Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 58

Loose Lips Sink Ships

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Loose Lips Sink Ships

There is an iconic American WWII propaganda poster with a picture of a massive cargo ship going down, presumably sunk by German U-boats, and the caption: “Loose lips sink ships.” It was hung up at bars especially, and the idea was to warn about careless talk that might give enemy spies the information they need to hurt the war effort. The poster is very simple. It’s just a huge ship, tipped at a nauseating angle, steam still billowing from its smokestacks. It’s hard to believe that just words could have such a monstrous, physical effect.

I like to remember this phrase and dramatic image when I’m tempted to talk prematurely about not state secrets but my own self-improvement efforts. As you know, I don’t like to podcast about any system until I’ve got months or years of practice under my belt and feel confident that it’s likely to have some value. I do this, on one level, so as not to waste your time with untested ideas but also, selfishly, because there’s an energy we all have when we’re starting out with something new that can be dispersed and frittered away by talking about it. When we start talking about a new habit we’re excited about, and inevitably to some degree bragging, we prematurely grasp some of the psychological reward that should rightfully come only once we’ve actually stuck with it long enough to achieve something. And having gotten that reward before we’ve actually earned it, we’re a little less likely to stick with the system because, well, what’s the point? We’ve already obtained the garland we’re after. We’ve basked in the glory of achievement on credit, our fantasy of success.

Apparently this psychological trap of achievement on credit can get us even when we’re merely imagining future success, not even talking or bragging about it. The much-touted technique of visualization, or vividly imagining how good it will feel when you’ve accomplished something as a motivational tool, apparently, this technique, according to a 2019 study by Jason Stornelli has been shown to be generally counterproductive, to backfire, because (again) what’s the point of sticking with the hard discipline required to actually achieve something when you’ve virtually enjoyed the feeling of success already.

As in all things, there’s a balance to be achieved. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a partner in your efforts, an “accountability buddy.” Talking about your self-improvement struggles can be a way of really putting yourself on the hook to follow through, because you’ll be embarrassed to tell your confidant that you’ve given up. It can also be a way to further a friendship, to open up about something that’s personal and important to you, a vulnerability, versus just making smalltalk. I think the deciding factor is, “am I sharing or bragging?” Am I looking for help, camaraderie, intimacy or just trying to impress someone (and that prematurely?). Ask yourself those questions.

I read an article recently [I will dig this up, and link to it in the notes]  in which the author mentioned that since he started making a practice of meditation, he noticed that he spent far more time talking about meditating than actually doing it. I had to laugh when I read this, because “loose lips sink ships” notwithstanding, I do exactly the same thing. I’m pretty good with most of my habits, but there’s something about meditation which seems to make people unable to shut the hell up about it.

With “Loose lips sink ships” itself, as a system, I’ve actually been remarkably good. It’s actually one of the earliest everyday systems I dreamed up, almost as old as the No S Diet, Urban Ranger, and Shovelglove. So that makes it 20 years now, roughly, and I’ve never, until now podcasted, or even posted online about it. Since several world wars could have been fought in that span of time, I think I’m justified in finally passing on to you this newly declassified state secret about the value of keeping your own private, personal secrets when it comes to habits and self discipline.

So best of luck -- and whatever you do, don’t let me hear anything about it for a good long while.

By Reinhard Engels

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