Success Doesn’t Mean Making Enemies

October 14, 2015

At the end of last night’s Democratic presidential debate, the moderator quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s adage, “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made,” before asking the candidates to name the enemies they’ve made during their careers.

Iterations of the quote abound, such as from Sidney Sheldon (“To be successful you need friends, and to be very successful you need enemies”) and The Social Network movie’s tagline (“You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”). It’s repeated by self-help gurus.

That doesn’t mean it’s true.

It would have been refreshing to hear somebody challenge the basic premise of the claim. It’s a tantalizing mantra because it excuses our interpersonal failures as virtues. To say that success means making enemies is to believe that life is a zero-sum game, that every success is achieved at the expense of someone else’s failure. That everything is a fight. And it’s crap. People are confusing enemy-making with courage, with standing up for one’s beliefs, and that’s a false equivalency.

I posit that one can advocate for a position without making enemies of those who oppose you. Be courageous and assertive, but be humble. Call a spade a spade when you have to, but be respectful. This is particularly imperative for the next U.S. president, who ideally should be leading, building consensus, and forging alliances.

I’m not going to judge you by your enemies. I would rather judge you by your friends.