Tag Archives: commitment

#20: Taking Its Toll

Since I began this blog I felt as if I am under internal compulsion to write something. This is mainly due to the two-posts-a-week commitment that I made (well, I narrowly missed the deadline last week, but it was OK as I was occupying my mind back then by learning new stuff online). An implicit premise for my activity is that I write about assorted topics, or I write about a topic that I may have dealt with before but with new twists. After all, as I said before, ’tis better to write something than to write nothing. Let’s call that Rule #0: the rule that separates a writer from a non-writer, and from those pseudo-writers who clutter their heads with ideas from coast to coast, without writing, just like pouring water into a pitcher and then never drinking from it at all.

This self-determined compulsion to write takes its toll in the midst of swarms of other routines on my schedule. However, this has a positive virtue, at least. It requires me to have something to write about, so I have to pay attention to the outside world every time. Everything around has to be a ready subject for exposition, analysis, synthesis, or just plain contemplation. If nothing outdoors seems fitting to write about, then there are always the inner workings of my mind, or anyone else’s mind. There’s my blog – or any random Internet article or any hitherto unread book. Anyway, I have to write or else my commitment takes a blow and a rift opens allowing a discordant voice to strike me (“Hey, isn’t it that you broke your rule last time? What’s wrong with breaking one again, if it needs be?”)

If it needs be – we frame all rationalizations as needs, and in the end the distinction between them disappears. For instance, we fancy a car that we can’t afford, but sometimes we buy it on the grounds that our work requires us to wander from place to place, that everyone else in our field of work has a car, because commuting is tiring, and so on, without assessing whether these are the real reasons. As long as they linger in our heads, there is the danger that these bogus reasons may evolve into real reasons – and we may pass them to the next generation, thereby perpetuating errors. Thus it is imperative to block all back alleys for rationalizations to penetrate our ears. We have tips for resisting temptation, but it’s quite hard to counterattack rationalizations.

There’s an additional bonus that forcing myself to write can give. What if everything looks dreary – as if peering at anything outside can make you more bored than you are right now? What if the sight of blank paper or a blank Notepad page, far from instilling a motivational sense of dread, despair, sadness, angst, fury, or fright at the nothingness in front of you – emotions that can drive you to clear out the white from any field where words and signs should be – what if the sight of blankness makes you fall asleep instead? In this extreme case, the problem isn’t my senses; the problem may be the current social, economic, political, or educational systems that bore people and then provide us with a shell to withstand the boredom, all without helping us find out why boredom has to be there, and suppressing our native childlike ability to ask why such is the case and what if another case is possible all the while.

Writing helps us clear our thinking to realize all these. Remember these two asking prompts for all time: “Why?” and “What if?” “Why” stimulates precise thought while “What if” gives a wide berth to imagination, and both are effective against general stultification bombarding us all over the place and the willing but uncritical obedience so characteristic of the way most adults – and most of their children – live with today. Who knows, most of your creative ventures will revolve around these two questions.

If all we have are a bunch of dull ideas and perceptions, then there are two simple tricks that can ease the boredom and may actually help generate useful ideas. One is to think of the opposite – a “What If?” variant. “What if I assume that the opposite of an idea is true?” The opposite need not be an antonym; something starkly different is enough. The minimal logic behind this is that the opposite of dullness is richness, so we will do well to train our minds to consider opposites. The second is to combine any number of ideas to form new ones, and then think about the newly formed ideas. If thinking about a pencil bores you, think of a pencil with wheels. Ridiculous, but if it helps you think better, then so be it.

To stay in action you have to be in action. A tautology, but true nevertheless.

In passing, I want to say something about a possible congruence between the notion of “writing something is better than writing nothing” and the “puwede na iyan” mentality, a thought process common for Filipinos who want to take a break after finishing something instead of improving a concept in increments. The two notions are different. “Writing something is better than writing nothing” serves as an idea-cooker; it’s more like writing in a journal to keep you practiced and to keep you loaded with ideas that may be useful for any future writing project. In that case, there’s no “puwede na iyan” involved because there is constant improvement, unless you find out that you write badly but take no steps to improving the way you think and scribble. “Puwede na iyan” suggests a definite stop, an aversion to “What if?” thoughts about the future; in contrast, our notion of writing just to fill blanks, while fine in itself, clearly has future value.

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#9: The Perils of the “Just This Once” Mentality

As the great Henry David Thoreau said before: “Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.” Let us take a pause from grueling discussions of the cybercrime law and look into our own lives.

Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School and an expert of “disruptive innovation”, wrote an essay named “How Will You Measure Your Life?” (an expanded version can be bought as a book). In that essay, he mentions one of the episodes that changed his life, for better or for worse.

When he was studying at Oxford, he was a player for his varsity basketball team. His team breezed through the season without any losses, and then a few games later, the championship game arrived. The problem is Christensen vowed that he “had made a personal commitment to God at age 16 that I would never play ball on Sunday”. He continues his account of that episode:

So I went to the coach and explained my problem. He was incredulous. My teammates were, too, because I was the starting center. Every one of the guys on the team came to me and said, “You’ve got to play. Can’t you break the rule just this one time?”

I’m a deeply religious man, so I went away and prayed about what I should do. I got a very clear feeling that I shouldn’t break my commitment—so I didn’t play in the championship game.

In what ways could you have done something contrary to your principles but didn’t? Or – more commonly, what did you do that was contrary to your principles because this “just this one time” itch is tickling you – er, nagging you – on your mind? And why?

Marginal Benefits

Many of the actions that we do against our self-determined principles have marginal benefits.

Suppose you get a higher score when you cheat in an exam – you gain.

Suppose you committed a crucial mistake in a game, for example in a basketball game where you saw yourself step out of bounds but no one else saw it – you and your team gains.

Suppose a colleague invited you to falsify an expense sheet so that you can nick off a little more cash – you and your colleague gains.

Suppose you put off doing any work you have – your mind gains some short-term relief from the harsh reality of the work.

All of them are pesky “one-time” deals. On some moments we decide to to do something against our well-entrenched principles – just once. We figured out that setting our principles aside may be worth it, this one time, because we gain.

However, as Christensen shows us, all such gains are devilish bargains.

Every action against one’s own principles, whether because of your quest for some gain or because of peer pressure, ultimately makes it more likely that our mind is going to justify similar actions in the future, even if the initial action comes with a bond of “just once”.

Suppose you cheated in a test once and you found the experience of getting a higher grade a euphoric buzz. But that may also give you the impression “hey, cheating in a test isn’t so bad after all”, and from then on this voice will always seep into your ears for every test you take. This turns worse once social proof blends into the mix; if you become compelled to break your own principles because there is social pressure around you, you may begin feeling that it’s OK. After all, everyone’s doing that, too, so you can enjoy their company.

It’s always best to delineate your principles during a time where you are beginning to solidify your own values – preferably during adolescence, where you get greater social exposure and you increase your knowledge about the world. That is also a time when you can still think about your values mostly on your own before you do paid work, grind, and absorb the work culture. You may also assimilate some peer culture elements from your schoolmates, but reflect on them crucially; you wouldn’t want to adopt something under the pretext of something as unreliable as peer pressure.

Not Ever, Not at All, Never

Then be sure not to break the most crucial principles you have laid out for yourself. Along the way, you can refine them or even change them, but don’t cling to them only with the intention of letting them go because of an additional few units of comfort.

Holding on to “not playing ball on a Sunday” is particularly fickle, but it’s wise that Christensen held on to it; it showed that he is capable of staying sturdy. That can come handy in the midst of more tempting, higher-stakes ethically ambiguous situations.

He knew his own values, and you should, too.

If you cheated in today’s forgettable test, no matter how trivial it is, think of the graver acts you may commit in the future once you set your brain to “OK-ing” successive acts of dishonesty.

If you deliberately kept mum about your out-of-bounds step in a basketball game that you won, then think of the regret that may pile up once your brain starts “OK-ing” the notion that your career can be composed of such progressively serious chicaneries. You may see yourself as a competent player, but an opportunistic one who was an athlete first and a person second.

If you agreed with your colleague that you’ll both falsify an expense sheet, then pretty soon, as both of you get higher up in the corporate rank, your brain may be “OK-ing” baser ideas such as misrepresenting ideas to the public, deceiving your business partners, and ultimately ruining a company. Think Enron. Think Worldcom.

And are you going to procrastinate “just this once”? Then you’ll probably find yourself “OK-ing” future procrastinating; that sets off a lifetime of delays, until that one decisive delay that you’ll regret to your heels.

You can think of many similar cases from your experience

Christensen tells us: “The lesson I learned from this is that it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up.”

Think of every small act as a gateway act. Small acts of goodness lead to big acts of goodness. Small acts of wickedness work similarly. Every single act can be a small step on the stairway to heaven or an implicit pact with the devil.

Forgo the hunt for little pleasures obtained from the bending your own principles, even only for a bit. (But here is a question I want to leave open: How would you treat people who force you to forsake your own principles in exchange for convenience of whatever sort?)


P.S. Reviews of excerpts, such as above, will be a staple of this blog. Developing a point of view about an excerpt can turn into a blog post in a few hours. Moreover, they can lead to the reading of whole works where the excerpts came from.

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