Never Complain; Never Explain

Have you ever met someone that seems to always be in conflict with another person? No matter what the circumstance, this person always seems to be at odds with someone, either in regards to something that they have said or something that the other person has stated. You will often hear this individual state that they just hate all the drama going on around them and try to avoid it. However, there they are, right there in the middle of it. Every. Single. Time.

The truth of the matter is that they probably really enjoy the drama. They enjoy the feeling of the argument, of proving themselves to be correct against someone else’s opinion. There is an adrenaline rush that comes with that entire process that keeps people sucked into it like an addiction.

However, very little good ever comes from this. Brett McKay delves into the logic behind why this is in his article on keeping a tight lip. He looks at two different ideas here that are worth considering. A person should be slow to complain about what is going on around them and never feel the need to explain their actions under most circumstances.

Read on to gain a better understanding of his thoughts.

Never Complain; Never Explain

This pithy little maxim was first coined by the British politician and prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, and adopted as a motto by many other high-ranking Brits — from members of royalty, to navy admirals, to fellow prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill. The maxim well encapsulates the stiff-upper lipped-ness of the Victorian age, but the timeless wisdom it contains has made it a guiding mantra of powerful, confident, accountability-prizing men up through the modern day.

The “nevers” of course aren’t ironclad and don’t apply to every situation, and even when they should apply, they can be hard to follow through on! But understanding when, where, and why to apply this maxim is truly a great help in becoming a more autonomous and assertive man.

Its four words pack a lot of truth in a small space and work on a few different levels. So let’s unpack them, starting with the meat of the matter — “never explain” — and working backwards.

Never Explain

“Never explain — your friends do not need it, and your enemies will not believe you anyway.” –Elbert Hubbard

When Winston Churchill was a young cavalry officer, he was always looking for ways to get to the front and experience battle firsthand. With much persistence, he eventually secured a position in the field as a personal attendant to Sir William Lockhart, who was overseeing the British military’s campaigns in what is now Pakistan. When Churchill first joined the general’s staff, he “behaved and was treated as befitted my youth and subordinate station.” But then one day he saw an opportunity to offer a bit of advice that led to him being “taken much more into the confidential circles of the staff” and “treated as if I were quite a grown-up.”

Churchill heard that the general and his headquarters staff had been hurt and angry to hear that a newspaper correspondent who had been sent home from their camp had published a very critical article about one of their recent campaigns. The officers smarted at what they felt were unfair charges, and the Chief of Staff had written up a thorough rebuttal and mailed it off to the newspaper to be published. Churchill at once spoke up and tried to convince the staff that such a move was ultimately a bad idea, and that the piece ought to be intercepted before it was ever printed:

“I said that it would be considered most undignified and even improper for a high officer on the Staff of the Army in the Field to enter into newspaper controversy about the conduct of operations with a dismissed war-correspondent; that I was sure the Government would be surprised, and the War Office furious; that the Army Staff were expected to leave their defence to their superiors or to the politicians; and that no matter how good the arguments were, the mere fact of advancing them would be everywhere taken as a sign of weakness.”

In this, as in many things, Churchill turned out to be quite prescient and wise. Offering explanations does indeed demonstrate weakness, for several reasons:

Explaining gives power to another. When someone criticizes or insults you, gets offended by something you do or say, or questions your decisions and why you’ve chosen to do something a certain way, it’s natural to want to explain why you think they’re wrong — especially if said party has impinged on your integrity or honor. And some kind of response may indeed be in order.

If the person is someone you know and respect as an equal — someone you consider to be inside your “circle of honor” — and they have said something intelligent and interesting, you may want to explain yourself in order to invite further discussion.

If they’re your boss or a customer, you may need to offer an explanation to hold onto your job or their business.

If they’re someone you care about — a loved one or friend — and you’ve had a gross miscommunication, you may want to explain yourself in an effort to preserve the relationship.

But, if the critical/offended/skeptical party is someone you don’t know personally (like a stranger online or the public in general), don’t care about, and/or don’t respect as an equal — someone who shouldn’t have any say or sway over your choices — then taking the time to explain why they’re wrong, or why you’ve made the decisions you have, is ill-advised.

To be concerned with what someone outside your circle of respect thinks, is to allow yourself to be pulled down to his or her level.

Explaining yourself is essentially an attempt to seek another’s approval. It shows you’re stung that they’ve withdrawn that approval, and desirous of getting it back. When you show that you care about an opinion that you, and any observers, know you really shouldn’t, you show weakness. In losing the fight between trying to ignore them and craving the catharsis of engagement, you demonstrate a failure of self-control.

Further, when a chucklehead elicits a response, you validate his importance. He’s made you do something against your better judgment. You’ve given to him two of your most precious resources – your time and attention. You’ve gone from the offensive to the defensive. His status goes up and yours goes down.

People — whether irrationally angry customers, estranged family members, or a controlling significant other — will often demand explanations for what you do. They’ll say you are weak if you don’t offer one. But this is the cleverest of ploys! By targeting your pride, they’ll get you to hand over your power.

Of course restraining yourself from responding to someone who’s goading you on is easier said than done! As someone who’s subjected to a constant barrage of feedback on my work, day after day, I find I am able to successfully ignore about 98% of it. It’s when someone says something that impinges on my honor (even when I know they’re not part of my honor group), or when they seem like a dude I can have a good debate with that I get in trouble.

When someone is clearly off their rocker, it’s easy to ignore them as really out there. And when someone has something critical but intelligent to say, engaging them can actually be interesting and instructive. It’s the people who greatly distort who you are/what you did/what you said, but mix together sensible sounding discourse with nuggets of crazy, who prove the most irresistible. They almost sound like someone you can have a reasonable discussion with; it almost seems like you could explain to them why they’re objectively off the mark. But as it invariably turns out (and this is a lesson I have to learn over and over!), if someone’s mindset/mentality is such that they’re able to grossly misinterpret something, no amount of explanation — no matter how thorough and well-reasoned — is going to change their mind. Quite to the contrary — they’ll simply dig in their heels all the more!

“Never complain; never explain” doesn’t necessarily mean not saying anything to your doubters, complainers, and critics, but limiting your response to a sharp rejoinder. Disraeli in fact formulated his maxim after hearing the advice of fellow politician Lord Lyndhurst, who said: “Never defend yourself before a popular assembly except with and by retorting an attack.” Thus, a short, pithy rebuttal or a humorous, yet withering sarcastic quip (Churchill was the master of these) may be in order. Then you turn heel and don’t engage further.

Of course, even a simple retort may draw you into an argument you never wanted to have, which often makes complete silence the best possible response. In fact, nothing drives someone nipping at you heels crazier than to have their questions and demands go utterly ignored and unacknowledged.

Explaining demonstrates a lack of confidence in your choices/creations/principles. Have you ever been looking at a book or product on Amazon and seen that its author or manufacturer has jumped in and responded to people’s negative reviews? I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, even if the negative reviewer sounds like a real ding-dong, and the rebuttal is reasonable, well-done, and conciliatory, I still end up thinking less of the author/company, and cringing a bit on their behalf.

Most everyone knows that authors and companies check in on their reviews at least occasionally, but when you give people demonstrable proof that you’re hovering around, you confirm your insecurity and/or vanity and thus show weakness and a lack of confidence in your work. In stepping from the ranks of the creator, to that of the consumer, you lose status.

If you arrived at your creative vision or set of principles for good reasons, if you said everything you wanted to say, in the best, clearest way you knew how to say it, and endeavor only to put out your very best work, then you can be content to let your decisions and your work stand on its own. You have nothing else to add. People either get what you do and are about, or they don’t.

There will always be those who twist your words, or misinterpret your meaning, or don’t find your design sense to their liking and mistake their subjective taste for objective truth. If you’d rather make money than stay true to your creative vision, then by all means, try to explain and change the minds of those unhappy with your work. Try to hold onto all the customers you can. I don’t mean this sarcastically; sometimes products are not vessels of your values, but merely utilitarian, and it can make sense to be very connected to the needs of your customers.

But, if you’d rather fail and have to try something else, than change your ideas and principles to suit the tastes of others, then choose to be like Jack London, who felt that the public continually misunderstood his work, and contented himself by deciding: “The world is mostly bone-head and nearly all boob.”

Or as the British academic Benjamin Jowett put it: “Never retract. Never explain. Get it done and let them howl!”

Explanations easily turn into excuses. Naturally, even when you endeavor to give people your best, unforeseen problems do sometimes arise. When you’ve objectively messed up, should you explain to people what happened?

People do typically appreciate a little explanation as to the what, when, and why of your blunder. But the explanatory part of your apology should be kept short — for as Lord Acton, yet another explanation-spurning British politician warns: “Beware of too much explaining, lest we end by too much excusing.” You should pivot as quickly as possible to taking responsibility and saying how you’re going to make things right. In the words of an old proverb: “Don’t make excuses; make good.”

A perfect example of this principle in action arrived in my mailbox just the other day from a company called Guideboat. I had ordered Kate something from their catalog for Christmas. I didn’t experience any problems with my order, but I guess some other folks did, which prompted the CEO to send out this letter along with a $50, no-strings-attached gift card to me, and apparently thousands of other customers:

guideboat (1)

Good customer service and corporate accountability are so rare these days, that I found this letter positively astonishing. Minimal explanation, no excuses, and an attempt at making amends. That folks, is how to do business right.

Never Complain

While “never explain” and “never complain” are two discrete parts of the couplet, a common thread runs through them: autonomy and accountability.

Once you understand why you should rarely explain, you should understand why you should rarely complain. You simply put yourself in the shoes of the party you’re seeking an explanation from, and act accordingly.

If a person or company has failed to meet their own clearly delineated standards, you can of course ask for an apology or file a complaint, asking for your money back or what have you. Keep the explanation for your unhappiness short, moving as quickly as possible into what you’d like them to do to make it right.

If you think your feedback could help someone improve something, offer it in a constructive way.

If you’re in a situation where a complaint will accomplish nothing, then common sense dictates that you should remain silent.

If you’re in a situation where complaining will accomplish far less than going about trying to make the desired changes yourself, choose action over whining.

And if you’re tempted to complain about something on the basis of subjective taste,reconsider. For the party you seek to complain against has a purpose and vision outside of your own needs and desires.

Take professor evaluations in college, for example. Some students will complain that the professor “sucks” because his coursework is challenging, while others students will praise him because the coursework is so challenging. The professor has a purpose and a set of principles all his own, and while you might disagree with him, and decide never to take another of his classes, why complain that his priorities are not more like yours? If people complained against your vision or work, you shouldn’t care, so why should he?

I once read an interview with Ben and Jerry — the ice cream makers — in which they said they wished they could forward one set of the letters they received to the senders of another set. Because some people would write saying they wished their ice cream had less/smaller chunks of things, while others would write saying they wished the chunks were even bigger and more numerous. Which complainers did Ben and Jerry listen to? Neither, of course. They stuck with their own vision of what constituted the best kind of ice cream, and the heavens rained down dough of both the monetary and cookie varieties.

I’ve gone out to dinner a couple of times where the experience was so bad, I felt I couldn’t wait to get home to write a bad review of the place online. But invariably, that feeling would dissipate, and I’ve never written a bad review of anything in my life. Because ultimately…who cares? Maybe my experience was atypical, or maybe some people like the food that I thought was completely gross. The restaurateur is doing things the way he wants to do them, and I’m content to let the market decide whether his vision is a good one or not.

The world doesn’t exist to meet my expectations, and if they’re not met, I figure I can do one of two things — go somewhere else, or create something myself more to my liking.

I never complain because I don’t think I should have to explain myself to other people, and I don’t think other people should have to explain themselves to me!

So, there you have it. If you are one of those people who struggle in this area, I hope this sheds some light on the problem. And, if you do not struggle in this area, share this post on your social media. Someone else out there may be waiting to see it.

Life is Strange. Live it Well.


She said yes, part 2

I woke up this morning much the same way that I do every single morning. The alarm on my phone reminded me that I am about ten minutes away from actually getting out of bed. I extend my hand towards the phone and fumble with the snooze button on the alarm. After jabbing unsuccessfully at my phone screen for a few seconds, the alarm finally subsides and I roll over to resume my slumber. I glance across the bed to see my wife peacefully enjoying her sleep.  Continue reading “She said yes, part 2”

No Front Legs

So, just going off the title of my blog, you might expect me to post up something strange from time to time. That was originally my intent when I first began posting but have gotten away from that model in order to post up more information on succesful living instead. However, today is not that day. Here is something that is truly strange and even a little bit sad to watch. Continue reading “No Front Legs”

Build Habits that Support Your Goals

I feel like I have spent a decent amount of time lately writing about goals. With a new year settled in, many people focus on their new goals and I am no exception. However, here we are on the backend of January and many people probably have already broken that New Year’s Resolution. Why is that? My guess is from lack of preparation.

Loryn Thompson provides us with a bit of encouragement in regards to keeping on track with your goals. She suggests that we need to build in some daily habits that keep us moving forward so that we do not get sidetracked or discouraged.

How to Build Daily Habits that Support Your Goals

Using that guidance, I’ve now broken negative habits and built new ones that support my goals.

Want to know how I changed my relationship with screens in ways I used to only dream about?

Before we get started, though, remember that learning to balance productivity and technology isn’t easy. It’s like learning a language — you can read about how someone else learned French, but you won’t be able to speak it until you learn for yourself.

So, keep in mind that I’m not sharing my habits so you can adopt them verbatim. Instead, I hope they’ll give you some ideas about changes you might like to make in your own life.

Break the negative media cycle

One of my worst technology habits is the “media loop.”

Here’s how it goes:

I pick up my phone in the evening to check Instagram. Then I jump over to Facebook … and after I get bored there, I hop over to Reddit. Before I realize it, I’ve lost an hour and I’m back on Instagram again.

The problem isn’t the circular behavior itself. The problem is how it makes me feel.

Some evenings, loading up on cute animal GIFs is exactly what I want to do. But other days, it feels more like a trap.

The more I scroll, the worse I feel. The worse I feel, the more I scroll.

I used to have a hard time telling the difference between those two outcomes. But I’ve realized that when I’m scrolling on my phone, my intention is to relax and de-stress.

So, when I’m glued to my phone, I ask myself: “Am I fulfilling my intention of relaxing?”

If the answer is “Yes, this is great,” then I watch cat videos to my heart’s content. But if the answer is “No, this sucks,” simply having asked the question makes it easier to set my phone down and walk away.

Combat your muscle memory

Since recognizing my standard “media loop,” I’ve identified several different ways my automatic responses promote distractions.

For example, muscle memory led me to check Facebook and Instagram more often than I wanted to: I would open up my phone and navigate to the apps automatically.

To fight this habit, I moved all my essential apps to my home screen and buried my more troublesome apps in a network of folders, making them harder to find.

Even with this new setup, though, sometimes muscle memory creeps back in. So, whenever I feel that my muscle memory is getting too strong, I scramble my apps.

Now that I’m aware of my muscle memory loop as well, I have the opportunity to reflect and ask myself: “Is this really what I want to do right now?”

Remember to breathe

Did you know that most people hold their breath when they check their email?

Writer Linda Stone first documented this in 2008 during her informal study, where she found that 80 percent of her subjects held their breath while waiting for their email to load.

Go ahead, check your email. Did you remember to breathe?

Holding your breath indicates that you’re stressed. And of course, you are … who knows what might appear in your inbox today? Criticism from your boss? A new project from your most demanding client?

Of course, this isn’t limited to just email. Anywhere you can refresh to see new content has the potential to create the same stress response.

To fend off the stress, I began a very simple habit:

Before checking my phone each morning, I take 10 deep breaths.

I’ve found that practice helps me put off checking my phone until nearly 9:00 a.m. — that’s a miracle, right?

Breathing deeply, even just for 30 seconds, helps relieve the stress response and create space. And it serves as a reminder to put yourself first.

Your intentions and goals are more important than anything that awaits you on that screen.

Make time for reflection

The natural next step was to add more time for reflection into my schedule.

After all, I’d just given myself an hour (or more) back in my day. Now I needed to answer the question: “What am I going to do with my time?”

I decided to add two simple habits: journaling and walks.

I challenged myself to write at least one page every day for a month. I don’t have to write anything specific or meaningful; I just have to write.

My walks are much less structured. Some mornings I walk to a coffee shop almost first thing. Other days I walk in the evening when I head to the nearby grocery store to pick up ingredients for dinner.

On the walks, I don’t look at my phone, and I bring a notebook to jot down whatever comes to mind.

Journaling and walking both feel so easy, but before I realized the importance of goals and intentions, I had a hard time sticking with them.

Changing my perspective has shown me the value of those habits. They bring balance to my day, and I feel more confident about my intentions than I have in a long time.

Be realistic about what you can accomplish each day

Every morning, I write down my tasks in my planner. That’s not a new habit, but now I aim to be realistic with my time.

For the past few years, I would fill my to-do list with a dozen things that needed to get done and expect that I could finish them all in one day.

But that routine doesn’t match the way I work. I like to delve deep into projects and follow the ideas that interest me. Sometimes things take more time to accomplish than I thought, and sometimes they take almost no time at all.

So, I’m learning to give myself time to chase the interesting ideas. After all, I’d much rather under-schedule than under-deliver.

Use mental “hooks” to stay focused

I don’t really go for productivity “hacks,” but there are a few tricks I’ve learned that have proved indispensable to me.

I make sure my to-do list contains only defined tasks

If I need to write a report, for example, I might have “gather email data” and “write website section” as two separate tasks.

Breaking down a task requires you to think through it, and thinking through a task primes your brain to work on it. Before you even begin, you’re already thinking about the first and second steps you’ll need to take.

Sometimes, though, you simply can’t get around tackling a nebulous, intimidating task. In that case …

I spend an hour working on that big project and set a timer

The point of the timer isn’t to track your time; it’s to create space for your brain to focus.

After about 20 minutes, I typically forget all about the timer. Nonetheless, I know that this is the time I’ve set aside to accomplish a task, and it’s easier to let go of distractions when I know I will have time for them later.

I leave cliffhangers

This is popular advice for authors I picked up from Ernest Hemingway:

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck.”

I apply this tactic to just about every project.

Which habits will work for you?

I hope this post has helped you think about how you can build a more goal-oriented relationship with your tasks and technology.

My final tip is:

Don’t be too hard on yourself.

If you get lost on Reddit for an hour or binge Netflix all weekend, don’t sweat it. Learning to use technology in a focused, productive way takes time and practice. You can experiment and course-correct as you find what works and doesn’t work for you.

As long as you remember that goals and intentions come first — before email, texts, or Twitter — you’ll be surprised by how much you can change.

And, there you have it. Seems simple right? Well, as easy as it looks, it is still a discipline. However, it is not too late to start. Even if you have gotten behind your new goals for this year already. Start over. Put these habits in place and start moving forward again.

Life is Strange. Live it Well.

The Strangest Secret

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wonder what the secret to success is?” Of course, you have. Everyone has at some point in time or another. Maybe those exact words weren’t in your brain but some variation of it definitely has come up. How can I get ahead? How can I make this thing work? How can I win at life? These questions are all variations of this question. Continue reading “The Strangest Secret”

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