January 22nd, 2012
07:00 AM ET

Letters to the President #1098: 'Sharing the wealth: the final chapter'

Reporter's Note: All the candidates for President in 2012, including the current one, are raising boatloads of money. Lately I’ve been writing about how much more useful it might be if they spent some of it doing the very work they say they want to do once in office.

Dear Mr. President,

With the old year sliding like a codger down a muddy slope, and the new one clawing its way to the summit with the vigor of a teen, I find myself thinking about what I have learned in the past twelve months. Here are a couple of thoughts: 1) You can get away with illegal parking more often than you might think, especially when local governments are hurting for cash and running short on meter monitors. 2) No matter how low your opinion of politicians sinks, you can still be disappointed.

But another, broader revelation fell upon me this year as if I were Saul on the road to Damascus: There is almost nothing that people will defend more vigorously than a bad decision. I’ve been aware of this concept for a long time, and I have tended to explain it away as a general concept. But this year I think it rose to the level of being a rule. I have seen far too many examples to think otherwise.

In politics, in business, in almost every aspect of life, I have been astonished by the vigor with which folks will bite, claw, scratch and howl to defend a stance they have taken, no matter how ridiculous. And the corollary is also true: They will viciously attack any alternative idea, no matter how good, if it stands in opposition to their original notion.

I think this is because people need to be smart; or at least to think of themselves as smart. An awful lot of folks believe that if they ever admit an error, it will somehow make others question their competence, so they defend even their most dreadful decisions like mama bears hovering over their cubs.

I am in another camp. I have always felt that the ability to admit a mistake and reconsider ideas that aren’t panning out, are hallmarks of genuine intelligence and leadership. Truly smart people have no trouble recognizing their missteps, fessing up, and moving onto surer footing. They also readily give credit to others who have helped solve the problem. But then, I clearly suffer from some sort of brain fever.

There is probably yet another corollary to consider; something along the lines of, “the more anxiously someone defends an idea, the badder it must be.” But I’ll have to work on that one. Hey, look! A project for next year!


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