Many of us face tough decisions but have never been taught how to break one down. The Law of Identity might help.
Aristotle provided one of the most fundamental laws of both Physics and Philosophy. It is a statement consisting of only three letters that has transformed my life, empowered me as a leader, and made me a better man. It is known as the Law of Identity, and is one of the most profound statements ever written, yet it is deceptively simple:
A is A.
In that tiny statement, Aristotle explains a fundamental principle of the universe, and oddly, a fundamental principle of decision-making. The Law of Identity means the universe does not exist in random order. A is A. A is never B. A white car remains the same color each time you look at it–the universe will not allow the car to be white and simultaneously black at the same time, in the same place, in the same way. A is always A.
Thanks to the Law of Identity, you wake up each morning as yourself. In a world where A can be something other than A, you might spontaneously turn into a tree, or your arm might be a duck, or you could wake up in the morning to find you are a giant cockroach… Without A is A, the world would be random and unpredictable in every way.
What A is A tells us about making decisions is equally profound. The Law of Identity bluntly says, “There are no contradictions.” Sometimes we come to a crossroads and have to make a difficult decision. The reason some decisions seem difficult is because we believe we have conflicting information. However, if we look deeper into the nature of both sides of the decision, we find one of our values or fundamental ideals is misaligned with the decision we are trying to make.
For example, I sometimes find myself having to decide if I want another cookie. I do want one, of course, but my rational brain reminds me of the dangers of over-eating (and sometimes I ignore it at my peril). I know having another cookie is a bad choice but I try to rationalize in any way I can to make it fit into my values. “I’ll just have one more bite,” I say, “That won’t make a difference” and then I devour the whole cookie, forgetting I said that. Or I might think, “Well, I’ll just work out harder tomorrow,” to justify the extra cookie–a promise I am aware I won’t keep.
The point is, I will justify the decision any way I can, rather than look at the fundamental premise behind it. At the basis of eating another cookie is a simple choice without contradiction: Life or Death? Choosing the unneeded cookie is a decision to choose its consequences–a step toward diabetes, regret, self-loathing about my body, etc. If I remember that A is A, then the decision is clear. Stopping now is a choice to live, to better my body, practice self-control, and be guilt-free. Of course, we are, most of us, really bad decision makers, so we go for the cookie.
A cookie might not matter so much, but about the choice to cheat on your spouse? We believe there is a contradiction–“I am not happy in my marriage, I deserve better, I am not receiving the attention or support I need, and I have been drinking so I can’t make a good decision now…” However, if we check our premises against the Law of Identity, the fundamental decision again becomes clear. Do you choose to have self-esteem and value your body by not giving it to a random stranger or do you choose to break the promise of fidelity you gave your partner, living a lie?
A is A.
We like to confuse ourselves by trying to ignore the fact that a decision to do something (say, spend $1,000 on a home theater system you will not remember owning in 20 years) is also a decision to not do something else (spend that $1,000 on a vacation you will remember the rest of your life). When you come to a difficult decision, take it down to the deepest, most fundamental question you can. Look at the nature of the decision and figure out your fundamental motivation for choosing–the nature of your choice. I can not say it better than my favorite hero, Francisco D’Anconia, from my favorite book, Atlas Shrugged:
“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”
Today’s lesson: Choose wisely.
Sometimes the best way to help your team is to simply get out of their way. As a team leader, my job (my actual job, not the job description) as I see it, is to be there to remove obstacles when my people believe they are stuck or being prevented from doing what I have asked them to accomplish.
These obstacles can be political–such as being blocked from having needed resources by another team’s department head; philosophical–such as not knowing how to handle an employee morale situation, or sometimes even physical–such as getting my hands dirty and helping to take out the trash or clean the back room).
This year, I realized the senior team members I lead are pretty well-developed. I am lucky enough to have a well-oiled machine of leadership. I have veteran performers that know my style, understand my methods, and are able to take any ball I throw to them and run with it. I don’t have to be there, standing behind them, shadowing them in case they slip or fall. It was oddly difficult, though, to come to that conclusion. I only recently realized I have trained them well and I am now sometimes the obstacle that needs removing.
When you have a capable and confident team (or team member), take away the training wheels.
Trusting the people I trained to achieve the results I commission from them actually frees me up to focus on (or create) other important tasks or new goals to drive the whole team forward.
When you have done your job as leader, recognize your accomplishment and welcome your most accomplished team members as peers that can help move the next mountain instead of as novices still learning to climb hills.
Sometimes the best thing you can do to help your team win is to just get out of their way and let them.
I have been thinking a lot about heroes and heroism. Many of us look up to heroes (whether real-life heroes or comic-book superheroes) but forget we have the capacity to live heroic lives ourselves. Some people, though, seem like they can not help but live heroically. You probably have a friend who always seems to know the right direction to take in a morally ambiguous situation, or someone you know will hold you accountable for keeping your word or is a person who simply will not lie. Heroes are the people we know we can count on, the ones who will risk something like looking bad to everyone else to stand up for something like truth or having integrity.
Heroes are willing to risk something to stand for something.
I think most people have some heroic traits but do not put a lot of thought into developing moral fortitude or a personal philosophy. Most of us are not intentionally villainous; we just fall somewhere in the middle. The problem with falling somewhere in the middle, though, is the default becomes a compromise. Ayn Rand, my favorite thinker and author, wrote in Atlas Shrugged, “In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit”.
We sometimes try to justify bad choices by claiming moderation–“Well, just one little _____ won’t kill me or get me in trouble” (put whatever you want in the blank: piece of cake, cigarette, kiss, etc.). The problem, as my heroic friend, Phillip, points out, is that it’s like saying “Well, just eating a little bit of rat poison won’t kill you. It’s just a little rat poison…” I think heroes tend to see things that way–putting choices in stark terms rather than trying to find the shady gray areas that allow us to get away with whatever our impulsive side fancies.
You must have a personal philosophy to think and act heroically and it can not be just the one handed to you, for example, by your family’s religion. Heroes innately consider questions of right and wrong, weigh the value and outcome of their choices against the impact the choices will have on others or the world, and then take action within the boundaries of their own moral standards. They may have initially been guided by an outside philosophy or religious tradition (“Thou shalt not steal”), but at some point they learn to internalize a moral code of their own (Thou shalt not steal because… it is unfair to take something of value without earning it).
To begin thinking heroically, you must ask whose moral code you are following and what drives your actions when faced with a question of doing the right thing? Hint: if your answer is, “I do what feels good,” then you are not making a moral judgment or following a path of heroism. This does not mean your decision is necessarily wrong, just that you have no ethical base to decide from. You are not the one in control; your feelings are.
There is so much more to living a heroic life but this seemed like a good jumping off point. If you want to be more like your heroes (hopefully, you have good heroes; I’ll talk about how to choose them in an upcoming post), then a good first step is to think about how you think about your decisions and consider what consequences your actions have on others before you take those actions.
What do you think? This is my first stab at trying to explain this, so tell me if you think I am spot on or way off or if I need to expand a part of it. Don’t forget, you can leave a comment, send an email, or respond via social media.
Or just go out and do something heroic today and tell us about it.