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COLUMN

The Godfather Attitude

Eric J. Plosky

We’ve all been taught to cooperate, to play nice, to stay inside the lines if we want to get things done. “Follow the rules.” “Obey the law.” “Go through channels.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

With the Class of 2006 beginning to mill around on campus, now is the perfect time to repeat one of my favorite old chestnuts: Don’t listen to any of that crap. From now on, take the Godfather as your model for getting things done. Always seize the initiative. If you can’t bend the rules, break them -- sometimes it’s the only way to get something done. Don’t play word games with your opponents; crush them. The system isn’t in control; you are.

Look, I realize that if you’re a freshman, your head is probably spinning with all that’s going on. (Hey, I remember what it’s like.) But you’re an MIT student now. Momentary confusion is no excuse for allowing yourself, for instance, to be sucked into whatever egregious deal the smiling shills at Fleet Bank are trying to push this year. Fortunately, taking control is easy. The Godfather Attitude Can Be Yours -- you need only keep a few simple precepts in mind.

First, be vocal. If something is bothering you, complain about it. Loudly. Incompetent or failed attempts at assistance should be reacted to harshly; don’t allow yourself to be mollified by half-measures. “Well, at least they’re trying,” you might think. So? If you’re not actually going to make a difference, forget about it; a difference which makes no difference is no difference. Don’t shut up until your concerns are answered satisfactorily. (Note that you might have to compromise a bit on your definition of “satisfactorily.” Compromise is a tactic, not a vulnerability.)

Be a pragmatist. Figure out what is possible and then go and get it. Don’t chase lofty ideals; pursue the practical. Success will encourage you to seek larger and larger goals, and eventually even the lofty might be within reach. Start small, paying attention to matters immediately surrounding you, and you’ll be able to make more of a difference than the idle dreamer would imagine possible. You can still muse on world affairs and the karmic nature of the universe, but don’t expect anything to result from such wonderings. Get down to business.

Be shrewd. Figure out who knows what’s going on -- in every situation there’s always at least one person (not necessarily the person in charge) who knows absolutely everything -- and focus your attention. No need to be confrontational or adversarial; in fact, if you’re crafty enough, the person on the other end of your problem will suddenly realize that he’s become your ally.

Be bold. If existing procedures or organizations can’t handle what you have in mind, bypass them. Create a whole new way of doing things. Start a crusade, as long as you have the dedication and resources a credible crusade requires. Don’t fall back on clichÉs; you’ll look feeble. Innovate. Put a new spin on an old quark.

Be attentive. If you sense an opening or an opportunity, grab it. People-watching is always entertaining and usually rewarding if you’re sufficiently perceptive, because you’ll soon divine who knows what. Get to know people’s strengths and weaknesses, and determine what they know. Don’t assume that situations will remain forever, helplessly opaque. Look and listen.

Be patient. Get the details, and calmly scrutinize the fine print. Don’t allow yourself to pushed around, pushed into deals, taken advantage of. Know your rights, what you’re entitled to, and settle for nothing less. Be a commanding presence -- in a difficult situation, speak slowly, be deliberate with your gestures, and never raise your voice. Take your time. If you have to raise something, just raise an eyebrow.

Finally, be irreverent. People who take themselves too seriously quickly become seriously annoying, and have a tendency to fade into obscurity before they have a chance to accomplish anything. Keep a sense of humor. After all, you may be the Godfather, but this is only MIT, where the motto hidden somewhere on every Brass Rat is IHTFP.