I wore a tie twice in my life; once at my high-school graduation and another at a family function long ago where I felt like dressing “up.” I presently own one jacket and no ties. Ties make me feel like a social conformist following the unreasonable rules of tradition and that makes me ill. That suffocating leash-like piece of cloth is so unnatural that it bares no reason why it even came about. I maintain that tradition is nice, but only within reason.
Problem. I’m in Cambridge — the UK one — where a tie is mandatory in official functions (I learned this the hard way.) Do I stand my ground and fight it? Or should I give in, buy a tie and join the line? This ties in (pun intended) a must read lecture by Richard Hamming titled “You and Your Research” from 1986 where among many good things he said:
John Tukey almost always dressed very casually. He would go into an important office and it would take a long time before the other fellow realized that this is a first-class man and he had better listen. For a long time John has had to overcome this kind of hostility. It’s wasted effort! I didn’t say you should conform; I said “The appearance of conforming gets you a long way.” If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, “I am going to do it my way,” you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble… And I think John Tukey paid a terrible price needlessly. He was a genius anyhow, but I think it would have been far better, and far simpler, had he been willing to conform a little bit instead of ego asserting. He is going to dress the way he wants all of the time. It applies not only to dress but to a thousand other things; people will continue to fight the system. Not that you shouldn’t occasionally!
Jonathan Kozol said “pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win” (On Being a Teacher, 1981.) I can’t remember who introduced me to the concept of “picking your battles” but it has been guiding me ever since. When I am faced with a struggle, large or small, I consider the costs and benefits carefully in terms of emotions, time or money and then I choose whether to wage war; most often I conclude it isn’t worth it. I once had a rental dispute that if I had taken to court, I would have most likely won. Even the rewarding feeling of squashing those bastards wasn’t enough to take me through the time and emotion exhaustion of fighting this battle (the system is built for this outcome, but that’s another rant.)
I don’t have principles; I evaluate every new situation on its own ground. Principles are limiting since they don’t allow flowing with the dynamic nature of our living. When people pull out principles without arguments I don’t fight it, but they often lose my respect.
To tie all this in (yes, another) I will buy a tie, an odd one, and wear it where appropriate, it’s not worth the fight.