Happy Halloween, seekers of office satisfaction! I’ve got a tale that, as you can see, I’m just dying to tell you. It’s a heartwarming story of deception, terror, and irony — perfect for the modern workplace! No need to thank me; you know I have a soft spot in my heart for you working stiffs! And if, on this most special of holidays, my little narrative inspires a little fear in just one reader — well, then, talk about career fulfillment! For me, at least!
My tale begins with poor Mary Schmich, a toiler in that most thankless of all jobs: writing regularly published essays. Wracking her brain for something original to write, she spots a young woman basking on a beach and imagines advising her on the benefits of wearing sunscreen. Thus is born Schmich’s column, published on June 1, 1997 in the Chicago Tribune, in the form of an imaginary commencement address, one in which her primary advice is: Wear sunscreen.
Not long afterwards, however, some malevolent mischief-making miscreant posts her column — word for word! — on the still-burgeoning Internet. Here’s the delightfully devious part: the fiend tells the world that this was an actual commencement address — delivered at MIT by Kurt Vonnegut! The wry, safe advice delivered by a local columnist suddenly gains credibility when (mis)attributed to a Famous Person, and goes viral in a time when that phrase referred only to old favorites like smallpox and rabies. Poor Mary Schmich suffers the torture of anonymous fame that every writer dreads, as millions of gullible readers accept her wisdom as Vonnegut’s.
Eventually, though, the media catches on, and with the help of director Baz Luhrmann, who properly credits Schmich when he uses the column as the lyrics to his hit song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”, the world learns who the true author is. Which is, no doubt, a relief to Schmich, and a service to history, since her words continue to resonate. One tidbit, in particular, has achieved the status of aphorism — a frequently cited nugget of accepted truth, no longer attributed unfairly . . . to Kurt Vonnegut. Go into any coffee shop or kitschy trinket store in America, and you’ll find Schmich’s words there, emblazoned on a mug or T-shirt or kitchen magnet. Which invariably reads: “Do one thing every day that scares you. — Eleanor Roosevelt”.
Hee hee hee! Needless to say, Mrs. FDR never uttered or wrote those words! Seems the world is determined not to give Schmich credit for her work! Sounds like some bosses I’ve known! What kind of, eh, eternal reward is that for someone who has given such a gift to the world? For it is good advice, Gentle Readers. Confronting your fears through action is one of the surest ways of developing your capabilities and accomplishments — unless you’re talking about fear of the undead, in which case confrontation is one of the surest ways of developing fangs and an unholy taste for human blood, or a mindless need to consume brains. (Hmmmm . . . sounds like some bosses I’ve known!) But ordinary fears — of confrontation, say, or of taking on new projects — are often best overcome.
Easier said than done, you say? Well, let me treat you with a trick. In their book, The Art of Strategy, Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff point out that our personal behavior can often be viewed through the lens of game theory. What we do is sometimes the result of a competition between two selves: a present self and a future self. Present Self may desire a certain outcome which may seem sensible at that time (say, asking for a raise), but it’s Future Self who will actually have to take action in the face of no-longer-theoretical conditions (gibbering insecurity, curious colleagues, bloodthirsty boss), and those actual conditions can cause good intentions to vanish as quickly as a diet plan at Dunkin’ Donuts. To help/force Future Self to make the desirable choice, then, Present Self has to rig the game. Present Self must alter the conditions the Future Self will face, to make Present Self’s preference — no matter how scary — preferable to all other choices, even in Future Self’s eyes. For example, Present Self might announce to his colleagues his intention to ask for a raise the next day, so that Future Self will have to take into consideration not only his fear of rejection, but also his likely embarrassment if he does not go through with it. That’s the key, kiddies: one way to fight the fear is by threatening yourself with an even more uncomfortable emotion!