Don't Sting Like a Bee

A honey bee landing on a flower

Muhammad Ali’s “…sting like a bee” strategy is metaphorically flawed. It certainly worked well for Ali, but the real world isn’t a boxing ring. Here, it rarely makes sense to sting like a bee.

Yes, bee stings are painful, but unless you’re allergic to them, a bee sting is nothing more than a brief annoyance. But it’s much worse for the bee. Let’s assume that we’re talking about a honey bee: these bees have barbed stingers that tear off and become lodged in the victim’s skin, causing the bee to die. 1

If stinging someone kills you, why would you ever do it? For a bee, stinging is a natural instinct: a bee stings when it feels threatened, releasing pheromones that will alert other bees to the impending danger. I think humans unconsciously behave much in the same way, but instead of dying when we “sting back,” we face unwanted consequences that could have been avoided with clearer thinking. We’re almost always better off not being too reactive when provoked. It’s better to take time to calm down, think things through, and then make the next decision instead of instinctively lashing out and striking back.

We often run into moments that test us mentally and physically, but the best thing to do is to persevere and to push through. Human nature is surprisingly flexible and adaptable: when presented with a barrier, we tend to find an ingenious way around it. Doing anything other than trying to make forward progress would be counterintuitive and counterproductive. Rather than instinctively blowing up, be it at ourselves, at someone else, or at a particular situation, we’re better when we transcend, when we accept what we’re given, and take things in stride.

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama described this sentiment well:

My first duty as Commander-in-Chief is to defend the United States of America. In doing so, the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.

I propose this same framework for managing a business: when provoked, don’t sting back. In a free market, one of the only guarantees is that there will be competition. If a new competitor enters your market or if an existing player unveils something that looks remarkably like something on your roadmap or something from your existing feature set, it doesn’t make sense to freak out and panic. It also doesn’t make sense to reactively change your game plan and become extremely defensive or aggressive. Don’t let someone else dictate your strategy!

Instead, it’s better to take a moment to sit back, evaluate the situation clearly and level-headedly, and then decide what to do. If a change in your product roadmap makes sense, then by all means make that change. But don’t change everything just because you feel threatened. Don’t sting like a bee. Be smarter, play by your own playbook, and keep going. That’s how you’ll eventually win, by being better, not by being the fastest to respond to conflict. 2

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be spontaneous, it just means that you shouldn’t be rash. There’s a minor distinction between the two. Be spontaneous on a day-to-day basis by experimenting with and trying new ideas. Surprise and delight your customers when they aren’t expecting it. This is all fine. But when it comes to dealing with conflict and competition, don’t be too rash in your decision making.

This also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be confrontational, it just means that you should pick your fights wisely. There’s a time and place for “wartime” and “gathering the troops” in the “war room.” Most of the time, I’d argue that it’s not your battle to fight. 3

So sure, float like a butterfly, but don’t sting like a bee.

  1. The stinger only falls off when the victim’s skin is thick enough. So bees can actually sting other things (like non-mammals) without dying. 

  2. Paul Graham writes, “Startups don’t win by attacking. They win by transcending. There are exceptions of course, but usually the way to win is to race ahead, not to stop and fight.” 

  3. For the most part, I agree with this tweet from Joel Spolsky where he writes, “can we stop with the ‘war’ metaphor? It’s a job. programming computers. That’s not what wars are.”