Guilt and Our Choices
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Today I want to talk about guilt and the weird way it makes people act.
In college, I never understood the jackasses who would say they had “tons of work to do” and that they “should work” and would go to the library for 13 hours, where they would chat on AIM, read maybe a total of 25 pages, and come back telling everyone they’d been at the library “all day” (wipe brow). This smacks of stupidity and when I saw this, I thanked god that he made me a tall but frail man, because if I were Mike-Tyson-sized, there would be some trouble for everybody.
Was it really that they needed that much time to work? If so, god bless them. We all have our own working styles, with some people working faster, some slower, etc.
But 99% of the time, I don’t think it was that. It was guilt about not working. Guilt is a big old huge issue among people when it comes to getting things done. Why?
I’ve found that guilt is a hugely insidious influence for people, especially people our age. We’re making decisions about classes, careers, money, and life because of guilt in a hugely disproportionate way. How many people do you know that major in econ because they’re guilty about their parents paying $160,000 for them to attend college? Or they go to law school? Or choose some particular job because they “should”?
Now I’ll say it again (and this is my last caveat of this essay, because I hate caveats): If we choose our path ourselves, great. But if you choose a life path–or make a major decision that will affect your life path–because of guilt, I want to scream at you.
It’s not just big decisions, either. I know so many people who won’t go out on Thursday night because they have a paper due next Wednesday. “I should work,” they say in an empty voice that assures they will do exactly the opposite. Will the 3 hours really make a difference over the next 6 days? Of course not. But they would feel guilty going out, so staying in that night–even if they got nothing done–seems productive. After reading this article and my minutiae essay, hopefully there’s a pattern emerging: There’s a difference between seeming productive and actually being productive.
This is why you’d never see me “studying” in the lounge while really talking to 589368943 people around me. Or why you’d never see me in the library sleeping. But you’d also RARELY hear me turn down something fun to do work. In fact, lots of people comment how they never see me working at all. It’s not that I’m especially smart. It’s that I don’t engage in unproductive behaviors to assuage my guilt.
I’m not unique. The truth is that most of my mentors and really productive peers do this same thing. They don’t care what others think about how they should work or live.
This is about understanding your goals and ignoring the guilt of your friends, your parents, and everyone else–whether the guilt is real or perceived, whether it’s intentional or not.
Lots of people never take the time to learn and accept their own personal working style. For example, I’m writing this at 2:30am and I’m getting a ton done. But during the day, I watched TV, took a nap, and guilt never entered my mind.
Listen, I hate working. I avoid it as much as I can. So I’ve learned to accept the way I work best: On most days, I spend most of my time reading blogs, sending emails, chatting online, and thinking about strategy stuff. This sounds totally absurd!!! But when it all comes together–this happens maybe a few times a week–I’m able to knock out lots of work very quickly.
A lot of my friends joke about my lifestyle, saying I don’t ever work. That’s cool and I make fun of myself, too. Because really, when your away message says I’m taking a nap and it’s 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon, how can you not mock that? But I don’t take it seriously because others’ expectations of my work style are irrelevant. As long as I get my work done, who cares? And I’ll tell you one more thing: I don’t feel guilty about my chatting or emailing or visiting friends for lunch. Because while those things seem irrelevant to my “work,” they actually drive it.
Why do you think I don’t consider posting on here a waste of time?
We all work differently–that’s obvious. But if you take the time to honestly nail down how you work best–if you experiment with different methods, if you ask people around you, etc–just imagine how productive you could be over the next 1, 5, 10, 20, and 30+ years.
If you don’t decide, guilt will
When I decided to major in STS (Science, Technology, and Society) in college, I was exposed to the wondrous world of guilt. Almost all of my advisors and mentors told me, “Oh no, Ramit, you better pick a better major.” Better? I asked. “Something that’s easier to explain.” Now that is pretty dumb advice. (I don’t blame them; that’s what they knew.) And I could have felt guilty about the money or whatever and said, “Aw, they’re right, I better major in CS.”
And then I would have hated my life. Instead, I used STS as a way to open up conversations, because how often do you hear someone that studied technology and psychology? Bam, let’s get to know each other. I actually like what I studied, and things have turned out fine.
Lots of us are making decisions based on guilt. Not small decisions like whether to go out on Friday or not. Big, huge decisions like what major, where to live, and what job to take. Guilt is a dirty, invisible force that’s especially insidious because it’s almost always perceived, not communicated. If you feel guilty about something, it may be that your parents or friends made you feel guilty. But just as often, it’s you perceiving the guilt and acting on it. And just as often, it’s extraordinarily difficult to identify guilt as the root cause of your behavior.
Here’s what I think.
Let’s banish the empty “should.” If you find yourself saying “I should do X” and looking out the window with a thousand-yard stare, either do it right away or forget about it. (This is tricky because lots of people say they should do really important things, like manage their personal finances, and they really should! So use your judgment.)
I also propose that we think about our choices and ask ourselves why we’re making them. If they’re because of guilt, tread lightly. People will always want you to do something and, as you get older, more and more people will want a piece of you. Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong. But if you let guilt invisibly dictate your decisions, you’ll just be subject to the whims of other people’s desires.
Acknowledge the importance of guilt. Decide for yourself. Stop saying should unless you really mean it. And on a related note, take the time to understand your own working style. It makes a big difference in getting things done.