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It's A Slippery Slope
A brief personal history of a catchphrase—and what it has to do with norms, responsibility, and operational integrity
I grew up in a family in which Yuengling Lager was the special occasion adult beverage of choice. Here in Pennsylvania, when you ask for "a lager," everyone knows you mean a Yuengling Lager. Never mind that Budweiser, Coors, Keystone, Pabst—they're all lagers, too.
When I started to drink alcohol, the only things I could stomach—let alone enjoy—were things like Mike's Hard Lemonade, Woodchuck cider, and the occasional weak rum and coke. Any time I tried a sip of beer—almost exclusively Yuengling Lager—I thought it was gross.
I figured that one day, I'd eventually come around to the stuff.
But, oh, how I longed to be able to drink something so low-maintenance! I perceived my drink order as fussy and childish. I just wanted to be a regular old beer drinker. Oh, the follies of our youth!
When I met Sean, he worked full-time at a brewery and pub. So I started to spend a lot more time around beer and in tap rooms than I ever had in my life—which, I might add, was not a high bar to meet. One of our usual haunts had a beer on tap that I would tolerate. It was an apple ale that drank like a mix of hard cider and what I can now describe as an English-style pale ale. It reminded me of something I had in a countryside inn in Austria on a college orchestra trip.
One day, as I'm sipping my apple ale and Sean is drinking a beer, I get a whiff of his brew. It doesn't smell anything like any other beer that I'd ever tried before—remember, mostly Yuengling Lager. To my inexperienced olfactory receptors, it didn't smell like beer at all. Its aroma was rich and heady with notes of pine and grapefruit. I asked to try it.
I took a sip, and my eyes widened in surprise. It tasted slightly sweet and bracingly bitter—like fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice that also happened to have a 9+% ABV. In short, it was delicious. After the initial shock wore off, I felt cheated of my prime beer-drinking years. Why had no one told me that not all beer tasted like Yuengling Lager?!
My next thought was that this changed everything.
If I remember correctly, I did not finish my apple ale but instead ordered "what he's having."
This was the first time that Sean uttered the words, "It's a slippery slope!" to me.
Since that fateful day, "It's a slippery slope!" has been one of our most cherished relationship catchphrases. Colloquially, the phrase is most often used as a sort of warning of the potential for one bad behavior to turn into many far worse behaviors. But we enjoy flipping that idea on its head.
To us, "It's a slippery slope!" is a way to say that once you get a hold of a good thing,
it just might change your life for the better.
Sure, knowing that I can order a beer anywhere we might go isn't exactly a positive life change, although it's nice. But I've also found other slippery slopes in the last decade: hiking, national parks, running, climbing, paddleboarding, etc. I’m a different person today because of the various slippery slopes I’ve slid down over the last decade.
The idea of a slippery slope—whether we're talking about positive or negative outcomes—is that once you start sliding, you can't get traction to stop your forward progress. Slippery slopes aren't just a steady march toward a destination. They build momentum. You slide faster and faster, becoming less in control as you hurtle downhill.
And yeah, it makes sense that "slippery slopes" are often used negatively. Being "out of control" is rarely a good thing.
But what if, instead of "out of control," the slippery slope helped to free us from control?
What if the slide was part of an effort to get out from under the control of outside forces?
Specifically, I'm thinking about the normative power of neoliberal capitalism. Rough transition? Nah, I'm gonna stick with it. The values of productivity, efficiency, maximization, growth, and optimization—not to mention the beneficence of the "invisible hand" of the free market—are values that control how we work and do business today by virtue of their normative power. We don't notice how they dictate our choices and methods because questioning their inherent goodness seems unthinkable. As in, literally, we don't think about it.
Norms, best practices, and accepted “wisdom” are like guardrails that keep us from slipping over the edge. When we name personal or business values, we don’t realize that those values are typically on the other side of that guardrail. Values like belonging, caring, curiosity, justice, or love don’t square with our commercial norms.
Our values are the slippery slope. We don't notice that declaring we value a "sustainable pace" should have material implications through every facet of our work. We don't notice that espousing a belief in inclusivity and accessibility means we should be examining every aspect of our work to discover the ways in which we operate in defiance of that belief.
Thanks to the normative power of the status quo, our values and beliefs are more rhetorical than operational.
They look good on a website. They help us write inspiring sales copy. They allow us to convince ourselves (and others) that we're not part of the problem.
But that misses a huge opportunity to be found as we slip and slide.
That opportunity is the chance to not only work or run a business with operational integrity but also to experiment with new ways of working, forming business relationships, and exchanging value. Taking advantage of that opportunity is rarely easy, and it's often expensive, but to ignore it is to functionally ignore our actual values and beliefs.
Operational integrity of this kind is the result of deliberate struggle and discernment. It recognizes that in an unethical and exploitative system, there are no "right" answers. But operational integrity never rests on "that's just how it is." Operating a business with integrity to one's values means acknowledging that there's going to be some "extra" work involved.
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In his exploration of disobedience, philosopher Frédéric Gros argues that obedience is a way of avoiding responsibility.1 When all you do is follow the rules or the instructions given to you by some authority, you don't have to think about whether what you're doing is right. Whether it's in integrity with the values and standards you hold dear.
To be an intellectual, an artist, a writer, but perhaps more fundamentally to take seriously one's task or destiny as human, means obliging oneself to commitment, even to struggle and take sides. Neutrality is also a choice, that of passive complicity ...
Being responsible means this above all, to feel a burden weighing on my shoulders.
Responsibility—and integrity—place a burden on us. They require a daily accounting of our actions relative to what we say we believe. There's no room for neutrality. No room for passivity.
Our responsibility to disobey norms and rules that serve to oppress others is, indeed, a slippery slope.
The weight of it might even cause us to speed toward our far-off unknown destination. But the upside here is that taking on the burden and sliding down the slope is a path toward freedom.
When it comes to work and especially running a business, operational integrity requires committed responsibility. It requires wisdom. Wisdom, according to Gros, "is actively thinking, getting to the root of the question, rather than stirring the ashes of rote knowledge, repeated dogmas, or acquired certainties." And found in that responsibility and wisdom is freedom from harmful norms and freedom to invent new possibilities.
How much of your daily work or business operation is the product of rote knowledge, dogma, or acquired certainties?
Probably quite a bit. We accept the perceived truths others have on offer: how to manage your time, how to achieve your goals, how to sell a coaching package, how to build your email list, and on and on. We copy and paste from templates and case studies rather than interrogate whether those proven tactics align with our values.
Our policies drip with punitive warnings. Our marketing oozes urgency. Our hiring practices seep out the exploitative status quo.
Because we obey. Because surely others know better than we do. Because we want to do things the right way. Because we've spent our whole lives avoiding the slippery slope.
Freedom from norms and best practices takes stepping over the edge every day. It's a slippery slope. And it feels like flying.