Long before it had a name, people searched for life hacks.
Charles Schwab, then owner of Bethlehem Steel, wanted an edge over his competition, so he called on efficiency expert Ivy Lee. The story goes that Schwab asked Lee to show him how to get more done and that Lee replied with a request of just 15 minutes with each company executive.
When asked what sort of payment Lee required for his work, Lee replied, “Nothing. Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth.”
During Lee's brief meetings with the executives, he gave them each this task: At the end of every workday, write a list of the six most important things you wish to complete the next day in order of importance. Work in order and only move on to the next task when the one above has been completed and scratched off. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to be part of the next day’s list of six items. Repeat this process every day.
Three months later, Ivy Lee received a check from Charles Schwab of what would amount to about $400,000 today. Not bad for a day’s work.
Nowadays, anyone can get the edge over just about anything and also in 15 minutes. With a simple search, our ways can be fixed from high atop the internet mountain. Adulting like a pro, parenting 101, weight loss for losers, perfect skin, and pet whispering, just to name a few – the answers are out there. The problem? For every legitimate expert opinion, there are a million meddling mother type opinions just waiting to get their two cents in. And while I enjoy a good ride on the search engine express, allow me a little meddling of my own for those of you, like myself, who simply hit the search button for a pro tip, not a lecture.
It seems we are in the age of the should and should nots. For everything we are doing right, there is someone hiding behind their screen telling us how we’re doing it wrong. For every mystery to adulthood we think we’ve cracked, there is a list of ten things we should have done better. Even poor old Santa isn’t safe. According to a recent popular list of how to keep Christmas magical, Santa should not give electronics. I guess that memo didn’t reach him before he hit my house. “Should” I now place a scarlet “E” on my door, marking the shame of an electronic-ridden household?
Ah, adulting in the digital age, where I am now a certified questioner of my own convictions, not by default but through the myriad scoldings that consume my feeds:
“Why You Should Co-Sleep,” “The Importance of the Self-Soothing Baby,” “How Meal Kits Saved the Family Dinner,” “Why Meal Kits are Destroying America,” “Why Dogs Must Relieve Themselves Thrice Each Walk,” “The Necessity of the Backyard and Your Dog.”
See, I was content with lying down with my daughter for ten minutes at bedtime. I was relieved that a meal delivery service did the thinking for me, and, honestly, some days my dog is lucky to have puppy pads. I was peaceful with all of my choices until you – that voice without a face – told me I shouldn’t be and then everyone under the sun belittled me further through their comments. When did we all become such experts that we dished it out with the same authority as Ivy Lee to Charles Schwab?
At some point the innocent opinion became a gateway for acceptable rudeness. And I wonder if we have always been so brash, but only now have a platform with the click of a button. If so, how do we shut out the noise from a vent that only seems to widen with each day?
The baby shower for my first child was beautiful and generous and filled to the brim with eager words of wisdom. Breastfeeding, bottle feeding, natural childbirth, epidural, Hooked On Phonics for newborns–the unsolicited advice was palpable. I pictured the serenity of escaping to somewhere remote – maybe Papua New Guinea? – and birthing my baby in the brush, lulled by the chants of native tribes. It seemed far more civil than the Land of a Million Opinions into which I was bringing my child. Then one older relative, who must have seen my eyes darting toward the door, pulled me aside and said, “Just smile. Say thank you, knowing you are the mother and no one else is.”
Noise will go away by the silence it receives in return. Life didn’t come with a manual, nor a vacancy to write one. Smile at the naysayers, knowing that their approval really doesn’t matter, and thank them only after their undermining made you realize just how much you love unorthodox you. There is no right way to fix us–and if we aren’t broken, we probably don’t need fixing anyway.
I know enough to know that “should” is a very useful word in instances like safety, basic health, and baking. I should realize that sometimes things just are. There is a right way and a wrong way to ensure a cake rises. But should I choose extra frosting between layers, more than you would, and should you criticize my sweet tooth, I should also remember that more times than not, criticism is just poorly worded concern. Most people mean well. They just don’t know how to say it well. Bless their hearts.
Tonight I think I should write a list of six things–six things I do my way and do well. I’ll do it again tomorrow night. And the next. And in three months time, I’ll reward myself for whatever I think I’m worth.
You “should” too.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.