In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle declared that, “A man without regrets cannot be cured.” Scholars believe that Aristotle wrote the work either for his son or father, both of whom were named Nicomachus. I like to think that, if writing for his son, Aristotle wanted to teach the boy that mistakes and bad decisions are part of life. If for his father, it may have been a recognition that no man is perfect and that the worth of a man is measured in his ability to bounce back and learn from the past. Either way, I am relieved that I, like Aristotle’s father and son, can be “cured.”
I need curing. In spite of my best efforts, I keep making the same mistakes. Granted, they aren’t as crude or serious as in my youth, but I still want to slap myself when I make them. The good news is that I have finally honed in on the problem and how to fix it, or at least attempt a solution. Whether this is a “fix” is another story. I’m not ruling it out, but, as Robespierre declared, everything depends on execution. I hope that’s not a self-fulfilling analogy.
Something happened this week that made me realize that most of my mistakes come from not giving myself enough time to size up a situation or challenge and, as a result, not standing my ground. I make mistakes when thrown off my natural rhythm or confronted with a threat. The threat doesn’t have to be a grizzly bear snorting outside my tent in the middle of the night, which happened to me once in Canada. It can be as subtle and sinister as a colleague encroaching on my time, space, authority, work, or relationships. If you’ve spent more than six months in the working world, you know that these people exist and sometimes encroach on all of the above.
I’m not going to speculate on whether the person I met with is a psychopath, but I won’t rule it out, either. A lot of business leaders are, especially in Silicon Valley and especially now (e.g., Theranos). I can’t say for certain whether this one was, but he exhibited many of the signs. He dominated the meeting, boasted about what he knew, reminded everyone of his credentials, used self-referenced examples, challenged those running the meeting, and sought out weaknesses in others the way a lion looks for an injured zebra. All right, that might be an exaggeration, but you don’t need a mane to be a predator.
I did not back down, but neither did I tell the truth. I gave feedback that was diplomatic and non-confrontational. But the exercise we were doing was designed to help us become more assertive, since as a group we have a tendency to be “California nice.” The problem with that is that you end up with illusions rather than reality, which builds resentment and emotional withdrawal over the long term, none of which is good for the workplace. I added to this by not evaluating the person honestly and directly. Once that happened, he took it as an opportunity to strike back. In the end, both of us were left dealing with superficialities that went nowhere and had me regretting the experience even before it ended.
What is to be done? One thing you learn with time is that what’s done is done. There is no going back. But tomorrow will come and the next day and the day after that. I don’t think of this as a cliché but a practical way to deal with regret in the same way that Aristotle dealt with it in Ethics. I need to change my behavior so that my default position isn’t filled with superficialities and evasion. I find it strange reading that last sentence, since I spent so much time in the Bronx, which toughened me up out of pure necessity. Also, for a while now my advice to people in similar situations is to “Bronx up.”
So, my Bronxing up will include being forthright, honest, courageous (an Aristotelian virtue), and as blunt as possible with everyone without getting my nose rearranged, which would be a considerable mess. Then maybe, just maybe, I’ll end up with fewer regrets and a cure to what ails me.