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Paternalism

Do As I Say, Not As I Do…

Do as I say, not as I do….

That was something my mother drilled into me over and over again…usually when I was complaining about it being unfair that I had to do something (like turn off the TV and go to bed) that she was not doing herself.  I’m not completely sure that I fully agree with this message, but I understand it.  We were at different levels, she a superior and a caretaker…an adult.  And I a child, still learning lessons and not at all faced with the same circumstances as her.

But…what about when the circumstances are similar?  When we are peers?  Can you still say “Do as I say, not as I do?”

The reason I ask is that I saw a clip of Barack Obama essentially telling students today that they needed to think really hard about what careers were going to be hiring before deciding what to focus on in college.

It’s not terrible advice (though I don’t fully agree since what’s hot in the job market today may not, and quite likely will not be what’s hot tomorrow). But what I couldn’t stop thinking is whether he would tell Malia and Sasha this when they are ready to go to college and wanted to study Russian Literature or International Relations instead of Forensic Science or Computer Graphics.  I don’t know the answer to that.  Maybe he would.  But it just struck me, and reminded me that frequently people in policyland decide to push for something, without seeing the irony that they would never do it, nor accept it for themselves.

  • All schools should drill and test students on math and english with no arts or PE…good for your kids, but certainly not mine
  • People should be drug tested before receiving any money from the federal government…good for you, but not for the legislator getting paid by the government
  • Emergency room care is health care…maybe for you, but definitely not for me
  • We should implement a soda tax…poor people could just drink tap water, while I still drink my Coke Zero
  • We need austerity to pay down the debt…you need to sacrifice, but I sure as hell don’t

In a previous life, professionally speaking that is, I was an adviser myself.  Strategic, financial…blah blah blah.  Whatever.  One thing that always made me pause was that a lot of the advice that my colleagues (and I…who am I kidding?) gave were recommendations that we either would not or could not abide by ourselves.  Whether that was related to, for instance, cutting costs, hiring / promoting / supporting senior women executives, or developing and implementing rigorous financial plans and forecasts, I don’t think we were giving bad advice, but it felt somewhat hypocritical to produce charts and graphs and slides all saying why it was necessary to do so without having done so ourselves.

And I think this is important for a couple of reasons…

First, without actually living the advice one provides, the person receiving the advice is considerably more likely to dismiss it.  There’s a reason (or many reasons) that the adviser (or policymaker) can’t follow their own recommendations (usually because it’s hard, or potentially unrealistic).

Second, and perhaps even worse, it may not be that the adviser (or policymaker) can’t, it’s that they just won’t.  This almost feels like they are saying we don’t need to, because we’re not you.  Essentially, we’re better than you.  Or to put it less harshly, you are not really my peer, so therefore you should Do What I Say and Not What I Do…it’s just a somewhat paternalistic mentality…

What do you think?

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