Life loans

March 7, 2010

When my full-time job vanished in October, I was incensed. How dare they take away something that was mine for a decade? I ‘owned’ my projects, nurturing them from conception, through birth, and into a robust and healthy adulthood.

They belonged to me.

But they didn’t. They were simply on loan.

It’s easy to forget that everything we are and do is borrowed. Our homes, our families, our jobs, even our lives are limited time offers with unknown expiration dates.

We know the bargain; we just choose to look away from it.

My latest milestone was a new reminder of an old truth; something bigger than any particular job or any specific time or place.

It is the obligation to celebrate that which is ours to keep; the many small, intangible, intimate things that shape our lives. Our impact on others; the way we raise our children; the friendships we make; the ideas we create; these can endure and spread, replicate and expand. They represent us. They are not borrowed.  And they find life only in being lent to others.

We’ll have to give something else up sometime soon. It’s inevitable.  But it is somehow reassuring to remember that the more we build, the more we bring to whatever lies ahead.

PUT your hands together

December 31, 2009

Ok, hold the applause.

I mean it. Stop just long enough to help me figure out what it all means.

Here’s the conundrum. From an Office and Gentleman’ to ‘Anger Management’ to ‘Wedding Crashers’ to a million greater and lesser movies (and television shows), the tales we tell seem to crescendo with moments of public applause. Guy gets girl? Cue the clapping. Kid tells off smart-ass classmate? Put those hands together. Nasty boss gets public come-uppance? Give it up for the underdog.

Speaking as an amateur cultural anthropologist (not easy when you are embedded in said culture), I’m mightily intrigued by this clamor for public validation. Why do so many movies include scenes of wild affirmation, mostly offered by passersby? Why do TV shows require us to view and vote for people we do not and never will really know?

We can’t blame Twitter and Facebook and youTube and MySpace , because the phenomenon actually predated social networking. Strangers were applauding protagonists as far back as the 70s – and probably earlier. It’s true that the advent of reality TV – gestated under likes of Jerry Spring and reproduced prodigiously through ‘mainstream media’ – cast everyone in the role of potential celebrity and constant audience.

But, putting my admittedly ill-fitting anthropologist’s hat back on, I wonder whether our obsession with public affirmation comes from another place; our deeply rooted unconnectedness.

Americans have always been a ‘don’t fence me in’ culture of rugged individuals, proudly independent and self-sufficient. We have separated ourselves from the old-fashioned sources of acceptance; friends, family, co-workers, fellow worshippers; the most logical sources of the instantaneous ‘attaboys’ depicted in media. When you’re a lone operation, validation must come from strangers; whoever happens to be passing by at the moment of achievement; fleeting but obligation-free approval.

Allow me to wander even further afield. It is entirely possible that the more we disengage, the greater our thirst for witnesses to our lives becomes. A recent study found that those of us who twitter our every movement are actually happier than those who don’t. The more connected we are, the greater our sense of being witnessed. Our social media ‘followers’ confirm our links to ourselves and to others, even if those connections are forged at a keyboard. And our vote for ‘American Idol’ contestants places us in a virtual – but likeminded – virtual group, even if the group exists as a collection of individuals seated before a television set.

Fun and fully and frivolous as all this is, I see the smallest kernel of something positive in it. The more identified we are with others, the tougher is becomes for us to turn our backs on people in trouble. If are all in this together – applauding the triumphs of others – maybe we can also, in the words of a former president, ‘feel their pain.’

And if that’s the case, maybe we can’t and won’t allow people to die of treatable diseases because they have no healthcare; or permit people to suffer malnutrition because their food stamps run out before their appetite does; or shrug when another human being join the ranks of the ‘discouraged workers.’ Maybe, all this connectedness will force us to care.

And if that’s so, I say bring on the applause.

December 30, 2009

Ok, hold the applause.

I mean it. Stop just long enough to help me figure out what it all means.

Here’s the conundrum. From an Office and Gentleman’ to ‘Anger Management’ to ‘Wedding Crashers’ to a million greater and lesser movies (and television shows), the tales we tell seem to crescendo with moments of public applause. Guy gets girl? Cue the clapping. Kid tells off smart-ass classmate? Put those hands together. Nasty boss gets public come-uppance? Give it up for the underdog.

Speaking as an amateur cultural anthropologist (not easy when you are embedded in said culture), I’m mightily intrigued by this clamor for public validation. Why do so many movies include scenes of wild affirmation, mostly offered by passersby? Why do TV shows require us to view and vote for people we do not and never will really know?

We can’t blame Twitter and Facebook and youTube and MySpace , because the phenomenon actually predated social networking. Strangers were applauding protagonists as far back as the 70s – and probably earlier. It’s true that the advent of reality TV – gestated under likes of Jerry Spring and reproduced prodigiously through ‘mainstream media’ – cast everyone in the role of potential celebrity and constant audience.

But, putting my admittedly ill-fitting anthropologist’s hat back on, I wonder whether our obsession with public affirmation comes from another place; our deeply rooted unconnectedness.
Americans have always been a ‘don’t fence me in’ culture of rugged individuals, proudly independent and self-sufficient. We have separated ourselves from the old-fashioned sources of acceptance; friends, family, co-workers, fellow worshippers; the most logical sources of the instantaneous ‘attaboys’ depicted in media. When you’re a lone operation, validation must come from strangers; whoever happens to be passing by at the moment of achievement; fleeting but obligation-free approval.

Allow me to wander even further afield. It is entirely possible that the more we disengage, the greater our thirst for witnesses to our lives becomes. A recent study found that those of us who twitter our every movement are actually happier than those who don’t. The more connected we are, the greater our sense of being witnessed. Our social media ‘followers’ confirm our links to ourselves and to others, even if those connections are forged at a keyboard. And our vote for ‘American Idol’ contestants places us in a virtual – but likeminded – virtual group, even if the group exists as a collection of individuals seated before a television set.
Fun and fully and frivolous as all this is, I see the smallest kernel of something positive in it. The more identified we are with others, the tougher is becomes for us to turn our backs on people in trouble. If are all in this together – applauding the triumphs of others – maybe we can also, in the words of a former president, ‘feel their pain.’

And if that’s the case, maybe we can’t and won’t allow people to die of treatable diseases because they have no healthcare; or permit people to suffer malnutrition because their food stamps run out before their appetite does; or shrug when another human being join the ranks of the ‘discouraged workers.’ Maybe, all this connectedness will force us to care.

And if that’s so, I say bring on the applause.

December 30, 2009

Ok, hold the applause.

I mean it. Stop just long enough to help me figure out what it all means.

Here’s the conundrum. From an Office and Gentleman’ to ‘Anger Management’ to ‘Wedding Crashers’ to a million greater and lesser movies (and television shows), the tales we tell seem to crescendo with moments of public applause. Guy gets girl? Cue the clapping. Kid tells off smart-ass classmate? Put those hands together. Nasty boss gets public come-uppance? Give it up for the underdog.

Speaking as an amateur cultural anthropologist (not easy when you are embedded in said culture), I’m mightily intrigued by this clamor for public validation. Why do so many movies include scenes of wild affirmation, mostly offered by passersby? Why do TV shows require us to view and vote for people we do not and never will really know?

We can’t blame Twitter and Facebook and youTube and MySpace , because the phenomenon actually predated social networking. Strangers were applauding protagonists as far back as the 70s – and probably earlier. It’s true that the advent of reality TV – gestated under likes of Jerry Spring and reproduced prodigiously through ‘mainstream media’ – cast everyone in the role of potential celebrity and constant audience.

But, putting my admittedly ill-fitting anthropologist’s hat back on, I wonder whether our obsession with public affirmation comes from another place; our deeply rooted unconnectedness.
Americans have always been a ‘don’t fence me in’ culture of rugged individuals, proudly independent and self-sufficient. We have separated ourselves from the old-fashioned sources of acceptance; friends, family, co-workers, fellow worshippers; the most logical sources of the instantaneous ‘attaboys’ depicted in media. When you’re a lone operation, validation must come from strangers; whoever happens to be passing by at the moment of achievement; fleeting but obligation-free approval.

Allow me to wander even further afield. It is entirely possible that the more we disengage, the greater our thirst for witnesses to our lives becomes. A recent study found that those of us who twitter our every movement are actually happier than those who don’t. The more connected we are, the greater our sense of being witnessed. Our social media ‘followers’ confirm our links to ourselves and to others, even if those connections are forged at a keyboard. And our vote for ‘American Idol’ contestants places us in a virtual – but likeminded – virtual group, even if the group exists as a collection of individuals seated before a television set.
Fun and fully and frivolous as all this is, I see the smallest kernel of something positive in it. The more identified we are with others, the tougher is becomes for us to turn our backs on people in trouble. If are all in this together – applauding the triumphs of others – maybe we can also, in the words of a former president, ‘feel their pain.’

And if that’s the case, maybe we can’t and won’t allow people to die of treatable diseases because they have no healthcare; or permit people to suffer malnutrition because their food stamps run out before their appetite does; or shrug when another human being join the ranks of the ‘discouraged workers.’ Maybe, all this connectedness will force us to care.

And if that’s so, I say bring on the applause.

The good enough life

December 9, 2009

In the midst of the direst financial downturn in the past 100 years lurks the promise – albeit still just a hint – of something refreshing; the ‘good enough’ life.

We’ve forgotten the concept over the last 20 to 30 years. Surrounded by the illusion of plenty, we built a ‘new consumerism’ that glorified what Harvard Professor and author Juliet Schor described as an ‘upscaling of lifestyle norms’; a have-it-all and pay-for-it-later culture. If greed was good, excess was excellent.

The business community did its best to stoke the fire, insisting that slow growth and simple solvency were insufficient. Profit has to be maximized and companies had to grow geometrically. Stockholders demanded it. And we were, as you recall, all stockholders. But it went beyond the market.

Banks, advertisers, retailers, even pharmaceutical companies reminded us that more was invariably better. We deserved increasingly spacious and mightier vehicles, larger houses, fatter mortgages, better drugs, nicer clothes, fancier vacations. ‘New and improved’ became an inalienable right. Paying for all this would come later – when you were richer, fatter and happier.

It turned out, as it always does, that there was far more to the story. While some people were living large, others were losing ground. Bernie Madoff, Lehman, bankers, stockbrokers implied that the piper would not have to be paid. So today, we have unemployment well into the double digits, homes in foreclosure, stocks that tank and banks that fail. The gulf separating the wealthiest 10 percent from the remaining 90 per cent is wider than it has been in a century.

And here we are, forced to learn all over again that past is prologue and that, more importantly, enough really is enough. The big car, the enormous house, the Caribbean cruise; these are not birthrights nor are they necessities. They are extras.

We do not deserve more, we need enough; adequate  earnings, sufficient space, the right number of possessions to survive and even, occasionally, thrive.

I, for one, am glad about all this. I don’t covet the large salary, the corner office, the new car and the rambling home. I can live without the big job title, the fat stock portfolio, and the fancy clothes. They require upkeep, energy and anxiety. Free me from my encumbrances and I can pursue the things I really want.

And you know what they are, of course.

Enough.

Diversity 2035

October 26, 2009

diversityImagine its 2035.

Now, look around.

Almost half your coworkers are female and 37 per cent belong to ‘minority’ groups, a term that now seems quaint and retro.
Your colleagues live in different countries and represent different ethnicities, different religions and different sexual orientations. For the first in history, four distinct generations work side by side.

But they’re not really nearby. The workplace is a constellation of teams that coalesce around overlapping assignments and then vanish, only to reconstitute themselves a hundred, a thousand times in a career. Working for the few remaining full-time, salaried managers – what’s left of yesterday’s megacorporations – the ever-changing teams meld a myriad of  individuals together, taking them momentarily from their orbit around many different employers.

These diverse workers share a singular responsibility. They are all the CEOs of themselves, functioning as personal brand-builders, salespeople, business managers and strategists. They are members of guru Malcolm Gladwell’s  ’more thoughtful’ workforce.
Individuals, not employers, design and determine, control and cart their own pensions, healthcare benefits college savings plans, schedules, investment portfolios, and career goals from place to place. Without the benevolent (malevolent?) corporation protecting (threatening?) them, they are free to succeed or fail all by themselves.

But they are not solitary.

With the social networking of 2035 completely ubiquitous and invisible, career nomads voluntarily create and join new communities. These landing pads offer wandering workers solace and support in the company – virtual or real – of people who look, act and work like them.

This is the new diversity; a byproduct of the unconventional workplace. It’s where I’m aiming my virtual pen.

Join me on my journey.