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Want Not, Want Not

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At the risk of sounding trite, the key to lacking nothing is not wanting anything. Of course, this is not practical or within the realm of consideration for most people in an affluent society. How do I make it applicable to you? Simple. This is not an all or nothing game — bet it all on one throw. Life is about a lot of choices, most of them small. Each day, you can and do make many choices based on whatever scale of value you use. I am suggesting nothing more or less than that you use freedom as a scale of value. Ask yourself, “will I feel more free if I eat this bagel with cream cheese or if I don’t?” You decide. Like most people, I find comfort in food. But by making choices like these consciously I learn to change my habits toward freedom. For me, that tends to mean a certain level of frugality. I walk when I could take a cab. I pass by lots of delis on my way. This saves me a lot where a sandwich and water sets you back twelve bucks. Keeping my money and managing my weight makes me feel more free and is the product of many such trivial seeming choices turned over time into habits.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. Being in debt in any respect enslaves, so I avoid it, including obligation to people to whom I may owe favors. Moreover, I don’t want to give up information cheaply because I broke bread with someone with whom I should be on my guard. This goes double for after work drinks and events. I don’t covet tickets to the big game. I also don’t hang out with co-workers any more than I have to in order to keep up appearances. I have found this is not much at all. The people who really want to party aren’t interested in me and will quickly find another companion – preferably one who buys them drinks.

I don’t gamble. The house always wins in the end. Publicly run lotteries are a tax on ignorance.

Does this mean that I am a paragon of virtue who never puts a foot wrong? Anyone who knows me would swiftly debunk this silly idea. Generally, saying no thanks to a lunch and to cocktails makes me feel freer than otherwise so that’s how I behave most of the time. A salesman I once knew told me the three B’s, namely booze, bucks and broads, could be used to manipulate almost anyone. That’s why I haven’t consumed alcoholic beverages in fourteen years. I just would rather not be someone who is easy to get to. Some would say it is precisely freedom to indulge that interests them. If that is how you define freedom, be my guest. I encourage you to keep it separate from your job and invisible to your coworkers as much as possible.

Just saying no can help with anything from buying shoes to overeating. If you can’t moderate your appetites you will never be a free person and will always be easy for others to control. Overly self-indulgent people are at best suckers and at worst, seriously ill.

Now what does this sermonette have to do with being a successful employee? Everything. Your personal power is based on self-discipline. The more you work it the more it grows. Having it, it is easy to keep but easy to lose and hard to win back. It is hard to build up in the first place, but worth it. The fundamental rule is know how to say no to yourself and you will be empowered.

Try this exercise. Keep a daily diary for one week and write down each choice you make based on answering this question: “will doing this make me feel more free?” At the end of the week you may find that you spent more, drank more and had more sex and that the choices you made were the opposite of what I am generally recommending. If so, good for you. I doubt much if having done this for one week you won’t feel like you are taking more control of your life and your decisions. I suspect that most people who keep doing this will not take too many more weeks to agree that they wound up saying no to many purchases, many possible debts and at least a couple of potentially compromising situations. They may also have said yes to some things that make them feel much better about themselves.

Some may say it’s not enough to save hundreds or thousands of dollars, lose ten pounds or just feel cleaner about their behavior. They don’t view any of these as winning the jackpot.  The cash value of self-discipline is that the more nobody can use, underpay or over-leverage you; the more you know how to say no; the stronger you are. But just when do you say no at work?

You say no when:

  • You are being asked to do things that you consider unethical.
  • The work cuts into your life in an unacceptable way.
  • The work is not worth what you are being paid to do it.

Once you have had plenty of practice saying no to yourself, as well as saying yes to what you truly value, you will be prepared to say no to the CEO if the need arises. You may lose your job as a consequence, but you can lose your job any day and this way you are far more likely to say, “and I’d do it again — and this is a great opportunity to move forward.” If you know what motivates you as well as how to say no, you may be well on your way towards being a liberated employee.

The best time to say yes is when doing so involves a win for both you and the person asking. Whenever I said yes to my son asking me to read to him we were both winners. What did I give up for this? Maybe a few minutes of sleep and that’s it. This decision doesn’t diminish freedom. It was mutually beneficial and didn’t make either of us a victim. This is what I mean by a win-win.

Unfortunately, examples like this one, simple and mundane though it may be, are hard to come by at work. A ruler for saying yes is, “If I inherited millions, or was told I had six months to live, would I still do this?” If the answer is no then you are spending your time badly.

On the other hand, you may feel you must choose your battles and right now it is easier to comply. Be warned, this is a slippery slope. What starts out seeming so practical and reasonable in short order becomes a habit or a requirement. Here are rules for accepting win-wins.

Say yes when:

  1. There is no apparent negative consequence for not doing so or because it feels right.
  2. The other party is asking for something that will give you a chance to grow or show your stuff in new ways or to new people.
  3. You aren’t very busy.
  4. The person asking is someone you trust and enjoy working with.

Avoid saying yes when:

  1. You don’t trust the person asking you or it feels wrong.
  2. Doing so will be construed as a demonstration of your wanting something

I have found that the most potent way to deprive myself of advancement is to create the impression that I needed a personal favor from anyone “over me” or indeed that anyone is “over me.” The more I can focus on work output the less I have to worry about politics. I was told by one supervisor that my problem was that I cared too much. I have also been told that perception is reality. Perception is only reality in certain occupations and contexts and this is a lousy maxim to live by. As Ayn Rand said, it is not perception that keeps a commercial airliner aloft with you in it. Most people can’t let their judgment be clouded by thinking that actual content doesn’t matter. I think office politics is inevitable and one must master it or get burned. That doesn’t mean you have to spend ninety percent of your time on it.

Thoreau said he mistrusted any enterprise that required a new suit of clothes. I second that. Not only is it a way of making the outcome depend on false pretenses, it subordinates the shopper to the enterprise in a way that is unseemly. The will to discipline oneself to do well ennobles. On the other hand, the determination to achieve at any cost is always a devil’s bargain – one often begun with the debt one incurs to one’s tailor. This does not mean I object to wearing a suit to work. What I object to is making decisions based on such platitudes as, “clothes make the man.” People who were guillotined in France in 1789 expressed this sort of sentiment. Those folks looked good at court but that didn’t save their skins during the regime change.

The philosopher Spinoza said he wanted to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one and to envy no one (Ethics, end of Part II). To live in such a way is to be truly powerful and as free from want as is possible during this life that Shakespeare described as a dream rounded at both ends by sleep (The Tempest, IV, i).

By vitruvius1

Andrew Talbot

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