Over the past couple of days, I’ve been listening to more country than I probably ought to admit to. This morning, whilst listening to some Brad Paisley (Mud on the Tires, if you’re wondering), I remembered a great prank video involving him that I saw a couple of years ago, and decided to look it up again. I’ve embedded it below. It’s a very short video and well worth a watch:
Brad arrives back home in Nashville on a jet, and upon landing, is “arrested” by the police, taken across the tarmac and put into the back of a police car. Only then, when his “crimes” are read out to him (“excessive noodling”) (“what? On the guitar?!”) does he finally cotton on that the whole thing is a prank.
There were a couple of things about this that got me thinking. Firstly, my respect for the way he handled the situation is extremely high. Even though he obviously hadn’t done anything wrong, he was exceedingly polite, co-operated with everyone involved with an absolute minimum of fuss, and remained completely respectable throughout the whole thing. All this, too, at 3am. Can you imagine Kanye West reacting the same way?
The second thing I noticed was that the entire time he was being marched towards the back of a police car, Brad stayed very calm, and I’m going to attribute this to something he tellingly said whilst being handcuffed:
“I’ve never done anything wrong in my life.”
Let’s not be too literal about this – I’m sure he’s probably done something negative at some point during his 41 years on this planet. However, it reminded me of something that Christopher Hitchens once said about the definition of the word conscience:
““Modern vernacular describes conscience – not too badly – as whatever it is that makes us behave well when nobody is looking…”
Although Brad (at that point) hadn’t actually been told what his so-called crimes were, he never seems edgy or panicky, and that in itself is extremely telling of his character. If you’ve done something unsavoury, you’re extremely likely to get nervous if somebody confronts you about something vague, because you’ll be worried about your “secret” getting out. If you’ve done multiple unsavoury things, it’ll be even worse, because you won’t know which one they’re talking about and will be psychologically on the edge of your seat, wondering which one you’re being confronted with.
If you try to go through life being completely honest and legitimate, you’ll very rarely have this problem. Instead of having half-suppressed worries constantly bubbling at the back of your brain, you can instead enjoy the luxury of being psychologically stable and confident in your confrontations knowing that wherever possible, you have tried to do the right thing.
I remember, back in school, a great example of this. I was in a class (I don’t remember which) and somebody called in, asking me to leave the class and go to see the deputy headteacher immediately. I was a little confused; I couldn’t think of a reason why I was being summoned. Had I perhaps forgotten to bring in a form of some sort? Did they need to give me some coursework back? I didn’t know.
I arrived at the deputy headteacher’s office and sat down. He surveyed me from behind his desk with a rather severe look on his face.
“I expect you know why you’re here.”
Instantly I felt worried, and my mind started racing back to think of anything – anything – that I might have done to warrant the question. I couldn’t think of anything at all; my mind was drawing a complete blank.
“I’m sorry, I have absolutely no idea. Why did you want to see me?”
Impassive, he returned my bewildered looks with indifference.
“I think you know what you did. Don’t try to to deny anything, it’ll make it worse for you.”
At this point, my nervousness had grown less because I really was at a total loss to think of anything bad I might have done, and my confidence was becoming greater because I knew that I was innocent.
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. Could you please explain to me what this is about?”
And so it went, back-and-forth, for a couple of minutes, with me repeating my innocence and him remaining inexpressive, determined to elicit the truth from me. In the end, as I had absolutely nothing to offer, he broke first.
“I’ve had a complaint from a member of the cycling team. They’ve been in school this week to teach road cycling to students, and I’ve been informed that you shouted obscenities at them yesterday and were particularly rude. They mentioned it was you – they very specifically gave your name.”
I was flabbergasted.
“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. Not only did I not shout at them, I haven’t even spoken to them. I had a cycling class at the beginning of the week, but I didn’t see a single person from the cycling team yesterday.”
Confused, he leaned back in his chair, processing the whole thing. I think it occurred to him that I might have been lying, but that thought disappeared as he saw the genuine confusion and expression of indignation on my face. He leaned forward again, beginning to grin slightly.
“Oh. Well – in that case, I’m very sorry about this whole thing. We’d better look into it. Sorry to have troubled you, and we’ll find out exactly what happened. Off you go!”
It later transpired that someone (a student) had indeed been shouting at the cycling team, and when a member of staff asked for the student’s name so they could be reported, they had given my name. Bit of a cowardly thing to do, but obviously it wasn’t me – and the knowledge that I really hadn’t done anything wrong kept me calm the entire time when summoned to see the deputy headmaster.
However, had I actually done something else wrong, the outcome would perhaps have been very different. If I had stolen some money off somebody else, or if I had copied someone else’s work, or if I had assaulted somebody – then I would have been sat in the study wondering which one they’d found out about. If I was genuinely guilty, this would have been exacerbated by the clever tactic of the deputy head not actually specifying what my so-called “crime” had been and instead asking me to inform him what I had done. In that event, I would have been brought in for shouting at a member of the cycling team and instead may have accidentally let slip that I had, for example, stolen something.
As the popular saying goes, “The truth will out.” Unfortunately, this is becoming particularly true in recent news, with the awful behaviour of people like Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile becoming global revelations. I’m astonished that it was kept under wraps for all this time – not even necessarily because of other people finding out, but because of the completely unstable psychological weight of 50+ years of trying to keep the guilty feelings buried. If Rolf Harris had been pranked in the same way as Brad Paisley, I would bet heavily that his behaviour would have been very different, and the first thing that would have come to his mind would be “They know. But which bit do they know about?”
Brad, in total contrast to that, seems to radiate with the conviction of his own innocence (because, of course, he is correct and he knows it) and that is an admirable way to be able to live one’s life. This isn’t something done for the immediate benefit of other people – it instead gives you a rock-solid psychological grounding in the knowledge that wherever possible, you have chosen the right thing to do.
I feel that it’s important to add this little disclaimer: this is, of course, not to say that you will be perfect all the time, or that you will never do the wrong thing on occasion (it’s simply not possible to get it right all the time) but it’s certainly a pretty stable way of hanging your decisions on a mental model. I’ve noticed something related to this: a lot of the time, when people are public about trying to improve some aspect of themselves, it paradoxically tends to make other people’s reactions much worse if you do ever slip up, because they’ll perceive it as hypocrisy even though you’re trying harder than they are to improve yourself.
(For instance, as a hypothetical example: if you make a resolution to try to improve your timekeeping skills, other people will criticise you far more if you’re ever late (compared to before you made the resolution) because they’ll perceive you now as being a hypocrite if you’re not consistently doing what you said you would do. In reality, you’re almost certainly doing better than your pre-resolution self, but you’re now somehow being criticised more even though you’re now late to appointments far less than you were previously. The only reason I can think of for this is that your decision to change is making other people feel more insecure about themselves, so they’re more likely to snipe at you to bring you “back down”.
Don’t let it bother you. You’re doing the right thing and you’re allowed to get things wrong on occasion. Nobody – nobody – is infallible.)
Warren Buffett hit the nail on the head when he said [paraphrasing]
“Each of us should live our lives as if everything you did would be reported in the newspaper the next day by a fair but impartial reporter, and all of your friends, family, colleagues, teachers and peers would read it and judge you accordingly.”
Of course – that has the additional side benefit of making you a much nicer person, and so of course, it will transpire that it is not just for the benefit of your psychology, but also for the immediate benefit of other people. Everybody wins. You’re allowed the occasional mistake, but the ultimate judge is you. When you make a decision, do you have that uncomfortable squirming feeling deep in your stomach? Or are you happy and confident in your choice? And on the more difficult (but surprisingly common) occasions when it’s never so black-and-white, do you trust your gut instinct on whether you’ve made the right decision?
It’s worth a thought, at least.