Don’t Smoke the Newspaper

One of the best pieces of advice I can give you regarding decision-making is to stand on your own two feet. Yes, there will be times you will find it strategically useful to defer to someone else’s view. Yes, there are times when you need to go along to get along. Fine, but most of the time the best strategy for quality decision making (and good sleep) is to show integrity by having your own honest and independently determined decision.

This requires time for reflective thought, guts to be your own person, and clarity about that which you value. These are pretty challenging inputs, which is why as children we too often succumbed to peer pressure. The bad news is that many versions of peer pressure persist throughout adulthood. You see it at work every day. Although exceptions may exist, the rule of thumb is to push back against peer pressure and make your own decisions. Here is how I learned this lesson the hard way.

When I was thirteen years old my neighbor was a seventeen-year-old boy named Chris. The age difference was small but at that age it felt immense. I was barely entering high school and Chris was about to leave high school. In addition, I was not a particularly cool kid and Chris was one of the most popular people in the entire school – which of course meant he never talked to me.

One day I happened to be outside getting the mail at the same time Chris went to check his mail. I noticed Chris looking my way when, to my surprise, he said, “Hello.”

His greeting somehow made me feel cool. Astonished, I returned the greeting. Chris then shocked me by walking over to my mailbox to chat. I began to have delusions of grandeur…

After talking aimlessly about school for two or three minutes, Chris stopped in the middle of a sentence and said, “Hey man, have you ever smoked a newspaper?”

I replied, “No. Why would I do that?”

Stunned, Chris said, “Really? Everyone does it. Didn’t you know?”

“Why?” I repeated.

“I can’t believe this,” he mumbled. “Believe it or not, it tastes good…and, um, it gives you a great buzz.”

It began to sound magical they way described the experience.

He put a hand on my shoulder and smiled. “We should go should go smoke a newspaper. What do you say?”

I felt like I had been invited to join the club. Finally! I enthusiastically agreed. We hurried to my garage where we located a suitable old newspaper and matches. Chris explained the proper paper rolling technique. When he was done he held the meticulously folded newspaper to his lips like a gargantuan cigarette and grabbed a match. I watched in fascination. He lit the match. Just before lighting the newspaper he stopped.

He looked a little ashamed. “I’ve done this a million times. YOU should go first.”

“Thanks Chris!” What an honor. I wasn’t going to disappoint. I quickly put the paper to my lips just as Chris had done. I struck a match. I lit the paper. I inhaled deeply….and I nearly died.

As I lay on the ground coughing up a cloud of black ink, Chris rolled around on the ground laughing hysterically. He was thrilled to have a cheap laugh at the expense of the gullible kid next door. When he left, I was still coughing up ink. I can still taste that ink to this day.

At work we are sometimes asked to smoke the newspaper one way or another. Just as was the case when we were kids, there is no shortage of external forces pushing you in directions that may or may not align with what you actually feel is the correct course of action. Thus I want you to keep this in mind: if you will clarify your values and stand on your own to feet to make decisions with integrity, long-term you will earn the one thing that is always better than popularity – and that’s respect. Remember: don’t smoke the newspaper!

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