Remember way back when, when you could reminisce about the good old days without some wise guy coming along and telling you that much of your memory is just a fantasy. Yeah, that way back when never existed.
Humans have a tendency to look on the past with warmth and even longing. This is true when reviewing history as well as when reviewing our individual experiences. You have probably heard someone say something like “My family had it rough when I was coming up, but we always had each other.” The person then goes on to wax wistfully about how they were desperately poor, surviving paycheck to paycheck and occasionally living in the car or a shallow ditch, and yet they were ever so much the richer for how their nightmarish existence drew them together.
I am indulging in hyperbole, of course, but you recognize the pattern. As we move away from the past, we tend to start smoothing the rough edges of memory. Sometimes, our new perspective allows us to see things we could not see before or recontextualize our experiences or recorded history to understand them better. But too often, we are just selectively editing the real picture. It is like observing a rock, first up close with all its coarseness and jaggedness and then at a distance as a smooth surface. I don’t know if it is because our memories are inherently faulty or we just have a desire to idealize the past, but having no training as a psychologist, I haven't the expertise to consider this phenomenon from a clinical standpoint. Instead, my approach will be more prosaic and pragmatic.
Nostalgia is a longing for a version of the past that is imbued with a great deal of sentimentality. Of course, there is much to admire and even desire about the past, but nostalgia erases the undesirable or clads it in a shiny new veneer. Certainly, we need to comprehend the past to better understand our present and even our future. The problem with nostalgia is that notion of sentimentality, though, which is like seeing that rock from across a field and admiring its flawlessness despite an awareness that up close we would easily recognize its coarseness, cracks, fissures, edges, and pockmarks.
Nostalgia works much the same way, and it is fraught for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is simply wrong. It is a distortion and misapprehension of our past, and if we cannot grasp the past, we certainly cannot fully grasp the present or anticipate the future.
Second, in eradicating or editing the reality of the past, nostalgia can lend itself to delaying or even denying righteousness and justice. Those who long for a greatness in America that allegedly marked the period of the 1950s and early 1960s peer through a narrow scope that eliminates the oppressive circumstances that minority populations of every type and women lived under. To pretend otherwise is just not factual.
Nostalgia, though, smooths all those sharp edges like a cultural opioid. Our nostalgic minds tell us that white men back then were all epitomes of masculinity, which they lorded over their paragons of femininity, who in turn enjoyed carefree lives. Blacks, in this fantasy, occupied some space in the background, but they put up a noble fight for justice, which everyone except really bad people supported. All this is absurd, but, worse still, it necessarily casts any present-day fight for justice as wrongheaded, counterproductive, and quixotic.
Third, nostalgia is inherently pessimistic. The hyper-nostalgic phrase “make America great again,” implies three falsehoods about time: that there is some sort of greatness endemic to the past, that we no longer can experience greatness, and that we are on a path that leads us even further from the achievement of greatness. This last falsehood is the nature of nostalgia, to idealize the past while implying that the future is bound to be bleaker. The “again” in “make America great again” may promise some ability to recapture past greatness in the future but only by fabricating a past that never existed outside of febrile minds. Left to its current path, the “carnage” that the proponents of making America great again claim marks the present can only culminate in a dismal future. The phrase itself offers not hope but a sense of a lost cause, a noble defeat that must be revenged.
In reality the past is, like the present, neither all or largely good nor all or largely bad. It is a mix. People love depictions of, say, eighteenth-century Europe as a world of fancy clothes and beautiful people, but whatever beauty and nobility existed then was offset by the reality of the age. The massive issue of class and the disregard for most life aside, even the upper crust had no running water. Until you are willing to conquer the matter of the close stool, spare me your desire to live in the past. If you doubt me, read Jonathan Swift’s satiric poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (1732) for a fine example of the difference between illusion and reality, and remember, “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia, shits!” And if you are up for even more fun read Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s rejoinder “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to write a Poem called ‘The Lady's Dressing Room’” (1734), which offers an alternative perspective: "You'll furnish paper when I shite." To be transported to that time, as one romantic television portrayal fantasizes, and to thrive, you would have to start by radically adjusting your attitude about basic hygiene.
My apologies if my tiny foray into eighteenth-century hygiene left you a little nauseous, but any queasiness you may experience reminds me that nostalgia itself was first identified as a disorder among soldiers who were suffering a sort of amped up homesickness. Nostalgia is a malady.
Nostalgia, because it erroneously rewrites the past, leaves us wallowing in error, injustice, and pessimism. Nostalgia is a stew of retrograde fecklessness. Although we are all prone to nostalgia to varying degrees, those who wallow in a fanciful past in lieu of facing current realities and their consequences undermine society’s ability to forge a new and bold future. Our current lot will not improve, howsoever fleetingly, unless we squarely and honestly face the past and present in order to foresee or even forge the future. Learning the past, the true past, stripped of fantasy and undo sentiment can help us see through the romance of lost causes and such. Only then can we achieve true unity in our future.
Several of my recent blogposts have offered examples of behaviors, particularly among bosses, that are considerably less-than admirable. Now, I am a firm believer that one should acknowledge, own, correct, and learn from one’s mistakes as a matter of course. Doing so requires strength of character and mind. In contrast, dodging mistakes is a mark of cowardice and fecklessness. Still, it is not enough to learn just from one’s own mistakes. There is another rich vein of error to mine for lessons: the mistakes of others, particularly those that manifest debilitating habits of mind or reveal adverse patterns of action.
Chronic error can be a great teacher.
It stands to reason, then, if positive paradigms do not always simply transfer one-to-one from person to person, then learning from and applying negative paradigms will not necessarily be a matter of just doing their opposite. Just because x is wrong doesn’t necessarily mean that negative x is correct. Life is way more complex and much more fun than that.
After all, his belief is one of our most powerful and enduring cultural assumptions: that work, any work, is inherently virtuous. I started imitating him. Soon I too was too busy for anything. I came in early and stayed late, just like him. I worked on holidays and fretted about taking vacation, just like him. Think about that. I stressed over taking a vacation. How perverse is that?
I lost perspective.
Over time, I started to see that while he was a hard worker, he was miserable and, worse, all his striving actually produced little of great value. I then reflected on what I was missing in life due to to my budding workaholism and how my own efforts generated little of value. In fact, after a certain point, value decreased the more I worked. I resolved to make better choices and started prioritizing more judiciously. Soon, although I was working less, my output improved, as did my outlook on life.
The behavior and habits of my boss had served as a wonderful negative paradigm, but if I had just done the opposite of him, I simply would have stopped working. Instead, I took what I learned from his errors and applied it to myself, adapting it to my style and the needs of my position. To be sure, I worked plenty hard, but I also began, as they say, to work smart.
As this story suggests, negative paradigms can be just as and even more instructional than positive paradigms. They not only offer models to avoid, but they can give one perspective that is not readily accessed otherwise. Negative paradigms offer powerful insights when we perceive how things are done wrong and can inspire us to reconceive how to do them right, but negative paradigms are only one tool for self-awareness and improvement. My own practices have evolved as I have paid heed to a mix of negative paradigms, positive paradigms, candid introspection, and research to determine how to best achieve my own goals while adhering to my principles and values. Applying each of these elements, these tools and paradigms, is critical to formulating an effective approach to one’s distinctive success. In this way, even the negative can be a positive.
Bad is stronger than good, which is why the bad so often triumphs over the good in our daily lives. Perhaps you disagree. I used to. Perhaps a simple analogy will sway you. What is easier, building a house or knocking it down? Building a house demands organization and stability. Knocking it down demands strength. Building a house necessitates skills. Knocking it down necessitates none. Building a house requires materials to be gathered, processed, and assembled just right. Knocking it down requires removing and smashing those materials. Building a house means applying artifice and creating order. Knocking it down means giving into chaos. Building a house will take a lot of time. Destroying a house will take far less time. Even after a house is built, if one does not constantly maintain the house, it will fall down all by itself eventually. If building a house is good and knocking it down bad, then bad is stronger than good
You can make a similar analogy about raising and neglecting a child, writing and deleting a poem, staying healthy and succumbing to illness, climbing and falling off a ladder, establishing the truth and spreading lies, or any manner of acts of creation, wellness, integrity, or progress versus its annihilation.
By contemplating the relative strength of good and bad, I am not trying to pick a theological fight here about the nature of evil and of virtue, and I am no Manichaean. There are many nuances I will not consider here, nor will I define “good” and “bad.” Instead, at the risk of being overly reductive, I will simply attempt to demonstrate that on a pragmatic, daily basis, bad is stronger.
To be bad is to be primarily a destroyer, a destroyer of hope, of progress, of success, of order, of minds, of lives, etc. To be good is to be primarily a maker who generates and reinforces those things. Good requires one to be ever vigilant and to stand up to the destroyers. Since being bad is so easy, it is also enticing. Destruction, close up, can masquerade as progress—at least you’re getting something done--and because being bad is enticing, it tends to attract many adherents. Most of us are only occasionally bad, but a critical mass are dedicated to it. Consider the insurrection and attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. Because there was relative ease of access, insurrectionists readily breached the building and wreaked mayhem in short order. Securing and cleansing the building in the aftermath requires far more effort and time. Securing and cleansing our democracy will demand more still. To be good means eschewing the allure of easy acts of destruction, which by itself is an exertion that requires much energy. Worse still, one can be tricked into being bad while it is exceedingly unlikely one could be tricked into being good. Notice I wrote "being," not "doing."
It is easier to break than fix, to stain than wash, to kill than grow, to forget than learn, and to deny than own the truth.
You may conceive some counter examples of when destroying is actually an act of good. For instance, tearing down a dangerously dilapidated warehouse may be a great benefit to a community. Nevertheless determining the goodness of an act is a weighing of the means and the ends. If the end is inherently good (removing a hazardous eyesore), then the act (tearing down a dilapidated warehouse) must be considered with that end in mind. Destroying in such a case may do no harm, so it is likely an act of good. Still, it is not enough to mean well, and it is rarely if ever acceptable to do bad in order to achieve a positive.
Being bad is easier than being good in part because there are many ways to be bad while there are far fewer options to do good. Let’s consider the global pandemic. We know that taking certain precautions, such as wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding gatherings, and even closing workspaces are, until full deployment of the vaccines, the only tools we have to slow this plague from sweeping over us. Some, though, have said all along that we should just let the disease take its course since it kills a mere 1% or 2% of its victims. I am not talking about Covid-deniers here but those who advocate doing nothing so that we will develop “herd immunity.” Given the math of allowing even 1% of the country’s 327,000,000 people die (a fun arithmetic problem for the kiddies, by the way) and the fact that many still live with persistent and even disabling symptoms long after recovering from the infection, why do so many find the inherent evil of mass death and disability so enticing? Sweden tried just letting the disease run its course, by the way, with disastrous results. Nonetheless, in the moment, it is just so much easier to do nothing, to pretend that this invisible scourge will not affect us much and will eventually go away, to deny that all those deaths and all that suffering are not too high a cost. So, strip off your mask, attend a large indoor gathering, risk getting Covid, and endanger others. It is easier in the short run to roll the dice and deny the potential consequences than to face reality and take personal responsibility.
In past crises, such as World War II, Americans reportedly came together and made many sacrifices in the spirit of unity. One could argue that America’s collective resolve and the defeat of the Nazis and their allies was worth the horror of war. I won’t argue otherwise. But if it were not for the defeat-of-Nazism part, would all that accord alone have been worth the casualties? Of course not. The Second World War is an extreme example, though, as is the movie Failsafe. We rarely encounter such starkly fraught choices. Even so, with Covid, as we surpass the number killed in the Great War, I can detect no similar universal self-denial for the common good, far from it. Some sacrifice much while others carry on as usual, unwilling to so much as wear a mask in public. Indeed, the disease has, in many ways and in convergence with other factors, brought out the worst in people. Similarly, while I will be forever grateful that the U. S. and its allies stood up to and defeated European fascism and Japanese imperialism, I would be lying if I did not see the subsequent harm that also arose from the means of global war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands, such as the spread of totalitarian communism, the rise of the military industrial complex, the paranoia of the Cold War, and other evils, some of which plague us to this day.
"So, what about head to head, toe to toe, mano a mano? Which is stronger, good or bad? Since we are speculating about essential qualities and not beings, it is impossible to have them contest directly one-on-one. Good and bad can only confront one another through actual entities, proxies that are never essentially good or bad themselves, so it is difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless, logic dictates that bad has all the advantages. Even psychologically bad wins. If ten people compliment you and one offers a minor criticism, which do you remember? College professors lament amongst themselves that no matter how many positive reviews they receive from students, a single negative one will be all they can focus on. Sometimes, one negative review will stick in a professor’s craw for years despite otherwise universal support from students. Our brains are wired to favor the bad.
Physically, it is the same thing. While aging has some positives (I hope), most individuals long to escape the inevitability of decrepitude in order to retain the vigor of youth. As time progresses, everything deteriorates and everything passes. Assuming robust existence is good and decay and destruction are bad, we can see how bad will always conquer. But, there is renewal, you say. For every loss there is a gain. Every winter leads to spring. Yes, perhaps, for now, but not over the long haul. Eventually, the sun explodes. Besides, if you are suffering and dying, the fact that someone else somewhere else is being born may be cold comfort.
Versions of the axiom that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” have been attributed to many, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I disagree with this sentiment. Not that any of us will be around to find out, but I don’t see how justice prevails on a cosmological scale. Justice is a human construct, an artificial concept that has no natural manifestation in the world, which is why we struggle with it so much. For the record, this has not always been my position. I long believed that the fight for justice could succeed once and for all, and that perhaps I would see evidence of that even in my lifetime. It gave me hope. Over many years, though, as I viewed the world through the lens of justice, I came to conclude that justice is primarily a human comfort. In fact, the only longterm outcome I can discern with any certainty is that the arc of the universe bends toward entropy. Four out of five physicists will agree.
Again, I am not making a theological argument here but a pragmatic one. And do not get me wrong. Although I profoundly believe that bad is stronger than good, that injustice is more powerful than justice, I am not callously advocating for giving into bad or tolerating or perpetrating injustice. Quite the opposite. Because bad is so mighty and because justice is so vulnerable, we must be ever vigilant in the fight for good. Each individual’s contribution to the cause for good will require strength, sacrifice, and perseverance, and collectively we can prevail if only for a while. Justice will not simply happen because it is supposed to. Justice, like good, is a concept that must be applied, reexamined, revamped, and reapplied constantly, for it is as flawed as the species that invented it.
No, this essay is not a call for us to be bad because bad is easier and because bad will likely triumph in the end. Nor is it a claim that bad is better because it is stronger. Adherents to the belief that stronger is inherently better generally also subscribe to the notion of a zero-sum game, which posits that there can only be one winner in any contest and no virtue in sharing success. As a philosophical or ethical stance, the narrow outlook of the zero-sum game warrants ruthless behavior and is conceivably a mark of inherent badness itself.
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Multiple Attributions
The television drama Mr. Robot requires one to follow plot threads and characters that have been filtered through the mind of Elliot Alderson, played by Rami Malek, a man who is, on his best day, wildly delusional. The plot consists of misdirection, hallucinations, time jumps, multiple identities, and deception, so I naturally find it extremely engaging and compelling. It is just my sort of narrative. In addition, the dialogue frequently drops shards of wisdom, for instance when season-two character, Ray, played by Craig Robinson, lays this insight on Elliot: "Control is about as real as a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow."
What is it about control? I suppose it is only natural that we want control in our lives. Otherwise, our existence would spin into chaos. But moment-to-moment, day-to-day, week-to-week control is enticingly ever-elusive. It is a bar of wet soap in your hand. The harder you squeeze the more likely the bar will shoot away. Yet, many of us persist in seeking to maximize control over every aspect of our lives and the lives of others. In the workplace, many bosses assume that it is their sacred duty to control every employee and every aspect of the job. If you have ever worked for one of these control-freak bosses, you know what a miserable disaster that can be. Most often their behavior takes the form of micromanagement or perfectionism. Whatever the case, the controlling boss eventually finds it maddening as full control slips out of grasp over and over, and, all too often, instead of adjusting to failure and choosing a different strategy, the boss tries to squeeze each bar of soap all the harder with the predictable outcome. If you have a boss who regularly says something along the lines of “we should do the same thing but just more of it,” you know you are in deep trouble.
I am not suggesting that bosses should cede authority or give into chaos, of course. Instead, wise bosses recognize and embrace the limits of control and learn to manage in the rough and tumble of daily existence and even in the midst of chaos, which we all inescapably must confront. In contrast, those who resist chaos the most zealously fare the worst in the end.
Okay, enough of the soap analogy. If you are stuck on it, go buy a bottle of body wash or a good ol' soap-on-a-rope.
Exerting just the right amount of control requires constant appraisal and adjustment, which is why it is so tempting just to squeeze harder and pretend that you will retain your grip (sorry). Some people, particularly some bosses, feel the need to get involved in everything in order “to make sure it is done right.” To shift my metaphor once and for all away from bathing products, they want to stick their thumb in every pie. But, it is axiomatic that if you stick your thumb in every pie, all you end up with is a bunch of ruined pies. It’s a simple formula, really. If you feel obligated to get involved in everything, you only guarantee that you will wreck almost everything. If you are such a boss, it is also axiomatic that your employees will find your interference demoralizing and will react accordingly.
Years ago, my wife, who is an attorney, had a boss who was precisely this kind of control freak. Stephen felt that if he did not insert himself into every detail of their work, his staff would screw it up. He fancied himself the ultimate in quality control, I suppose. Stephen was a good guy outside of work and wasn’t a tyrant otherwise in the office, but morale was abysmal. For some reason, he was particularly proud of his writing ability, which indulged in florid language and 50-cent words even when he was writing to their clients, many of whom were victims of inadequate education. Whenever my wife wrote anything at all, Stephen had to see it before it went out. As it goes, that is not a bad idea. Writing is best when you can get as many eyes as possible on it, and a good boss will check important written matter for tone or quality before it leaves the office. Still, Stephen thought he wasn’t doing his job unless he was revising heavily. No matter how polished my wife’s writing, Stephen would liberally replace lucid phrasing with tangled wording, alter punctuation, and rearrange sentence structure. My wife complained to me bitterly about it.
At her first annual evaluation with Stephen, he took her to task specifically for her writing. He chose one piece she had submitted to him, and he humiliated her by reviewing all the alterations he had made. If that were not enough, at the end of their meeting, he told her that she should take a writing class at the local community college.
Let’s put this in perspective. My wife is, in fact, a community college graduate who went on to earn a JD from a respected law school. Furthermore, she won her law school graduation award for the quality of her writing, and by the time she met Stephen, she was no novice. She was a lawyer with years of experience. Imagine someone like her being told she would have to go back to her beginnings.
As luck would have it, though, her husband had some knowledge of just what she would learn in that community college writing course, given that I had started my career in academia tutoring and teaching writing at just such a school. She asked me to look over the piece that Stephen had viciously critiqued. No surprise, aside from two small typos, her original was clear and impeccable. On the other hand, Stephen’s attempt at revising it resulted in several sentence-structure errors, distorted diction, and misused punctuation. In short, Stephen, despite a formidable lexicon, was a lousy writer, a really lousy writer. His revisions betrayed no mastery of the basics of grammar and mechanics. Simply put, he would have benefited greatly from my beginning composition course.
My wife, though, concluded that she could not win with him. While she neglected to follow up on his suggestion that she go back to school, she also stopped revising her writing. Instead, she just submitted slap-dash first drafts to Stephen, reasoning that, since he would tear apart anything she gave him, her time could be better spent on other aspects of her job. Of course, having to review her slipshod work only further convinced Stephen of her ineptitude. Demoralizing.
I tell this true story because I enjoy its irony, certainly, but also because it is a great example of the inherent failure of control-freakdom in the workplace. Stephen wanted to minutely control all the material produced by his office and did not realize or accept the fact that my wife was (by far) the superior writer. Instead of trusting in her skills, which she had developed over years, he flattered himself that he was the better wordsmith and went on to ruin her perfectly fluent documents. He just had to go and stick his thumb in that delicious pie. Worst still, certainly without intending to, he belittled my wife and thus encouraged her to submit shoddy work, which only resulted in more effort from him.
To control is stupid, to manage divine.
The deeper insight here is that the need to exert excess control is very often (maybe always) the result of ego run amok. It suggests that oneself is exceptional and that others are inferior. The truth is, though, that everyone is superior, inferior, and equal in a variety of ways. Workplaces that feature healthy teams acknowledge this fact and use it to their advantage. They encourage team members to share their abilities with one another and offset their shortcomings in order to achieve collective success. The leader of a team is not necessarily the most skilled at any, let alone all, of the team’s tasks. The team leader should be the one who is most skilled at bringing out the best in the team by striking the right balance. In other words, the team leader should simply be the one who is most adept at leading.
Now, in all honesty, I can certainly conceive of the existence of some sort of genius who is superior to everyone in everything. I can also recognize how such an extraordinary individual would be best left to perform in his or her preferred manner. This brainiac would be a paragon of efficiency, a one-person productivity machine, and must have as much leeway to perform at his or her top capacity to be as effective as possible.
Of course, my ability to conjure such a mastermind is entirely the result of an exertion of my imagination. The human imagination is a wonderfully versatile tool and allows me to envision a host of scenarios that are as equally outlandish as the existence of a supergenius master of all trades, a boss who can and should have total control. For example, I can also just as readily imagine a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow.
So, I promised in my title to let you know how to maximize control in one easy step.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.