Saturday, 18 February 2012

The importance of reading the writing on the wall

"In life," wrote Aristotle in the year 328 BC "it is often difficult to decide what to choose and what to endure when alternatives are painful and success uncertain." Whether you are in business for yourself, gainfully employed, or preparing for a better future, a day will rarely go by without your having to make decisions about people.

These are some choices that most human beings have to make in their lives:
  • Whether you will hire a person to work for you.
  • If a certain investment advisor is the right person to entrust your savings to.
  • Proposing marriage or not.
  • On whom you can rely in a critical situation.
I have made my share of mistakes with people, but luckily enough, I have also learned from them. Did I err differently on each occasion? Hardly. With the embarrassment of a slow learner, I must confess that, fundamentally, I have made every time the same mistake.

What was the reason for my repeated slips? In every case through all these years, without being able to recall a single exception, I have simply failed to read the writing on the wall. I have determinedly, doggedly, blinded myself to evidence once and again. I have ignored obvious danger signals and told myself that everything was going to be all right.

Fooling ourselves about pretended virtues of people we deal with is such a common phenomenon that makes one wonder if a remedy exists for such sickness. The good news is that there is a cure. The bad news is that the medicine is free. Possibly, for that reason, it took me so long to take it seriously.

"The essence of things doesn't change," is Aristotle's fundamental maxim. I should have spent more time reading Aristotle, an hour a day for instance. I guess that, sooner or later, I would have understood that the essence of a person doesn't change either, or to be fair, I should rather say that the essence of a person very rarely changes.

How does Aristotle's principle translate into practical advice? These are a few examples:
  • Who lies to you once, is likely to do that again in the future.
  • Aggressive people might calm down for a while, but their true character will soon return.
  • There is not such a thing as occasional dishonesty. A tainted soul seldom becomes white again.
  • Rudeness and abuse show the meagre virtue of those who practice them.
  • Moral cowardice often signals worse things to come in the future.
Do not fall into the trap of allowing wishful thinking to override your direct perception of reality. "It is absurd for an individual to doubt his sensing of external things," observed Aristotle, "yet man is easily caught by illusions."

When you experience someone's lies, rudeness, aggressiveness, or moral cowardice, make an indelible note in your mind never to trust that person ever again. Of course, from time to time, you will forget and suffer some negative consequences. Take heart, if you learn your lesson by the second or third mistake, you'd be already light-years ahead of most people.


[Image by wwarby under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]