white power switch on wall

Which Direction do You Flip the Light Switch?

Light switches—and we’re talking the traditional kind of light switch, not the newfangled smart switches you kids are all playing with these days—are simple devices that create incredibly powerful results.

Flipped “on,” a light switch illuminates a space. It lets us see when otherwise we couldn’t. Light is a deeply important thing to humans: light represents safety. Given how our eyes work, we function best in the light.

Flipped “off,” a light switch plunges a space into darkness. It prevents us from seeing what’s around us. Darkness creates fear, because our eyes simply aren’t designed to work as well in the dark. Darkness can be dangerous—but it can also be comforting. Our bodies depend on a cycle of light and dark, wakefulness and sleep, to be healthy.

Turning off the lights is the easier action. After all, at nighttime, “dark” is the default state: nothing more is required. To turn on the lights, we have to make an effort: we run wiring, screw in lightbulbs, and then flip that switch up. Our ability to create light is one of the many things that separates humans from animals, but the act of creating light has immense overhead.

Light switches can be a good analogy for understanding how many people operate. Keep in mind that one of the mosthuman of activities is forming tribes: convincing others to join us, and deciding whether we’ll join someone else. Tribe-forming is the basis of politics, right? Each political party works to try and convince as many people as possible to join them and vote their way. In order to do so, these political parties try to understand their constituents and offer a platform that aligns to those constituents’ priorities.

Sadly, many tribe-forming activities consist solely of flipping out the lights.

It’s not limited to political parties, either: you’ll see it happening at work, too. It’s the person who pushes for or against something based on fear. “We shouldn’t move to the cloud, because our data might be stolen!” They’re taking the easy way toward their own goals: flipping off the light switch. For humans, fear is a powerful motivator. Flipping off the switch—creating darkness, creating fear—is an easy way to move many people to your way of thinking.

So here’s a maxim for your career, and possibly for your life: Anytime someone tells you something that makes you afraid or anxious, they’re flipping off the lights in an attempt to win you to their tribe. Ask yourself why you’d join a tribe based on fear.

As I said, it’s harder to turn the lights on. You have to build infrastructure, run wiring, and so on. There’s work in turning on the lights. There’s work in creating safety and security; only fear comes easily, and for free. It’s easy to suggest fear—and you almost never have to prove fear. But with safety, you have to show evidence. So yeah, flipping on the lights is harder.

But once the lights are on, they’re really on. Remember: darkness is an absence of light, not an opposing force. Darkness is easily dispelled, and once the lights are on, the darkness is gone until that switch gets flipped again. One you’ve brought light to a scene, it’s harder for someone to flip that switch back off again.

The most effective careers, large and small, come from those who choose to turn on the lights, and who show others how to do the same.

Or, as Amy and Emily put it:

In the kind word you speakIn the turn of the cheekWhen your vision stays clearIn the face of your fearThen you see turning out a light switchIs their only powerWhen we stand like spotlightsIn a mighty tower…If the world is nightShine my life like a light

(It’s a really good song.)

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