It was inevitable that someone, at some point, would hand me a badly Xeroxed sheet of paper with a quote about “attitude” on it and suggest that I “really think about it.” I’m sort of surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.
Here’s what it said:
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice very day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude… I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes.”
To which the only possible response — made more interesting by the fact that it was my boss who gave me the Xerox — is: What a steaming load of horseshit.
The logic of this quote is stunning, the same way that a metal bolt shot into the back of a cow’s head, stupefying it into unconsciousness before slaughter, is stunning. Not to go all reductio ad absurdum, but come on — if only starving children or enslaved laborers or the billions of people trapped into lives of discomfort, pettiness or simple cruelty could look on the bright side, well then, they would be so much better off! The way the sun glints off the blood of my family is particularly lovely this morning.
This “attitude” nonsense is pernicious, the unholy combination of Nietzschian will-to-power and Up with People. Of course a Christian minister like Charles Swindoll advocates ignoring the evidence of the physical world, because it’s the foundation that his entire life is built on. But for the rest of us, those who don’t make a living by convincing people that the misery they feel is their own fault, it doesn’t quite cut the mustard, epistemologically speaking.
And while I hesitate to make the jump from abject human suffering to corporate America — because of the multiple orders-of-magnitude differences in scale, and because the joke is too cheap — the latter is where I’ve had most of my contact with Attitude Fascists. And the same fundamental ground rules apply: Your unhappiness is your own fault. Accept your environment for what it is, because there’s nothing you can do about it. Get back to work, you.
But that’s wrong — massively, monumentally, fundamentally wrong. Sorry, Charles Swindoll, but you are mistaken. Perhaps your distain for the facts plays into it somewhere.
Environmental factors — from the availability of food and shelter to a corporate culture that encourages customization of work spaces — are the primary determinants of happiness: morale, satisfaction, not seeing your children eaten by alligators, whatever name you want to give it. I can’t pretend to provide a comprehensive survey of thought on the subject, but the information is everywhere — from theological humanism to Peopleware. There’s just too much out there, hardly any of it on badly Xeroxed pieces of paper.
But what strikes me as the single most significant distinction between an environmental and an attitudinal adjustment towards happiness is its moral component. Saying that my own unhappiness is a result of my attitude puts the entire burden on me to change, while placing the responsibility on the environment puts the burden on the community that creates that environment. Swindoll tries to turn the sole and stand-alone responsibility for self-actualization into a benefit when, in fact, it’s his abdication of collective responsibility that stands out: your attitude is your problem, and it’s up to you and you alone to deal with it. I don’t believe that “Get away from me, boy, you bother me” was the intended message of Christianity.
The same rules apply in the corporate setting: the company holds no responsibility for your attitude. It’s something you need to fix, and fix before your next review. But by limiting someone’s ability to control their environment — to adjust it, tweak it, correct it — you are also limiting their ability to control their attitude. Attitudinal adjustments can be made, yes, superficially, profoundly or pharmacologically, but Sindoll’s 10/90 ratio is nearly exactly backwards. Attitude is not conjured out of the ether — it’s a reaction to the physical world we inhabit, the day-to-day trials that we face, be they hunger or pain or endless meetings or broken workflows or being promoted into the wrong job.
We live in a society where it is not only our option but our obligation to correct an environment we find objectionable — “the pursuit of happiness” is perhaps the most striking phrase of our founding document. The whole idea of America is that we can define the terms of our own happiness, through community consensus and collective responsibility.
Of course, corporations are not democracies and their founding documents are more likely to contain phrases like “synergic solutions for the value-oriented consumer.” But they have perhaps an even more compelling reason to accept the fundamental role that environment plays in happiness than the pinnacle of human political achievement: profit. Study after study has shown that happy workers are productive workers and productive workers make more money for their capitalistic overlords. Is standardizing on Internet Explorer really worth more than that?
It’s not easy, of course, or cheap, but the power of collective responsibility for a collective environment is beyond question. It benefits everyone: the country, the company, citizens, stockholders. Even, yes, employees. Corporate federalism can have the same impact that political federalism has. We just need to embrace it.
How’s that for attitude?