Tripwires

“I don’t think there is any hope,” said the man.  “My marriage is a total failure.”

“I see,” said the lawyer.  He took out a yellow legal pad and began making notes.  “So, do you know when your wife’s affair began?”

“Affair?  I didn’t say anything about an affair.  She’s never so much as looked at another man.”

“I see.  Then did she use a weapon when she attacked you?”

“Weapon?  She never attacked me.  She wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“Sorry.  I guess I was jumping to conclusions.  How much money has she stolen?”

“She hasn’t stolen anything!”

“Okay, then, were there witnesses present when she threatened you?”

“She’s never threatened me!” said the man.  “You’re not listening to me!”

The lawyer sighed and put down the legal pad.  “I guess you’re right.  My apologies.  Now, tell me—in your own words—why your marriage is a failure.”

“It’s the dishes,” said the man.

“The dishes?”

“Yes.  When she does the dishes she puts them all up except for this one plate.  She always leaves this one damned plate out and expects me to put it up.  She’s always doing stuff like that.  Leaving one light on.  Leaving a pile of underwear on the bed so I have to fold it before going to sleep.  I tell you, I feel like a damned fool jumping through all her hoops.”

A damned fool, indeed.

Our brains are magnificent structures, highly efficient in making sense of isolated, disparate clues.  They have no problem knitting together convincing narratives that tie all available data together.  It really doesn’t matter if they stories are true; as long as they are internally coherent we tend to accept them as reality.

No wonder it’s so easy to jump to conclusions, often incorrect conclusions.  Your wife has erratic habits so she doesn’t love you.  Your boss neglects to say good morning so your career is toast.  Your child is grumpy at breakfast so he’s building bombs in the basement.  Jerry Jones is a damned fool so the Cowboys will never amount to anything.  (Okay, admittedly sometimes the narratives have more of a ring of truth to them.)

How do you put reins on the great fiction machine between your ears?  Sometimes all you need is a bit of context.  (Check out StackMeUp for a fun way to see how to compare to the rest of us in a number of areas.)

Another way is to use tripwires, a series of objective events that are grounded in reality.  I first came across the concept of tripwires from Chip and Dan Heath in their book Decisive.  There is also a nice summary of the use of tripwires in this article by Mick Ukleja.

The lawyer in the narrative above walks through a series of tripwires.  If your spouse is having an affair, your marriage is in big trouble.  Similarly with attacks, intimidation and deceptions.  Add to the list less threatening events such as refusing to hold up their end of the relationship, whether it is doing laundry, mowing the lawn or caring for the children.  Include things like the quality of time you spend together, the conversations you have and your sex life.  Now, rank these in priority order, with the marriage-shattering events at the top and the smaller annoyances at the bottom.  Finally, check off the areas where you clearly see a problem.  If you are like most of us, you will probably conclude that your marriage needs some work, but is not in danger of failing.

This approach has two advantages.  First it provides objective context.  (I remember a line from All in The Family, when Archie says to Edith something like ‘I ain’t never tried to shoot you and you ain’t never tried to shoot me.  See?  We got a good marriage.’)  Second, it highlights potential problems early enough that you can do something about it.

If you’re worried about your career, then build a career checklist.  Has your boss directly indicated that you weren’t performing well?  No fair reading behind the lines of hallway conversations.  We’re asking about a direct statement, boss to employee.  Have you overheard him say that you are not performing well?  Again, no fictional gap fillers.  Work your way down the list.  Are you getting proper assignments?  Are your raises on par with others in your position?

If you are okay by these objective measures, then keep your eyes open, but realize that your boss has more in his life than you.  I had a mentor once that abruptly abandoned me, showing no interest in supporting me or helping me to advance.  I was hurt, of course, and puzzled.  Something was clearly not right.  A few months later he announced he was getting a divorce and all the missing pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

As this example shows, we often don’t have all the relevant information to interpret our situations.  By all means use all available resources to fill in the gaps, but be sure the story you weave matches the reality that is visible.

I’ve got to go now.  There’s a figure lurking in the bushes.  I’m pretty sure it’s Jerry Jones.

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