The following is a true story. On May 21st, 2006, Charlie , a 18-year old Harvard freshman was brought into a large room and sat on one side of an old oak table. On the other side of the table are the stern faces of his history professor, his academic advisor, the Dean for Academic Affairs, and the Chair of the Ethics Board. Charlie was accused of plagiarizing significant portions of his final paper on the Napoleonic Wars and, much like his essay’s antagonist, faced the threat of undignified exile.
This was a particularly troubling case because Charlie was well-known across campus for raising money for local charities. The question is, why would this guy, who in most ways would be a model student, be sitting in a room answering questions about his moral fiber?
Understanding the answer to that question is important if you don’t want to sabotage your own success.
It turns out that Charlie plagiarized his essay because he was worried about getting it done on time. He found himself staying up all night the day before it was due struggling to formulate a single coherent sentence and in that weakened state turned to the internet for a quick solution. Charlie’s case is so common in fact that college’s actually use “start your papers early” campaigns as part of their ethics training. In this sense, procrastination itself is necessarily a bad thing, but it can dress bad things up in a nice red bikini so that it becomes a lot more attractive. Procrastination is what we call an “antecedent” to plagiarism. And the more you think about antecedents the more you’ll realize that like Charlie, your success has a lot to do with how well you manage your temptations.
You already do this to some degree. If you’ve ever set your alarm clock on the other side of the room because you know it will force you to wake up, then you know how effective this can be. So, if you’re prone to avoid performance reviews with your employees, then you better schedule it. If you’re tempted by the fattening foods at the company’s restaurant, then move your business lunch to the salad bar down the street. Setting yourself up to win is an important part of you overall achievement strategy. Your willpower is a limited resource (see: “Training Your Success Muscle”) so if you don’t already have a safety net in place when that time comes, then you are choosing to fail. Everyone knows not to lie, cheat or steal, so why do people they do it? In many cases it’s because they simply failed to manage their temptations. You may be feeling great right now about your progress, but when the going gets tough (and it will) what will you do then? And most importantly, what can you do NOW to ensure that you won’t become another Charlie?
About the author: Chris Cowan is an executive coach and an expert in adult and organizational learning. He is currently working as a consultant with the Federal government. He has previously worked for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Leadership Development and the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Previous consulting clients include, Fannie Mae, Samsung USA, the United States Air Force, and Microsoft. He has written or co-authored 13 articles on adult learning and is a certified action learning coach and training evaluator. Chris received his Masters from Harvard in 2005 and is currently writing his dissertation on transformational leadership at the George Washington University. He currently drives a 2008 Dodge Viper. Feel free to contact him with questions at Chrcowan@gmail.com.