It’s Harder To Be Kind Than Clever

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I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend Princeton University. One of its most famous alumni, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, delivered the Commencement address at my graduation back in 2010. During that address, he told a story that has stuck with me through all the years.

Basically, Bezos’s grandmother was a cigarette smoker, and one day, while Bezos was driving with his grandparents, he decided to tell his grandmother how many years she was taking off her life with every cigarette that she smoked. He had done the mental gymnastics based on available data to be able to precisely calculate the impact of each and every cigarette. Bezos’s grandfather immediately pulled the car to the side of the road, dragged him out of the car, walked him several feet away, and scolded him. Bezos was expecting the worst, but all his grandfather said to him before returning to the car was this:

“Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

I always felt that story was quite powerful, and now more than ever, it seems to be an important lesson. I say that because the division in our country has reached what feels like an all-time high, and my experience lately has been that many people seem more interested in being right than they are interested in being solutions-oriented.

What does it mean to be solutions-oriented? It means that you put your differences aside with others in the interest of finding a workable solution. Oftentimes, this means giving up the opportunity to have the proverbial “last word.’ You very rarely see that nowadays.

A more recent manifestation of this occurred on my Twitter feed between Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Both of them fired insults at one another, questioning the other’s intelligence, and generally blaming the other side for failure to pass new legislation that would provide stimulus for the millions of Americans suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic. They were seemingly more interested in impressing their own respective sets of millions of followers than in having a real conversation that might lead to progress. From the sidelines, billionaire Mark Cuban chimed in to remind them both that their rhetoric was actually having a negative effect: it was signaling to many Americans in need of help that the politicians whose jobs it is to fight for them are actually more interested in looking good and getting the last laugh. To add insult to injury, Ocasio-Cortez then turned her sights to Cuban, insisting that Republicans are indeed truly evil and responsible for all of society’s ills, completely doubling down on her message and seeming to be tone-deaf to the millions at home who are powerless to exact the type of change needed to better their lives.

Unfortunately, I see this same type of rhetoric on the other side of the aisle. Ben Shapiro’s podcast is the most popular conservative media you will find in the country today, but if you tune in and listen, he is not shy in saying that those who disagree with him are morons, idiots, evil, or what have you. Similarly, the controversial conservative figure Candace Owens minces no words in comparing Democrats to literal slaveowners, a comparison that is likely to offend many African-Americans who would not like to see their past suffering diminished or jeopardized in some way. In both cases, these figures seem more interested in appealing to their own base and getting raucous applause for dissing those who have different opinions. But their approach of insulting anyone who disagrees with them is not a winning method for bringing new followers into their coalition, nor does it make those across the aisle feel like their counterparts are worthy of compromise.

I suppose as human beings we have a biological desire for self-preservation, and that is likely what causes us to feel that being “right” is so important. When dealing with conflict, our emotional reaction is to point fingers and tell people why they are wrong much of the time rather than to figure out what would allow both parties to move on. This creates a situation where each side is eager to get the last word. Real, positive dialogue is stifled when either side feels that somehow it will be a reflection on their worth as an individual if they are found to be “wrong” about anything. This instinct inhibits progress.

In my company, we have a mantra encouraging employees to be solutions-oriented. What this means in practice is to immediately think about solutions rather than prescribing fault for problems. The idea here is that you can always come back later and diagnose what went wrong and how not to repeat the same mistakes. But in the immediate term future, you need answers, and bickering about who is right or wrong is not productive towards discussing solutions.

For example, let’s say a co-worker of mine is constantly late delivering assignments. Perhaps my instinct is to scold this co-worker. Maybe my co-worker feels that my scolding went over the top, which now leads to a debate about missing assignments for one person, and a bad attitude for the other. These are two problems that are worthy of discussion. However, neither of these two problems being fixed will actually fix the more immediate problem: the missing assignment. The focus should therefore be quite simple: how can the two of us now work together to ensure that we finish this assignment as quickly as possible? Once we have aligned on next steps on coming to a solution, we are now less rushed and frantic when the time comes for us to sit back down and have a more thoughtful discussion about how we can both treat each other better in the future.

I do not profess to be an expert at being solutions-oriented. Like anyone else, my emotions take over when I feel I have been wronged in some way. When I can, I try to do one of two things.

The first thing I can try to do in that situation is to practice basic cognitive behavioral therapy tactics of asking myself what alternatives exist to the conclusions I have drawn in my mind. We often form our own conclusions based on our emotional response, and in doing so, we often assume the worst. A simple exercise of asking yourself what other possibilities exist – and then simply weighting their probability – is a useful exercise in talking yourself off the ledge.

But sometimes, we are unable to get that far, because we react too quickly. When this happens, Plan B is to invoke a solutions-oriented mindset. How do we move forward? If you are truly interested in being happy again, your course of action involves collaboration towards a solution. Putting the other person down might give you some satisfaction in the short term, but in the long term, you still have an unresolved issue. Summarily, when we become less interested in being right, we start to realize how simple it can be to be happy.

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