I’ve been thinking about customs and traditions lately, and why we choose to honor or dispose of them. And what I keep coming back to is that there are, broadly, two type of customs and traditions. Some of these are nothing more than habits, things we do without much thought. Some, however, are truly chosen traditions. We start, renew or discard them after deep consideration about whether and why they matter. It is those we should be most curious about.
Let’s start with the blind traditions. Common greetings and other rules of etiquette. Most people’s celebrations of Halloween, New Year’s or Columbus Day. The ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game. Everyone’s insistence on using PowerPoint and referring to every political scandal with the “-gate” suffix.
Blind traditions aren’t necessarily bad or without meaning. And we need some ingrained habits simply to get through life without endless fear or paranoia. By this, I mean, imagine if you had to worry about every car driving on the correct side of the road, or whether every piece of food you ate was poisonous, or whether gravity were still in effect.
Anyways, blind traditions usually come from meaningful places but, over time, have lost their emotional significance or have seen it distorted or confused. They cease to be traditions and become habits, shorthand for how we live.
This could turn into a book about philosophy, and my undergraduate degree hardly prepares me to write that treatise. So, I’ll ask you to think about two things when it comes to tradition, one workplace-related and one not.
Traditions in the workplace
First, in the workplace. think about that old, dreaded saying of “this is how we’ve always done things.” What are the habits of you and your organization, and have you examined them lately? There’s the big, strategic version of this, but also smaller contexts, such as:
- Using the same vendor for a less-than-ideal service because it’s easy enough.
- Having the same lunch every day.
- Taking the same paths around your workspace, talking to the same people.
- How do you start your day? Do you immediately go to emails? Are you taking (or allowed) time to think?
On the flip side, what are the good traditions? What should become one? Things like:
- How accomplishments are acknowledged.
- How birthdays, anniversaries, departures are marked.
- What can be taken and reapplied from a meeting or a project that goes really well?
- Thinking of a day that felt productive and yet refreshing. Why was that?
Traditions in our day-to-day lives
That second thing? Most of our life is marked by habits and traditions that are cultural, spiritual or emotional. Work is incidental to them, if at all related. I was reminded about this yesterday when hearing about the death of TCM’s Robert Osborne. This man’s public life was steadfastly in the service of a tradition — the “classic” era of filmmaking. TCM is a channel that is forever looking backward.
That could be a bad thing if the intent were to say how only old films are good or to mourn the dead while ignoring today’s artists (or, worse still, if the nostalgia was really that of an era without minority actors or difficult social questions).
Osborne, of course, was not about that. He celebrated film because he was a student of it, because he lived on the periphery of the classic era and saw it change over the decades. His mission was passing along the tradition of film to a younger generation so that they may be fuller in their knowledge and appreciation. In this sense, to hear Osborne tell it, he was merely following a request by Lucille Ball:
“You love old films. You love history, you love everything about the business and you’re journalism major in college. We have enough actors, you should write about movies. And the first thing you should do is write a book.”
Osborne was admittedly uncritical of the great stars, for sure, but he was usually acting less as a PR agent and more of an curator, highlighting what these actors and directors had done and, sometimes, helping them realize their impact. From a 2015 CBS Sunday Morning profile:
His favorite interview: former movie musical star Betty Hutton, who — by the year 2000 — had not appeared on camera for nearly 20 years. But she opened up to Osborne.
“She was terrified she was going to disappoint people, that they wouldn’t remember her,” he recalled. “And it’s the thing I’m proudest of, I must say, because we had this vulnerable woman who had been such a big star tearing her heart out talking about it.”
“My private life has been hell, really hell,” Hutton told Osborne. “But my professional life was so wonderful because the audiences understood I was working from my heart.”
Such passion and interest from Osborne and others, in some cases, literally preserved and restored old movies. Cultureally, they also inspired new traditions among younger film fans, and did so without pretending that each individual movie was worth adulation. Believe me, there are a ton of terrible old films.
In short, the best use of traditions and their workmanlike cousin, habits, might be to discover and act out your principles. As the Buzzfeed editor Kartherine Miller wrote about her late father:
And ultimately, the people whom he held in high esteem, it was more like traits they might share than any particular experience. These could include: understanding baseball; a working knowledge of political, military, or baseball history; competence, intelligence, humor, or outsized kindness, and any one of those traits must have been accompanied by the demonstrated quality of strength.
In this qualitative way, this disinterest in false stature, this relentless commitment to his routine, this constancy, this really not caring, my father offered people enormous freedom. Whatever’s a problem, it’s not that big of a deal.
This is actually very easy, very uncomplicated! And that’s an enormous gift to give others.
So, whether at work or in your hobbies, with your friends and family, regularly re-examine your traditions, your customs, your habits. Most are harmless either way. But you may discover who you’re becoming — and change course if necessary.
James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneurs, manufacturers and other fields. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.