My first business partner taught me this concept. It’s an incredible way to always make sure that you’re doing the right thing.
It’s called the Washington Post Test and it is very straightforward:
If you’re doing something, think about the repercussions if it is published on the front page of the Washington Post the next day.
And the test is this:
Would you still do it?
If the answer is yes, go ahead and do it.
If the answer is no, you need to think about why this is the case. You may want to consider whether changing your course of action is the wiser move.
It’s a straightforward concept, but one that I carry around with me every day. This is very helpful for edge cases where I am not sure if something is correct in my behavior.
The thing about transparency, integrity, and honesty is that everyone claims to have them. Yet, when the time to test them comes, they’ll give all types of excuses.
It’s precisely when a situation tests your values that they should remain in place. It is far too easy to uphold values when they don’t matter, it’s doing so when it counts that is the real test.
This actually touches on a subject that I wanted to write in another essay but can explore now. This is the concept of living what I would call a public life. This doesn’t mean what you think it might. That you have no privacy and that you need to broadcast everything you do to the outside world.
It’s about living as if this was the case.
Living as if everything you do could, at any moment, be completely public. I realized that the concept of living a public life and the Washington Post Test are the same thing.
This concept is powerful because it helps us fight the influence of the idea behind the Ring of Gyges. If you’ve never heard of it, let me sum it up for you now.
The Ring of Gyges is a mythical ring mentioned by the philosopher Plato in the second book of his Republic. It discusses the story of a shepherd that finds a ring that can make him completely invisible. He uses this newfound power to seduce the queen, kill the king, and take control of himself.
The point that Plato makes is to wonder if anyone could resist the temptation. Imagine being able to commit crimes without consequences. To behave exactly as you like, and nobody would ever know. Let me quote this from the Republic:
Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with anyone at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may indeed affirm to be an excellent proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually. Still, of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unfair. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine anyone obtaining this power of becoming invisible and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot. However, they would praise him to one another’s faces and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
I’m not sure if this argument is valid. Is it possible for someone to resist doing anything they desire if they knew they could get away with it?
Let’s move away from theory and come back to real life which is devoid of magical rings. You will find that there is always a chance that someone will discover any action. Most criminals don’t imagine they will get caught. Many do. This shows a discrepancy in what criminals think will happen and what actually happens.
This should help us keep the Washington Post Test in our mind. There is always a slight chance that anything we do might become public. Mobile devices with cameras are now ubiquitous.
That said, the Washington Post Test is a crutch. One that we should aim to remove. We should become the type of person who does the right thing because it is the right to do. It should end up being our nature.
I am far away from this type of life, but I strive to keep moving towards the ideal.
The above passage from Republic is by a character named Glaucon. Socrates would have a good answer to him. Acting in the correct manner should not be constrained by other people’s opinions of you. Or, in the potential adverse circumstances that you might find yourself in. It should be an outcome of using our rational minds. Of being in control of our desires. So we can live a happy life, without the need to steal an apple while nobody is looking.
The issue runs deeper than what you think is the right thing to do at all times. It is also how other people may perceive your actions, regardless of their intentions.
Let’s imagine that you’re a contracting officer for a large company or even the government. You have the right to sign contracts that are worth well into the tens of millions of dollars. Imagine that you have many bidders who are bidding on a project. One of them invites you to lunch to further discuss the bid and gather more details, and then they pay for the lunch.
You may have been doing your job and want to learn more about the bidder. You want to give them all the required information to ensure that they can respond to your request for a proposal. From an outside perspective, it may appear that the free lunch could influence your decision-making.
Whether this is true or not is not the point. The fact of the matter is that it may be perceived that way. Or, it can even be made to look that way. To look nefarious even when the entire event is innocent.
This is a much more complicated way to live life. You have to be careful not of doing the wrong thing in moral or legal terms. You also have to be careful not to give the impression of doing the wrong thing. Because you cannot always read other people’s minds, there will always be a margin of error.
Holding ourselves up to high standards is not easy.