I heard arguing and crying from the other end of the hotel hallway and decided I needed to at least walk by. As I got closer I could see a woman clutching a broken lamp and a shirtless man with blood running down his back. She was blocking the door, while he appeared to be gathering his stuff. The room was a disaster and blood was smeared on the wall and the floor. I asked if everything was okay but knew it certainly was not. I had walked up on two people's personal disaster.
Fortunately, I wasn't alone, and the following five minutes we tried to diffuse the situation. The man quickly agreed to leave, and the woman eventually calmed down enough to explain he started hitting her, at which point she defended herself with the lamp. It became apparent there was much more to the story she wasn't going to tell us, so we made sure she knew we were a few doors down and left. We never heard from her again.
That story has continued to replay in my head. What was actually going on? In my attempt to figure it out, of course a string of assumptions came alive with my imagination. I'll never know the exact narrative, but I was reminded of a few simple truths. We have a tendency to judge before we learn, to go after the speck before we remove our log, to ridicule before we reflect.
No person sets out to ruin their life. No one wakes up and says to themselves, "Well, let's see how I can most effectively destroy myself." The gradual, subtle decline is normally the path we all take towards defeat. The parable of the boiling frog speaks to this: the frog doesn't suspect that it's being cooked when the temperature slowly rises, but throw a frog in already boiling water and he'll jump right out. Ernest Hemingway described this concept in terms of money: "How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."
If we do not consciously choose to do one thing, we will subconsciously do the opposite. This is a principle I've heard repeated countless times at my company, as we strive to build ourselves and our business with intention. The challenge is to constantly be vigilant and aware of what you're moving towards.
Is the temperature rising around you, and you don't even know it? Are you making decisions today that will lead to your personal disaster five years from now? Every public moral failure I've seen didn't come to fruition overnight. "Gradually, then suddenly."