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Jump Out Before the Water Boils

H. Les Brown

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There's a story (it turns out that it's only an urban myth) that, if you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly increased the heat, the frog would get boiled to death before realizing it needed to get out of the hot water. [In fact, actual experiments prove that, at some point, the water would become uncomfortably hot and the poor amphibian would leap to safety. ] Frogs, it turns out, may have more sense than humans. Animal instincts aren't very likely to be overridden by conscious choice.

No one should ever forget the deeply troubling experiments carried out by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the early 1960's. Milgram proved that behavior could be incrementally influenced by authority figures until most subjects would behave unethically. His experiment involved having a subject deliver an increasingly large electrical shock to a ‘patient’ under orders from a ‘psychologist’ in charge of the experienment until the shock reached (or exceeded) what the subject had been told was a fatal level. Two factors came into play here: 1) unethical instructions given by authority fitures and 2) instructions were gradually degraded until, at some point, they passed the ‘boiling’ point. Since the ‘frog’ never felt only emotional pain, he or she never jumped out of the (virtual) pot.

I can't help wondering if the experiment would work as well in the opposite direction. What would have happened if the subject were told that rewarding the ‘patient’ would cost the participant? If ordered to increase the reward, at what point would the subject refuse? Somehow, I don't think the results would be the same. It's as though gravity were pulling us human beings ever closer to unethical behavior, while pursuing ethical behavior would always seem to be an up-hill battle. Remember that culture itself serves as an authority figure. Cultural behavior can degrade over time but, ironically, it requires a convulsive quantum change to improve. As it happens, it takes enormous energy to escape the heating water.

What consequences affect you personally? There's a famous old saying from Edmund Burke that goes, “All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing. " In your business and personal life, all that's necessary to land yourself in a crisis is for you to carry on ‘business as usual. ’ That's really at the root of the infamous ‘midlife crisis’ phenomenon, isn't it? It happens because it requires too much energy to re-evaluate on a regular basis the direction in which your life and career are headed and to make those quantum changes necessary to keep you out of hot water. Yet, the line of least resistance will eventually take you down to a point that only God can predict. It's appropriately called your ‘bottom, ’ and you don't want to get there - trust me on this!

Wisdom entails your taking your cues from the frog: do whatever is necessary to perform major course corrections in your work and home life before they become critical. Become proactive. Read the handwriting on the wall, if possible, before anyone else does. Be aware. Get ready to make big changes while everyone else is just floating merrily down the river. Question authority. Embrace the hard questions. Take chances. Confront uncertainty avoidance with courage. The only way to stay out of trouble is to follow the Buddha's last words to his disciples: “Be a lamp unto yourselves. "

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
ProActivation® Coaching

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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown


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