The History Book Test

“History books contain teachings by those deceased; Don’t leave your descendants with only embarrassment!” – Justice Bao, Legendary 11th Century Chinese Judge

My ethics professor in business school at the University of Texas at Austin was a short feisty lawyer named Fran Pederson. She was famous for pacing back in forth in front of the classroom during lecture, and jabbing her finger at students as she talked about the framework for ethical decision-making in a business environment.

She proposed a few tests to think about the ethics of a given situation.  There was the Trilogy Test: when making challenging decisions, we must determine whether the proposed action is (1) the Right Thing, done in (2) the Right Way for (3) the Right Reasons. Then there was the Balancing Test. After weighing the merits of the positions of different stakeholders, how do we balance those opposing interests? So for example, in the context of outsourcing, we would try to balance the interests of employees against the shareholders.

And finally there was the Newspaper Test. “Consider the consequences when your decision is put on the front page of the Journal. How will you defend yourself when that bright spotlight is turned on you?”

We talked a great deal in Business Ethics about the Volkswagen emissions scandal. The execs at VW instructed their people to create a product that only activated emissions controls when they were being tested. The goal was to intentionally deceive regulators and the general public into thinking that VW’s cars released less pollution. Would those execs have thought differently if they’d considered the Newspaper Test and the reputational damage when the conspiracy was ultimately brought to light? Professor Pederson certainly thought so. “What would your mother think of all those shameful headlines?” she asked with another finger jab.

I kept the Newspaper Test in my back pocket for a while. Even if “newspaper” was a little outdated, it still seemed like a good standard. But since then, I’ve been thinking that it might not be as useful a tool as we’d like it to be.

President Trump probably has something to do with this reconsideration. I’ve watched how Trump seems not to care about his illegal and malicious activity being brought forward by the press, whether it’s collaboration with Russia or obstruction of justice in firing Comey.  President Trump has attempted to discredit the press entirely with non-stop cries of “Fake News!” But like others, I had the sense that Trump still believed the old adage that “all publicity was good publicity,” and didn’t care much that the headlines were negative.

Which raised the question: Is the Newspaper Test a very effective at curbing unethical behavior if leaders are less concerned with critical press than with making news to begin with?

These sorts of doubts inspired me to meander toward a different test, which I call the History Book Test. Admittedly it’s not very original. Per the quote, Justice Bao was talking about this idea nearly a millennia ago.

The test is what you would expect: What decision should I make if my actions were to be described in future history books? (Note: Like the Newspaper Test, the “History Book” should be expanded to the internet or whatever chronicling of history there is in the distant future.)

I thought of the History Book Test recently with this video of Tomi Lahren on FOX News. Hurricane Harvey struck the city of Houston particularly hard in 2017. Celebrities like Jay Z and Beyonce, staged a benefit concert to raise funds for the victims. At the concert, the celebrities talked about how the hurricane was likely caused by climate change, and how we as humans should be doing more to protect the climate. So Tomi Lahren decided to “take the celebrities to task.” She “called them out” for turning a tragedy into a “political crusade.”

Lahren’s video began making the rounds on Facebook. And it occurred to me that, at least in her mind, she was probably passing The Newspaper Test. That is, she was receiving lots and lots of publicity for her takedown. Moreover, Lahren didn’t seem to mind the publicity. She was building up her platform.

But could Lahren, in good conscience, believe her tirade would pass the History Book Test? I think not. A future citizen, looking back at how humans thought about climate change in the early 21st century, would no doubt be shaking her head. Why didn’t Lahren use her platform to combat climate change instead of taking cheap shots like dissing Beyonce?  The future would critique Lahren for failing to do the right thing for the long term.

There are obvious challenges to using the History Book Test as an ethical standard. For one, not everyone likes to think about the long term effects of their actions. It’s much more personally satisfying in the short term to think about expedient conduct. Additionally, there are some issues where there is reasonable doubt about what the future will think.

And I sense that many among us wonder whether there will even be a long-term future for humans. Some Evangelicals believe the world will end within this generation or the next. And in this respect they are strange bedfellows with the nihilistic atheists, who are convinced that climate change or nuclear demagoguery will soon wipe us all out.

It seems to me that these are overly negative perspectives. A better assumption would be that assume that humans will go on, and that there will be a “History Book” of sorts to chronicle progress. Given this, we must think about the History Book and not just the Newspaper. Considering both tests will allow us to act with more courage and integrity.

The History Book Test marks the difference between a YouTube flash in the pan and a Justice Bao, a hero for children after all these years because he was so fair and forward-thinking. Be a Bao and play the long game. Because respect and admiration is a much better remembrance.

Dr. September 25, 2017 – Pub. October 13, 2017

Einstein and Jeff

 

My buddy Jeff at age 29 could learn a good deal from Einstein. Not about science, but about life itself.

Jeff was extremely ambitious. He was one of those people that’s so ambitious and determined you just want to slap them and say, “There are other things that matter in this universe that matter besides you and your goals!”

Luckily for us all, Jeff was at least self-aware. He would go off on a longwinded rant about wanting to become a supremely important political leader. When he realized you were losing interest, he’d catch himself. “I’m going into Targareyan mode again,” he’d say, referring to Game of Thrones. “I do that sometimes. Fantasize about conquering the world with my dragons!”

His big goal, as you might imagine, was politics. (It doesn’t really matter for our purposes what party he was in. The parties embody different values, but they attract equally ambitious types.) In our late twenties, he worked in corporate America, but previously he had worked exclusively in politics. He was active in the state governors association. He worked on numerous federal campaigns in Washington. A few years before, he’d picked up a master’s in public affairs from an Ivy League university. He’d started a semi-influential Political Action Committee (PAC) with some classmates.

All of which is to say that Jeff had been very passionate about politics. But when he was graduating from that master’s program, he had a substantial number of student loans. So he started looking for positions that would allow him to service that amount of debt, ruling out public interest jobs with smaller starting salaries.

Jeff stumbled upon a position as Government Affairs Analyst for a corporation near me in Texas. We’ll call the company MegaCorp. (Similar to the point above with political parties, the industry doesn’t matter for our purposes.)  MegaCorp had been around for almost a century and was one of the largest companies in the world. As such, it was extremely hierarchical, very conservative, and moved very slowly. It was your typical corporate behemoth. A giant machine, unfeeling and unfun.

Not long after I met Jeff, he confessed to me that he hated his job at MegaCorp. He was tasked with an extremely monotonous and humble job. He was supposed to gather newsclippings every day about MegaCorp and its competitors. These clips were presented to the executives as a daily news briefing. His role was not highly respected. All he could do was “mess up” by not using the preferred format for the newsletter. Whereas political life had been active and sociable, Jeff felt like a drone. He spent hours alone in his office cutting clips and poring over uninteresting news.

Jeff could not believe that he was being tasked with this job instead of an intern, especially when he had an Ivy League degree! How could such a big company be so cold to its young talent?

I mentioned earlier that Jeff was self-aware, and I think he generally was. But when it came to his job satisfaction, he could drone on and on without realizing how much he was bumming me out.  “I’m not on the right track…I’m not being respected…I need to get back to Washington, D.C…it’s so boring and tedious…I need to get into the game…I should have a platform by now…people should know me!”

In my late twenties, I was not well-equipped to tell Jeff that I thought there was an opportunity to think differently about his current job. Usually I just tried to appear sympathetic and gradually change the subject. But if Jeff came to me now, I would have used the example of Einstein.

In his mid-to-late twenties, Einstein worked in the patent office in Bern, Germany. It was a monotonous job—filled with the drudgery of reviewing technical patent applications. And it was a job Einstein didn’t want to work. Einstein was only stationed in the patent office because he was repeatedly denied a secure position as an assistant doctoral scientist. The patent office job was boring and dead-end; not at all where he wanted to be.

Yet, during the seven years Einstein spent as a clerk in the patent office, he wrote the four papers that revolutionized physics. Papers one through three detailed the behavior of particles, and have been applied to manufacturing for the past century. But everyone remembers the fourth one: his Special Theory of Relativity. This is the theory that, quite literally, changed the world.

Einstein was able to use his time during his tedious job at the patent office to be very productive. Looking back later on life, Einstein was likely thinking of the patent office when he offered this assessment.

A few clarifying additions to the quote… Einstein suggests that monotony stimulates the creative mind. But I would add this caveat: it doesn’t unless you let it.

Jeff had the opportunity to use his time at MegaCorp to work on his political ambitions. Although the job was dreary, it was a typical 40 hour work week. In other words, he still had some free time outside of work to get involved in local campaigns, or to write about his political subjects. I believe that Jeff, if he wanted to, could have written about his political positions in such a way as to become an influential voice in the online discussion. He might even have found that the monotonous job cutting clips would allow his creative mind to develop in such a way that he had more interesting ideas to write about for his PAC. It would have been difficult, no doubt, but Jeff could very well have used the tedium of his job at MegaCorp as an opportunity to advance some of his goals. In other words, his boring job could have given him an opportunity to “pull an Einstein.”

Throughout the whole time that Jeff was at MegaCorp, he constantly applied to positions in the political sphere back in D.C. I wonder what Einstein would have had to say about this. I don’t think he’d be unsympathetic to Jeff wanting to look elsewhere—after all, we know that Einstein applied for that assistant professorship position he coveted.

But I do think that, with the benefit of retrospect, Einstein would have told Jeff to make sure to take advantage of his time in the humble position at the corporation. He might even have said that Jeff should appreciate this relative low-point in his career and consider it a blessing.

It isn’t easy. Being productive during a monotonous portion of life requires us first to accept the reality that this is where we are at this point in time. But accepting career down-time can lead to fantastic results. We might discover the mystical relationship between space and time, build a winning political coalition, or conquer all of Westeros with our dragons. 

Uploading Your Heart to Instagram

“But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Jesus

In eighth grade, my parents transferred me to a very conservative Christian private school. We had chapel every Wednesday and a religion course every semester. Most classes opened with a call for prayer requests and a group prayer. This was nice in many ways, although I distinctly remember some friends inventing very lengthy and elaborate prayer requests so as to reduce the actual class time spent learning Calculus.

It was around this time that I became, as Evangelicals say, “hungry” for the Gospel. I approached Jesus’s message with a teenager’s zealous seriousness to learn.

In retrospect, it seems to me that this approach is both completely right and wrong. Right because Jesus wanted us to be passionate and sincere, especially when it comes to loving our neighbor. Wrong because so much of what Jesus said is a deep truth. Truth is beautiful and alive. Beautiful living truth can be wrecked by the violence of dead cold seriousness.

Anyway, Jesus’s teaching about personal treasure made a good deal of sense to me in middle school. We were discovering fashion, and my wealthier private school classmates expressed themselves and sought to establish their work with fancy branded clothes: brightly colored Abercrombie & Fitch shirts, fancy Doc Marten dress shoes designed in England, expensive Ray Ban shades.

Jesus’s message was extremely relatable to thirteen-year-old me: Don’t store up treasure in the form of fancy clothes. Someone could take away your clothes. Or you could outgrow them. Or a bully could intentionally spill mustard all over them (resulting in the unfortunate and bizarrely long-lasting nickname “Mustard Man”).

I indulged the fashion game because I wanted to look cool, and have plenty of old A&F shirts to show for it. But I recognized even then that fashionable clothing did not lead to a good heart. For one, my bullies were equally preppy. And teenage me made a deliberate effort to value but not “treasure” material things like clothes.

It occurs to me that the real challenge of our times might not be the overvaluation of material things. What I find myself and some Millennial peers struggling with is an over-identification with our social media personas.

I’d like to pause here to say that social media has given me a number of positive memories. Seeing the news that a good friend has gotten engaged or had a baby has been a source of joy.

But it seems to me that quite a lot of us have begun to treasure our social media persona. When we post pictures, we crave and carefully count the number of likes. We carefully curate and consider, and spend so much time thinking about, our online personality.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If you treasure your social media persona, that’s where your heart is. You have uploaded your heart to Instagram. Your heart’s address is facebook.com/yourname.

What’s wrong with this? Maybe nothing. Unlike the examples Jesus mentions, “moths” aren’t going to take down Facebook. You may be hacked but the digital heart isn’t stolen in the traditional sense. Although you may well be subjecting your heart to trolls, who are arguably worse than thieves.

Even assuming all of the feedback you receive on social media is praise, is this helpful in any meaningful sense? If I post pictures of my “washboard abs” on Instagram, and someone in Cleveland starts liking my pics, will that fan be there to comfort and love me when I am going through a dark time? Would he come to my aid if an accident mangled my body? Would his affection and deep connection with me provide comfort for the rest of my days?

I cannot empirically prove that if you store your treasure in heaven as opposed to online, you will have a better afterlife. But it seems to me that our wise forerunners agree with Jesus on a related point: If you treasure a heavenly virtue, your heart will reap the benefits of that virtue.

If instead of focusing on my Instagram followers, I focus on building meaningful friendships in my local community, helping them in their struggles and getting to know them on a personal level – that is, if I focus on the heavenly virtue of loving others – then I might find that when I need help from friends, they are there for me.

There’s a trade-off, of course. The less time I spend on my perfect Instagram profile, the less social media followers I am likely to have. But my heart may well be protected and sustained in a more meaningful way because I have focused on a heavenly virtue instead of a digital extension of my ego.

When then do I make of truly beautiful and unquestionably love-filled social media movements like Humans of New York.  Do I contradict myself?

Not this time. I believe it’s possible, given the right perspective, to be active and popular on social media without also uploading your heart to the platform.  If you use social media to reach out and inspire, you can maintain the focus on loving others instead of a digital extension of your ego. The goal is to treat social media as a tool and not a home.

Dr. January 10, 2017 – Rev. October 4, 2017 – Pub. October 9, 2017