May 11, 2023 - Economy

Axios Finish Line: Taming our worst impulses

Illustration of a newspaper with the Axios logo and a thought bubble.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

We all wrestle demons. Mine is a fight-or-fight impulse. No, that's not a typo — the flight thing isn't in my toolbox, Jim VandeHei writes.

  • In conflict, I want to argue, prove myself right or righteous — and win, decisively.
  • You can imagine how this demon, untamed, stirs all kinds of potential trouble with my wife or with people in business.

Why it matters: The thin, fragile line between success and failure in marriage/relationships and work is knowing and then taming your personal demons.

🖼️ The big picture: I'm doubtful we ever truly conquer them fully. We hide 'em. We cage 'em. But the moment we think we beat 'em, they return.

  • I was reminded of this after the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner two weekends ago.

The backstory: Michael Schaffer, a Politico columnist, called saying he wanted an interview about my weekly Finish Line column. My initial response: Hell no.

  • I said there was no way Politico would ever allow him to write positively or fairly about Axios ... or me ... or Finish Line. (For those unfamiliar with Washington media drama, I co-founded and ran Politico, but left after a dispute over business values with the previous owner.)

Schaffer promised he was on the level, and insisted he admired the culture inside Axios — a big focus of this column. So, I bit. Our hourlong interview was thoughtful and very friendly. I kinda liked the guy. Sucker!

  • His Politico column was snarky, cynical and inaccurate. It pissed me off.
  • Just after it published, I found myself at a late-night party at the Swiss ambassador's residence, tequila and soda in hand. Matt Kaminski, the editor-in-chief of Politico, stood nearby.

Fight-or-fight kicked in. I put down my drink, put my hand on his shoulder, and told him the column was a "piece of shit" and that he should be ashamed for greenlighting it.

  • We had a spirited chat. I'm pretty sure I ended it by saying: "You are dead to me." Hat tip: Casamigos Blanco.

The result: I blew hours of my life stewing about something meaningless — then interrupted a fun night griping about it.

  • Was Kaminski really going to admit he or his boss ordered up a petty little cheap shot? Fat chance.

It did spark the idea to write this. And it gave me time to reflect on how any of us tame impulses:

  1. Spot them. You can't control what you don't see. I knew early on the same impulse that got me kicked out of high school science class (I was certain the teacher was a fraud) or disorderly conduct in college (I was certain the drinking age was too low) would get me in trouble if unchecked. You can't fix something until you admit it's broken.
  2. Understand the root. We need to reckon with what fuels our worst impulses. In this case, it's probably a mix of ego, pride (I throw all of myself into things I care about, so any attack can feel like a shot at my core being) and self-righteousness.
  3. Quit rationalizing. It's easy to convince yourself you're simply being principled and fighting for what's right. But when that same impulse is behind most of your bad decisions, try a different lens. If a habit or tendency leads to a bad result more than once, it's gut-check time.
  4. Listen to others. My wife, Autumn, and co-founders, Roy and Mike, are quite proficient at telling me to chill out and focus on what actually matters. We all need hard-truth tellers to hold us accountable.
  5. Realize your recidivism. I am a calmer, more controlled guy at age 52. I'm more disciplined and harder to stir up. But I'm still me — and my blink emotional response is to defend and debate. I kinda like confrontation. Just knowing that helps keep it in check. Sometimes.
  6. Laugh at yourself. We all need to take ourselves less seriously. We can chuckle at our glitches — as long as we're aware of them and working on them. Sometimes, you can even write columns about them.

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

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