Don't Betray Yourself

Friday, January 27, 2012

Full justification

“Just” is my least favorite word in the English language.

I “just” want five minutes to myself. I “just” want to make it from Alewife to Park Street without delays. I “just” want a hamburger cooked correctly, not burnt to a crisp.

Anytime I find myself saying “I just want” or “I only want”, my klaxons should start screaming. Because, when I don’t get what I “just” want, I implode or explode or unload on some schmuck.

And, you know what? I’m too old for that. I need to get control and see clearly.

I need to stop betraying myself.

Betraying yourself sounds kinda harsh

I know what I should do most of the time. Not in the “will choice A or choice B maximize profits,” or “what is 6^4” sort of way, but in the “I should let this guy in before me at the grocery store–he only has two things, and I have my full weekly grocery cart” sort of way.

But I didn’t let him in. I pretended I didn’t see him. I made a show of how efficiently I put the clementines on the belt. I glanced at my phone and sighed at the screen. I was obviously far too busy to let anyone else get in front of me. I was totally justified; I just want to get through the line as quickly as possible and get back to writing this masterpiece.

I do a lot of stupid stuff. Worse, at 39, I have reasonable self-awareness about it. Do I need to run the water while shaving? Must I reach for the sixth beer in that six-pack? Buffy fanfic…really?

I know I shouldn’t. But, I know that I can justify it to myself. I work hard. I’m good to the kids and their mother. What’s the harm of a few foibles?

Leadership and Self-Deception

The best book I’ve ever read on this topic is Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Group. It’s a short book, and I highly recommend you read it.

It’s written in story form, similarly to Eliyahu Goldratt’s novels on the Theory of Constraints. This isn’t for everyone, but I really enjoy these types of books – they’re a nice break from the standard way of getting this information.

(Disclaimers: This is published by a consulting company to generate leads; it doesn’t have Tolstoy-level character development; and it ends pretty abruptly. That said, take your wisdom where you can find it. I found it incredibly useful. Your mileage may vary.)

Here are the main points of the text:

  1. When I commit an act contrary to what I feel I should do, it’s called “self-betrayal.”

  2. When I betray myself, I begin to see the world in a way that justifies my self-betrayal.

  3. When I do this, my view of reality is distorted. I’ll overstate my own virtues and everyone else’s faults.

I’ve done all these things over the course of my life. Hell, I’ve done all these things while writing this section.

For example, five minutes ago (about 3:15 on 1/26/2012), the goddam cat just barfed on the carpet outside my office. Again. The hallway is dark. I could ignore it and then “discover” it tonight when everyone’s home. Then, my darling wife (whose cat it is) would quickly clean it up. But, I know that I should clean it up. I know that it’s there, and there’s no way to unknow that fact, or unfeel that urge.

In the book’s terms, I can clean it up (“honor the feeling”) or ignore it (“betray myself”). If I choose to betray myself (which I did), I’ll start seeing the world through a lens that justifies that decision.

A lens like this:

  1. It’s not my cat. I’m allergic to the damn thing, and I’ve been a very good sport living with it for the past eight years.

  2. We’re tearing up these rugs at some point soon anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if the stain sets a little bit.

  3. I’m on deadline, for Pete’s sake. I need to finish this piece by tomorrow morning.

Because of my decision, my entire worldview is focused on making me feel justified for doing what I want to do instead of doing what I know I should. I’m not seeing clearly.

I hate not seeing clearly.

I cleaned up the mess.

If you need me, I’ll be downstairs, with the Shop Vac.

That one was pretty easy, though. Other situations are hard.

If you need me, I’ll be downstairs, with the Shop Vac. You can call but I probably won’t hear you because it’s loud with the Shop Vac on.

I love my children, but sometimes I just want them to leave me alone. I know that in five years, I’ll miss the times when they always wanted to be around me. But sometimes.

I don’t know how much of what “I should really feel” is innate, versus something that’s been brainwashed into us over the past couple of decades. If I’m an sensitive-new-age-dad, then I’m supposed to spend every moment catering to the children’s every whim. Or not. Beats the hell out of the me.

At least this one I can justify by telling myself (and even believing it, somewhat) that they need to learn to entertain themselves, and that I need to be able to help them learn that.

We’ll see how that plays out in the long run.

That long-running hit

A worse effect from “betraying” yourself, is that you often start to see other people as objects, not as people.

I can’t prove it, but you’re probably real. You’re not an object instantiated when I enter the room and then marked and swept when I leave.

You’re not a walk-on bit player in that long-running hit, The Jason P. Butler Show.

You’re not an obstacle to be evaded, a strawman to be hated, or a bear to be baited for my amusement.

You have your own stuff going on. You probably didn’t get up this morning hoping to be belittled.

You aren’t going out of your way to be put in your place.

And this is one of the hardest things to keep in mind, and one of the challenges for every day: See every person you interact with as a person, as unique as you, with the same fundamental needs and wants.

Flipping the bozo bit

If you find yourself feeling justified in a situation often enough, it becomes part of you. I’ve seen this a hundred times or more in my professional adventures.

In the technology world, I’ve heard this referred to as “flipping the bozo bit.” Think of it like a permanent light switch. It starts off at “Not Bozo” for everyone. After a while dealing with someone, you might flip the switch to “Bozo.” It’s really hard to flip that back in your head. And, from that point on, you’re never able to see that person clearly.

Engineering thinks marketing is clueless. The newsroom resents the technology team. The subsidiary thinks the mothership is filled with evil overlords. (Did I say overlords? I meant protectors).

And the business suffers. It’s impossible to be focused on results when you’re focused on resentments.

I’m trying really hard to get better at this. I will always identify with my tribe. I just need to make sure I’m identifying with the right tribe. There will always be enemies. I need to pick the right enemies, and remember that they probably did not get up this morning hoping to be horribilized.

The book tries to envision a business world without this type of self-deception. I’m not sure that world is possible.

Maybe you can screen for this tendency in interviews, though. I’ll need to think about ways to profile for this type of thinking. Any suggestions?

Homework for you:

  • Try to see every person that you meet in the next hour as an individual, not as an object.

  • Try to catch when you “betray” yourself. Listen for an instant “I should do this” feeling that you then decide (for whatever reason) to ignore or defy. Don’t worry about dealing with it now, but try to get a feel for when it happens and why you go the other way.

  • Let me know what happens! Leave me a comment or send me an email. I’m trying to figure this all out, and I’d love to get your perspective on it.

Have fun!

p.s., Here is a TED talk by one of the leaders of the Arbinger Institute, who wrote the book. It’s worth 20 minutes when you have the time to sit through it.

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