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The Case For Nothing

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The TSA announced this week that they are going to start being more aggressive with their pat-downs. This, in addition to the virtual strip searches they want to perform, has made me want to stop flying commercially forever.

Folks seem to enjoy this kind of abuse of my freedoms, though -- folks from all sides. When I'm in a conservative room and I complain about conservationists taking away my private property rights (or government telling me I have to buy insurance), everybody agrees. When I'm in a liberal room and I complain about the TSA or internet monitoring, everybody agrees.

Everybody seems to agree: whatever they want to do is more important than my freedom of action and my personal property. They know better than me, and they are very willing to decide that I need to make sacrifices to make them happy about something or another.

But I don't want to talk about politics. Or at least not directly. I'd much rather try to go meta and talk about general principles. What I would like to talk about is the reaction of individuals when organizations do stupid things, because I see people doing this same thing to each other at all levels of organization, from tiny teams of a dozen or so up to the size of the United States Federal Government. And the response is always the same.

Nothing.

As an agile coach and trainer (and in other roles), I've had the pleasure to watch large groups of people in various organizations for some time. And I've seen organizations ask the stupidest things of folks. Without fail, however, there's not much in the way of push-back.

When I was younger, I just couldn't get my head around this. Why wouldn't people speak up? This is their jobs, after all. This is the way they lead a huge chunk of their life. You'd think that somebody would have the gumption to at least humbly ask why such things were necessary. You'd think that either people are part of the problem or part of the solution -- speaking up is the primary job of any member of an organization, right?

But you'd be wrong.

I remember sitting in one meeting, not too long ago. It was small by organizational standards -- only about 30 folks in the meeting, although the organization employed thousands. The leader was suggesting some ridiculous way of doing things. As an outside observer, I really, really, really wanted to say something. But I managed to be quiet (which is a pretty big achievement, if you know me!)

There was very little protest, and the meeting concluded with the group deciding to do the things that had been suggested by the leader.

Amazing.

Since I personally knew a couple of folks who attended, I took them aside afterwards. Why hadn't they said anything? Didn't they realize what a dumb idea this was and how much money and time they were going to waste?

I'll never forget one lady's response.

"Sure I realize it. But you know, it's just not worth it to me."

This lady was regarded as one of the better employees of the organization. An up and comer. Somebody who would go far. This wasn't apathy. This wasn't laziness. This was cold, hard reasoning at work.

Another time I worked with an organization that had gone through 4 layoffs before I was brought onboard to help out with efficiency. I gave a meeting and suggested several things. Nothing major, but stuff I thought could save them 5 or 10 percent over the period of a year. If adopted, the savings would easily justify my fee.

Everybody thought it was a great idea. Smiles all around. I left the meeting feeling pumped.

Until I ran into a friend of mine who had also attended.

"Better be careful, Daniel," he said, "The people here are survivors. This is the only place I've worked where somebody will stand up and offer a suggestion, get great praise and cheers, and then nothing at all will become of it."

Piece of crap.

We used to call that "passive-aggressive" behavior, as if giving it some kind of psychological name would diagnose what was wrong with folks. After all, anybody who acts like that? Must have some kind of hidden anger issues. They're acting out, only indirectly. Oh, if we could only get that passive-aggressive behavior taken care of, things would really change then!

This is bullshit.

What they are doing, my friend, is acting extremely rationally. Indulge me to use my own political feelings as an example.

The political right is taking away more and more of my freedoms in the name of security. The political left is taking away more and more of my freedoms under the religion of environmentalism and progressivism: the belief that somehow we must keep changing things to evolve our society. (Which would be a great idea if every time we changed things we didn't keep invading my liberties.) Doesn't matter which side you support -- they're both itching to take stuff away from me for my own good. In addition, the system itself has become unable to fix things and is reaching the point where all the promises made by politicians who didn't have to pay for them are going to overwhelm the budget.

What to do in such a situation?

I could protest -- and probably end up on some watch-list of malcontents. There are folks -- bless their hearts -- who live to protest. Every week they're protesting this, that, or the other thing. In fact sometimes I feel the left views such protests as the ultimate good in society: they're always trying to relive the heady days of the civil rights era.

Or I could become part of the system: join a political party and lobby to get my views heard. People on the right seem like big play-the-game folks: they are always valuing team players. But being part of a system means conforming, and conforming means I end up comprising to the point where I become so morally flexible that I don't stand for much of anything any more.

So after some thought, it occurs to me that the proper course of action is to do nothing.

Want to redistribute my wealth to poor people? Well, you know what? I don't feel like making that much money any more. So go somewhere else to find it. Want to do a virtual strip search on me in order to let me fly? Well I don't feel much like flying commercially any more. Want to monitor my email and internet traffic? I don't feel like publishing anything but trivial nonsense (except for this blog. Make your own call about that). Want to make me buy insurance and tell me what kinds of cars and homes I can live in? I really don't feel much like buying cars or homes.

Perhaps you could continue to muck around with my freedoms a little more and see how much less I could want to do these things.

I love the "speaking up is your duty" argument, but it is based on a false premise: that speaking up and responding will either make sense for the individual or -- in a worst-case scenario -- that the sacrifice made by the individual will help the rest of us in the long run. But these are tenuous judgments in the best of worlds: in most cases the individual gains no benefit from speaking up. They just get singled out as a troublemaker, somebody who is perennially unhappy. In the vast majority of cases the system does not change, it just adapts to having more complainers.

There is a reason why governments today are investing heavily in non-lethal means of crowd suppression and seeking to control the internet. And it's not for your safety.

In fact, it looks like the best thing for me to do in a world where everybody wants to take things away from me -- is to become invisible.

Invisible people don't get called out. Invisible people don't have groups marching around telling them they need to pay their fair share. Invisible people don't flutter from one feel-good cause to the other. Invisible people don't take their morals and self-righteousness and try to tell the rest of humanity how to act. Invisible people don't have to hold their nose and vote for somebody they don't like because somebody they like even less is also on the ballot box.

Invisible people have a lot going for them. That's probably why you see so many around.

I haven't completely bought into this yet, mind you, but the idea has a lot of things going for it.

My dream, as many of you know, is to have a successful startup. Looking at all of this, I'm beginning to seriously redefine what my definition of "success" is. I used to think success was lots of money, offices, employees, and growth. Looking at the political landscape right now? Such things amount to one thing only: making you a target. If you have lots of money, if you have lots of people working for you? You know what you are? A Big Business. And it's the big corporations that are hurting the little guy. That's why we have to punish them and "watch" over them (which would translate to a "vig" and "protection money" if this were The Sopranos, but seems to amount to solid political theory if you're on the left.)

Of if you don't buy that line of reasoning, try this one on for size: the government is going broke. Who do you think they are going to come for in order to try to get even more money, the guy who is invisible or the guy who just added his 50th employee and built a new manufacturing plant? You want the government not to change the laws about what your business can do? Hey that other party is very much anti-business. Who are you going to write a check to so that we can help you out? You get to be a big, you take sides. You become a target.

I read somewhere that other strategic business consultants are seeing a lot of companies who want to drop their health insurance because of the new laws. "Nobody wants to be the first, but there are a dozen or two large corporations that would be the second to drop"

Why not the first? Because the first large corporation to drop their health insurance because of the new law that millions supported will be crucified. For a while they'll be target #1. Retribution will be taken.

Whether this story is true or not is immaterial. It's the larger example that matters. Being part of a larger organization that is doing stupid things, and speaking out? Makes you one of the first people to go. Layoffs come, who goes first? The folks who are already unhappy, that's who. Those guys who were always so positive in meetings and cheering folks on? They look like team players to me.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not lazy, and I'm not a quitter. I would love to do something big in the world and make a positive difference in people's lives. In fact, that's my reason for being alive: to help out the most number of people possible. And because that's my goal, I haven't committed to this "do nothing" approach. I'd rather try something and fail than to never have tried at all. But acting against my own best interests in order to change things makes me basically irrational. And I am going to carefully pick those cases where being visible makes sense and where it doesn't. This blog is one such case. I expect others to make the same decisions.

What I need to keep remembering -- what we all need to keep remembering -- is that the most logical response by the individual in a situation where the organization is out of control is: do nothing. Invisible people are not targets. Be careful, dear agent of change, the people here are survivors.

Which takes us back to the title and purpose of this blog: People are not broken. Systems are.

2 Comments

Who is John Galt?

Evan -- I think you might have the most pithy and on-target comment on my blog this week.

I'm not ready to take your argument to the logical extreme, however. I remain perfectly happy living with folks who have grand designs on how they would like to engineer our society. If we could just do it in small increments, measuring and adapting rapidly, evolving from the ground-up? Sign me up. But instead we get top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions, from both parties.

I've become convinced that, given enough time, all systems of government will self-destruct -- and each step of the way they're broken by well-meaning people making the best choices they could given the situation they were in.

I'd much rather be living at the beginning of this process than at the end, though.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on October 30, 2010 9:48 AM.

The Hell with Happiness was the previous entry in this blog.

Good and Evil in the Garden of Hackerdom is the next entry in this blog.

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