Friday, July 29, 2011

Path of least resistance

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
I do not think I am being cynical when I say that people, generally, are like electricity – we follow the path of least resistance.
This can be an amazing trait, because in many respects it helps us function more efficiently. We follow the rules or expectations laid out before us by law or societal perceptions of right and wrong behavior.
As a result, navigating traffic remains relatively safe, bills get paid on time (unless the state of Illinois is writing the check), work gets done to specification and within set timeframes.

But the path of least resistance also has the proclivity for tremendous failure: It can make us lazy as we seek short cuts to complete tasks. Following this path, particularly under stressful conditions, can make us function as automatons who fail to pause now and then to consider what we are doing, why we are doing it, and whether or not there is something we should be doing that might improve the product or the task.

I think for example, of running a spell check on a story – or for that matter this blog. When I’m in a rush, clicking the “Ignore” or “Add to dictionary” button becomes mind-numbingly easy – and I’ll gloss right over a mistake, realizing only a split second after clicking the button that I’d just approved a misspelled word.

That can lead to embarrassment and even erode credibility.

Ultimately, perhaps my favorite example of how this path can end in failure is illustrated in an incident that transpired in Rawlins, Wyo., in the mid- to late 1980s. Several years after I had started reporting, I was thrust into the public spotlight by the mayor during a televised City Council meeting.

I had been writing weekly over several months about the evolution of some ordinance on which the City Council and city staff had been working. The details of the ordinance are no longer relevant. Now the council was ready to cast its final vote on the ordinance.

But a large, fairly angry, vocal crowd showed up at the meeting to object. These people were furious, and more than one complained that the city was trying to sneak this thing through suddenly, without warning.

The  mayor at the time was Bob Grauberger, a nice enough guy with many good intentions, integrity and the usual amount of plainspoken gumption that I came to believe was fairly common among Wyoming residents. Seriously, out there, I saw very little backstabbing. People said what they meant, and they said it to your face. You were expected to respond accordingly. Character and integrity mattered, and Lord help anyone who became known as a liar. Actually, when I left Wyoming in the early 1990s, the law of the land still recognized a handshake over a livestock sale as a legally binding contract.

So hearing the people in this group level their complaints complaints, Mayor Grauberger stood up and just looked at every one in the crowd, slack-jawed. Then he pointed to me.

I, well, I started to squirm.

He started scolding those in the crowd, mentioning some by name, and saying something along the lines of, “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. This reporter, this is Ted Schnell over here, must be feeling rather badly right now because you’re claiming the City Council was trying to sneak something through that he’s been writing about every week for months on end.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!”

Later, I would feel annoyed that I’d been embarrassed. But at the moment, the mayor was dead-on right. Everyone in the council chambers clearly got the message.

Just as a town marshal 100 years earlier might have called out a gunslinger on a dusty street to haul him off to jail for his crimes, Grauberger had put this crowd on the spot. He let them know they weren’t fooling anyone with their lies. And of course he was pointing to me as his evidence against their lies. And as uncomfortable as that made me feel at the moment, he was right to do so.

Over the coming days, a couple of people in the crowd actually reached out to apologize to me over the incident, saying they couldn’t imagine how they had missed the reading those articles I had written.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that in this, too, people had chosen the path of least resistance. They’d seen the headlines each week, perhaps even read some of the articles. But early on in the process, final action was too far into the future to worry about now, and it probably would not happen, anyway. So they sat back, watched television, went out bowling or took in a flick instead of attending City Council meetings during those initial months.

Once they realized it was about to pass, they mustered enough anger and courage to get out of their seats and over to City Hall to make their voices heard, have their displeasure felt. To disguise their own apathy early on, they falsely accused the city of trying to sneak something past the residents.

Human nature. The path of least resistance.

It’s a part of us that can improve our efficiency or accelerate a blunder.