More than my fair share
© 16 Mar 2015 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Thoughts on collaboration, annoyance, bread, and accountability.


In RootsTech 2014 I presented a talk on collaboration, a talk I subsequently refined and re-presented at several smaller family history fairs. Part of that talk came to mind again recently as I was reflecting on a talk given by Todd Christofferson in the October 2014 General Conference. Before exploring this relationship I’ll review the relevant part of my talk.

More than my share

Suppose you are working with another person to achieve some task comprised of many different parts, each having its own level of importance and requiring its own level of effort. The level of contribution you each feel you are providing will vary, but in general it increases with both effort and importance. If you and I do the same amount of work but yours is more important than mine, we tend to feel that you contributed more; likewise, if you and I do work of equivalent importance but yours required more effort than mine, we also tend to feel that you contributed more;

However, it is unusual for two people to agree on the importance or difficulty of a task. This almost inevitably creates a sense of inequality because of two other trends. The first trend is for people to do the most important task first, meaning in particular that if you think X is more important than I do then you are more likely to be the one who gets to X first. The second trend is to underestimate the level of effort any future task requires and overestimate the effort we actually invested in any task we accomplished, meaning in particular that if you did X you probably think it it took more work than I think it could/should have taken.

The outcome of these patterns is simple: I will think that I am contributing more than you think I am contributing. In fact, if I feel like we are splitting work fairly then the most probable reality is that I am not doing my share.

As an aside, I assume intuitively that there ought to be people who have the opposite bias and see themselves as doing less than their share. There certainly seem to be people who are very hard on themselves and never think their own work is as good as that of others. But each time that I have investigated the feeling of equity in these people I have found they feel ill-used and overworked and that others owe them. I assume this is because I have a relatively small sample size.

An Attitude of Service, not Justice

When my father was a missionary in Denmark he and his companion would often share a loaf of bread for lunch, taking turns who would purchase it. He tells of a particular companion who, on their first day together, purchased the bread and then cut it in a noticeably lopsided manner, keeping the larger half for himself. The next day my father says he tried to duplicate the lopsided cut, keeping the larger half to balance the injustice of the day before. The next day his companion then cut it even more lopsided, which my father mimicked, and so on. Eventually they decided they needed to address this and came up with a rule: one person cuts, the other picks.

Because mission companions come and go every few weeks or months, my father soon found himself with another companion. On their first day together my father relates that this missionary also cut the loaf in a noticeably lopsided manner—but selected for himself the smaller half. My father was grateful and reciprocated the next day, giving his companion a larger portion. The following day his companion cut it even more lopsided, which my father mimicked, and so on. Eventually they decided they needed to address this and came up with a rule: one person cuts, the other picks.

This story illustrates a pair of mindsets I find widespread and remarkably distinct. In our interactions with collaborators of any ilk we are each either motivated by service, wanting to do our part and more; or we are motivated by justice, wanting to do no more than our part. People do sometimes switch between these within a situation, but most seem to have a standard mindset in each circumstance. For example, I find that most people I know are justice-oriented drivers and service-oriented parents.

I have personally found that I am happiest when I have a service mindset, an attitude of helping people out; and most annoyed when I have a justice mindset, an attitude of fair interactions, and judge my fellow humans to be pulling less than their weight. While it is very hard to switch mindsets, I have reasonable success in applying the awareness of unbalanced perspectives described in the last section of this post to mitigate my sense of being unjustly used and thus cure my own annoyed state.

One last comment here: both the service mindset and the non-annoyed perspective yield well to practice. I strongly advocate a conscious effort to think of others as people you are in a position to help and to view their efforts as being larger and more important than you can see.

Who bears responsibility?

Elder Christofferson asks a question that has been asked many times before: who bears responsibility for what happens in our lives? He introduces this by a passage from William Shakespeare’s Henry V where King Henry and William Bates disagree on who bears responsibility for the acts of the subjects of a king. One suggests the responsibility rests with the king; the other that it rests with the individual.

As I listened to this talk again on my way home from work one day last week, I was impressed by the similarity between this idea and the two I’ve described above. In my mind, the perfect king would be arguing the responsibility rests with the king, while the perfect subject would argue it rests with the individual. Shakespeare, playing the commentator on human foibles as he so often does, casts it the other way around. Each not only wishes, but actually appears to believe, that the responsibility rests on the other.

This, I feel, is one of the pressures that pushes us into a justice mindset and reinforces our unbalanced sense of contributions. If I am serving you then in some degree I have assumed responsibility for what happens in your life; while if I am convinced I am doing more than my share you become the weakest link and any failures we experience are not seen by me as my fault. Always and ever I am tempted to push off the responsibility, that heaviest of all loads; and in doing so I almost never take the additional responsibility of deciding if I ought to so have displaced it.

But tying this into my comments about happiness, an attitude of service, properly realized, is a great boost for it is an attitude of doing more than mere responsibility demands. It is like the freedom that is earning more than you spend: there is a surplus, some breathing room, some space in which a slip or mistake spells no doom.

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