“When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.” – Will Rogers

Prior to arriving in Washington in the 1980’s, I’d led a sheltered life and never heard this expression. But I hadn’t been here long before a friend laughed in the middle of some conversation and trotted it out for my instruction. Don’t remember the exact context, but do remember that it was sound advice for me at that moment. I’ve been targeted a number of times since – embarrassingly often!

Although the exact phrase was new to me, I’d heard the idea much earlier. Let’s go back to 1972. In that year the journalist David Halberstam wrote a book chronicling America’s involvement in Vietnam. It was entitled The Best and the Brightest. Here’s his thesis in a nutshell. When President Kennedy came to the White House, he brought a lot of bright, well-educated advisors in his train…McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, and many others. After Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson kept these advisors on. He felt confident when it came to domestic policy, trusted his instincts, and took advice from others with a grain of salt. But when it came to foreign policy, he was less at home. Intimidated by the academic credentials of this team, he deferred to them. As Halberstam showed by going into the (largely academic) background of the individuals, none of them had ever known failure. Whenever they’d almost failed, they redoubled their efforts, and eventually succeeded.

That was the approach they applied to Vietnam. When U.S. advisors to Vietnamese troops proved insufficient, Lyndon Johnson’s leaders committed U.S. combat troops – and then doubled their numbers, again and again, in a futile effort to find a winning formula. According to Halberstam, Chester Bowles was the only member of the U.S. senior leadership who warned that the results had all the earmarks of a failed policy. He was quickly marginalized by the others close to Johnson, who continued to double down.

About that same time, Americans got a second glimpse at the same lesson, in a different context: assertiveness training. Personal development experts began pushing this as an important behavioral skill in the early 1970’s. Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Behavior (1970) by Robert E. Alberti, and Manuel Smith’s 1975 book “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty: how to cope using the skills of systematic assertiveness therapy,” helped popularize the idea.

Well and good. We’ve all known those who are tragically unable to advocate for themselves. Books to help them stand up to the rest of us? Brilliant.

But guess what? Others who didn’t need that help so much bought the books as well. And as everyone became more assertive, assertiveness was no longer such a useful life-tool. The advice of self-help books began to escalate in turn. Soon we were looking at titles such as Power: How to Get It, How to Use It, by Michael Korda, which was published in 1975, which was followed several years later by Robert Ringer’s Winning through Intimidation (1982).

Today’s generation of leaders, raised on such books during their early, formative years, appear to have learned their lessons well.

The point? Maybe, if we as a nation find ourselves bankrupt, we should give up our bankrupt strategies, rather than redouble our efforts.

Here are three arenas where we seem to be in a hole, and where we might fruitfully opt to stop digging.

First, our conversations with each other. We seem to be learning this lesson when it comes to animals. Take horses. Robert Redford’s 1998 film The Horse Whisperer publicized the notion. Instead of breaking a horse’s spirit, why not use its body language and other signals, first to build trust, and then to foster collaboration? In this year’s film, War Horse, young Albert uses the same principles to train his animal.

If we can make this effort for animals, if we can court their help, why can’t we do the same for each other? Why can’t members of Congress become scientist-whisperers? Why can’t scientists become Congressional-whisperers? Why insist on seeing others as opponents instead of allies, and why find it necessary to browbeat each other into submission?

For that matter, Republicans might aspire to be Democrat whisperers…and Democrats aspire to the same. [On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, it finally looks as if candidate Romney may be scoring points when he asserts he can better speak to Democrats and independents than some of his rivals.] And more generally, whenever you and I find ourselves getting hot under the collar, angrily defending ourselves against (even unfair) allegations, chances are good we’re digging ourselves into a hole. Better, no matter how provoked, to move on and ignore the slings and arrows.

The national fiscal challenges. Here we find bankrupt strategies with a vengeance. Governments, banks, and corporations, straitened and short of cash after the 2008 meltdown of the financial sector worldwide and the more recent travails of the Euro, are cutting back. But while fiscal restraint is needed in the long run, stimulus is needed short-term. With each cutback, we exacerbate our problems. We make it more tricky to clamber out of the deepening hole.

Sustainability. Bankrupt strategies abound. Failure to internalize the environmental externalities on burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. Use of corn for biofuel. Agricultural subsidies. Failure to learn from experience with natural disasters. The moral hazard implicit in flood insurance as currently implemented. The reliance on hurricane evacuations of ever greater scope and complexity.

Looking for a New Year’s resolution for 2012? So am I. Let’s each of us make a list of the holes we’re in….at work, at home, in life. Then let’s vow to dig no further in one or more.

You choose.

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5 Responses to Bankrupt?

  1. I wonder if you saw the same sub-theme I did in what you wrote: the inability of many academics to recognize that what they think should work – isn’t. You explicitly pointed to Johnson’s advisers. You could just as well have pointed to the economists who have created many of the economic policies that haven’t worked. Or, especially, the “experts” who pushed their visions of sustainability that might make sense in some ideal world, but certainly don’t in any real world we’d want to inhabit.

    I’m not sure why this is, but I have a guess. Many of us get so wrapped up in our own little worlds – as scientists, for example, trying to go from the ticking we can hear to an understanding of the clockwork behind it – that we forget that the real world is an amalgam of all of our little worlds. Basically, a messy place where achieving balance is more important than establishing order. The failures you’ve alluded to, and many others, may signal attempts to impose unnatural order on our naturally disordered world. If I’m right, the resolution we should all make is to heed the signal and not go that way – there be monsters there.

    • William Hooke says:

      Many thanks, John. This is a valuable addition to the discussion. It’s actually much more than a comment…more like the bottom line or conclusion for the post. Couldn’t agree with you more. A badly-needed cautionary note for all of us.

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