Who wants to live on the Real World? I’d rather live on Planet Denial

Sailors love to tell this story of a radio conversation at sea:

Yeoman: please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Captain: recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.

Yeoman: Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Captain: I am the captain of a U.S. navy aircraft carrier. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Yeoman: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

 Contrast that snippet of dialog with a quote attributed to General Johnson, founder of Johnson & Johnson, “If I wasn’t making mistakes, I wasn’t making decisions.”[1] Here’s a man who established a company with a market value today approaching $200B, who says all he did throughout his tenure was make mistakes. Furthermore, he stated this in a context about tolerance for mistakes made by others

Which is healthier?

Which behavior do some of our political leaders model? How about our government leaders in the executive branch? The CEO’s of major corporations? Listen to the major dialogs going on around you…about climate change…about flood protection across the Mississippi watershed and the central United States…the high price of gasoline, the costs of health care…about Sony’s loss of privacy data during the recent hacking incident…about what Pakistani officials knew about terrorists living and operating right under their noses. Are people quickly owning up to mistakes? Or are they stonewalling.?

For that matter, which behavior do you and I model? At work? At home? On the Metro? With our friends?

Why is it, given that so much of life is about correcting our previous mistakes, that we find it difficult to acknowledge these? Here’s one piece of the puzzle. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we’re squirming because we don’t want to confess we took the last cookie out of the jar, or whether we’re delaying a recall of thousands of Toyotas, or covering up our Watergate misadventures, we’re responding to some universal drive. Denying our mistakes to others allows us to continue lying to ourselves. But it’s a trap.

A second reason? You and I are quicker to fix blame than we are to fix problems. And because we’re that way, we figure our colleagues to be guilty of the same mindset. So why delay the inevitable? Why not shoulder any blame to be had, and move on? Last I checked, blame doesn’t weigh anything. If it proves a burden, it’s only because we’ve framed it that way in our minds.

Look at the consequences of making this commitment. They’re quite profound! If you and I decide we can shoulder any and all blame for our mistakes and misdeeds, then we’ll grow more tolerant of any real and perceived character flaws in others. When they see that in us, they won’t be able to help themselves.

They’ll lighten up. [And what if they don’t? Then it becomes their problem. Tragic. But nonetheless, their problem.]  And, as they do so, we can all get back to working together on real world problems: resource extraction; protection of the environment and ecosystems; building resilience to extremes of nature.

There’s much more to be said, but this is enough for now…especially in light of the next post, which follows immediately.


[1] From Peters and Waterman, In Search of Excellence, Harper&Row, 1982

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