It’s barely Sunday and the sound of Jay-Z’s Big Pimpin’ chimes through my room at 3:30 am. For a brief flash of a second I think that I mistakenly set my phone alarm, realize that it ain’t so, and then reality hits me; I signed up for this. Then my second alarm goes off, and my third alarm. It was summer, and I had back-up alarms. While all of the other kids were at camp eating s’mores, playing laser-tag at the mall or asking their 21-year old brothers to buy Budweiser for them, my fate looked quite a bit different.
I worked on weekday afternoons with the exception of the Sunday Paper that had to be delivered by the crack of dawn at 5:30 am. The newspaper company would deliver a stack of unfolded papers that were fresh off the press, right to my door. I’d spend an hour folding them and securing them with a rubber band. My hands became inevitably stained with ink, giving my skin a constantly dry, chalky feeling that I despised, and my eyes would get bloodshot. I rushed to deliver the papers and I was lucky to have the help of my dad who would drive me around the neighborhood; when he wasn’t around I would go by bike or by foot.
Everybody had their own preference to where they wanted their paper delivered. Some people didn’t care where I threw it as long as it was on their big, green lawn; others wanted it in the mailbox (easy, as we could just drive by and slip it in), and the most demanding of the bunch wanted it right in front of their door, which required me to walk through their yard and place it on their doormat. And yes, there were creepy dilapidated houses and vicious barking dogs and old men in their underwear waiting impatiently for my arrival.
My justification for this madness came down to money, and as a 12-year old I was raking in an incredible eight hundred dollars a month. But if I’m honest with myself, it didn’t make the mornings any easier. The real reason I didn’t hit the snooze button was because the social cost was too high. I’d have to explain why I didn’t wake up in time to my parents, get yelled at by my boss, and follow up with apologetic phone calls to the hundred people that would be robbed of the glorious morning ritual to read their paper.
There’s no such thing as a vacuum
The time I accidentally slept in and frantically rushed to deliver the paper on Sunday was the worst day of my life. I had broken the social contract and had to face the personal guilt, along with the added consequences of being late. From the customer’s perspective it was the first breach of trust and one that I could not make again. And I didn’t. If repeated, I would have been fired.
It taught me a not-so simple lesson — no, it wasn’t “don’t be late,” but rather the more implicit realization that our actions are never in a vacuum; we are interdependent with other people and the world around us. Whatever I decide to do, or not do, will have some sort of impact on those around me. That could influence their emotions, actions, and in turn influence me, too. It was painfully easy to see this, not waking up on time, not folding the paper properly, not placing the paper in the right location; all these had clear, linear cause-effect relationships.
I was reminded this lesson time and time again — in my responsibilities to friends, school, and my full-time job. Fortunately, I had established good habits and gained this experience early on. Sometimes I forgot, but the early lesson in life made it easy to jump back on the saddle.
This sense of accountability and connection with those around us was more obvious when we lived in small villages. If I broke a promise to my neighbor, I could be shunned by the group, and my reputation would suffer tremendously; this would in turn shut me off from opportunities (food/mating/climbing the social hierarchy).
The practices, rules and punishment for breaking serious rules (stoning, death, exile) seem inhumane to us today, but they sprung from a common source. That is, we evolved in small communities where trust was paramount; as the saying goes, it takes 20 years to build trust but only a second to lose it.
When the size of cities swelled, urban life created more opportunity for detachment — cloaking our actions, intentionally or not, behind the sheer mass of people around us. Being a secluded hermit, perhaps the modern equivalent of the Japanese hikkikomori, was rare. Nowadays, people can hide. In an urban metropolis they are called cold. Veiled behind a computer screen it’s easy to be an asshole on reddit, leave a snide remark on Youtube, without consequence.
A simple phrase, like “you’re dumb” can have a large impact on the motivation and development of a young mind. People are also susceptible the other way; one encouraging phrase “anything is possible” or “just do it” can propel an individual into a positive action just as easily (just watch this Shia LaBeouf video every morning and tell me if you don’t feel more motivated). Word and actions matter, even if we don’t realize it.
It’s a complicated world
As I got older, like many I went through waves of cynicism, rebellion and aggressive atheism. The more you learn about how screwed up the world is, the more you realize your impact on reducing the world’s suffering is minimal — so why bother trying? That train of thought goes straight off a nihilistic cliff. It’s easy to give up on pursuing goals, become angry, resentful, and retreat to a miserable life with no friends. That’s easy. That is called being a loser, in the truest sense of the word.
If only we could all just go back to the good life of being paperboys, perhaps it would make our lives more structured and somehow meaningful. Ahh, if only life were that simple. But it’s not, and most of us aren’t paperboys. When there aren’t obvious or direct consequences to our actions we can find ourselves at the top of a treacherous mountain about to be pushed down ethically slippery slopes.
The most pernicious cases would be the type of person who Nassim Taleb refers to as the fragilista — no, not a barista, a fragilista. He defines this as “someone who makes you engage in policies and actions, all artificial, in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects potentially severe and invisible.”
It’s the doctor who prescribes a statin pill to help you without disclosing their poor track record despite not fully understanding how the drug works; the economist who creates a fiscal policy with zero skin in the game, and the company who throws a million plastic straws in a landfill with no repercussions. These are all people who could harm you (and society and the environment) if they’re wrong or careless.
They aren’t (usually) purposefully malicious, but rather individuals acting in a complex world. They don’t register the impact they’re having since they are not directly in touch with the negative repercussions; other times they have bad incentives, aren’t paying attention, or suffer from a severe form of cognitive dissonance.
Other times, it has nothing to do with that person. It’s the system. And there’s not always a simple answer in a complex system. For example, we can’t blame the wealthy for not solving all the world’s problems. The billionaires can’t throw money at global issues and make them disappear, contrary to what you might believe. For all of the philanthropy of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, why haven’t we been able to raise the global extreme poverty rate from $2 to $4 per day? They have donated enormous sums of money. Unfortunately, there are multiple, intertwining cause-effect loops that make it hard to do this (is it capitalism, politics, economics, infrastructure, culture, religion, geography?)
It can be disheartening to think of how much further we have to go (although we’ve come a very long way!), or about the mega-corps that are doing more harm than good. The good news is, there is no government conspiracy to keep you down or steal your money — the world is a complicated place, and we’re all caught up in various systems.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t take more individual responsibility and that doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways to do things. Perhaps by starting with ourselves, appreciating this complexity, and making an effort to pay attention to the immediate problems around us we can in turn make a greater impact. A wise Aristotle that lived by his principles did a lot more to change the world than thousands of Occupy Wall Street protesters that weren’t totally sure why they showed up.
No rules, no life
Imagine if I wasn’t accountable to anyone in case of my failure to deliver the paper; if there were no repercussions at all. I bet you that my 3:30 am alarm would never be set. The main reason I was able to stick to my paperboy job was simple — I had an incentive to be good. It was neatly structured for me, albeit very strict, which made it effective, and I had no room to go unchecked — also, it was hard to game the system as a paperboy.
The further we move away from a rule-driven, interdependent job, life or system with clear cause-effect relationships — from being paperboys — the more room there is for bad incentives (or lack of incentives/unintentionally stepping across ethical boundaries) to result in serious moral transgression. An intimate relationship with no boundaries is bound to be abused. A workplace with no accountability is sure to implode. Giving bad advice to strangers when you have no downside risk is sure to cause harm.
You see, it’s pretty basic, but in order to thrive we need structure, organization and rules. These rules don’t have to be written on a stone tablet sent down from God; perhaps they are implicit. There’s a reason we still refer back to the works of Greek philosophers and Enlightenment thinkers; there are fundamental, timeless lessons that we’ve discovered about the way we operate. We should heed the wisdom of our ancestors — they are, after all, the reason we’re alive.
The proper incentives, along with a healthy dose of self-awareness, can drive us to be our best selves, and keep us in check so that we’re at least not being bad people.
Jordan Peterson describes this eloquently in his book, 12 Rules for Life.
“This is life. We build structures to live in. We build families, and states, and countries. We abstract the principles upon which those structures are founded and formulate systems of belief. At first we inhabit those structures and beliefs like Adam and Eve in Paradise. But success makes us complacent. We forget to pay attention. We take what we have for granted. We turn a blind eye. We fail to notice that things are changing, or that corruption is taking root. And everything falls apart. Is that the fault of reality — of God? Or do things fall apart because have not paid sufficient attention?”
The reason we know this is because we’ve seen the opposite — we know what can happen when bad systems and bad ideas run amuck. They attract tyrannical leaders and spread like a virus, leading good people to commit unspeakable acts of evil. It is precisely because we are capable of evil if put in the wrong situations with bad ideas in systems with no accountability, that we know what’s at stake — just look at most of the 20th century.
The Moral Compass
According to Freud, the superego is our moral compass; the part of our mind that helps to keep our primal impulses and everyday behavior in check. The superego is thought to develop around the age of 5, in response to — rules! The restraints and limitations that we are exposed to externally, by our parents, pre-school and society at large, they gradually become internalized until those rules become an aspect of ourselves: the superego.
A person with a superego that is overdeveloped will be crippled by shame, and would be extremely unbending and judgmental of themselves. A person with little or no superego — if we take the example to the extreme — is a sociopath.
The picture is complex because your behavior represents an interaction between 1) the rules that I’m referring to here; present-time, self or externally imposed (like being a paperboy); and 2) the rules that we encountered around the age four or five that led to the development of our particular psychic structure.
Depending on how you were raised and where you stand you’re going to be starting on a different square in the game of life. Your genetic lottery, childhood lottery, geographic lottery, friend lottery put you in a unique situation — you may start on Boardwalk but others aren’t so lucky.
For the sake of our discussion, I’m going to assume that you are not running around naked wearing nothing but white Nike sneakers and wielding a bloody chainsaw (at least not on your good days); that is, you have a decent amount of empathy, self-awareness and are operating as law-abiding citizen within society, but feel you could do better.
How to Be More Like a Paperboy: A Mental Model
The job of a paperboy is easy to grasp, but the real world and our jobs and our lives are usually more complicated. But it provides a starting point, a poster child for thinking about cause and effect. When you use the paperboy model as a lens to see cause and effect on the world, you can be a better, more thoughtful person. In turn, you can decrease your negative impact on the world, and increase the chances that things go well for you and for others without tragically fucking up people’s lives and not even being aware of it.
1. Being Nicer At Work
When we are following the rules of some organization or relationship, but the rules/incentives are bad (in a money driven company or toxic leader/colleague), we also become bad by association — bad people and bad systems bring out the worst in us.
If you can, resist at the beginning. If you’re about to join a company or a new team, be highly critical of the people you’re going to work with before joining. If you suspect there might be toxicity in the company, save yourself the pain and just don’t join.
But once you’re in it, moral corruption can take root several ways. Your promotion and rise to power gives you a thrill and thirst for control that draws from others and goes directly into your back pocket; it causes you to be cut-throat; or worse, you are completely oblivious to the negative impact you are having. You treat others like shit.
Nursing, for example, can be an extremely demeaning job. A study of 130 nurses found that 90% of them reported being verbally abused, victimized, ignored or treated condescendingly. In this case, the assholes were typically the doctors. Did the doctors know they were being jerks and did they know that by being jerks, ignoring the nurses caused more patient error, resulting in physical harm to society? Apparently not.
Of course you don’t have have to be that high on the totem pole to be the abuser. It reminds me of the marketing managers that ran Facebook ads for drug rehabilitation centers who were making boatloads of money using an insurance related tax incentive loop under Obamacare; it just required them to aggressively and unethically recruit drug addicts.
Most of them knew exactly what was going on but chose to do it anyways. The money was good, but money alone is not a good incentive to do good, as years of social psychology studies have shown again and again.
You should stop and ask yourself these big questions, right now, whatever job you are doing:
- What effect does my job have on the world?
- What effect does it have on other people?
- And, can I live with that?
In the case you don’t know how your job impacts the world, your next mission is then to seek out clarification. Everybody is on the “rocket ship to the moon,” the G-forces are squishing your face, eyes watering and everyone is beaming with excitement. Maybe the rocket ship is headed in the wrong direction; maybe there’s a big leak; maybe you’re headed straight for the sun. Or maybe you’re just a frog in a boiling pot.
In his book The No Asshole Rule, professor Robert Sutton shares a couple of antidotes to “asshole poisoning” to those who suspect they might be infected:
- Reframe. If you find yourself competing with others in a toxic or ego-fueled manner, just let it go; a little competition is fine but when taken too far can skew your perception of reality and what’s important, affecting your mental health. Don’t replace numbers with people.
- Seek feedback. Do a 360 degree review with your team and company and make it anonymous. What are others thinking of you? You’ll find out quickly if you’re an asshole.
All that said, what’s interesting is that those of us who have jobs that are causing more harm than good develop ingenious ways to defend against that knowledge. Those who would otherwise come across as caring, empathetic, “good” people still sleep at night despite knowingly contributing to the inevitable demise of our social system (I suppose we all do this, to some extent, but some definitely more than others).
What defense mechanisms are we using to get to that far-reaching state of cognitive dissonance? Rationalization and denial are certainly possible answers. How then, can we overcome this defensive denial/rationalization? Often all it takes is asking the right question.
The next question you can ask yourself, then, if you have some inkling that you may be doing even a little bit of harm — moral, psychological, physical, ecological, financial or otherwise, is as follows:
“If I know that my job is having a negative impact on the world and/or those around me, what am I doing to make myself feel ok about still doing that job?”
The answers aren’t always clear cut, and the further we are already down this rabbit hole the more cognitive dissonance might have removed us from reality. I suspect that if most people seriously asked this question there would be far less people in finance, tobacco, advertising, or tech companies that are working on projects with largely money driven aims. As Elon Musk says, there’s far too many smart people working on unimportant things.
Next: “Why am I doing this job? Is the job a mean’s to an end?”
If you feel your job is meaningless and can’t find any justification for why you’re doing it, then why are you doing it? A stepping-stone job can be used as justification for momentarily not doing the best you can do, or having a questionable job to make some money in order to do “better” later. But the longer you stay the harder it is to leave, so don’t wait too long. Ripping off a bandaid only takes a split second, and you’re not the only person that’s put in their two weeks. As Tim Ferris says, the word ‘someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.
Now, although it’s a good start, quickly asking yourself these questions isn’t enough. Often our motivations are contradictory and hard to pinpoint. I suggest you write these questions down and stare at them for a while. Schedule a “time to think” in your calendar, by yourself, for an hour a week, and ask the important, tough questions.
Take actions in the workplace, like seeking feedback. It’s only by being deliberate that we can start to face what we’ve been putting off for so long.
2. Being Nicer in Life
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race”-the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” — David Foster Wallace
When we lack proper incentives, routine, or structure and don’t create our own incentives, we can slip up pretty easily. This leads us to negative feedback loops, despair and less success in life, and even harm to others. This doesn’t mean we’re terrible people, it just means we’ve simply forgotten to pay attention. It happens to the best of us, and has been happening for a very long time.
Accountability for ourselves means we put ourselves first.
Work is not life, life is life. Time is not money; money is money and time is time — you won’t get the latter back. We take care of ourselves, our bodies, our minds, and take time to reflect and pay attention to what we’re doing with our lives. Practically, this means creating good incentives for ourselves. Good incentives include waking up at the same time everyday, scheduling time to exercise, spending time with friends and family, and even planning a yearly to challenge ourselves (climbing a mountain, running a marathon, writing a book).
Accountability to others means that we don’t give bad advice.
Around the same year I was a paperboy, my friend and I bought a couple of cheap plastic skateboards from Walmart. I came up with the bright idea (not having yet learned my lesson from being a paperboy) to skate down one of the biggest asphalt streets in our town. Half way down the mountain the little, plastic wheels gave out and our boards swerved uncontrollably sending us both flying into a nearby ditch. Bloody knees and bruised elbows, we tried in vain to hide our tears. Excitement can turn into exuberance and into fanaticism — the blind leading the blind straight into a pit.
But hey, we were just kids having fun, and it’s a tame example. It gets much worse when you give a friend (or stranger) bad financial advice, health advice, or relationship advice, adamantly stating your opinion as it was the one and only truth.
A humbling fact comes from studies in psychology that have found that the way we form beliefs, which goes like this:
We hear/read something → we believe it → later, we might look up evidence to verify it, but usually we don’t.
We quickly form beliefs and note that we rarely take step three. This makes many of our beliefs almost always one-sided; we haven’t spent hours researching or thinking about them. Thus if you’re excited about an idea, talk about it, but be careful about saying “you should definitely do it!” The default should be to be considerate, polite and not jump to give critically biased advice.
When you do find yourself in a situation where you could potentially harm someone — psychologically or physically — think twice before giving them advice. Ask the following questions:
- If I say X, what impact will it have? If I do X, what impact will it have?
- What consequence could it have on the person, or people, and could it cause them harm?
- Can I live with those consequences?
Carefully consider these before making a blind suggestion, and instead of giving someone an answer (do x or y), one approach could be to show them your approach with the stipulations and caveats that will inevitably arise avoiding words like “you should” or “that’s 100% the case.”
The most recent example I have is when friends ask me whether they should invest in cryptocurrencies. Because there is little downside for me if they lose all their money, I don’t tell them, “just do it!” Rather, I emphasize seriously that they could go broke and if they insist on buying, then only to play around with a small amount. I then suggest several books and resources to learn more about trading and so forth.
Leading by example, being clear about our principles, and then living them out is much easier said than done; but it’s probably better for us to figure ourselves out first before trying to help those around us. That is, put our oxygen mask on first, lest we pass out and can’t help the person next to us.
This leads to my final point..maybe we should clean our rooms first.
Unless someone asks me if smoking crack is a good idea, I’ve given up trying to convince people, not only because I’m bad at it, but because honestly, for the big decisions, I cannot take into account that person’s reality — I never respond with a definitive answer when someone says “tell me what I should do.”
That said, we can still be helpful to others and share our stories (which is what I’ve attempted to do in this essay). You’ll find that life is a lot easier, less stressful, and more peaceful when we’re not trying to push our ideas, or pretending like we have all the answers to other’s problems (or complex systems)— before we change the work place, our friends, or the world, perhaps we should figure out our own problems first.
As Jordan Peterson says “…can you even clean up your own room? No. Well you think about that. You should think about that, because if you can’t even clean up your own room, who the hell are you to give advice to the world?”
In other words, we need to get our shit together first. In doing so, we can be models for others, and we can be more focused and pay attention to the actions we’re taking — so eventually we can save the world, or do whatever it is we want to do.
It’s not surprising that Marie Kondo’s minimalist philosophy on decluttering has had such a big influence on the West recently; her book is more than literal, it’s metaphorical for all of the baggage we hold in life and how much further we have to go. And for the record, I’m still trying to clean my room, and it’s getting a little bit tidier day by day.
We all know to “do onto others as you would have them do onto you” and that giving bad advice, breaking commitments and taking advantage of others is bad. This is usually not intentional, and we’re usually good paperboys — most of the time. Other times, we forget to pay attention.
Ideologies are not born in a day, and bad habits evolve over time until you wake up hungover at 4pm, soaked in vomit, wondering what the hell happened. Or worse, maybe you just realized that you’re making somebodies life miserable with absolutely zero repercussions.
When our lives or jobs don’t provide an avenue to see our impact on the world or others around us and we don’t have accountability for our actions, we can become desensitized to reality, and knowingly or unknowingly, we can become tyrants; the very people we have been trying so hard to avoid.
Like many lessons, this can be easily forgotten — that we’re all connected, our actions are never in a vacuum — and can be drowned by hubris, negative media, thinking we understand things when we don’t, bad incentives, selfish pursuit of our goals and a lack of personal consequence living in a bustling metropolis — you know, those strange places where dogs are eating other dogs.
To sum it all up:
- Take a paperboy mentality — look around at how your actions affect others.
- Schedule time to think and ask yourself the tough why questions.
- Acknowledge what impact your actions will have and be inquisitive and morally and intellectually honest.
- Surround yourself by others who can keep you in check; be it friends, family, coworkers, mentors or a community that holds you accountable.
- Define the rules of the game if they haven’t been set, and if the rules aren’t good, don’t put up with it; be a dissenter, not a devil’s advocate.
- Don’t over promise on what you cannot possibly know; and if you do, make sure the stakes are high enough to not make rash decisions.
These are a few small first steps to take individual responsibility, create a world that’s a little better, fairer, and less chaotic to live in.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed, share with a friend.