It’s Fine to Hold the Line

In The Premonition Michael Lewis introduces us to a public health official from California. She recounts an experience she had while studying at Tulane University. She was recently divorced, living alone, and taking two graduate degree programs. Her life was laden with activities. However, she wanted to make her small, ground level apartment homey and appealing to others. She planted a few flowers in the outside courtyard. She took pleasure from seeing these each day. So, too, did others that walked by. She found herself swelling with pride as others acknowledged the little brightness in their day her garden brought.

Unfortunately, her action-packed schedule left her with little time to take care of things. This coupled with her absence of experience gardening led to a flower dying. Her solution was to replace it with a single, plastic flower. It blended in perfectly and nobody noticed. She continued to bask in the glory of the attention she received from others. Slowly, more flowers died. Her horticultural skill wasn’t cultivated nor was her garden. The plants perished and instead of digging in the soil for a solution she continued to, one by one, replace the real flowers with fake ones. To those walking by, the trend wasn’t noticeable. Yet, she knew inside she was living a lie each day. She knew her actions were inconsistent with the identity in which she was taking pride.

Over time the garden went from being one flourishing with flowers to one that was all fake. She continued to wear the mask of a gardener and spent time daily pretending to tend to her fake flowers. Inside, she knew she was deceiving others and compromising her integrity. She feared being found out. When friends would visit, she would keep them inside and avoid visiting the patio. One day, a friend came over and before she could stop him he went to the patio. To this day, she remains haunted by the look on his face when he touched a flower only to realize it was fake. She saw her integrity in his eyes evaporate as he saw the reality of the illusion she had let leak into her life.

Her garden taught her a lesson that she would carry forward in her life. There are some things upon which it is unwise to compromise. Little lapses of attention and failures to do the work breed bigger problems down the road. Her mistake was in taking the path of least resistance and replacing that first fatal flower with a fake. That leak led to future ones which snowballed into a slide that she couldn’t figure out how to stop. Who she was and who she wanted to be no longer connected which created internal discomfort.

Matt Fitzgerald is an exercise physiologist, author, and former college athlete. He has a great passion for running. In college, he competed as a runner. As the competition got stiffer and pressure mounted, he noticed that he sometimes gave up on himself and finished a race with gas left in the tank. In How Bad Do You Want It, Fitzgerald recalls, “In my junior year, I began to mail in my races, my false 100 percent efforts becoming an inwardly acknowledged 95 percent. I ran just hard enough that no one else knew I was sandbagging. Even so, I still had some good days—I finished sixth in the Meet of Champions in 1987—but more often I left the racecourse disgusted with myself, knowing I hadn’t left it all out there.” Deep down, internally, Fitzgerald realized that the only person he was hurting was himself. He was cheating himself of his best efforts. He was leaving something inside and not giving himself the chance to learn of what he was capable. This knowledge weakened his character. Thankfully, he became aware, in time, of this leak. He found a way to plug it such that he could improve his performances. As importantly, the experience fueled his career decision by sparking a curiosity to study how others are able to push through pain physically and psychologically in order to truly test themselves.

Both our student and Fitzgerald learned publicly and privately the words of author Werner Erhard that, “Your life works to the degree you keep your agreements.” How often have you experienced someone give you their word, just to be subsequently let down? Have you made commitments to others that you didn’t keep? Jack Canfield writes in The Success Principles, “The real problem is not that people give and break their word so easily; it’s that they don’t realize the psychological cost of doing so. When you don’t keep your agreements, you pay both external and internal costs. You lose trust, respect, and credibility with others—your family, your friends, your colleagues, and your customers. And you create messes in your own life and in the lives of those who depend on you for getting things done…They realize they can’t count on you. More importantly, every agreement you make is ultimately with yourself… and when you don’t follow through, you learn to distrust yourself. The result is a loss of self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-respect. You lose faith in your ability to produce a result. You weaken your sense of integrity.”

Part of the fun in some comedy sketches is where we see a little lie grow and grow into something that inevitably blows up in the face of the liar. In The Scout Mindset, author Julia Galef offers, “A trope often milked for comedy on sitcoms is ‘deception begets more deception.’ You’ve seen it before—the protagonist commits some minor misdeed, such as forgetting to buy his wife a Christmas present. To cover it up, he tells a small lie. For example, he gives her the gift he had originally bought for his father, pretending he bought it for her. But then he needs to tell another lie to cover the first lie: ‘It’s a necktie . . . uh, right, I’ve been wanting to tell you I think you look sexy in neckties!’ . . . and by the end of the episode, he’s stuck with his wife wearing neckties every day. The trope is exaggerated for comic effect, but it’s based on a real phenomenon: when you tell a lie, it’s hard to predict exactly what you’ve committed your future self to. Just like the lies we tell others, the lies we tell ourselves have ripple effects. Suppose you tend to rationalize away your own mistakes, and consequently you see yourself as more perfect than you really are.” If you aren’t doing your best, your brain knows it, just like Fitzgerald learned from his experience. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson write in The Brave Athlete, “Scientific studies tell us that you deceive your own brain far more often than you deceive others, you rarely know you’re doing it.”

To create disciplined decision making, high performers first get clear of what’s important to them. They determine their values, their principles. Then, they make an absolute commitment to hold the line. Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to becoming a great comedy writer serves as a solid example of how holding the line led to personal progress. Early in his career, he realized that his ability to get good would only follow consistent contributions over time. He committed to writing a single joke each day and marking his progress on a calendar. Once he started his chain of “X’s” on his calendar, Seinfeld was determined to “don’t break the chain.” His commitment was 100%. It wasn’t, to try my best or do it on most days. It was much simpler, clear cut. Just do. Daily. One joke. One x on the calendar for each day. Seinfeld is an excellent example of what Canfield observed. Writing in The Success Principles, Canfield notes, “Successful people adhere to the ‘no exceptions rule’ when it comes to their daily disciplines. Once you make a 100% commitment to something, there are no exceptions. It’s a done deal. Nonnegotiable. Case closed! Over and out. If I make a 100% commitment to x, that is it. I never have to think about it again. There are no exceptions no matter the circumstances.” It ends the discussion, closes the door, permits no other possibility. I don’t have to wrestle with that decision every day. It’s already been made. The die has been cast. The bridges are burned. It makes life easier and simpler and keeps me on focus. If frees up tons of energy that would otherwise be spent internally debating the topic over and over and over, because all the energy I expend on internal conflict is unavailable to use for creating outer achievement.”

In Call Sign Chaos, US General Mattis emphasizes the importance of getting clear as to what you hold dear writing, “State your flat-ass rules and stick to them.” Robert Greene writing of the clarity rapper 50 Cent approaches life in The 50th Law writes, “Certain things mattered to him more than anything else—maintaining his long-term mobility, working with those who were excited and not mercenary, controlling his image and not muddying it for the sake of quick money. What this translated into was simple: he would exercise his power to walk away from any situation or person that compromised these values.” Canfield learned from a mentor of his the clarity that defines the actions of high performers. The mentor had clear rules by which he lived his life. If there was to be an exception, the exception had to be truly an exception. For example, Canfield’s mentor held to a strict personal rule of not eating dessert. His only exception came when there was a full moon. If a full moon, then dessert was permissible. Since a full moon only appeared once a month, dessert the rest of the time wasn’t a temptation. The clear cut rule removed the idea entirely. No full moon, no dessert, next decision please was the mindset of Canfield’s mentor. The mentor was living what Shane Parrish, founder of the blog Farnam Street, calls “absolute rules.”

Parrish encourages us to create hard and fast rules for ourselves that we won’t deviate from. A purpose of these is to smooth our interactions with others. Too often, our intent is overrun by trying to fit in with others. For example, if we’re out for a dinner on a weeknight with friends and we say we’d prefer not to have a drink of alcohol, others may encourage us to not be such a stick in the mud and have one with us. Our decision to others seems like a pseudo-commitment and one that they almost feel like they’re helping you work around by inviting you to have a drink with them. For some reason, Parrish notes, if you present your position as a flat out rule, then people are much more willing to accept it. If instead of offering a preference to not drink this evening, you present a flat out rule that you don’t drink after 8pm on work nights, others seem to accept it and move on.

Absolute rules applied to eating and drinking can be helpful. In weight management, for example, it is much more effective to say “I don’t eat after 7 p.m.” than it is to say “I’ll limit my snacking after 7 p.m.” The latter leaves the decision undone. Pressure of choice continues whereas the former removes all doubt. No decision. Look at the clock, if it’s after 7pm, we’re done. There are no exceptions. Personal productivity absolute rules might be I don’t check emails before 9am or I don’t schedule meetings before 1pm. These are both efforts to preserve time and control your schedule from interruptions to be used for making progress on your core responsibility.  The absolute rules help both you and others understand your position. It’s not personal. Your rules are designed to help you perform. People respect those with commitment to discipline. They are less likely to give you a hard time. They will accept your position and adapt their plans. The research is clear that in almost any area it requires less willpower to stick to absolute rules.  Creating absolute rules helps. Absolute rules serve to stop small holes from developing.

Another way I’ve heard the idea of absolute rules be expressed is as non-negotiables. The folk at Admired Leadership suggest that values driven leaders use non-negotiables to define unwanted negative behaviors. Whereas values dictate and drive intended behaviors, non-negotiables are lines in the sand that illuminate undesired behaviors. Principled leaders work as hard to create clarity as to what is not acceptable as they do to define targeted behaviors. Non-negotiables can be short and straightforward like “we pride punctuality – meetings start on time, every time.” A separate example could be, “reporting deadlines cannot be missed.” The clarity of the direction coupled with swift management of infractions builds credibility and commitment to these ideals.

Where we create a zero tolerance for exceptions and hold the line, we’re reflecting not just our integrity but our commitment to something. As Ken Blanchard writes, “There is a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.” Absolute rules reflect the value we’re assigning to something. We accept nothing less than 100% in an area precisely because of its importance to us. Leaders recognize that we get what we tolerate. If you give an inch, it can quickly become a mile. It’s tough to keep a leaky boat afloat. They embrace Seneca’s idea that “There is no vice which lacks a defense, none that at the outset isn’t modest and easily intervened—but after this the trouble spreads widely. If you allow it to get started you won’t be able to control when it stop.” If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything. Do you know for what you’re willing to take a stand? Aspiring to the art of compromise is not a prize. Politicians shouldn’t be our role models. Absolute rules and non-negotiables are useful tools to help us identify when it’s unwise to compromise and it’s fine to hold the line.