I live in a rural part of California full of critters big and small, from deer and bobcats to chipmunks and spiders. The one thing they all have in common is how meticulous and focused they are as they go about their daily duties.
Whether it’s a spider spending the evening rebuilding her web to catch prey or a dog grooming himself for hours after a day out in woods full of ticks an fleas, there’s little doubt that what comes first in their lives is doing what has to be done to survive.
It doesn’t much matter if their behavior is instinctive or learned. What matters is that it works. It works because they work. And they’re disciplined about it. As people used to be.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with tales of farmers and ranchers rising with the sun and working until the day is done. I rarely have a coherent thought before noon and my workdays are peppered with blood-pumping and synapse-sparking activities that bear little resemblance to what I do for a living.
But throughout my career I have always sacrificed whatever I had to and pushed my people to do the same to ensure the job got done. And that’s getting harder and harder to do all the time.
Granted, there have always been distractions – the archenemies of discipline – but these days, they seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate. And, more importantly, nobody’s immune, not even our business and political leaders.
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently got himself embroiled in a ludicrous online debate over the gender constitution of his management team and board of directors. Granted, the former comedian was having a little fun by calling his detractor Carrot Top, but it probably added fuel to the fire – not a great idea, especially with an IPO on the way.
A few weeks ago, Senator John McCain couldn’t get through a Senate committee hearing without playing poker on his iPhone. Incidentally, the hearing was about using military force in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons on its people. Not what I would call a light subject.
The owners of my favorite local sushi restaurant can’t seem to find the time to create a website or a takeout menu that actually describes what’s in their Three Amigos Roll or any of the other concoctions they make. But they do have a Facebook page that nobody’s ever seen – unless you count 300 likes as a good time investment for two years worth of posts.
Even highly focused overachievers like me – who grew up in the tech industry and should definitely know better – sit down to work only to find that, a few tweets, texts, and emails later, half the day is gone and the work is a long way away from getting done.
The word addiction used to refer to drugs and alcohol. For many people who are susceptible to that sort of thing, the discipline of working 40 or 50 hours a week and having to raise a family were the only things that kept them from succumbing to that powerful tug.
Today, you can add texting, tweeting, posting, blogging, emailing, gaming, shopping, eating, and of course, porn, to that ever-growing list of addictive activities. To make matters worse, it appears that the threshold for human susceptibility to these addictions is getting lower all the time.
The reason for that is a complex set of factors I have neither the time nor the space to get into in detail, but I’ll summarize them as biological factors: neurotransmitters in your brain’s limbic system that reinforce certain behavior; and sociological factors: cultural influences that create a sort of situational peer pressure.
Unfortunately, none of that’s likely to change anytime soon. If anything, it’s only going to get worse. And the only two forces I’m aware of that are capable of overriding those powerful factors are:
Higher-level brain functions like logical reasoning, as in, “Damn, I should have known better than to waste a day on social media when I was supposed to be working on that board presentation. I’ll know better next time.”
Discipline, will power, work ethic – call it what you want, it’s why we do what we have to do instead of what we want to do. Not surprisingly, it does relate to the reasoning function, as in, “If I don’t bring home the bacon I’m going to lose my wife, kids, and half of everything I own. And that’s a bad thing.”
While reasoning and discipline can give those addictive factors a run for their money, they seem to be losing ground every year. And if that’s the case, if discipline and reasoning are losing the battle today, what does that portend for future generations who grow up with all those addictive distractions in their lives?
Will it cause them to make poorer life and business decisions or will they develop some sort of immunity? Your guess is as good as mine, but I seriously doubt if it’s the latter.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.