Tag Archives: stand up

#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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#3: The Ten-Minute Standing-Up Draft Activity

I propose a method of blogging that not necessarily guarantees that your posts will be good, but that you can make a post all the time: the ten-minute standing-up draft.

I mean the standing-up part literally, that is, making a blog post draft while standing up. You can try doing it in your own home and ten minutes later, assuming that you have ideas in your head, a draft will be cooked, steamy, straight from the boiler. This approach has been effective in brainstorming ideas. In Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Switch, they recall a sort of meeting that requires that its participants stand up. Here is a statement from General Pagonies, the featured general, about the uses and benefits of that meeting:

Early on, I discovered that making people stand up keeps the ball moving at a quicker pace. People speak their piece and then quickly yield the floor to the next person. On the rare occasion that someone starts to get long-winded or wax philosophic….people shift from foot to foot, fidget, look at their watches….

Now it is obvious why some blog posts are better made while you stand up. It makes sure that your mind is working at full blast. You won’t have the luxury of a comfortable chair (or worse, an ivory tower to make you “wax philosophic”; you will sense the urgency that the mere act of standing up gives you.

Perhaps that why comedy is best made standing up, rather than sitting down; when you’re up, you have to give it all or not, you either succeed or not, and you don’t have time to ruminate on the consequences. But when you’re sitting down, you have time and the inclination to over-analyze; time should have been better used on spilling your jokes rather than on thinking about whether your people will laugh or not.

Paul Graham wrote: “An essay is something you write to try to figure something out. Figure out what? You don’t know yet.” There are words that will inevitably emerge from your mind if you can see some words already. So put some words in place. You may never know what your point is until you have written something down that approximates that point. Stand up and write something like: “A tree and a fly and a live wire….” While standing up, you’ll feel the pressure to write anything, which is a better thing than the opposite condition. In ten minutes, you’ll have a draft about a tree and a fly and a live wire, plus some more oddball characters and some more vividness to boot.

I’m not suggesting that all of my posts will turn out the ten-minute way; only my drafts. I’d still write for protracted periods of time if I feel like it. I’d still write sitting down or lying down. But the ten-minute standing-up routine can work wonders. It stops procrastination. It pushes me onto the racetrack. It leaves me with not many options other than running forward. And with words on paper I can grow more words, so if I feel that I can go on beyond ten minutes, then that’s fine too. If not then I can always put my draft away for future use, but it’s likely that it serves as a springboard to another idea you may want to write about.

I’m also not suggesting that you cook up a stew of a post for ten minutes and then deliver it to your blog while steaming. Such a write-up should still undergo the scrutiny of revision, for you to find out whether your posts are too rushed or not and also to find ways to smoothen the rough edges. The ten-minute stand-up draft routine just ensures that you are writing something rather than not writing something; the revisions ensure that you will write something well rather than write something bad. (And revisions may take more than an hour to finish; it may even take days.) Remember, the medium involved is not the human voice, but the text, and some flaws forgivable while speaking may look awkward in written form.

The art of blogging – and writing, ultimately – is an art about not wasting someone else’s time, including the writer’s. Given the prevalence of busted blogs in the Internet and bad books, standing up while writing and giving yourself ten minutes for the task is worth giving a try. Just improve your post later on. Meanwhile, write on.

P.S. My first three posts are about blogging. Perhaps I should write about something else the next time.

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