On Tattoos and Leadership – Part 2

Hello. My name is Todd and I am a tattooaholic. Maybe if I had more taste I’d be a tattoo aficionado. In any case, I’ve been a fan since age nineteen. That very first tattoo seriously heightened my awareness of social norms. In one social context – a party with other young adults – the new tattoo was a symbol of cool. People wanted to see it. They wanted to talk about it. Yet in another social context – the presence of my father – it was a symbol of stupidity and social deviance. Dad didn’t speak to me for weeks after my first tattoo.

The more I think about it, the more I see interesting life and career lessons associated with my love of ink. My latest thought: tattoos, like most great outcomes one might experience, require short-term pain for long-term gain. I’ve heard it a million times, “I want one, but I know it will hurt!” Yes, a needle moving up and down rapidly, dipped in ink, being dragged across your skin does hurt. However, the pain is bearable. If it were not, you would not see one in five Americans with tattoos.

The root issue concerns one’s ability to sacrifice in the service of goal achievement. Many times people think goal attainment is merely about putting in the work ethic, logging hours. No. It is that, but it’s more. It is not just hours. It is hours of pain. For me to earn a highly reputable PhD, I had to force myself to learn a lot about advanced statistics. Not an easy feat for yours truly. It was maddening, humbling, and frustrating. It did not come naturally for me. It caused many bad headaches, serious self-doubt, and a few sleepless nights. This all represents sacrifice. Every hour spent pushing my brain to a new level was an hour not spent on an easier professional route or an hour not spent on leisure pursuits.

I’ve talked a lot elsewhere about the need for a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) once every few years in your life. I don’t believe that all goals should be gut wrenching, social-life killing BHAGs. However, I do believe that the typical goal you set should be considered from this perspective: if it is not somewhat difficult to achieve, it is not likely a strong enough goal. When you envision doing the work to reach the goal, if you don’t cringe just a little – the goal might be too easy.

Do you know what you want even more than goal achievement? You want goal achievement associated with a wonderful, positive, and uplifting feeling of having done something significant. That is only possible with modestly difficult goals that very often require a little short-term pain to secure long-term gain. Yes, the tattoo will hurt (more or less, depending on the area of the body by the way…). If that bothers you, you don’t really want the ink.

Maybe the underlying idea is not short-term pain for long-term gain. Maybe the basic issue is the relationship between short-term behaviors and long-term outcomes. Sometimes you have to overinvest in the short-term to secure your goal (i.e., short-term pain). However, other times the challenge is just the opposite. Professionals often underinvest in the short-term decision and thus make decisions that undermine the future.

In the tattoo world we see this all the time. A young person gets the ink bug – that overbearing desire to hear the whir of the tattoo gun and to watch the body art come to life. Trouble is they underinvest in the short-term. They don’t let the idea marinate long enough, and they settle on a poorly thought out tattoo. Sometimes emotional exuberance will cause a person to choose any old tattoo parlor instead of researching which parlor and artist would really be best for them. The result: they get ink and they end up regretting the experience.

It happens inside organizations as well. Companies make what they think are the best moves in the short-term, while undermining long-term opportunities. This might happen due to a desire to positively impact their stock price or due to simple risk aversion (solid long-term decisions are associated with more question marks – risks). In everyday decision making managers are often very busy and fall prey to satisficing (e.g., making “good enough” decisions) which look and feel acceptable now, but are not ideal long-term.

The biggest example of this phenomenon I have ever seen involved my father and our family dog, Honey. My parents had become empty nesters. Honey was my father’s new best friend. They spent copious hours together. Dad loved Honey so much that he treated like family – including feeding him the same food he would have fed to his wife or children. Honey ate like a king: steak, chicken, potato salad, ice cream, pie. You name it. He ate it. When I realized this, I told my father he was going to end up hurting Honey over time. He scoffed and reminded me about the many miles they walked together each day. He could not see the long-term implications of his seemingly benign short-term decision to feed the dog improperly.

When Honey was a full-grown adult dog, his belly was a good ten inches off the ground. He loved to jump on the coach for naps. He eagerly bounded out the door with Dad twice each day to take a walk. Fast forward five years of eating delicious but very unhealthy human food: there was only about four inches between Honey’s belly and the ground, he napped on the floor because jumping on the couch had become painful, and he began opting out of most walks with my father. He was old before his time and Dad had to deal with the fact that he created this reality. I saw my father cry twice in his lifetime. Once when his mother passed and once when he had to take Honey to the veterinarian to be put to sleep. Dad didn’t know how premature that trip was, but he did know it was premature, and he did know he was the main cause.

One of the keys to great decision-making is thoughtfully balancing the needs of both the short-term and the long-term. I encourage you to strive to understand this important relationship in your career. Not thinking through the long-term impact of your decisions can really come back to bite you. For the tattoo collector, yes, they have laser removal, but do you really want to go through all that pain again? Spend a little more time up front thinking through your actions and you just might avoid getting that silly Tasmanian devil. Or maybe you decide to man up and deal with the pain for one hour in order to get that family crest on your shoulder that you know you will cherish for a lifetime.

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