By Jim McCarthy May 2, 2012 0 comments

Punching the Fire Alarm

I don’t mean punching the fire alarm as in pressing it or pulling it in order to warn others of a fire.

I’m talking about Amare Stoudamire-style left jab to the plate of glass in front of a fire alarm.  In case you haven’t heard this story, a man who makes tens of millions of dollars a year using his hands to manipulate a basketball decided that the right thing to do when his team had lost an important game was to use one of those hands to give an inanimate object what-fer.

Your winner by TKO in the first round, Fire Alarm!

It doesn’t take me to tell you that this is monumentally dumb.  His team, the New York Knicks, rely to a large degree on his presence, and since they’re in the playoffs, which is the part of the season that really determines everything, missing him because of this is a big blow to the overall success of the organization.

But it’s easy to sit back and mock: here’s a guy who loses a basketball game, for which he gets paid lavishly, who damages the very tools of his trade and makes it more likely that his team will be beaten in this series in a single blow than anything that Miami team could.  Big dumb jock.  Spoiled millionaire.  Out of touch 1 percenter.  Take your pick of cliches you’d like to throw at him.

My experience though is that many people “punch the fire alarm” all the time, some of them almost as spectacularly as Stoudamire but on different scales.  An old friend of mine was the king of this.  We got into a fender bender once in his car, and it was clearly the other person’s fault.  He was so steamed about it that he jumped out of the car, stomped over toward the other person, took off his own glasses and slammed them down on the pavement in anger.

Wha?  How is that helping anything?

Still, I think we all have a tendency to do this in ways even much smaller than that: saying things that express our inner feelings when there’s absolutely no benefit to saying it and quite a bit of potential harm.  Almost any snide comment falls into this category.  Almost any negative comment directed at a person you’re talking to falls into this category.  In fact, just about any negative comment of any kind that isn’t followed by a calm evaluation of what to do to make the best of the situation is another form of punching the fire alarm.  (Side story: when I lived in Japan, I was talking to one of my Japanese co-workers and casually said something like “well, it’s important to express how you feel.” To which she replied, “why?”  That was the first time I’d thought about that, and she had a point.)

I know about this phenomenon because I’ve done this plenty of times myself.  Gradually, I feel I’ve learned.  Sometimes in important meetings, I used to put a mug in front of me that I filled with water, partly because I might be thirsty but also because it was a reminder that whenever I had the urge to keep talking or say too much or say something driven by anything other than pursuing our real objectives, the mug would remind me of this:

Like the G.I. says, think before you say something stupid.  Or punch something hard.

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