Burdens, Desires, & Motivations

Some things shouldn’t be done by people who want to do them.

There are some things in life that are burdens that need to be carried, even to the point where we greatly admire the people who carry them, but we should be wary of people who want to do them. I’m going to start with a really extreme (and uncomfortable!) example, but then pull it back into a more day-to-day examination of the concept.

There are people in the FBI who specialize in stopping the trafficking of child pornography. This is a good thing – I don’t feel like I have to take a strong stance here on “child porn is bad, mkay” but just in case. Now, an unfortunate reality of the capture and prosecution of people who traffic in that stuff is that someone on the law enforcement side has to look at it. Someone has to look through all the files on a criminal’s computer to see which are child pornography, or try to identify victims, or just evaluate for how many charges to bring against the person, etc. We can safely call that job a “burden.” It has to be done, but it’s not something a good person would look forward to.

Now, imagine you had a bright young FBI agent who was volunteering hard to get that job. It’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where their motivations are pure, but it’s pretty difficult. Like, that’s a really terrible and burdensome and soul-crushing job, and the kind of people who go beyond being willing to carry the burden for the rest of us and into being excited for the opportunity? If I met such a person, I would be extremely wary of them.

I knew a marine once who told me that he wanted to be a sniper, but they wouldn’t let him despite him having all of the proficiency and skill needed. I asked him why, and he said “I had a psych evaluation where I told them I really wanted to be a sniper.” That actually seems like sound policy to me.

Douglas Adams applied the philosophy to political leadership. To quote:

“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

(By the way, Douglas Adams was freakin’ brilliant.)

Things like investigating and prosecuting child pornography, being a sniper, or leading a nation are all terrible things to endure. They might need to be done (opinions may vary here), but they’re terrible for the soul of the individual doing them. In other words, they’re burdens. It can be noble to take on a burden, but when you’re eager to do it – not because you’re eager to spare others the burden, but because you’re actually eager to do something so damaging to the soul – it should give us pause.

And it might be a good reason not to let that person do that thing.

Now, I used some big, big examples to illustrate this concept. Heavy, heavy burdens. But there are lighter things that fit the general idea. Let’s look at rehab.

Drug and alcohol rehabilitation is tough. I know people personally that have gone through it. Every person is different – different in how intense the intervention has to be, how long they have to be “actively” in rehab, and so on. If two people sign up for a six-month rehab program on the same day, it’s totally possible for one of them to be in a good enough place to leave in two months, while the other might not actually be ready even after six.

But imagine that someone tells you, on day one, that they’d like to be done the program in two months instead of six. Even though you might know that it’s possible for some people to be capable of doing that, the very fact that the individual asks that on day one is a really strong indicator that it won’t be them. It shows that they’re not motivated to get better, they’re motivated to get through. Which in turn means you should probably put a note in that this person likely needs extra time, rather than less.

Why a person wants to do something matters, in other words. Sometimes the “alternative benefit” is obvious and just a matter of preference: when I was a teenager, I worked in a local convenience store. One of the jobs everyone hated was unpacking the big deliveries we’d get several times a week, because it meant you had to spend at least a few hours in the cooler unpacking all the drinks and stocking them onto the cooler shelves, and you had to do it by yourself so you couldn’t chat with your co-workers.

Here are some things I love: Listening to music, and being cold. If you’re unpacking the cooler you don’t have to interact with customers, so you’re allowed to wear headphones. And it’s freezing in there (obviously) even in the brutal summer months. So I always volunteered for that job. It was a win/win since most other people didn’t want to do it. I didn’t pretend that I was volunteering out of a sense of altruism, to save my co-workers from having to do it. I wanted to do it. But in this case, that’s okay – I was eager rather than burdened, but my eagerness wasn’t a harbinger of any other malicious intent.

Now, contrast this with the story of Kelly* (name changed). Another task everyone hated was counting out their cash drawers at the end of their shifts. We didn’t have a slick cash machine, so you had to count everything out by hand, enter it into a pretty archaic system, etc. Since it had to happen after your shift was officially over but took like 15 minutes, everyone actually ended up having to stay 15-20 minutes past their shift (torture to a teenager!), or much longer if more than one person clocked out at the same time (a frequent occurrence!), since there was only one archaic machine to enter your totals in. Kelly was JUST SO NICE and always told her shift-mates that they could go home and she’d stay behind and count everyone’s tills for them. Kids eager to run from work ignored the obvious red flags. Kelly was pocketing a lot of money from other people’s drawers (never her own), and she was very clever. Being off by $20 on your till was grounds for discipline, but letting someone else count your till was grounds for immediate termination. Kelly kept apologizing and saying it was an honest mistake until someone finally caught her counting multiple tills and just fired her for that.

Sometimes when someone volunteers for the burdensome job, there’s a bad motivator in there somewhere.

The point of all of this isn’t that you should be constantly suspicious of everything that everybody does. But you should seek to understand why people make the choices they do. Aligning people – including yourself – with circumstances where they’re motivated to do good deeds helps create a good world. Do it when you can.

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