invest too much time and resources into a project or person and you find it hard to let them go.

You think, ‘I have already invested so much in this, I can’t give it up.’

It is emotionally difficult to give up on things you have spent so much of yourself on, but you must.

Years ago in college a group member showed me a piece of her work for our project. It was comprehensive and detailed, a full 3 pages long.

But wrong.

‘Scrape it and start again,’ I told her. She looked at me, frustrated.

‘I spent a full day on this, why tell me to let it go?’ she said, almost tearing.

Though I understood her frustrations, keeping something that was wrong would not help us.

‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘we will fail if we use it.’

I felt bad, but I was not ready to let go of my chance of doing the right thing only to ice her bruised ego.

At times it is better to deal with the temporary pain of detachment than continue to live with a mistake.

The only thing to do with a poisonous thorn stuck in your foot is to remove it. Leave it in too long and you may need to amputate your leg.

Cut your losses before you suffer the future consequences of your attachment.


Accept failure as the best way to learn

We are not trained to see failure as a lesson. Instead, we see failure as personal: a sign that we are not good enough in some way.

In truth, failure is detached from self. It is merely the result of some action and can come with benefits: it gives you new information that people who have not tried the route you have do not have.

In our competitive world, this type of information can give you an advantage.

People who avoid failure have one thing in common: they are reluctant to new things. They like attaching themselves firmly with past victories.

So they do not grow. Instead, they regress.

You must see failure in way that is different from how failure is commonly seen.

Do not take it too personally. Instead, accept it as the best way to learn. This way, instead of wasting your time sulking, you can say, ‘Now I have the advantage that other people do not.’

Failed relationships show us the type of people we should avoid. Failed businesses teach us how to become better in sales, marketing or operations.

If something is meant to fail, don’t put more resources into it, trying to revive it. Instead, take three steps back and give yourself a new view of the situation.

Our stubborn and egoistic natures can sometimes make us disbelieve that we can fail. But all of us can. To err is human.

Your goal is not to avoid failure, but to see it in a different way. This way, instead of becoming crippled from it, you stand to gain a huge advantage.

Redefine your definition of success

Sometimes people continue in Pyrrhic wars because they have an erroneous view of success.

It is worth it to think beyond the victory by asking yourself:

What do I have left after winning?

If you apply this to daily life, it could be avoiding arguments that ruin relationships.

Being right is sometimes worse than being wrong.

Sometimes people focus too much on what they will get out of it that they forget how much they have put into it.

Be clear: ‘What do you really want from this?’

Never fight for the sake of fighting. Even if someone is shouting at you, if you have no reason to shout back, keep quiet.

It is much wiser to conserve resources than waste them unnecessarily.

In any fight or war, be sure of your intentions and the expected consequences. Thinking long-term is your strategy.

Focusing on the short term will give you short term benefits with bad long term consequences.

Remove impulse from your strategy. Let your enemies be impulsive, but yourself be strategic.

When fighting, ask yourself: why am I fighting? What do I hope to gain from this fight?

People who ask these questions intend to gain from fighting. The ones who don’t are acting out of their egos and emotions.

More importantly, you must ask: what do I stand to lose from fighting this?

You must not be fooled into thinking that you lose nothing. No fight is without loss.

Weigh the gains against the losses and you will have a clear answer whether to continue fighting or stop.


Pyrrhic wars happen daily. The key to avoiding them is to first be aware of them. Once you are aware of them, you can change the way you act. You can then change the consequences from bad to good.

The ones who avoid Pyrrhic wars will be able to conserve their resources for use in a setting that will propel them forward; the ones who let themselves be consumed by them will find themselves poorer even when they win them.

When indecisive, ask yourself: do I want to win because of ego? Or is there a real benefit to winning?

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