Saturday, February 16, 2008

Strategies for Successful Living

One of my favorite observations is this: "The main problem with life is that there is little or no time for practice."

Life is always live. There are no time-outs or do-overs, so you had better be able to think on your feet or you will suffer the consequences. But we are not babes in the woods, completely at the mercy of what life throws at us. We each have our entire life's experience to draw on to help us with life's new challenges. We can "frame" the future with the past. For example, if I eat pizza with green peppers on it and suffer terrible gas, I will know not to eat green peppers on pizza again. This is a very simple cause-and-effect example. Where life gets much more complicated is in human relationships.

I read an article several years ago that discussed the outcome of a psychological experiment into how human beings treat each other and what the best strategy is for personal success. The experiment broke down human interactions into three basic rules: The Golden Rule, which everyone knows as, "Treat others as you would wish to be treated;" The Bronze Rule, which--though not so familiar--means, "Treat others as they treat you;" and The Iron Rule, which basically means, "Screw everybody." Role-playing scenarios were conducted in which the subjects would try to use just one of the rules through each scenario. The initial results were not surprising:

The Golden Rule subjects started out well, giving others the benefit of the doubt, but once the others figured out that the subjects would treat them well no matter how badly they were treated in return, they started taking advantage of them. The idea that it is always best to turn the other cheek will ultimately result in running out of cheeks, which from a personal perspective is not a successful strategy.

The Bronze Rule subjects experienced mixed results. If they were treated well at the outset and responded in kind, things usually went well. But if they were treated poorly and responded with poor treatment of their own, things usually went badly. This could be seen then to be an occasionally successful strategy.

The Iron Rule subjects started out well for themselves, getting what they wanted regardless of consequence, but their consistent poor treatment of others resulted in their being shunned and avoided. As a short-term strategy it might work, but over time it would leave one all alone.

Next the experimenters tried mixing up the rules. They would have the subjects start out with one rule and then, based on the response they received, switch to a different rule. What they discovered is that by far the most successful strategy was what they called The Gilded Bronze Rule: Treat others well, giving them the benefit of the doubt in initial situations, and then follow up in succeeding situations by treating them as they treat you.

For example, you're ordering a coffee at Starbucks. You make eye contact with the barista and wish her a pleasant good morning, then order by saying, "I would like a tall light roast please." If she returns the eye contact and smiles, and then says, "Room for cream?", you would smile and say, "Yes, please." The rest of the transaction would probably proceed smoothly with thank-yous and you're-welcomes, and you would leave an appropriate tip. If instead she responds by turning away without a word and going to fill a cup while continuing a conversation with a co-worker, then plunks the coffee on the counter and says, "$1.49," you would place $1.50 on the counter and walk away.

The first response is the one we all hope for in every exchange. Everyone leaves happy, you with your coffee and a nice feeling about the barista and the business, she with a nice feeling about a job well done and a little extra money. The second response might be seen as slightly cruel, and to be truthful, what are you getting out of treating the barista badly in terms of your own personal success? What if she was just having a bad day? I think what you're accomplishing is that you're showing her what the results are of her own bad behavior. If she has any insight at all, she will realize that she created the response she received. If she doesn't get that, then she either is unconscious of her effect on the world or is so thick-skinned that it doesn't bother her. If I were her employer, I would not have her serving customers.

So think about The Gilded Bronze Rule in your next interaction. It's generally a tit-for-tat world, but if you give it your best effort up front, you will usually get the same in return. And that leaves everyone feeling successful.

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