Stop Complaining

“Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable… then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. “

-Marcus Aurelius

Everybody complains. I want to get that out in front, so we’re all working from the same sheet of music where people are bona-fide human beings instead of impossibly hard-assed philosopher-kings. Complaining is a natural coping mechanism, and can serve as a sort of soothing emotional release for some. In tough jobs complaining can become so common that it serves as an occupational pastime, and some people are so dependent on complaining that it becomes central to their identity.

None of this means that complaining is something that we should just accept about ourselves, any more than bad breath or a beer gut. It is an indulgence; a public airing of mental vulnerability, which feels good but causes grave harm. Natural or not, common or not, complaining is a weakness and must be constrained.

batmanHabitual complainers have an endless supply of rationalizations. They’re the bold ones, who will say what everyone else is thinking but is afraid to say. They’re the burdened intellectuals; the voices of reason with the acerbic wit.They’re the heroic, disruptive nonconformists, who will be sacrificed at the altar of protocol for their sins of speaking truth to power.

They’re delusional. A well-reasoned and professionally delivered proposal can effect positive change. A complaint, on the other hand, will always be received as an irrelevant waste product of emotions, which are the mortal enemy of rational decision making. It’s the doers who change the world; complainers just provide commentary.

Complaining is the pastime of the powerless. If you want to see this concept in action, spend some time around old people for a while. If we live long enough, we all eventually lose any sense of control over our destiny as the outside world becomes strange and frightening. The ubiquitous “they” conspire against us and we spend a steadily greater portion of our waking hours angrily enthralled with Fox News. It’ll happen to you, too.

You can tell how powerful someone feels by how much they complain. Especially as a junior officer, your relative influence within the command is complex and dynamic, ebbing or surging as a function of your reputation. The degree to which you do or do not complain sends messages to others about your maturity and seniority within the command. This in turn reinforces your ability (or lack thereof) to make things happen. When you complain, you shrink.

The trick to moving from complainer to doer is in the serenity prayer—recognizing that which you cannot fix and then fixing what you can. We all have our sphere of influence. Complaining about things beyond our sphere is passive, defensive. Positive action on those things within our sphere is active, offensive. When in doubt, attack something.

When you complain, you shrink

Some JOs fall into the trap of complaining along with their subordinates in order to cultivate some sense of belonging, through shared experience. You’ll never fit in with your guys and shouldn’t try—it isn’t what they want or need, and you’ll just end up embarrassing yourself. In any group of complaining sailors, the one who says “enough with the bitching” is the leader. If you’re carrying on and moaning with the group, imagine how stupid you’re going to look when it’s the mature PO2 that says “enough.”

Nobody’s asking for a cheerleader. Nor a “company man,” a soulless conformist, a sellout, a yes-man, a kiss-ass or any other pejorative that habitual complainers invariably swear to never become. Even if you’re really saying what everybody else is thinking (unlikely), there’s probably a good reason they’re not saying it. Rationalizations deflect attention from the real issue: failure to constrain one’s emotions is not an antidote to weakness of will, it is a symptom of it.


One thought on “Stop Complaining

  1. The Japanese have a saying “Shoganai (しょうがない)”; please bear with me as I was stationed in Yokosuka for 7 years. It translates to “it can’t be helped” which provides a good framework to move forward. Take a look here:

    Bottom line, when I’m irritated, I try to use that phrase to put my mind in the proper place to make the best of a (potentially) bad situation and make the best decisions possible.

    Keep up the great work with the blog!

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