Category: Thought and Opinion

Getting Ahead By Being Inefficient

Inefficient does not mean ineffective, and it is certainly not the same as lazy. You get things done – just not in the most effective way possible. You’re a bit sloppy, and use more energy. But don’t feel bad about it. There is real value in not being the best.

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Trying to be perfect is a waste of time.

Many of us feel constant pressure to adapt perfectly to our environments, especially our workplaces. Don’t waste time, we’re told. Maximize the output of your moments. Minimize your energy expenditure. If you aren’t getting great, someone else is, so before you collapse into a heap of perceived failure, take stock and improve your efficiency. We assume this is the ticket to success—to continually strive to be the best at whatever we are doing.

There is, however, something to be said for inefficiency: not doing everything perfectly, expending extra energy, making mistakes, trying new things—and possibly sucking at them. Sticking with something, even if you will never be as good as the person next to you. You develop flexibility and adaptability. You’re better prepared for new opportunities when there are changes in your environment.

Inefficient does not mean ineffective, and it is certainly not the same as lazy. You do things. You just don’t always do them in the most effective way possible. You’re a bit sloppy, and use more energy. But don’t feel bad about it. There is real value in not being the best at everything.

Efficiency Makes us Fragile

To understand how inefficiency can help you get ahead, let’s start with a story.

Imagine a tree that grows these tasty, nutritious turquoise berries. A species of bird has adapted to eating them efficiently. It has a beak that gets under the protective berry shell just so, allowing it to consume loads of the ripest berries whenever it wants. Its claws have adapted to the tree’s slippery branches, so it is the only creature in the forest that can perch on them with ease. The tree produces these berries all year round, thanks to a stable climate, so there are tons of them. The bird has evolved for the task of eating these berries, and they provide all the bird’s nutritional needs, so the bird has no incentive to try anything else.

In the forest there also lives a little mammal. Occasionally, the bird drops a berry and this mammal gets a taste of them. It really likes the berries, and tries to get more of them. It can never compete with the bird directly, as the bird is so specialized. But over time, it adapts to the situation. It starts to go after the berries at night, when the bird is asleep and not feeding. Its claws evolve to grip the tree better. Its vision in the dark improves. Being more active at night, it finds tasty grubs to spear with those sharper claws, so it eats them as well. The bird still gets the majority of the berries, but the mammal gets enough to keep the effort worthwhile, supplementing along the way.

Then, one day, a huge environmental change impacts the forest where this is all playing out. It is significant and lasts for a while. The vegetation patterns are disrupted. Food sources change. Who is in the better position to thrive in the new conditions? The environmental changes are a disaster for the bird. They are an opportunity for the mammal.

Why? In part, because the mammal benefits from its own previous inefficiency. Both the bird and the mammal can get the juicy turquoise berries. The bird is significantly more efficient at doing so, which is an advantage in a stable environment. Nothing can compete.

But in times of change, the inefficiency that forced the mammal to supplement the leftovers it could scrounge when the bird was sleeping is an advantage. That inefficiency allowed for the development of other traits that gave it flexibility to adapt to changing environmental circumstances. It became a generalist, with some specialized features like night vision that are broadly useful.

There is a bright side to disruption. Short-term disturbances enable fast-growing species with high metabolic rates and with inert life stages capable of withstanding adverse conditions to capitalize on briefly favorable circumstances, and it is these opportunists that are in the best position to spawn highly competitive dominants in postcrisis ecosystems from which well-adapted incumbents have been eliminated. — Geerat Vermeij, Nature: An Economic History

Total efficiency constrains us. We become super invested in maintaining the status quo because that is where we excel. Innovation is a threat. Change is terrifying. Being perfect at something is dangerous if it’s the only thing you can do.

Perhaps we need to change our idea of what it means to be the best.

Have you ever been to a rock-climbing gym? You can usually pick out the beginners, because climbing quickly exhausts them and they end up using their hands like meat hooks to grasp the holds and pull themselves up the wall. After a bit of time, this changes. They figure out they’ll tire less easily if they use their legs more. So they develop their technique, pushing up with the legs more than pulling up with the arms.

After more time and effort and practice, new climbers can become really good at rock climbing. But no one gets good by using the same holds to climb the same bit of wall. Being really good at rock climbing means trying different techniques in different locations, dealing with weather and pain and the unexpected. It means being adaptable. Being a great rock climber is about adjusting for the environment, and continually seeking out the challenge of foreign rocks and new climbs. A climber who scales El Capitan 20 times will be incredibly efficient at climbing that one rock face—might even become a climbing guide—but will not be able to get up a new mountain with equal speed.

Efficiency is great in an unchanging environment, but to expect an environment to remain static is unrealistic. Environments change all the time. When workplaces value efficiency in a changing environment, they become fragile. Inefficiency, like a genetic mutation, can allow for serendipitous discovery. Sure, it may produce the same mistakes as before, but if the environment is different, they might actually work now.

Don’t be afraid of a challenge. Don’t be afraid of not being the best. When you routinely put yourself in situations where you aren’t the most skilled, you learn, you grow, and eventually, you adapt. You build your repertoire of traits and talents, so when change hits you have a wide array of skills. This flexibility can also give you the confidence to seek change. The mammal could explore and find new opportunities, but that bird was never going to leave the trees.

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Samuel Andrews: The Man With the Billion Dollar Ego

We can learn valuable lessons from the life of Samuel Andrews. Haven’t ever heard of him? There’s a reason. He was John D. Rockefeller’s right-hand man, and stood to become one of the world’s richest men. But then something got in the way. 

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There is an important lesson to be learned from the story of Samuel Andrews, as told by biographer Ron Chernow in Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller.

John D. Rockefeller learned to clean oil from Sam Andrews. Andrews was the ideal partner for Rockefeller. While he lacked business sense, he had mechanical knowledge that Rockefeller didn’t. The quality of kerosene that Andrews was able to produce, and the efficiency of his process, rendered him indispensable—until something got into the way. But before we get to that, a bit of history.

It was Rockefeller himself who propositioned Andrews to go into business in the first place.

“Sam,” he said, “we are prospering. We have a future before us, a big future. But I don’t like Jim Clark and his habits. He is an immoral man in more ways than one. He gambles in oil. I don’t want this business to be associated with a gambler. Suppose I take them up the next time they threaten a dissolution. Suppose I succeed in buying them out. Will you come in with me?”

Andrews agreed and they shook hands on the deal.

Only a few weeks later Rockefeller quarreled with Clark. “If that’s the way you want to do business we’d better dissolve, and let you run your own affairs to suit yourself,” Clark warned.  Rockefeller moved swiftly.

Rockefeller met with his partners and stated publicly that he wished to dissolve the partnership. The two sides walked away after the meeting with contrasting feelings. The Clarks imagined they had cowed the young whippersnapper, while Rockefeller raced to the office of the Cleveland Leader to place a notice dissolving the partnership.

The next morning the Clarks were stunned to see the notice. The Clarks failed to realize that Rockefeller had Andrews on his side. As per the partnership agreement, the business went up for auction.

Ron Chernow describes the situation thus:

Even as a young man, Rockefeller was extremely composed in a crisis. In this respect, he was a natural leader: the more agitated others became, the calmer he grew. It was an index of his matchless confidence that when the auction occurred, the Clarks brought a lawyer while Rockefeller represented himself. “I thought that I could take care of so simple a transaction,” he boasted. With the Clarks’ lawyer acting as auctioneer, the bidding began at $500 and quickly rose to a few thousand dollars, then inched up slowly to about $50,000—already more than Rockefeller thought the refining business worth.

Since this was such a critical and defining moment in Rockefeller’s career, we can read his own words:

Finally it advanced to $60,000, and by slow stages to $70,000, and I almost feared for my ability to buy the business and have the money to pay for it. At last the other side bid $72,000. Without hesitation I said $72,500. Mr. Clark then said: “I’ll go no higher, John; the business is yours.” “Shall I give you a check for it now?” I suggested. “No,” Mr. Clark said, “I’m glad to trust you for it; settle at your convenience.”

At age 25 he and Sam Andrews controlled Cleveland’s largest refinery. No sooner had the ink dried than they took up a metagame strategy, one of rapid expansion, that he knew was diametrically opposed to how the Clarks would likely respond.

Refinery after refinery came under their control. From the start, Rockefeller used his business sense and relied on Sam Andrews for technical advice. Rockefeller held Andrews in esteem until Ambrose McGregor was named superintendent of the Standard Oil refineries in Cleveland. McGregor demonstrated superior ability. Andrews was shown to be less capable. His ego took a beating.

One day in 1878, Andrews snapped at Rockefeller, “I wish I was out of this business.”

Rockefeller remained calm and called his bluff, replying, “Sam, you don’t seem to have faith in the way this company is operating. What will you take for your holdings?”

“I will take one million dollars,” Andrews shot back.

“Let me have an option on it for twenty-four hours,” said Rockefeller, “and we will discuss it tomorrow.”

“Samuel Andrews was taken into the business as a poor workingman with little or nothing in the early stages when it was difficult to find men to cleanse the oil. … He had too much conceit, too much bull-headed English obstinacy and so little self-control. Was his own worst enemy.”

The next morning when Andrews arrived, Rockefeller had a check made out for one million dollars.

While he appeared confident, Rockefeller was petrified at the thought of Andrew’s holdings hitting the open market and depressing the stock. Andrews thought he had bested Rockefeller. However, when Rockefeller sold the shares to William H. Vanderbilt for a quick $300,000 profit, Andrews changed his mind, voicing his displeasure to Rockefeller.

Rockefeller, feeling some sense of loyalty to the man who had helped him build and empire and quickly fallen out of favor, offered back the stock for the same price at which he had sold it.

Feeling slighted, his ego bruised, Andrews spurned the offer. This decision kept him from becoming one of America’s richest men. The very same stock would have been worth $900 million by the early 1930s.

Later Rockefeller would say of Andrews, “He was ignorant, conceited, lost his head…governed by the same wicked sort of prejudice accompanying the egotism so characteristic of that type of ignorant Englishman.”

There is a little Sam Andrews in all of us. The lesson to walk away with is that temperament matters. A lot.

The ability to keep your head when others are losing theirs is a superpower. The world doesn’t always work the way you want to it. People will slight you. You’ll get fired. You’ll make mistakes. People who are smarter than you will compete for your job. And how you respond to all of this will make all the difference.

Rockefeller gained an advantage by keeping his head while others lost theirs. In fact, the higher the stakes, the cooler he was said to become. Andrews, on the other hand, couldn’t keep his head. As a result, a blow to his ego prevented him from being one of the richest men in the world.

Footnotes
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    Source: Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2007

How to Do Great Things

Insight is rarely handed to you on a silver platter. Einstein argued that genius was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. While we can acknowledge that luck plays a role, we often use that as a crutch to avoid doing what we can do to intelligently prepare for opportunities.

We only get one life, “and it seems to be it is better to do significant things than to just get along through life to its end,” writes Richard Hamming in his book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn.

The book explores how we do great things. And wouldn’t we all like to do great things? But what are the methods we should employ in order to do great things? What are the mental disciplines that we should learn? Where do we start?

Hamming starts by arguing the way you live your life—the extent to which you intelligent prepare—makes a huge difference.

The major objection cited by people against striving to do great things is the belief it is all a matter of luck. I have repeatedly cited Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind”. It both admits there is an element of luck, and yet claims to a great extent it is up to you. You prepare yourself to succeed, or not, as you choose, from moment to moment, by the way you live your life.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 209)

In any great outcome, there is a component of luck. Yet if life were all about luck, the same people wouldn’t repeatedly do great things. Einstein did many great things. So did Newton. Elon Musk has been successful in multiple fields. The list goes on.

When someone repeatedly does great things it is because they prepared in advance to advance to recognize, work on, and fill in the blanks when necessary. This is the essence of intelligent preparation.

Intelligence comes in many forms and flavors. A lot of the time it’s not easily recognized — a lot of people who repeatedly do great things were poor students. IQ does not ensure academic success. Brains are nice to have but they are even better if you know how to use them.

How to Do Great Things

You need to believe that you are capable of doing important things. Your mindset determines how you experience things, what you work on, and the tactics and strategies you employ to accomplish those goals.

Among the important properties to have is the belief you can do important things. If you do not work on important problems how can you expect to do important work? Yet, direct observation, and direct questioning of people, shows most scientists spend most of their time working on things they believe are not important nor are they likely to lead to important things.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 210).

If what you are working on is not important and aligned with your goals—and a lot of what you do and say isn’t—then why are you doing it? The question you need to ask yourself if “why are you not working on and thinking about the important problems in your area?” How can we expect to achieve great things if we are not working on the right problems?

You need to be willing to look like an idiot. Think of this as confidence meets courage.

[Claude] Shannon had courage. Who else but a man with almost infinite courage would ever think of averaging over all random codes and expect the average code would be good? He knew what he was doing was important and pursued it intensely. Courage, or confidence, is a property to develop in yourself. Look at your successes, and pay less attention to failures than you are usually advised to do in the expression, “Learn from your mistakes”. While playing chess Shannon would often advance his queen boldly into the fray and say, “I ain’t scaird of nothing”. I learned to repeat it to myself when stuck, and at times it has enabled me to go on to a success. I deliberately copied a part of the style of a great scientist. The courage to continue is essential since great research often has long periods with no success and many discouragements.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

You need to strive for excellence. This isn’t as easy as it sounds but it as an essential feature of doing great work.

Without such a goal you will tend to wander like a drunken sailor. The sailor takes one step in one direction and the next in some independent direction. As a result the steps tend to cancel each other, and the expected distance from the starting point is proportional to the square root of the number of steps taken. With a vision of excellence, and with the goal of doing significant work, there is tendency for the steps to go in the same direction and thus go a distance proportional to the number of steps taken, which in a lifetime is a large number indeed.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

The conditions you think you want are rarely the ones that help you produce your best work. You need the feedback of reality in order to keep your feet planted on the ground.

Age is a factor physicists and mathematicians worry about. It is easily observed the greatest work of a theoretical physicist, mathematician, or astrophysicist, is generally done very early. They may continue to do good work all their lives, but what society ends up valuing most is almost always their earliest great work. The exceptions are very, very few indeed. But in literature, music composition, and politics, age seems to be an asset. The best compositions of a composer are usually the late ones, as judged by popular opinion.

One reason for this is fame in Science is a curse to quality productivity, though it tends to supply all the tools and freedom you want to do great things. Another reason is most famous people, sooner or later, tend to think they can only work on important problems—hence they fail to plant the little acorns which grow into the mighty oak trees. I have seen it many times, from Brattain of transistor fame and a Nobel Prize to Shannon and his Information Theory. Not that you should merely work on random things—but on small things which seem to you to have the possibility of future growth. In my opinion the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J has ruined more great scientists than any other place has created—considering what they did before ore and what they did after going there. A few, like von Neumann, escaped the closed atmosphere of the place with all its physical comforts and prestige, and continued to contribute to the advancement of Science, but most remained there and continued to work on the same problems which got them there but which were generally no longer of great importance to society.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

Work with your door open.

Working with one’s door closed lets you get more work done per year than if you had an open door, but I have observed repeatedly later those with the closed doors, while working just as hard as others, seem to work on slightly the wrong problems, while those who have let their door stay open get less work done but tend to work on the right problems! I cannot prove the cause and effect relationship, I only observed the correlation. I suspect the open mind leads to the open door, and the open door tends to lead to the open mind; they reinforce each other.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

People who do great things typically have a great drive to do things.

I had worked with John Tukey for some years before I found he was essentially my age, so I went to our mutual boss and asked him, “How can anyone my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back, grinned, and said, “You would be surprised how much you would know if you had worked as hard as he has for as many years”. There was nothing for me to do but slink out of his office, which I did. I thought about the remark for some weeks and decided, while I could never work as hard as John did, I could do a lot better than I had been doing.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 212)

Focused investment of only one hour a day can double your lifetime output. Intelligent preparation is like compound interest, the more you invest, the more situations you can handle, the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. The investment of one hour a day by Charlie Munger to learning new things is an overlooked gem hiding in plain sight.

This isn’t about who works the hardest but rather who focuses their limited energy on the right things. Learning things that (1) change slowly and (2) apply to a wide variety of situations could be a better use of time than learning something incredibly time-consuming, rapidly changing, and of limited application.

Hamming dedicated his Friday afternoons to “great thoughts.” Setting aside time to think is a common charasteristic of people that do great things. Not only does this help you live consciously it helps get your head out of the weeds. The rest of us are too busy with the details to ask if we’re going in the right direction.

People who do great things tolerate ambiguity — they can both believe and not believe at the same time.

You must be able to believe your organization and field of research is the best there is, but also there is much room for improvement! You can sort of see why this is a necessary trait If you believe too much you will not likely see the chances for significant improvements, you will see believe enough you will be filled with doubts and get very little chances for only the 2%, 5%, and 10% improvements; if you do not done. I have not the faintest idea of how to teach the tolerance of ambiguity, both belief and disbelief at the same time, but great people do it all the time. Most great people also have 10 to 20 problems they regard as basic and of great importance, and which they currently do not know how to solve. They keep them in their mind, hoping to get a clue as to how to solve them. When a clue does appear they generally drop other things and get to work immediately on the important problem. Therefore they tend to come in first, and the others who come in later are soon forgotten. I must warn you however, the importance of the result is not the measure of the importance of the problem. The three problems in Physics, antigravity, teleportation, and time travel are seldom worked on because we have so few clues as to how to start—a problem is important partly because there is a possible attack on it, and not because of its inherent importance.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 213)

If you find yourself blaming your (mental) tools, do something about it. Learn the mental models, listen to great people talk in detail about their experiences, and more importantly take ownership. Moving foward requires change but change does not mean that you are moving foward. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Love, Happiness, and Time

How many of us regard love and happiness as a place? A box to tick off, a destination we get to? We often conceptualize these two things as goals. Is this responsible for why we are so devastated when they leave after being in our lives for a while?

What do love and happiness have to do with time?

Recently I read The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli. In it he writes,

We can think of the world as made up of things. Of substances. Of entities. Of something that is. Or we can think of it as made up of events. Of happenings. Of processes. Of something that occurs. Something that does not last, and that undergoes continual transformation, that is not permanent in time. The destruction of the notion of time in fundamental physics is the crumbling of the first of these two perspectives, not of the second. It is the realization of the ubiquity of impermanence, not of stasis in a motionless time.

This passage, in particular, gets me thinking. By this point in his book, Rovelli has brought me to “a world without time.” Thanks to his writing skills, I am comfortable being there. Time reveals itself to be part of the human condition, not the physical world.

Rovelli continues:

The difference between things and events is that things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.

Will it be more rewarding and useful to conceptualize love and happiness like time? An event, not a thing. A kiss, not a stone.

If you think of love like a stone—to be fair, we often do—it is a thing that you attain. You may have an expectation that it will persist and continue to exist. So when you and your partner fight, and it seems the love disappears for an evening, you panic. The love is gone! The thing that connects you wasn’t permanent at all. What does that say about your relationship?

If we change our thinking to love being an event, like a kiss, then a burden is lifted. It’s an event we experience with our partners many times, but not always. And then we can focus on creating the conditions that the event of love requires, even if it might not come to pass every moment of every day.

Rovelli has more to say:

On closer inspection, in fact, even the things that are most “thing-like” are nothing more than long events. The hardest stone, in the light of what we have learned from chemistry, from physics, from mineralogy, from geology, from psychology, is in reality a complex vibration of quantum fields, a momentary interaction of forces, a process that for a brief moment manages to keep its shape, to hold itself in equilibrium before disintegrating again into dust…gradually, an intricate knot in that cosmic game of mirrors that constitutes reality.

Even a stone, the most “thing-like” of things, is fleeting, its definition multilayered and dependent on my perception.

Perhaps it is useful to consider happiness the same way. It’s not something we achieve in perpetuity, an object external to ourselves, as if we could just find it and break off a chunk to keep with us forever. Its existence is bound with our ability to experience it.

“I remember one morning getting up at dawn. There was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling. And I…I remember thinking to myself: So this is the beginning of happiness, this is where it starts. And of course there will always be more…never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then.”

— The Hours (screenplay by David Hare)

As with love, we can reconfigure happiness into an event. It happens. It holds itself in equilibrium for a moment and then disintegrates.

Right now it is fall. Outside my window I am super lucky to witness the unrelenting biological changes that produce such spectacular leaf colours every year. It’s a moment that keeps its shape for a small part of the year. As I get older, I make sure to take the time each October to pay attention and enjoy it.

Could we enjoy happiness more if we consider it the same way? It may sound odd to say that, because who doesn’t enjoy happiness? But there seems to be an eternal struggle with happiness. When it goes, it hurts. Sometimes, when it comes back, it’s bittersweet, because we know it will go again.

The idea of time being an event, and how we experience it, relates, I think, to fundamental conceptions of happiness and love. Time, source of much of our anxiety and sadness, can be understood as a momentary holding together of a set of factors that we experience because of how we are built. I think we can consider love and happiness the same way.

Rovelli explains it this way:

And we begin to see that we are time. We are this space, this clearing opened by the traces of memory inside the connections between our neurons. We are memory. We are nostalgia. We are longing for a future that will not come. The clearing that is opened up in this way, by memory and by anticipation, is time: a source of anguish sometimes, but in the end a tremendous gift. A precious miracle that the infinite play of combinations has unlocked for us, allowing us to exist. We may smile now. We can go back to serenely immersing ourselves in time—in our finite time—to savoring the clear intensity of every fleeting and cherished moment of the brief circle of our existence.

There’s Seldom Any Traffic on the High Road

We’ve all been there: someone says something rude to us and our instinct is to strike back with a quick-witted comeback. That’s what many people do. It’s also a big reason that many people don’t get what they want. Consider this example from my recent travels:

“Are you dense?” the gate agent blurted to me, clearly frustrated as I asked a question she’d be asked a million times that day. Only moments before, I had been sitting on a plane to Seattle when the announcement came over the PA system that the flight was cancelled.

The instructions were clear: check with the gate agent for reassignment.  I was tenth in line. By the time I talked to her, this agent had already had to deal with nine angry customers. She wasn’t frustrated with me, but I knew that everyone else had verbally beat her up. I also travel enough to know how seldom that works. She had instructed the previous nine passengers to collect their bags, go through customs, and go to the Air Canada customer service desk for reassignment.

“I guess you’re right, I can be slow sometimes,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

Her words finally caught up with her, and she apologized. “I’m sorry, that was rude of me. I didn’t mean—”

“You’ve had a long day. People are frustrated and taking it out on you when it’s not your fault. I know how hard that can be.”

She cracked a smile, the first I had seen from her since I joined the line. And she happily found me a seat on the next flight.

She was being rude. Yes. But that wasn’t the best version of her.

When people are rude, our subconscious interprets it as an assault on hierarchy instincts. Our evolutionary programming responds with thoughts like, “Who are you to tell me something so rude? I’ll show you….”

Our instincts are to escalate when really, we should be focused on de-escalating the situation. One way to do that is to take the high road.

Say something along the lines of “I can see that.” You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to agree with what the other person is saying. But I promise the results are magic. It’s hard to be angry with someone who agrees with you. And when there is no one to argue with and they’re the only person worked up about the situation, they will quickly feel uncomfortable and try to correct course.

Making enemies is expensive. Sometimes you don’t even realize how expensive. I saw one of those other nine passengers two and a half hours later, running to the gate to board the flight I was on. They had only just gotten through the hassle that resulted from their dealings with the gate agent—while I had grabbed a glass of wine and read a book. They had no idea how much their rudeness cost them in time and energy. It wasn’t visible to them. It was, however, visible to me.

The high road not only holds your frictional costs to the minimum, but it makes you happier. You’ll go farther and faster than others in the same situation. Sure, it involves putting your ego aside for a second—but if you think about it, this approach can often be the quickest to getting what you want.

Why Honor Matters

Quick — who’s your favorite character in The Godfather?

The most popular answer to this question surprised me. About half the people who are asked pick Sonny: Santino Corleone.

“Everyone loves Sonny,” writes Talmer Sommers in his book Why Honor Matters.

Sonny is a hothead. He’s the oldest of the Godfather’s three children and arguably the most unstable, impulsive, and violent. The guy is a moral sewer — he cheats on his wife, speaks out of turn, and almost goes out of his way to find violence. He single-handedly almost brings the whole family from the apex to ruin. He’s the reason his father gets killed. In the end, it’s his impulsive behavior that gets him killed at the tollbooth.

And yet we love Sonny. Sommers argues, “we love him for his passion, courage, guts, integrity, and most of all for his loyalty to his family.”

When he learns that his sister has been abused by Carlo, her husband, Sonny loses his temper. There is no hesitation. No deeper consideration. He just hops in his car, heads straight for Carlo, and gives him the beating we all know he deserves. “When it comes to defending his family,” Sommers writes, “Sonny doesn’t calculate the best move, the most profitable move … Sonny just acts out of stubborn passion and a sense of honor.”

Honor might be about business for Michael, the cold calculating brother, but for Sonny it’s deeper. It’s personal.

But what is honor? A word? A tangible thing with value? A shared belief?

Honor can be a verb (“Honor thy mother and father”), a noun (“We must preserve the family honor”), an adjective (honor society), and a form of address (“Your honor, I object”). … Honor spins a dizzying web of values, virtues, codes, commandments, and prohibitions that are constantly changing and evolving. And honor makes no pretense to universality. The honor of the Mafia is different from the honor of hockey teams.

So, our definition of honor can change over time and depend on context. Furthermore, our cultural attitudes toward honor are all over the map. Sommers writes:

When it comes to honor we’re positively schizophrenic. On the one hand, we have deep nostalgia for the honorable way of life. … But at the same time, we find many aspects of honor to be absurd, petty, and morally reprehensible. After all, doesn’t honor lead to blood feuds, pointless duels, vigilantism, revenge, racism, nationalism, terrorism, bullying, and violence against women? Isn’t one of the signs of civilizations progress that we’ve put honor in the rearview mirror and replaced it with a commitment to dignity, equality, and human rights?

Nobody teaches us about honor. Sommers was trained in the Western ethical tradition in school, “which meant that [he spent his] time engaging in debates between harm-based theories (such as utilitarianism) and dignity- or rights-based theories (from Locke, Kant, and John Rawls).”

Then he stumbled upon so-called honor cultures, “societies where honor was a central part of their value system.” He writes,

To my surprise these cultures had a starkly different way of understanding responsibility and its connection to freedom. Like most philosophers in my area, I was obsessed with questions about how we can be truly free in a world governed by the laws of nature. How can we blame, praise, and punish people for actions that didn’t originate in them, but were caused by factors that might trace back all the way to the big bang? Honor cultures didn’t struggle with this problem, because they didn’t think a strong form of free will was necessary for holding people responsible for their actions. They didn’t regard the absence of control as an excuse for behavior. In honor cultures, you can get blamed for actions that weren’t intentional, for actions committed by relatives, ancestors, or other members of your group.

Most societies throughout history have been on the side of honor, the exceptions being the “WEIRD (Wester, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies.”

Sommers was drawn to the courage, integrity, solidarity, drama, and sense of purpose and meaning that exist within honor-based cultures. He regards these as “attractive values and characteristics, important for living a good life.” He also says that he has “come to believe that the Western liberal approach to ethics is deeply misguided. The approach is too systematic, too idealized and abstract—incapable of reckoning with the messy complexity of the real world.”

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The rest of the Why Honor Matters goes on to offer a defense of honor. Sommers’ ultimate conclusion is that “honor systems flourish only when they’re effectively contained. Fortunately, honor can be contained; we can restore honor into a larger value system while at the same time limiting its potential abuses.”