The Hill You Die On

The phrases “choose your battles” and “don’t die on that hill” and “live to fight another day” are all getting at the same thing. Whatever is important at the moment probably isn’t important enough to die for.

Events happen whether or not anyone is alive, but events don’t mean anything unless someone is alive to care about them. Therefore, life is necessary for meaning. The death of life is also the death of meaning.

Venkatesh Rao recently wrote “I don’t care to die on any hill I’m capable of climbing.” He goes on to explain that it is almost always better to live to fight another day, rather than dying today. The narrow exceptions being when you are about to die on someone else’s terms anyway, or when your death ensures something massively positive.

No matter how important a battle feels in the moment, it’s probably not important enough to spend your life on. Most people get that. The part that we need to be reminded of is that any battle we are planning to walk away from probably doesn’t deserve a near-death experience either.

For example, we can argue with family at Thanksgiving until we’re exhausted, and then decide to stop. Or we can stop earlier, before we’re exhausted, because going that far won’t win the battle anyway. That way we have more resources available for when we don’t have the choice about fighting for our life. As Venkat says, “Survival is your basic job. Everything else comes second.”

This is a finite-vs-infinite game framework. Our goal is to win the infinite game and you can’t contribute much to the effort if you’re dead.

Conceptually, humans die twice: first when we physically die and again when we’re forgotten.” You have to die on a really big hill for your memory to last much past your physical death. So whatever hill you’re on today probably isn’t that hill.

In general, you should save yourself for future battles as the infinite game is a long one. The hill you die on is always ahead of you.