Who Is Living Your Life, Anyway?

Monday, January 07, 2013

The title of this post comes from a question that an anonymous author asked himself during a moment of great clarity. The reason the author asks this of himself becomes painfully apparent within an essay titled, "Why I Quit Being So Accommodating". The essay appeared in 1922 in The American Magazine, and it reminds me of a quote from Scott Berkun that I once excerpted here:

One side effect of having priorities is how often you have to say no. It's one of the smallest words in the English language, yet many people have trouble saying it. The problem is that if you can't say no, you can't have priorities. The universe is a large place, but your priority 1 list should be very small. Therefore, most of what people in the world (or on your team) might think are great ideas will end up not matching the goals of the project. It doesn't mean their ideas are bad; it just means their ideas won't contribute to this particular project. So, a fundamental law of the PM universe is this: if you can't say no, you can't manage a project. [bold added]
The essay in question is quite long, but does an excellent job at several instances of concretizing the consequences of not being able to say no. Here is just one example:
... Generally speaking, we were a contented family. But always there hung over us the heavy hand of the community's unreasonable demands; and the fear of the advantage that might accrue to the rival drug store down the street if we failed, in any way, to meet the requests that came to us. We did everything for everybody, and were always in debt. Our rival, gruff old "Doc" Meadows, did nothing except to keep a clean store, fill prescriptions accurately, and charge fair prices and insist on prompt payments. Yet he managed to own a house and have all the other comforts that we yearned for but never enjoyed.

It was not until long afterward that I understood the whole truth of the matter. People never trust an accommodating man with important things. That may sound harsh and cynical, but check it up in your own experience. If you have a severe illness, for example, you turn to the busiest, most exacting doctor in town. The fact that he is busy and can't be bothered by little things gives you confidence in his ability and judgment.
Here, the author is describing his childhood with the great benefit of the hindsight that came from being passed over for promotion by his mentor and greatest benefactor.

The rest is similarly interesting and valuable, but the author's analysis ultimately suffers because he tries too hard, arguably to the point of evasion, to find an accommodation between Christian altruism and what ought to be the moral of his story: That one's life is one's own. Thus, the whole thing is interesting reading, and its message about wisely allocating one's time is clear -- but only up to a point.

-- CAV

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