How to Compete on Tilted Ground
As Adam said to his spouse in the Garden of Eden, “Happy New Year, Eve!”
"To win your battles, never attack uphill."
Sun Tzu's Art of War 9:1:4
In the mental landscape of competition, tilted ground is defined by existing mental hierarchies, where some positions are favored over others. This ground is much more common than the level playing fields discussed earlier. In some sense, all competitive arenas are tilted because we all judge each other based upon our existing opinions. In this article, we will discuss the importance of this “tilt” and how we use that fact to improve our position.
As I said in one of my earliest articles, we can only make decisions by comparing things. Those comparisons create mental hierarchies, that is, ordered lists of our preferences. By nature, a hierarchy has few at the top and most at the bottom. I prefer my wife among all the almost eight billion other people on the planet. Am I being unfair to the billions in putting her above the rest? How could any human being exist any other way? These individual opinions are the starting point for all the other types of hierarchies we see in society: business, political, cultural, and so on.
How do we rise in these hierarchies? There are only two ways. We are either pushed up from below and around us or pulled up from above. Either many people support us in a small way from the base or those fewer above us support us in a big way. Two billion users shaped the Facebook hierarchy, keeping Zuckerberg at the top, but Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft was promoted by Steve Ballmer, the previous CEO, and, I suspect, with the support of Bill Gates, the company’s founder.
Why do others support us? Because they choose to. We offer something they desire. We can call this their “self-interest,” but all of us, every conscious human being, can only see and evaluate our world from our own perspective. We each choose by our actions what is important to us personally.
We must examine existing hierarchies to determine the “tilt” of the ground. Since we all want to improve our positions in life, we want to move up, against the tilt. This means we must either fight or use the “gravity” of existing preferences. Those who just drift in life, seeking the support of no one, have a sad tendency to slide down in the opinions of others until they get stuck somewhere.
The skill of listening is partially devoted to learning the tilt of the ground. We can only start from where we are, but there are many different hierarchies around us. We must choose where we want to compete, which hierarchy we want to climb.
When we start our own business, we look for the support of the many. When we do, our positions rise, built on this base of support. Each new small business creates its own little hill. And that small business, with its little hill, can be seen as part of a larger mountain made of all the businesses with a share of the market in which that small business competes.
To climb existing organization hierarchies, it is usually easier to succeed by winning the support of a few key decision-makers or influencers above us, in other words, our bosses.
High-probability opportunities can be defined by our ability to move to higher ground, rising on support from below or being pulled up by support from above. In no case can we win the high ground by fighting with those above us. We cannot fight the shape of the ground.
In the psychological space of competition, we have to think about the mental landscape of a territory.
Broadly shared, common views determine the general tilt of the ground.
Different groups can have different opinions just as there are different mountains within a mountain range. On relatively flat ground, opinions are varied, without any opinions clearly dominating the others. To know the lay of the land, we must know the tilt of the group in which we find ourselves. We must understand its strong prejudices and how they distinguish that group from surrounding groups.
Mass communication often hides the true tilt of the ground.
Modern media and social networks work to promote their opinions about what is important. We cannot trust mass media when it comes to determining the tilt of the ground on which we personally stand. We must listen to those who are around us, above, and below.
Trusting just those close to us can also mislead us about the tilt of the ground.
We tend to associate with those who share our opinions. Those who are close to us, our friends and family, can support us, but our fate more often depends on the kindness—or self-interest—of others.
The higher people rise, the more important their opinions tend to become.
In physics, this is called potential energy. In psychology, it is called "authority bias." When something is raised physically, its potential energy rises. As people rise, they win more authority within their organization, but the power of authority is a two-edged sword. With it, those with more resources can do more, but, because of it, more is expected of them by others in the hierarchy. This is why most hierarchies are built on competence. In these situations, a few people's opinions are counted much more heavily than the opinion of the crowd. Under the influence of authority bias, the average decision is heavily influenced by few rather than by the many.
Most competitive terrain is what Sun Tzu described as “mountains,” hierarchies of preference, creating hills and valleys. Improving our position is always a fight against gravity. We cannot do this without the support of others. We need to understand both the slant of the ground and where our opportunities lie. Can we win support from those above us, who have the most power, or can we win support from those around and below us, who are more numerous? When we have support from those below, we tend to create a new hierarchy, but we usually need the support of those above us to rise in existing hierarchies.