A Descent into the Maelstrom – When it looks like a good idea not to say no just yet

This fairytale is a metaphor of a metaphor. A maelstrom is a powerful, sometimes huge whirlpool that forms in the sea, often in fjords and passages where the tide is strong. Edgar Allan Poe has written a short story from which I borrowed the title – but his story is about a real maelstrom, while mine is metaphorical. I believe that we all to some extent suffer from the inability to say no at the right time. As an outsider, it looks even more stunning when, like in our story, it contrasts with the macho, “I have everything under control and basically despise the world” tone of the narrator. Could it be that their concept of self renders them more prone to self-deception when it comes to spotting that it’s your own inability to say no? At the same time, there is another phenomenon I wanted to point out with this story. Often we find ourselves in situations where two decitions overlap at the same moment. Someone asks you whether you can do something for them until Friday. You doubt it, but you have two decisions. One is the important one: are you going to deliver on Friday. From this question, much depends. On the other hand, if you tell the other person already now that it is going to be difficult, they still have many options. They may give it to someone else, they may make sure that something of less importance is taken off your workload, etc. If they discover Friday morning that you haven’t done it, it is worse for them. But then there is your second decision: it is about the situation now, and the consequences now: if you say no now, you get an immediate negative reaction. If you say yes now, for now the situation remains nice. And it is this closeness in time, the immediacy of the second question which leads us to overestimate it in respect to the situation on Friday. The same thing happens when people have much to do: the important question is what we decide, and how good our decision is – for which we need to think, ask people, do a search. The immediate question is how to get that email out of our inbox fast, or get that meeting over fast. And we tend to give too much weight to the immediate question and not enough weight to the important one.

Of course, the Hotel California song is by the Eagle’s, “…you can check-out any time you want, but you can never leave.” The song itself is again a metaphor: their Hotel California is the artsy society of Los Angeles, which attracts so many stars, have-beens and would-bees to a specific lifestyle.