At what point does an action or an inaction cross over from the line of cowardness to one of commonsense? This is a deeply philosophical question that I’m sure thinkers have been pondering over for generations. Well at least I thought that until a few cursory searches on Google showed me that there was very little in the way of results that match up to this topic. This made me want to explore it a little because this intersection is an interesting one to contemplate.
I will use myself as the first example. I have lots of information at my fingertips, but there are some things.. As curious as I am about them, I refuse to let myself learn. Maybe it’s the status of old friends or the career trajectory of former professional colleagues. The reality is I don’t want to know what he does for a living, I don’t know what her house looks like. Don’t forget that we live in the information age, all of these things are very easy to find out. Five seconds on zillow will let you see what anyone’s house looks like, sometimes there are even interior photos. In truth there are situations where you can’t avoid information even if you want to. I have to admit, in my case it feels a lot like cowardness. I simply don’t want to feel inadequate with my own career and life progression or shut out because I’m not in the clique any more. Emotionally It seems to be a more modern version of what we all experienced when we were kids asking that boy or girl to dance at the middle school dance. We didn’t want to feel rejected so we didn’t ask and lost the opportunity to dance. I also wonder if it could be common sense to not let myself go through a useless emotional journey that will not change the trajectory of my long standing life decisions.
Then there are the analogous situations in the professional world. We don’t apply for that job that we are only partially qualified for or we don’t have that frank conversation with the VIP about the problems in our department. Part of it is that we don’t want to get rejected for the job or that feeling of being dismissed or patronized by the VIP. Again, It’s fear of rejection just like all those years ago when the boys were on one side of the gym and the girls were on the other at that middle school dance. Maybe the conversation with the VIP will make our work situation more complicated even if someone needs to let them know. Seth Goden talks about the need to overcome our lizard brain all the time. It’s that primal part of our psyche that results in the fight or flight response by empowering base fear. I’m very familiar with lizards. There were plenty of lizards at St. Bartholomew’s School in South Florida in 1985, and I spent many a recess period playing with them.
In many instances there is a fuzzy line between cowardness and common sense. Is it fear of rejection keeping us from filling out that online job application or is it common sense of avoiding all that is involved? After all any seasoned professional understands that when we don’t have 120% of what they are looking for, we won’t get on the ‘call back’ stack. We also understand that to do the application properly takes a letter and resume which will take hours to properly customize. On top of understanding that our chances of a call are slim, we also know that there is a roller coaster of emotions associated with most job hunts. It seems common sense to not bother with all that if their is limited probability we’ll get a real shot at the job.
I think fear of the unknown as well as the practical understanding of what is understood to be true are both at play. The real trick is figuring out the mix. What is ascendent emotionally and what is a reasonable and logical action. So how do you decide if your inaction is more cowardness or more common sense? Ask yourself “what’s the worse that can happen?”.
Figuring out if your actions are based in fear or based in practicality
Let’s look at the professional conundrum of reaching over your boss to senior management in an organization to try and change a disfunction. On the practical side, most VIP’s have so much to manage in modern flat organizations that they are very unaware of the operational challenges on the ground level. They may appreciate your feedback, especially if it’s thoughtful and well considered. A little trick here is to try and position your commentary as something that will elevate your boss, even if they are one of the reasons why the systems is flawed. Sometimes not acting is common sense if the bad is really bad. Maybe your boss is vindictive, and you know you’re just putting a target on your back. What about organizational culture? If it’s a no-complaints allowed environment then you are at high risk of getting a bad reputation in the company as someone who’s difficult.
Are you more practical or emotional in your decision making? If your practical then this subject may not be all that interesting to you because every decision you make is a differential equation. You may understand that your boss may be pissed off but not enough to try and replace your skill set. If your emotional, then you have to be very aware that the lizard brain may rear it’s head when it comes to decision making. In this case you’ll worry and fret that your boss will want to get rid of you because you ‘made waves’.
Understanding your own tendency and exploring ways to mitigate it is really important. If you’re logical in your world view, then I think the only problem you may run into is not comprehending the emotional responses of others around you. For the logical thinker the emotional decision maker is nearly alien. On the flip side, if your inherently emotional in your decision making then comprehending a logical mind can be just as challenging.
Figure out the ratio of cowardness:common sense
If it’s cowardness there is no option other than to concentrate on breaking that negative behavior pattern. There are dozens of ways to do this. Even with the plethora of options for overcoming fear, the real key is to keep at it. Just like personal health, mental strength is a matter of practice. For some people it comes easy, and for others it is more difficult. No matter if you make lots of progress in this area, or your move away from fear is more limited, practice and focus will allow you to improve.
If your inaction in any area is just common sense, then don’t feel bad. In this scenario if the last three people who complained about the broken corporate system were fired, demoted, or otherwise ostracized, then Just keep your mouth shut, deal with the flaws and walk away with a whistle.
If it’s both, then that gets tricky.. At that point it becomes a risk/reward calculation. My wife and I always approach situations like this by doing a classic T chart of pro’s and con’s. This simple tool where you list the positives and the negatives out next to each other is surprisingly effective in comprehending if decision making is based in irrational cowardness or basic common sense. You could augment the T chart by using the word s”Fear of” in front of things that may be based in fear. No matter how you structure your questions about an action, getting it written down is a powerful way to come to clarity on any decision.
Another very important way to decide if it’s cowardness or common sense that’s holding your hand is to ask yourself “What is the worse that can happen?”. In my opening paragraph I talked about fear of knowing something about people that will most likely upset me. I also know that as I find out that bit of information, there is a real chance i’ll desensitize myself to it and it will eventually stop being a challenge. Maybe I don’t want to see how much my old colleague makes, but if I look it up guess what.. It goes from something I am fearful of to something that just ‘is’. Yes, there will be the commensurate bit of emotional reconciliation we all have to experience as part of the human condition, but the fear is worse than the reality. That’s how I know it’s fear staying my hand, not common sense. Ditto for anything else I am too fearful to find out about others.
I think you know it’s cowardness if once it’s over it can’t hurt you anymore. Inaction dips into the realm of common sense if the risk is high of longer term negative consequences. If I know that my old co-worker’s career is going to put me in a depressive state for months, then it’s common sense to just avoid it. I don’t need to complicate my life any more than it is, thank you very much!
The point of all this is that we make decisions to act or not act out of fear, and we make the same decisions out of a logical application of known facts. The more we do the latter, and shun the fear based decision making, the better off we will be. And that my friends, is just plain old common sense!