Being like Ali: How the World’s Greatest Boxer Can Help Us Become Less Reactive When Arguing

I write blogs because I can’t write a book. I can’t write a book because I can’t imagine having spent so much time on something only to have it be ignored. A fear of rejection? A disdain for time wasted? The avoidance of sensing inferiority? It’s all of those. Over the weekend, I had a conversation with my client about his perpetual tendency to argue; he agreed with the label ‘intellectual bully’. Interestingly, he’s often right; his reasoning is sound and the proceeding judgments are valid. Yet, he never wins over his interlocutors. I have a hunch that they, at least sometimes, refuse to concede, as they know how much he needs to win. What a way to live…

Most of us crave recognition. We rely on the world to judge our value. And my client needed others to validate his intellect. Authors want their books to be best-sellers; musicians and actors strive for various awards; and athletes search for gold. In a desperate cry, we beg the world to acknowledge our efforts and, more importantly, our greatness. And, it’s little more than a trap. What if, as with my client, the world refuses? What if they can’t or won’t see us? I struggle with this question when I consider writing long essays or even a book. It’s less about the patience involved than the potential rejection. Sometimes, and it pains me to admit this, I don’t even argue when I know I’m right because I’m afraid of being wrong.

Returning to my client, as I usually do, I told him a story. I recounted the ending of the film Ali. It ends with Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman, the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ aka the boxing match of the century. Throughout the fight, Ali is backed into a corner as Foreman assaults him with a litany of blows. And then, before it ends, the film’s theme arises faintly in the background. The audience and Ali seem to know what’s likely coming as the tide is abruptly turned. Finally, Ali lands a devastating blow! And as the referee begins to count, Ali gives Foreman a look from above, indicating that he knows it’s over and he’s already won. I told my client that story because I wanted him to cultivate that same level of wisdom and confidence, to essentially know when he’s won.

The expression on Ali’s face symbolized an insight that didn’t need validation; at that moment, Ali just knew it. So, I asked my client if he believed he needed validation or if he could learn to agree to disagree, knowing what he knew. I told him that an argument is lost once the dialogue devolves into anger and/or fallacious reasoning (i.e. using logical fallacies), both indicating that the individual on the other side of the debate has already lost (people tend to get angry when they’ve run out of good points in order to end the argument and scare away the threat to their self-image). He asked how one could know that he’s won when the other isn’t willing to concede. And I said, “Think about Ali; do you think he needed the referee to count out Foreman?” He cultivated his own inner official. That’s authentic confidence!

Fundamentally, arguments diminish as we mature because many of us develop a similar internal referee; we can tell when we’re victorious. An individual who lacks confidence in his or her judgment and/or ability to think will instead search for a concession. The problem is that, most of the time, people aren’t willing to accept defeat. So, as best as you can, be like Ali. For me, my blogs are a step toward that. Maybe, one day I’ll write a book and won’t care so much about its critics. Maybe, I’ll simply know how much it’s worth.

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