Sometimes inaction is best

Image via Creative Commons

You’ve probably heard about the famous experiment, often cited in books and articles about emotional intelligence, in which children are put into a room with a marshmallow. They are told that they can eat the marshmallow now, but if they wait, they can have two. The point is usually that waiting for two marshmallows is predictive of emotional intelligence.

Being able to resist the temptation for immediate gratification is one of the central tenants of human history. It’s as old as the Garden of Eden. Immediate gratification becomes the business model for many successful enterprises. Convenience stores are predicated on the notion of paying three times as much for a sundry as you would pay at a Walgreen’s if you could hold on a little longer.

You don’t have to reproduce the marshmallow study in a clinical setting to know there is much truth to the notion that success often hinges on being able to resist doing what seems so compelling right now. Look around at the people you most admire and there is probably a large measure of self-discipline in their lives.

Tony Schwartz said, “If you feel compelled to do something, don’t.” I’ve found this to be a helpful rule of thumb for my actions. Indeed, it is difficult to document what didn’t happen, but I’m sure this phrase has kept me from doing many things I knew would not make me proud in the long run.

Many times, someone will say something and we feel we must respond. This has perhaps been especially true in the past few months. I truly believe that when you compromise your character in response to anyone else, you give away something that is yours, something no one else can ever take away. If you really believe that you are being a bigger person by holding your tongue, you should continue that. Tongues will wag, minds on all sides are closed, and nothing will change. But you will always know that you overcame the urge to lower yourself to someone else’s level.

In five years, when whatever transpires today is forgotten, you will be proud of the person you see in the mirror because you had the strength of character to do what you know to be right. As Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Any time we can help someone be a better person, if we care about her or him, we should do our part to encourage that. Sometimes that is as simple as these words: “If you feel compelled to do something, don’t.”

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