When to Politely Tell Your Superiors to Go Get Bent

A true gentleman races in argyle.

A true gentleman races in argyle.

Unless you’re born really rich, you will probably spend the majority of your life trying attain more status and more power. Neither of these goals are bad, regardless of how much the high status and powerful people of the world morally disapprove when you attempt to overtake them. Indeed, you literally cannot matter without power. As such, it’s important to know how to acquire power, status and the means to rise above insignificance before you die.

The first thing to realize is that while power and status are zero sum games, prosperity is not. This realization has two important implications. First, you need to get good at spreading prosperity to your superiors and underlings. This makes you valuable, valuable means you aren’t going to get fired, valuable means you will be considered when opportunities arise. Second, you need to get comfortable looking at some of your superiors as targets, people whom you should be seeking to subtly overshadow.

This doesn’t have to be mean or nasty, in fact it works better in my experience when you pick whatever superior is the best combination of nearby and competent and, through your efforts, make them look good compared to their own competitors. You can also find weaker coworkers and do things to help them. Not only does this relieve the weaker person’s immediate suffering, it shows your superiority while building good will. You can find talented underlings and  help them advance. Not only will this build their loyalty to you, it will allow you to bask in their own reflected glory. Find underlings who aren’t talented and treat them with respect anyway. I’ve never understood why people don’t do this by default. Giving respect costs nothing and builds both debts of gratitude and bonds of loyalty with those who do not expect to be treated well. 

These are the best ways to get other people working toward your own advancement. But notice how this doesn’t work if you’re intimidated by authority. It takes courage to look at the class of people with power and think “I’m going to take your power away some day.” Arrogance, effective enough at standing up to power, won’t help you advance. The higher ups will simply squish you for being an annoyance. Only real, genuine confidence will serve you in this game.

Listening to others is the biggest single thing separating arrogance from actual confidence. It requires a certain amount of “I’m the shit” to take a criticism or challenge as both potentially constructive and no particular threat to oneself. On the other hand, confidence also requires the ability to ignore criticisms and challenges that are not potentially constructive.

Thus we reach the critical point of this article – when to politely tell your superiors to go get bent. The honest answer is that there are thousands of situations in which you should ignore the higher ups, but the biggest with which I’ve been dealing recently involve the use of emotionally powerful but logically fallacious arguments.

Let me digress for a second and tell you the history of my crappy, ugly little Daewoo racecar. When I bought the lightly crashed, $800 rust bucket with the intentions of using it as a rolling science experiment for my middle school students, my superiors at said school I should desist.

“We’ve never done anything like that before,” they said. “Parents don’t think cars are educational, especially old ones.”

I thanked these people for their concerns and promptly ignored them. I took on the risks and responsibilities for setting up the summer camp, I funded the project myself and I did my own student recruitment. Every single kid involved with those camps came out of the other side with more self confidence, a better understanding of how to put their knowledge of science to practical use and, I’m most proud of this, the realization that it’s okay to attack novel problems without fear. Even the school had something to brag about when the parents visited.

Then I took that rolling science project my middle school kids made to a racetrack. My 98 Daewoo Nubira, it is a massive understatement to say, did not fit in well with the assembled BMWs, Infinitis and Audis. A number of gentlemen, all far outranking me in wealth and status, wondered why I had wasted my time with such an inferior machine. Surely I could not be serious. Surely this must be some sort of joke. They asked that I not obstruct them as they whizzed past me and wondered if I would cover the track with oil when my engine inevitably blew up. I smiled and promised I’d stay out of the way and then, in a field where the next cheapest car was 13 times more expensive than my middle-school built crap box, proceeded to post the third fastest lap time, beating both BMWs, one of the Audis and crushing the Infiniti.

After this, I got involved with a racing team in Daejeon. Many of the people in this race team, all outranking me in seniority and influence, assured me it would make the most sense to give up on my weird ideas about suspension tuning and budget modifications, buy the same kind of cars they all owned and do all the same modifications they all did. I nodded and took this into consideration. I made jokes about how nice they were to put up with my embarrassing presence and assured them that, as a reward, I would make sure to fail in some spectacularly amusing fashion – and then I kept on pursuing my plan for the Daewoo.

This weekend we did our first time trial together and I beat the living snot out of “the car you should get instead of that Nubira” while nearly matching the lap times of my team leader’s fully prepped, not at all street legal, completely dedicated race car. While I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little vindicated, I downplayed my success and thanked them for their support.

This probably sounds like I blew the big wigs off because I simply believed in my own way, but I promise my decisions to ignore the higher ups were at least a little more sophisticated in each case. Each had to do with logical fallacies. When the staff at the middle school recommended I abandon my rolling science experiment, they were committing both the appeal to fear and appeal to tradition fallacies. When the guys at the racetrack guys guaranteed I’d get my ass kicked and should just give up, they were begging the question and relying on the mechanical equivalent of ad-hominem (ad-machina?). When my teammates dismissed claims that my car might have some advantages over their own, more traditionally built machines, they were using thought-terminating cliches and appealing to authority.

The challenge was to recognize the fallacy and separate it from the fact that, in every case I just mentioned, the fallacious arguments were emotionally compelling. That disentanglement is, in my opinion, one of the hardest things you can ask a person to do because it is so easy to either completely surrender and thus accept the fallacy or commit the inverse fallacies in which we are always correct because we become our own false authorities, our own thought terminating cliches and our own, self-generated appeals to fear.

Learning the rules of logic and mastering this balance is the key to knowing when, and how, to ignore you superiors and, in doing so, surpass them.  Good luck and, when you work your way up, remember to put in a good word for me, okay?



  1. I really like this. You have a very sharp, almost Machiavellian approach. (I mean that as a compliment.) This is one of the best blogs I’ve seen.

    1. Thank you, sir. I’m glad you enjoyed it, especially in light of your own very well written articles. Please keep posting because I really like reading your blog.

      1. Keep in touch, please!

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