Day #268:The Single Coin, Or The Growing Heap?

There is  something insidious about how our minds trick us into doing things we never want to do—insidious because it’s absolutely true.

Take for example, you made a resolution to stop drinking, then comes this one time you are out with friends and suddenly you say to yourself, ‘I haven’t had alcohol in 6 months, I bet if I have now, it wouldn’t make any difference’.Or you you have kept a healthy diet for weeks and this time you see this really tempting chocolate chip cookie and you go ‘ wow! I am just going to eat this once and then get back to my diet’.

This phenomenon is known as “the argument of the growing heap,” which is described in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. According to a footnote, the argument of the growing heap is:

“If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”

This teaching story highlights a paradox that’s very significant to our lives: Often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time, a sum of those actions is very meaningful. Whether we focus on the single coin, or the growing heap, will shape our behavior. True, any one visit to the gym is inconsequential, but the habit of going to the gym is invaluable.

Pointing to the one coin is a way to deny a conflict between our values: we’re not choosing between our desire for French fries and for healthy eating habits, because eating one bag of fries is an insignificant act. But when we consider the accumulated cost of the French fries, the conflict looks different.

I haven’t worked on that project for such a long time, there’s no point in working on it this morning.

One beer won’t make a difference.

What difference does it make if I spend this afternoon at the library or watching a movie?

Why work on my report today, when the deadline is so far away?

A year from now, what I did today won’t matter.

It’s so easy to point out the low value of the one coin. By reminding ourselves that the heap grows one coin at a time, we can help keep ourselves on track.

That one time may seem insignificant. However, once you allow that one time, chances are there will be more ‘one times’ to come.

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