“Be the thermostat, not the thermometer.”

This — a line from a BYU defensive player — a sportscaster reported to her play-by-play colleagues during the Oregon State / BYU game midway through the 4th quarter. “Turn up the heat?” one replied; the other wasn’t sure that as a catchphrase or motivational line it would stick.

What disappoints but does not surprise me is that they obviously didn’t “get it.” At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s not about turning up the heat, but rather that a thermostat regulates temperature and a themometer merely reports temperature. Furthermore a thermostat regulates in order to main equilibrium; it does not ‘just’ react, but establishes a feedback loop/system.

The title of a 2011 Forbes article is “Be A Thermostat, Not A Thermometer.” The author of that article reports getting the phrase from Roger Ailes’ book You are the Message. The author’s explanation/understanding of the expression, though, seems a bit limited:

In other words, it doesn’t matter what the ‘temperature’ is of the person you’re dealing with—they may well be furious—but you need to remain at 70 degrees and sunny.

This addresses the thermotat, but not the thermometer. It’s selective, not critical, reading.

A “motivational” Twitter account posts the phrase as reported (“Be a …,”) attributing it to MLK, and another rephrases it as “Are you a …?” but then also cites it as from a letter:

The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

Quotationspage.com at least provides better context, the quote’s source: “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

That’s a text I’ve not read in years, but one that bears rereading. It is elegant and eloquent, and a letter full of quotable lines, e.g. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” MLK employs evocative metaphors and argues by biblical analogies, but he also deals in direct historical facts. Interesting as well is that MLK’s phrasing is not open to (mis)interpretation; what he means by both thermostat and thermometer is clear.

I am sorry, Lorena Bathey of the Oakland Life Coach Examiner, it is not “as Martin Luther King Jr said,” for he did not pose it as a question, and he did not treat it as a trite life lesson.

But estranged from context MLK has become a self-help guru …

… who would have thunk it?