“Quality is value to some person” restated

Michael Bolton has asked me to improve the sentence in the headline. Here is my attempt. It stems from two of my beliefs:

  • It’s better to focus on the immediate problem than on convincing people of a universal truth.

  • Right action does not follow from thinking correctly. Thinking correctly follows from the habit of acting correctly.

The sentence is an aphorism: terse, stylish, true, and deep. I think its proponents value the aphoristic quality as much as they do the underlying sentiment. When I watch them use it, I believe they’d be happiest if they could generate an epiphany (”a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something”). I’ll try and mimic some of the aphoristic terseness at first, even though I am explicitly not going for an epiphany.

Here goes:

1. The setting: an unproductive conversation needs to be redirected. It’s likely that the conversation is happening because some important people are unhappy. But instead of talking about how to make them happy, we’re talking about whether they are right to be unhappy. We’ve come down to—explicitly or implicitly—competing definitions of quality.

2. There is a brief lull in the conversation. Our hero speaks.

“Different people care differently.” (beat)

Because the sentence doesn’t obviously have anything to do with quality, it has a desirable “huh? where did that come from?” effect that keeps people from jumping into our hero’s pause-for-emphasis.

3. The hero speaks the following sentence with an “opening up / giving” hand movement, the sort where you bring your hand up and out, rotating it from palm down to palm up. This counters the harshness and abruptness of the first sentence: Diff-rent pee-pul judge diff-rent-ly.

“So different people will judge our product differently.” (beat)

A little rhetorical flourish in the parallelism of the two sentences. The “so” at the beginning switches the meter to more iambic, gives it a little forward momentum, opens it up into a more conversational tone. “Judge” is a strong, active word (as is “care”), and focuses attention on what people are doing that the group must react to.

4. Someone tries to jump into the pause. Our hero gains time for one more utterance with a “just one more thing” head-tilt-back, audible intake of breath, and soft palms-out rotation of the hands, forefinger up.

5. The next bit takes long enough to give our hero a chance to make contact, via hand and head movements, with the people who are bored sick of the argument and have been sitting silently while the true believers battle it out. They’re being invited to break their silence to lend support.

“I predict that if we figure out which people we care about, and figure out what they care about, and how we can know their judgments before we get surprised like we were, we can live long and happy lives without ever agreeing what quality is. Let’s give it a try, OK?”

Long—because the problem isn’t simple. A program for action. Inviting a group of arguers to become “we” again.

The whole structure of the three parts is moving from authoritarian (”a fact you must recognize is…”) and abrupt to light (”long and happy lives”) and consensus-seeking (”we”, “OK”, ending on a rising question-tone).

4 Responses to ““Quality is value to some person” restated”

  1. mheusser Says:

    Really cool piece, man. Really good concrete advice to people that are struggling; thank you.

    One thing I would mention is “Right action does not follow from thinking correctly. Thinking correctly follows from the habit of acting correctly.”

    I can easily think of many situations where this could be true, yet something in tone strikes as … well … “off” maybe. Off of my own personal value system, at least. I’d be interested in what more /*you*/ have to say on that subject.

  2. Brian Marick Says:

    I think my base inspiration was from reading about William James, who turned himself into an energetic optimistic person by deciding to act like one. Probably any biography of him will talk about that. (Before that, he was a suicidal depressive.)

    Philosophically, this ties into the American Pragmatism of Pierce, who gave habit a huge role. As I recall, he speculated that natural laws evolved from habitual patterns of matter’s behavior, and that eventually all randomness and free will would evolve into deterministic law-driven behavior. Crazy stuff, but it’s an image that’s stuck with me. I don’t remember if James connected with Pierce before or after his life change. I suspect after.

    Less fancifully, it’s based on my understanding of the brain as an organ that tries to replace thinking with habit whenever it can. Montague’s /Why Choose This Book/ is good on that, though not so well written. He points out that habits are more energy-efficient than thinking, so the brain (which already consumes a huge portion of the body’s resources) favors the development of habits.

    While habits of thought are often not a good thing, the brain is what it is, and you might as well exploit its, um, habits for good.

    Final piece in the puzzle (insofar as I have time to spell it out now) is confirmation bias (probably not quite the right term). If there’s something we do, something we’re fond of doing, something we’re committed to doing, we’re really good at coming up with reasons why that is the right thing to do. So: if I infect myself with a habit and make available some good reasons for that habit, my lazy brain will latch onto them. And it will latch onto them with more certainty than if I try to make it believe the good reasons and, from them, generate the good habits. Because habits of thought are stickier than habits of behavior (recognizing there’s no clear line between the two).

  3. stevenMsmith Says:

    I admire your approach to creating a more productive conversation, especially the inclusion of conversational elements, such as tone, pace and gesture, that are beyond the cognitive (just words).

    The approach seems a restatement of these messages: “Quality is value to some person” + “Whose opinion of quality is to count when making decisions?” + “Decisions about quality are always a political/emotional issue.”

    Both approaches to the topic lead to similar outcomes. Your proposed approach is an alternative to talking about the topic without mentioning the word “quality.” I believe that your approach would create value for some organizations faster than using the other messaging. Use the approach that fits the receiver rather than the sender.

  4. Quality is ambiguous : Clevertester Says:

    […] called his entry “Quality is value to some person” restated. In his entry he describes quality without even using the name […]

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