The golden rule is a trap, and what does it mean to be authentic?

Were you ever taught The Golden Rule (yes, the fancy capitalized one)? What comes to mind when you read the words? THE Golden Rule (I emphasize the THE in my head, not sure why).

The first definition for the The Golden Rule on Google states that it is: the biblical rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). I am not Christian, nor have I read The New Testament (at least not yet), but this phrase: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was drilled into me throughout my childhood. This principle was established as the ULTIMATE PRINCIPLE, the mental model that governed all other mental models in my life. The root of all roots. The ultimate ruling.

The second definition on Google cements the idea of the prominence of this foundational piece of advice, stating that the term The Golden Rule can also be used to refer to “a basic principle that should always be followed to ensure success in general or in a particular activity.” The rule is THAT IMPORTANT that they (yes, an arbitrary they or if it sits better in your head we can imagine the OXFORD DICTIONARY WRITERS) use The Golden Rule as a synonym for THE RULE THAT SHOULD ALWAYS BE FOLLOWED.

Seeing the term: “Always followed” next to anything sets off some alluring alarm bells of sorts in my head. I rarely believe in always-es (that is perhaps my golden rule—be wary of rigid, absolute statements, always ;)). Nonetheless, I am intrigued by anything THAT important—or at least professed to be.

And professed to be it WAS. Over and over and over and over. Again, I did not grow up in some particularly religious house (I am/my family is Jewish) nor did I attend a religious school (public school for the win!) but somehow? this GOLDEN RULE was ingrained in me.

I was told—by countless teachers and coaches (and perhaps even my parents)—that THE (caps for emphasis) guiding principle of my life would/should/needed to be THIS GOLDEN RULE. This idea that you should do unto others as you would want to have done to you. That was the HOW behind walking on planet earth. The instruction manual if you will.

It is a pretty attractive idea because, in all honesty, especially for those with a relatively loud sense of self speaking to them, it is not _that_ hard to implement. You merely approach a situation and then ask yourself (in whichever tone you think you would like because, well, you are dealing with yourself), “what would I want in this situation?” I contend this is a pretty quick exercise. For me, and I can speak for me pretty quickly, I think I can do this pretty fast with a relatively high degree of accuracy (we may sometimes call this sort of thinking a product of latency).

For years, I witnessed this idea rise the ranks of classroom laws and be ingrained as so obviously the right way to go about life. The obvious way to participate in society was governed by the IMPLICITLY ACCEPTED concept of The Golden Rule.

I am not the first to make this claim—and perhaps you can tell already by the ~tone of this essay where and how I feel about things in this domain—but I think the Golden Rule, as defined above, is actually TERRIBLE ADVICE, if your goal is to succeed in WINNING (most) FRIENDS AND INFLUENCING PEOPLE. (Particularly so if you are someone like me).

I have a lot to unpack with this sentence, so let’s take it one component at a time, starting with the end and working towards the meat of the story.

“If your goal is to succeed with interpersonal dynamics”

I am not saying this should be your goal. I do believe that most all humans (not all, but let’s say most all) do desire some sort of social relationships. I think we, and yes we as a species here, will learn more about this NEED (or not need) in the coming decades—but for now, and by now I mean the remainder of this essay, let’s imagine that MOST ALL PEOPLE want and desire HUMAN-NESS around them. In reality, this is not a BINARY NEED. You may want a touch of HUMAN-NESS. You may want a SMOTHERING. You have probably heard terms like introverted-ness and extroverted-ness to describe the SPECTRUM that occurs between wanting/needing others to get energy (a bit like photosynthesis if you squint at the analogy I am drawing my head, or vampires, but the imagery of vampires is much darker than I am default imagining).

There is a whole lot to the notion of relationships and interpersonal dynamics—a lot more than I will fit into this essay (and perhaps not even into a million words)—but for the sake of contextualizing, let’s think about the idea of “getting other human beings to do what you want them to do.” Mind control? Eh, not quite. Manipulation? Also not quite. Let us assume unrealistically that we all have positive intentions (nothing quite unethical or immoral to us—UGH DIGRESSION WOULD BE GOING INTO WHO DEFINES THESE MORALITIES OF LIFE BUT THAT IS NOT THE POINT OF THIS ESSAY) and that we are simply trying to figure out how to walk on planet earth alongside others.

Back to the story—so if your goal is to GET PEOPLE DO WHAT YOU WANT, and you follow the golden rule, I think you will be set up for failure and/or loneliness.

Failure because you are starting at a point of ego-centrism. You are imagining what you would want and working backwards from that. But the challenge you may run into, at least one that I continue to run into, over and over and over, is that OTHER PEOPLE DO NOT ALWAYS WANT WHAT YOU WANT.

Accepting this—that other people have different preferences—is not a particularly controversial idea. I mean…think about yourself for a moment. Do you find that you like things that other people do not like? I answered yes, and I imagine you would as well.

Given this, why are we telling people—our kids—to treat others the way WE want to be treated. Do we not know that the way WE want to be treated is actually different from how other people want to be treated? Have we not learned this as a species that people have different preferences? And how do they respond when we force our preferences onto them? And how do we respond when that happens?

This creates a loop.

So I return to the point of this Golden Rule thing being rather terrible advice (in the context described above, around getting people to do what you want) because it assumes, by default, that other people want to be treated the way you want, WHEN WE KNOW THIS IS VERY RARELY THE CASE.

>> Aside -> I say “very rarely the case” because there are circumstances where people do want to be treated like you wanted to be treated. Those situations may be created intentionally or unintentionally. The guidelines may have been explicitly outlined for the community to follow—like at work or at a school or in a country. But they may also be implicit. If you show up in Tokyo one day and go to a restaurant, there will be different norms than in Kenya and in Shanghai and in Wisconsin. Those may be implicit—but in those situations, using The Golden Rule may get you into all sorts of trouble. Traveling is a good way to build empathy, for differences in the way people live and how they would apply The Golden Rule to their life.

Because of the above—and when it is written in english it reads as rather obvious statements—I do not really understand the practicality of using The Golden Rule to get what you want.

Why do we do this Golden Rule Thing?

Reading everything back now, I ask myself: who wrote The Golden Rule? It feels lazy! It feels like we are just constantly projecting our world view onto others and expecting them to respond positively. Why would we assume that would actually wokr?

Quick aside – I actually really like the notion of thinking for yourself and not overthinking what other people may or ma not be thinking about you. I believe that exercise (perhaps a note to self) is often a major waste of time. I am limiting my above commentary to exercises of dealing with other people, but not necessarily concepts that have to do with you (how you spend your time, make decisions, build things, etc.). For that latter concept—I think The Golden Rule is a really helpful reinforcer of the idea that you should THINK FOR YOURSELF. Why? Well, I think that the mentalizing game that I describe a bit above and below is honestly SO HARD. IT IS SO SO HARD TO UNDERSTAND OTHER HUMANS AND what they want and why they want particular things (emotionally and physically) that you are more than likely to be wrong more often than you are right. Therefore, asking yourself what you would want can be a shortcut when dealing with things on your own that if you can do it you should do it (and more companies should build products with this in mind). BUT when it comes to interpersonal dynamics, the Golden Rule is failing and surely there is a better construct for you to think about life with that should be taught and trained against.

I stumbled upon The Platinum Rule a few years ago.

A different standard may be in order. I’ve heard it called The Platinum Rule (since it is worth more than gold). The Platinum Rule says we should do unto others the way they want us to do unto them. In other words, you have to treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated. That requires a little more effort.

This sounds more likely to succeed, especially when dealing with others. But it also requires a degree of mentalization of sorts that is non-trivial to execute upon. Guessing what is in other people’s minds—mind-reading—is a pursuit I generally try and leave for those among us who have magical powers. I have a temptation to try my hand at mind-reading every so often—I think I can intuit how another person is feeling or what is going through in their head. But I am wrong so often that the practically efficient solution is to lead with curiosity rather than make assumptions. Knowing it is impossible to do this wholly, I still do make assumptions, but I try and save my judgement of those opinions (NOT FACTS) for later.

So if we replace The Golden Rule with The Platinum Rule—we are left with a social construct that says: “figure out what other people want, and then deliver that to them in a way that optimizes for them receiving it.”

Easy enough to understand. Hard to execute, at least for me, because then I run into the converse challenge: “What does it mean to be me? What does it mean to be AUTHENTICALLY me?”

The word authentic triggers (not biologically, not victim-like) an emotional reaction of sorts in me.

What does it mean to be authentic?

A story in my head I will sometimes play for myself is this idea that I just want to become my most authentic self. This helps me become present and live each day to its fullest. I tell myself this story, and others generally agree with it.

“Of course we want you to be authentic. That is what will make your life a life worth living.”

Lots of people tell me this. Coworkers. Teammates. Coaches. BE AUTHENTIC, they say.

But what does “being authentic” really mean?

Does it mean that you should SAY EXACTLY WHAT YOU THINK ALL OF THE TIME? I would guess…requires some mentalization here…the answer to that is no, too.

So what does it mean to be authentic?

It feels like gaslighting to me of sorts when people tell me this—PLEASE BE AUTHENTIC—and then I am and then they get upset with me in some capacity. They say one thing and want another thing—they want ADJUSTED AUTHENTICITY. They want a certain amount of authenticity, but not more than that. And that amount is hard to pin down. Like it’s not a 7 or 8 on some scale but rather based on feelings and the context of the situation. And I, no longer a follower of The Golden Rule (which is kind of easy, I just ask myself what I myself would want in a situation) and new convert to The Platinum Rule must figure out what the other person wants WHILE “being authentic.”

The being authentic is tricky.

I would imagine it means acting in alignment with your values. Okay, I buy that. But what if my value is transparency? This is where dissonance is created—in the details.

The details is where logical thoughts tend to break down. There is no solving the abstractions of life. There is accepting them. And that is what I will do right now.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *