Is this Good?

We’ve all seen it happen before.

The teacher drawn into an arguing with a student.

The assistant coach questioning another coach’s instructions while working with players.

The real estate agent pushing a house they can’t sell on impressionable clients.

The doctor who receives samples from a pharmaceutical company and finds herself prescribing their products.

The mortgage broker who approves a loan he doesn’t think the client can afford.

The contractor skimming a little extra off the cost of materials.

The politician who makes promises she has no intention of keeping.

It happens all the time. Small selfish or reactionary choices we all make as individuals, whether in work, at home, or with friends and family.

Sometimes it’s not even a conscious choice; it’s just the momentum of the day, the week, or the job. Paperwork to stay in compliance with some obscure company policy. A colleague who wants to talk sports or politics. A thorny client. One bad decision made weeks or even months ago. The minutia of the moment, the splintering of time by email, meetings, phone calls, appointments, social media, smart phones, dates, meals, workouts, practice…

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Sometimes we’re so busy we forget why we’re doing any of it.

And that’s the problem. We forget to ask three simple questions:

1) Why am I doing this?

2) What are the results of my actions?

3) Is this good?

Part of the reason (we don’t ask) is that the answer is so often implied.

A teacher goes to work to teach his students. The good is obvious. Children need to learn, and their teacher facilitates their learning. Good.

It’s like that with most jobs—at least in their most basic functions. A banker lends money to people who want to start a business or buy a home. Good. A manager supervises her employees to help them deliver a good or service to customers. Good. A truck driver hauls products to a store in a safe and timely manner. Good.

But then come the rules and incentives: (carrot) if the truck driver can make his deliveries faster, he receives a bonus; (stick) if the truck driver does not make his deliveries in a certain time frame, he is docked some portion of his pay.

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And this happens everywhere. There are all sorts of perverse incentives that exist in every job—reasons to do something other than whatever action that will accomplish the most good. Sometimes it’s adhering to government regulations or self-imposed bureaucratic company policies. Sometimes it’s the way companies hire or promote employees to fill empty positions. Sometimes it’s competing resources or personalities—office politics, if you will. And every one of these acts as a distraction from the good that the individual should be doing.

Now, enter the ego.

This is my project, my meeting, my classroom. Mine. This guy’s on my team–therefore an attack on him is an attack on me. I feel like I know more than this person, so I’m going to be uncooperative and undermine them. The goal of this meeting is to disseminate information so our employees can be more effective, but what I really want is to be praised for my presentation and its beautiful graphics.

The final part is even more insidious: the constant drip, drip, drip of information—the next shiny object—the next big scandal. Now it has nothing to do with our jobs–it’s everyone taking part in this big collective narrative, with villains and heroes, motives and conspiracies, winners and losers—all manipulated by competing agendas, the foremost of which is generating views, likes, hits, and ratings. Never mind the truth of the matter—there’s a story that needs telling. A hot take. A pundit’s pronouncement. And everyone has to weigh in.

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Of course, depending on whether one is liberal or conservative, we alternately praise or fume with outrage, as if feeling indignant or hopeful is going to matter concretely in some way. Again, the question—is this good?—is forgotten. No, it’s about outrage and teams and tribes and blame–and ultimately, hatred.

All of which is why we’ve come to such a desperate place as a society. Because in so many of our actions and the matters with which we concern ourselves, whether what we’re doing is actually worthwhile, purposeful, and/or good doesn’t even enter into to the equation.

Take Rush Limbaugh for example. His initial purpose was laudable: to provide a place where conservative ideas and policies can be discussed and debated. And certainly, there was a demand for that sort of programming. But at some point that purpose was perverted into either:

a) attacking Democrats/liberals, or,

b) cheerleading the actions and policies of Republicans regardless of their legitimacy.

In other words, his answers to the three questions changed.

1) Why am I doing this?

Before: to provide a genuine discussion of conservative ideas.

Now: to make people angry and/or entertain them so they’ll listen to the show, so I can make a ton of money I can use to buy hookers and prescription drugs.

2) What are the results of my actions?

Before: tremendous energy for the conservative community—a place where folks can discuss their frustrations and ideas about politics.

Now: my listeners are complete idiots, because I’ve convinced them anything they disagree with is wrong; they’re a group of non-thinking, angry followers who’ve lost much of their humanity.

3) Is this good?

Before: yes.

Now: 100% no—it’s manipulative, counterproductive, and entirely without merit.

Conversely, it’s also why Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton.

Clinton got into politics for a lot of really good reasons—and accomplished a ton of good in her political career (no, she didn’t kill anyone or commit any horrific crimes–if she had, she’d surely be in jail by now, and if you think I’m wrong, ask yourself what good it does to believe something about someone you and no one else can prove, and really only because you don’t like them). But at some point, her answers to these basic questions didn’t resonate with people. To a large swath of Americans, it looked something like this:

1) Why am I doing this?

Hillary: it’s my turn to be president.

Trump: to make America great again.

Winner: Trump.

2) What are the results of my actions?

Hillary: to maintain the status quo, with some small tweaks to Obama’s policies.

Trump: to bring change to Washington, drain the swamp, etc.

Winner: Trump.

3) Is this good?

Hillary: it’s OK, but hey, you don’t want Trump to be president do you? He’s terrible.

Trump: YES! I’m making promises to everyone—everything is going to better! MAGA!!!

Winner: Trump.

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Of course, it’s easy to criticize politicians and pundits, but the truth is we see the consequences of not answering these very basic questions in our everyday lives.

For example, why do we give kids 8-10 weeks off every summer? It’s proven to make them dumber. The same question could be asked about why we start high school before 8:30. Science says that’s also a stupid thing to do, but most US high schools do it anyway.

Similarly, many corporations start their employees with two weeks of vacation a year. Why? It doesn’t matter that it’s cruel and unreasonable—that’s how it was done in the old days, and by God that’s the way they’re going to do it. It’s the same reason they move shitty managers around rather than firing them, or demand performance reviews that go to sit in file cabinets indefinitely.

All those little mundane practices that don’t matter and waste everyone’s time; every arbitrary schedule, appointment, meeting, and irrational deadline. It doesn’t matter if it’s good—that’s completely beside the point.

No, you see, it’s about maintaining the status quo–and why? Because it’s easier. If you don’t rock the boat, you don’t raise any waves, and that’s part and parcel to everything else. The reality is that a lot of people are comfortable with the status quo, even if they realize it’s causing quite a bit of unnecessary suffering for others.

So instead of asking, “is this good?” they’re asking: what can I do to avoid criticism? How can I make my job easier? Who should I blame if something goes wrong? Why should I care about X? What excuses can I give for not doing my best? How can I get more power/get promoted/earn more money?

And frankly, that’s why our world is shitty. Too many of us would rather stick to our ridiculous routines—our comfortable lack of purpose—than answer those questions. To be sure, for a lot of people it’s unconscious, which is why I’m pointing it out.

Because “is this good?” matters. In fact, I’d argue it’s all that matters.

The upside is we can choose to answer those questions in our own lives, and it’s a tremendous advantage. As our actions become more virtuous, efficient, and purposeful, everything changes for the better. We do better work, make more money, have better relationships, and ultimately, bring more enjoyment and satisfaction into our lives.

Why am I doing this?

What are the results of my actions?

Is this good?

Let’s ask ourselves those questions every once in a while. And let’s ask others why they’re not asking those questions of themselves.

If you enjoyed this post, please share with friends, family, or hell, even your enemies. Also, check out my work on medium, as well as my new book, Cherry City Pulp. It’s a satire set in Salem, OR about a mass shooting.

About The Author: Jay Scott

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