Allowable Fouls (Revised)

Some years ago, a band called “The  Association” had a song out called “Wantin’ Ain’t Gettin'”.  And it isn’t.  Wanting is not the same thing as getting, and  getting is not the same thing as already having.  Since being is preceded by becoming, it’s probably a good idea to know where you wish to be unless your goal is just to find out where accidental happenings will take you.

The Cheshire Cat and Alice have a conversation in Alice’s adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll circa 1865:

(Alice) “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—“ said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“—So long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Not having a clearly defined objective can be a problem.  But even with a goal in mind, how to reach it is not always clear.  Further, thinking you know how is not the same as knowing.  And, even knowing how is not the same as doing.  The doing (and the direction of the doing) is what must be measured.

“Sometimes it is not enough to do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.” – Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (1874-1965)

Early in WWII, the British had to evacuate Dunkirk on the mainland, or remain there and be crushed by the oncoming German army.  Every plane, every ship, every boat–virtually anything that could float was used to move them back across the English Channel.  They were successful.  Once back in England, they celebrated what was described as the greatest evacuation in military history.

But, there was a problem: with the Atlantic ocean to their backs, the British had nowhere else to go.  Now, their only acceptable option was to fight to win, no matter what it would take.  The emotional illusion that you have done your very best just might not be good enough; in this case, they were going to have to (simply) do what it takes.

Doing what is required is more definable than the abstract ideal of one’s very best.  Besides,  most people don’t have a clear idea about what their potential best is.  It is often clouded by the restrictions imposed by their own threshold of self-expectations (or by those imposed upon them by influential parents and other teachers).

Some years ago, I heard a consultant named Chuck Russell say:

“Nobody climbs up a ladder even one rung higher than they think they can go without falling.”

And, I agree.  That is the place we all stop.  I call it the freezing point.  Once a person really believes something to be truly unreachable, they will quit trying.  As in Aesop’s Fable : The Fox and The Grapes, an assessment of worthiness may come into play.  And not that the fox thought himself unworthy, but deemed the prize to all of a sudden not be worth reaching for.  When giving up equals failure, the failure will be in want of an excuse.  It’s a common enough practice to be considered allowable, isn’t it?

The concept of the best a person can do is often measured by the best they have already done.  A person can know the mark of some previous best, and they may even know their average, if they are tracking it.  People who make a habit of measuring these things are likely to notice more “wins” in their game than those who do not.

The reason that is so, is because tracking your activity can lead to working to beat your average.  Those who work incrementally to beat their average are very likely, sooner or later, to beat their own best.   Those what make a habit of such practices move a little closer to reaching what heretofore had only been their dreams.  Keep in mind, the moral outcome of a dream realized needs to be considered before the dream becomes a goal.

But by saying this, I do not imply winning to be good or bad: that is an opinion formed by those who win, and by those who lose at the attempt to get whatever it is that they think they want.  Good or bad, it will be measured by whatever they have determined to be their purpose, and everyone should have the opportunity to set their own standards.

“Purpose doesn’t announce itself at your doorstep, but certainly leaves clues for you to follow.  Often these clues reside in our feelings and responses to our world.  When you get angry, elated, or distraught, pay attention.  Emotions like joy, excitement, and wonder are powerful triggers that alert us to the ideas and experiences that fulfill us.  Conversely, when we feel anger and disgust when we see injustice, poverty or plight, we are connecting to a passion we have to affect change in these areas.  Trust your gut, and follow these clues to your purpose.”

–from Off Balance on Purpose by Dan Thurmon

It is a good idea to pay attention to clues, and to read them correctly.  Offhandedly, I’d say you should make sure the voices in your head are not coming from the fringes of dementia.  By focusing on the realistic, you will get a better handle on the discrepancies between actions that you think you should want to take, and those that will take you where you really want to be.  That can help define the difference connecting your intentional purpose to one thrust upon you by some other convention or person.

I’m sure you’ve heard the tired old joke about the carpenter who said:

” I’ve cut this board three times, and it’s still too short!”

We have to not only know what to measure, but how to go about measuring it.  It would also stand to reason that the carpenter needs to know what those measurements mean.  Additionally, there has to be some degree of accuracy within our calculations.

While Napoleon and Adolf Hitler were both calculating, and both had many measurable “wins” on their scorecard, it is important to consider what they did not do, or calculate properly, when they (each in their own time) decided to invade Russia.  The French, and later the Germans, were no doubt doing the best they thought they could do in the face of something neither was prepared to deal with.  It was not the self-imposed limitations of what they thought they were capable of: it was merely that they had not done…what was required.

When asked what was the allied strategy for winning the Persian Gulf War, General Colin L. Powell said the strategy was to isolate the Iraqi army occupying Kuwait.  Specifically he said:

“First we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”

The entire world was taken aback by his directness.  For a moment, nobody knew what to say next because little clarification was needed: he’d been very specific.

General Powell was a leader and a manager (which is a much rarer combination than some would think) in that he knew what needed to be done, and he knew how to do it.  In order to fully appreciate what he meant when he said: “…and then we’re going to kill it”, you need to understand that this is a very important part of the nature of war that without which there can be no successful transfer of power in the face of all sides remaining hostile.  One side or the other has to cut off their enemy from whatever sustains it and kill it, or declare a truce.

The international community has rules and conventions of war that presume to imply an air of civility in the process; the United Nations sends out observers and referees into war zones from time to time in some effort to project the image that somehow, human beings are going about the business of killing each other in the proper manner, and towards an end of some situation becoming good, better or even best.  But we are talking about war, so the term “best” can be ambiguous, can’t it?

Pursuant to the ideology of a “Manifest Destiny”, what was considered by some to be “best” for this country did not coincide with what the Cherokee, the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Navajo people thought was best.  Within the process of one people warring on another, it is reasonable to expect that in some cases, dogmatic beliefs that shape ideas about what courses to take, result in terrible violations of the very principles (dignity of the human spirit; freedom of thought and expression, equality in the eyes of a loving God, honor, and don’t forget the absurdity of chivalrous fair play and good sportsmanship) that they are certain is the very backbone of their dogma.

The purpose of this letter is not to point out that war might not be the most desirable way for mankind to solve his differences.  I would hope you already know that.  My concern is over the ethical consequences of winning at any cost, and the increasingly comparative nature of warfare to other kinds of competitions.  And in so considering, a question comes up.  Playing around with words, reflect for a moment on the inversion: “It’s not so much as how the game is played, but who wins or loses.”

In the raw and wild, it is not just that the prey must compete with predators, but that the carnivores themselves must compete with each other.  While the bear competes with the wolf, wolves  also compete with other wolves, and bears with other bears.  This model transfers well to human behavior too, though we often try to hide it behind curtains of implied civility.

In business, the idea of fair trade allows the presumption that a competitor’s chances at the prize must be thwarted at almost any cost short of the prize itself.  But it must be done within the (compliant) guidelines of proper business law and ethics…as long as any regulators (referees) are looking.

It is widely believed that if you do not choose to take highly assertive (and often aggressive) measures , you can expect your opponent to eat your lunch by the same methods (unscrupulous or otherwise) that you chose not to use.  Your choosing to be ethical does not mean everyone else will.

Is survival an important part of this picture?  Sure it is!  But also, right before you sell your soul (for fame and riches, or just a piece of bread), give some long and lingering thought to Faust.

In many sports, (high school; collegiate, Olympic and even professional)  a sense of fairness is often seen as just another hurdle to overcome by coaches and participants alike.  It is so to the extent that intense drug screening is now required along with many other policing measures.

On the idea that winning is everything, Vince Lombardi said:

“Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all time thing. You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.”

In so saying, Vince was calling for a higher sense of personal attributes and self worth within the minds of players far beyond the final score of a football game.  But as inspiring and motivational as it appears, some have taken Lombardi’s well intended words to a baser and meaner level.

If you just look around, winning certainly seems to outweigh sportsmanship.  After all, coming in fifth or sixth place, but being a good sport about it, won’t get your picture on a box of corn flakes, will it?  So, because of this (and even in spite of it), after awhile, the strategies associated with games might be (and are) compared to strategies of battle.

A couple of decades ago, a popular book being read by up-and-coming managers who were in the process of resume’ building was The Art of War (attributed to be the writing of Sun Tzu).  It could be found all over the place.  You would see it on credenzas and desks in offices across the country and around the world.  The implication of this popularity was the single-minded idea that an approach to business should be treated the same as an approach to war.

It was during this time that I was watching the end of a basketball game as it went into overtime.  Since it was such a close game, it was interesting (or reasonably so).  I’m sure to have been doing something other than just watching the game, but what kept drawing me back to it was a subtle little thought buzzing around in the back of my head.  I had a sense of some uncertainty other than just the final outcome of the game.

Listening to the announcer, I kept hearing words like “great athlete”, “sportsmanship”, “brilliant coaching maneuver” and “winning”.  The association of greatness was consistently with the winning more than with the sportsmanship.  All references to “coaching maneuvers” were obviously not bent toward sportsmanship.

When we talk of sportsmanship, we’re often referring to character building measures and a sense of ethical practices.  You will from time to time hear similar lofty words used in political contests while opponents sling worse than mud at each other.

The honorable this can slander the honorable that, often using incredible lies, as long as they are not caught in the act of, and with the intent of, lying.  Some seem to think there is no penalty for lying if you don’t get caught, and even getting caught seems to be allowable up to a point.  But after multiple offenses, penalties can be imposed.  The sports world also imposes penalties for inappropriate behaviors, but sometimes the decision to err seems to be just a calculated risk without any ethical or moral implications.

In politics (which is not an ethical game), it is the exploitation of perceived weaknesses that set the standards of play.  Where none seem obvious, some have to be invented.

In baseball, whenever a talented hitter comes to bat (as in politics) and a strength in the opposition is noticed, the pitch will be thrown way to the outside so to be out of the batter’s reach.  It doesn’t matter that the player at bat has no fair chance of connecting with what is being thrown at him. What counts is that he doesn’t make a hit, and certainly not a home run.  This technique is only employed whenever a manager considers it crucial to winning.  It will only be used just enough to keep the crowd’s “boo!” to a minimum.  The “boo!” is how the crowd lets you know you’ve been caught.

Back to the basketball game, a player was taken out for having exceeded his foul limit.  The player that had been fouled was getting a free shot.  The announcer was saying something about his chances.  The blocked layup he’d attempted would have surely gone in, but this set shot wasn’t his strong suit.

The original recipe for basketball was intended to give boys an indoor game in the winter.  It was to be played on a hard surface, so the contest had to preclude the idea of knocking each other down so injuries would be avoided.  So, from the beginning, basketball players were not to hit each other.  Doing so was considered “unsportsmanlike”.

Rules were laid down prohibiting so much as touching each other.  If you got caught touching, it was considered “foul”, and a penalty occurred.  If a player continued to commit “fouls”, he ran the risk of being removed from the game altogether.

The stakes have changed.  It has become a hugely successful spectator sport, and a money maker to boot.  Often it isn’t just about the sport; it’s very much about winning, and about the money.  But in a bigger sense, it is in a way more about the coaches than their soldiers.  The coaches have become field commanders doing battle with each other.  They have to know when and which soldiers to sacrifice in order to win.

So, in a truer sense, it can sometimes be seen as more of a battle than a sport.  What is often being managed by the captains and the generals (far more than the finer attributes of the athletes themselves) is the maximum number of allowable fouls.

As this carries over into the world of business and banking, we have all become spectators in a huge tournament of unethical practices where people have pushed the envelop leading to bankruptcies and investigations.  Even though some players are taken out of the game, you cannot help but to wonder how many fouls went unobserved.

Others continue to thrive playing close to the edge of whatever the letter of law and regulation allow.  They also play games with what can be “certified”   instead of  what is actually true about the reality and values of assets, and they take the same level of integrity when listing liabilities.  Yet unlike on the basketball court, in the real world of international financial holdings and management, those who are fouled the worst (the people) never seem to get a free shot, do they?

Understand that I am not saying motives shouldn’t be self-serving, as all motives are in some way.  Sometimes the most apparently altruistic act might be driven by the limits of how we are willing to think about and view ourselves (and what we can live with).  Others have said everything we do is done in some kind of payment that our inner spirit demands of us.  With that in mind, I often brought up to my sons when they were little to be very careful of what they allowed their inner self(s) to require of them.

Earlier, I’d said everyone should have the opportunity to set their own standards in how they come to terms with the purpose of their own life.  But I’d like to add they should also think about setting their own limits to the number of allowable fouls, as well.  An ideal might be that all fouls are to be considered terrible mistakes, and the truly acceptable (if you will permit this substitution for “allowable”) number would be…zero.  After all, just what is the acceptable level of wrong?

In The Book of the Way (Tao Te Ching) ,Lao Tzu (600 BC-531 BC) wrote:

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

It is true for a person as for a people.  Perhaps we, as a people, should consider where we are heading.  Consider these references:

5 responses to this post.

  1. Well done, Van. You’ve managed to connect the dots between battles of many kinds, both those played with opponents, and the ones we play within our own minds. While the stakes change, depending upon the field of battle and weapons of choice, the determinant of the outcome remains a product of our thinking and beliefs. This is a great reminder to cultivate the “habits” of winning within a framework of what is “allowable” from a personal point of view. Life is, in large part, a journey of discovering what that means for each of us.


  2. Posted by Tim Teasley on March 23, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Good stuff, Van. Food for thought, and well-written. I always look forward to your posts. A wonderful departure from reading such Facebook fodder such as, “I’m tired.”


  3. Posted by Wayne Casasanta on March 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Van, you have covered many areas of relationships, challenges, fairness and accomplishments. We deal with these on a regular basis and to some degree we are “rated” upon our actions, efforts and accomplishments. I have learned that relationships with others is very important, but our relationship with God is the primary measurement of our life. In Mark 8:36 God says, “What shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” How we relate to other people does display our character; however, how we relate and respond to God is the ultimate measure of our success in life. None of us can be “good enough” to earn God’s love. We don’t deserve it, but yet He took the initiative to show His love by allowing His son, Jesus, to take our punishment for our sins. He offers a “gift” of eternal life, as well as a more fulfilling life now. Our response to that gift is critical. We have the choice to accept it or to reject it. The world tries to sell us a cheap measurement for success (possessions, bank account, awards, etc., but this life is brief. Everyone will live for eternity in one of two places. God does not force us to chose HIm. That is another freedom that we have, but it is the most important choice that we will ever make. I have not reached a high level of success, according to the standards of the world, but to know that God loves me so much and considers me worth the price to allow His Son to suffer for me, causes me to know that I am valuable to him. The reality is that everyone is valuable to God, but not everyone understands that and even some that do, won’t accept it. Being a Christian and being forgiven of our sins is not something that is to be a secret or not shared with others. We are given the priviledge of sharing information about what we have received, so others may also make that choice. Salvation is not a game, where there can only be one winner. Everyone can be a winner, but as you mentioned, knowledge is not enough. It takes a response and action. A simple prayer, acknowledging Jesus as God’s Son, asking for His forgiveness of our sins and inviting Him into our lives will make a difference of where our etenity will be spent. My choice is Heaven, and I hope that is also the choice for all who may read this response.


  4. Posted by Phyllis on March 25, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    I don’t know exactly why but reading your post kept circling my thoughts back to the substance abuse group I facilitate for the Federal Probation Office in my area. The majority of the people I see in this group live their lives by the maxim of winning (money/women/cars particularly) while they become steadily more empty and less human. Spending time listening to their view of themselves, others and the world has done more to make me aware of the need to be ethical than anything else I’ve ever done.
    Our world seems to become steadily less so and I get chills when I think of a future created by people whose only goal is winning. It gives “ashes to ashes” real meaning, and not just in a funeral service.
    As usual, your postings make me think. Not always a comfortable proposition.


  5. Posted by SD on April 18, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    (from e-mail) As always, good writing and excellent thinking.


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