At one of the places I worked, I was part of a creative team of three program staff. Once a quarter or so we would spend half a day shut in my office brainstorming possibilities, opportunities, and next steps. We discovered that the support staff had a nickname for us: the three-headed monster. Our creativity meant more work for them.
It was a wonderfully dangerous place for anyone with manic creativity to work because the needs for growth and development were endless – a bottomless pit into which we could always add more and never be done. Toward the end of my long tenure there, I adopted a mantra for myself: “Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.”
Due to historic institutional over-indulgence, strange oversight of investments, and, during my time there, two severe slumps in the stock market and a crisis in the economy, we were trapped in that ugly and delusional mindset of “more with less.” When I arrived, there was a bloated staff of nineteen and when I left it was down to nine. Even so, the program, membership, and sources of revenue grew. This result was a team success story with both staff and volunteers making it happen. Likewise, at the end of those fourteen years, I was not the only one who showed signs of burnout.
I have been thinking about that experience and my mantra a lot lately: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” It speaks to a lethal nit in the human character.
Aesop’s Fable about the Ant and the Grasshopper aside, I do not think that laziness and complacency is a huge problem for human beings. Those folks have largely died off in the gene war over the course of evolution, just like the Grasshopper had to beg the ants for help as winter set in. But manic creativity and driven curiosity keep us from setting limits on ourselves and commonsense restraint when it comes to going places and doing things we should not, simply because we can.
We are not only able to keep ourselves from freezing in the winter or suffering heatstroke in the summer, we build places like Las Vegas. Think of it: a city in the desert dependent on water engineered to travel vast distances while disappearing in massive quantities through evaporation, and where air quality is sabotaged by the need to heat and cool massive glass buildings. And all for what? Something a relative few of our species finds an appealing self-indulgence?
The same could really be said about any city built in a desert, or farmland created in arid places by fantastic feats of engineering. Yet the same is true in every household in which the heat has to be kept at a perfect 72 in winter and 68 in summer, water is wasted as if limitless, and plastic, paper, and organic refuse are all tossed thoughtlessly in the same garbage that ends up in stinking mountains of trash.
Whether the unlimited engineering of plant and human cells, inventing new soft drinks, or fracking, there is a mantra for that: “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.”