When I was a kid in elementary school, the teachers would give out what were called “negative incident reports” when one of us would exhibit bad behaviour. It was just a simple slip which detailed what we did, and obviously no one wanted them. However, some became so used to receiving them that they lost their initial power.
Conversely, there was an opposite kind of report. For lack of a better term, they were called “positive incident reports”. As one would predict, they were given out when a student exhibited good behaviour. I suppose their purpose was to encourage students to be good at school by giving them acknowledgement when they did so.
In theory, this was a good idea. Their were slips of paper to be given out to both well-behaved and less-well-behaved students. However, I quickly noticed a trend: I would not get any positive incident reports while my friends who tended to misbehave more often and I did get these positive incident reports. At first, I was confused. I was always well behaved. I almost never treated people with disrespect, while my other friends sometimes did. Then, when they suddenly were nice to others, they would be rewarded with these positive incident reports that I coveted1.
I remember being confused as a kid. Why were my friends being recognized for one good instance of behaviour out of five when I was five for five and getting nothing? I remember it feeling not fair, as if the teachers were conspiring against me.
Eventually, I realized what was happening. It wasn’t that the teachers did not think I was being a good student. Instead, it was simply that I was consistently being good. There was nothing that made me stand out to a teacher and prompt them to give me a good incident report. I was good, but it was a new normal for the teachers.
On the other hand, my more rowdy friends were not as consistently good. Instead, their “normal” was to misbehave, resulting in teachers expending a lot of energy in order to keep them in check. That is why, when they noticed the student deviating so much from their norm, the student got a positive incident report. In short, they were deviating from their misbehaving habits while I was always being good. And they couldn’t exactly give me a positive incident report every single day.
The reason I tell this story is because it offers one key lesson: we notice deviance. When someone moves away from their norm, it’s noticeable. What we don’t notice is the person who works tirelessly and consistently, day after day.
While I was consistently exhibiting good behaviour, I wasn’t being noticeable.
Ironically, the work that does matter is a result of consistent effort over a long period of time. It’s not enough to put in a burst of energy. The work that makes a difference can always be traced back to consistency.
Why does this matter? Because, as I illustrated in my story, we look right past those who consistently do good. Their behaviour becomes habitual, and so we slowly stop noticing it. We only get stimulated by rapid change, but that happens to be the least effective way to work. Therefore, we are always being lulled into noticing those who are able to rapidly change instead of those who have the discipline and patience to play the long game by focusing on one thing.
What we need to notice is that, even though few will acknowledge what you’re doing, choosing to be consistent over rapidly changing will pay off in time. Trust in the process, and don’t worry about the lack of reaction from others.
I still got positive incident reports from time to time, but they were a pretty rare occurrence for someone who was always nice at school. ↩