“I need a workable solution to this problem and I need it now. It has got to be realistic but it also has to spell relief and spell it soon.”
That’s the subtext for all sorts of human endeavor from finishing that project that already has you underpaid, over-budget and behind schedule, to coming up with the best approach to addressing global warming: We need it right, and we need it right now.
Just today, a friend said to me, “Yes, I would like your help thinking this project through, but on one condition. I’m already well along. I can’t really afford to rethink it from scratch.” I know the feeling well. I get it, for example when I notice, with aversion that an article I’ve written under deadline has a flaw that would require revisions I’d rather not have to make.
So we cut corners. At the gym, I see people counting reps without employing good form. I read articles by other writers who, it seems to me, didn’t follow their ideas all the way out. “All the way out” is part of the problem. It’s much easier to measure quantity of articles than quantity of thought.
But quantifiability isn’t the only issue. Expediency is driven by an emotional aversion to the disappointment of facing unexpected hard work. I’ve written about “speed-reading our critics,” reading a review or critical report with eyes that dance gingerly over the feedback like feet hoping across hot coals. All feedback–suggestions for improving things, ideas about more that could be done–feels like an obstacle thrown in your path, like you were rolling downhill toward your goal and suddenly there’s a hill you hadn’t counted on.
I know this feeling most palpably as a sensation I’ve had when exercising. I’m doing push ups; a friend happens to be watching. I count 38 with a goal of 50 and my friend who has been counting silently says “36.” My count is off his by two-two unexpected push ups more to do. There’s this surge of overwhelm that runs through my body as I adjust my expectations.
Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup
Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup
The overwhelm leads instantly to questions about my friend’s intent. Is that his real count or is he taunting me?
Judging only by that taxing sensation, the feedback feels like a put-down. His grin reminds me of the prankster’s glee as he looks through the glass door he refuses to unlock when I need to come inside out of the rain.
Straining, face down on the floor I look up at him. He’s humiliating me on purpose.
“I didn’t count two of those reps,” he says. “They weren’t good form.”
We construct, “Nickel and Paradigms,” lightweight, over-simplistic models of how systems work. A lot of our philosophical and spiritual theories seem to qualify as nickel and paradigms–hopefully-good-enough theories that often aren’t. Where they don’t match reality, we fudge or call it an exception to the rule without further refining our paradigms to include rules for when to expect these exceptions to the rules.
We want to have become experts on how things work but that doesn’t mean we necessarily want to do what it takes to become those experts. We want to be experts but since becoming one takes much more work than simulating the impression that we’re experts, we often take the latter route.
We are furious about corporate corner-cutting–BP on the Gulf, the banks, the auto companies. We have an analytical model of such expedience: Some people are just too greedy, too much in a hurry, and their problems always eventually come home to roost. That analytical model is itself a nickel and paradigm. Our analysis of the problem of expedience is itself too expedient.
It’s not just that some people are expedient; it’s at least in part that thoroughness and productivity sometimes work at common purpose and sometimes at cross-purposes. For all of us–not just the greedy few–sometimes an emphasis on immediate productivity trumps thoroughness. And sometimes the lack of thoroughness causes problems.
The climate crisis presents this problem on the largest possible scale. Nations, economies, communities and individuals are counting their push up reps and feeling productive. Then CO2 comes along and gives a different count: “You’re not as productive as you think. Your form is flawed. You’re not achieving the outcomes you want. You’ve got lots more work to do.”
Part of us wants to say, “Thank God you told us in time. Now we can fix our form before all our work comes to naught.” The larger part of us pretends not to hear, or if forced to hear, glowers at the intrusion, this unwelcome and perhaps maliciously-motivated feedback, dissing our form and recalibrating our count.
It’s not malicious, though it is a huge disappointment. Here we thought we were doing so well, such a sense of progress. Then the economy tanked, and now this.
An hour ago the house Democrats calculated that they don’t have the votes for a climate bill. Too many policy makers deciding that the climate crisis is a malicious prank. Another year without substantial progress on the worst disaster ever to beset humanity. Another year out of ten or so left before it’s really too late. Ten years is like 2000 to the present. That long again into the future and there will be no turning back.
My condolences to us all but especially to those of us under forty who will feel the full consequences of our unsustainable form.
Please watch The Age of Stupid, the best feature film on the subject.
And I hope you’ll give some thought to Disappointment Psychology-how we react to disappointing feedback. It has applications at all scales of human affairs, from those two extra pushups my friend imposed on me, to the end of life as we know it.