David R. Henderson  

The Iron Law of You

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How Russ Roberts Can Change Your Life

I recently sent off my review of Russ Roberts' book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. The publication I sent the review to is a quarterly and so it should run in the Spring. I highly recommend Russ's book, by the way. (Russ, as most readers of this post probably already know, is the host of Econtalk.)

The book is basically about what Russ learned from a careful reading of Adam Smith's lesser-known work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. (It's zero price on line here, by the way.) He has caused me to put it on my list for summer reading at my cottage in Canada.

I can't say that Adam Smith's book will change my life because on page after page of Russ's book I found myself saying, "Yes, I had already figured that out." So, for example, I figured out long ago that my goal in life was not to become rich by giving up on relations with family members and my larger community.

But there is one thing that Russ formulated that has already changed my life daily. He calls it "The Iron Law of You."

What is "The Iron Law of You?" Simply this: "You think more about yourself than you do about me."

Everyone knows that, right? Well, yes. But we, or at least I, often tend to forget it. In a given week, I wait to hear back from, say, 5 to 10 people. Of those 5 to 10, maybe 1 to 3 don't get back to me as soon as I like or at all. What did I do in the past? Get angry. Not really angry. But just angry enough that, when I thought about the person through the day, I found myself thinking worse of the person.

But Russ reminds us that "that person" has priorities too--and they are not ours. And there's nothing wrong with that. He also caused me always to remember, when I start to get angry at not receiving a return phone call or e-mail, that I probably owe others a phone call or e-mail. I forgive myself. Why not forgive them? So, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is absolute calm and acceptance and 10 is rage, when I remember "The Iron Law of You," my anger falls from about a 3 to a 1.5. Not bad.




COMMENTS (13 to date)
Neal writes:

That is the lesson I tell my sensitive 17-year old daughter. I learned as a teen that when buddies failed me in some way---in the old days it was always communication---if I wrote them off, I had nothing to do come Friday and Saturday nights. And hanging out with them was much more entertaining than staying home with the folks watching one of 5 channels on the family TV. And where was I going to see a pal barfing up beer and pizza outside of the car come midnight? If the barfer wasn't me, it was extremely entertaining.

I advised my daughter that everyone is just wandering through life inside their heads and are not caring so much about others. But, I also learned later in life, those same uncaring buddies could be counted on in a pinch.

Bryan Caplan writes:

Or as I love to say, "We would worry a lot less about what other people thought about us if we realized how little they think about us at all."

Craig Richardson writes:

Yes, a good Law. Another way to think about it is that no one cares more about your life than you do and so you might have to take charge sometimes rather than just fuming and taking it personally. Example: My 20 year old daughter recently left for a spring college term in Malaysia. The Malaysian embassy had endless delays, but she was so trusting that people in the embassy would take care of her that she put off making(potentially annoying) calls to make sure her visa arrived in time. As a result, it got here 12 hours before departure (!!). She's learning though about being more persistent if it's her life at stake.

Steve Y. writes:

The "Iron Law of You" is one of those phenomena that, once it's given a name, is noticed all the time.

After retiring from a full-time private-sector job, I began volunteering for some charities and am now managing various administrative functions, which virtually no one likes to do. Most volunteers are filled with noble impulses to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clean up the environment, etc. But very few like writing reports, asking for money or volunteers, and reminding them to show up.

As a manager of paid workers I could use both the carrot and the stick. As a manager of volunteers there's no stick and few carrots. Operating under the Iron Law of You means:

I'm always asking (nicely).
I'm always thanking.
I'm always biting my tongue.
I'm always making contingency plans if people don't show.

I'm now a better manager than I ever was when I was working.

Bostonian writes:

Usually, when something is really important, people will contact you more than once. Ignoring the first email or call on a topic can save time, but I admit it also seems rude. Don't use this tactic on your boss, of course.

Mike Brady writes:

Russ' "Iron Law of You" is the essay that Ayn Rand should have written instead.

Ted writes:

Wisdom for the ages, Mr.Henderson, and as relevant to business as it is to personal life. I find myself to be very forgiving in my personal relations, but those, in my business life, that refuse to respond to messages unless I "chase" them (as in Bostonian's scenario) will be calmly and ruthlessly penalized in the ordinary course of business activity for the costly insult of wasting my time. Time is money, and I will certainly make time thieves provide restitution for their theft. It requires no form of emotional heat to extract that penalty, merely survivalist reciprocity. When it becomes too expensive to steal my time, the offenders typically learn to refrain.

D writes:

What's central to you is likely peripheral to others. What's peripheral to you may be central to others.

Very interesting subject. A few points:

I believe that each human relationship has variables concerning how much each partner wants to be respected (or trusted) by the other.

I respond to the lyrics of Aretha Franklin's song "Respect", by noting that I am not given power to demand respect from another. But I can try to make my own behavior respectable.

I have erred sometimes in expecting a balance of respect in my friendships, since I've come to believe that most friendships are inherently unbalanced. What I gain from a friend may come to me because of my difference from and imbalance with that friend.

It costs me a little bit to act in a respectable (or trustworthy) way. To act in these laudable ways represents an investment, perhaps looking ahead to the prospect of more-concretely profitable interactions in the future.

But perhaps that is what Adam Smith says in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I've had that book (LibertyClassics 1982 edition) on my shelf for 20 years. Maybe this year I'll read it. If it were possible, I would enjoy undertaking this reading in company, such as a book-reading-and-discussion group.

Russ Roberts writes:

Richard O. Hammer,

You can find my six-part conversation on The Theory of Moral Sentiments with Dan Klein, here.

David, thanks for your kind words about my book.

CC writes:

DH, I'm surprised you're capable of anything over a 2 on the anger scale! :)

Jacob Shepherd writes:

It reminds me of the saying that we judge others on outcomes but ourselves by our intentions (which makes sense because we can only know our own intentions absolutely; the claims of the intentions of others may be mere excuses made after-the-fact).

This is a scenario where we would do well to extend the benefit of the doubt to those with whom we've had positive relations in the past, at least unless the event does not become habit.

Harold Cockerill writes:

Contrast the Iron Law with this from Mr. Smith

"Hence it is, that to think much of others and little of ourselves; That to restrain the selfish and indulge the benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature."

I guess the truth of the Iron Law shows how far from perfect we all are.

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