You, Me, You

Earlier last week, the LinkEds & Writers group began discussing a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” An early comment questioned the authenticity of the attribution to Shaw. Would Shaw really say “single biggest”? (Were you expecting something else from a group of editors and writers?) Another early comment included a link to the comic “Communication” from xkcd.

I didn’t get the punch line. I’m pretty literal-minded, so it can take me awhile to get some jokes. Then I started thinking: Why wasn’t I getting it? What did it have to do with that Shaw quote? What does that last panel mean? What?

That night, my husband, one of my twin daughters, and I participated in a communication exercise (synchronicity in action).

Husband’s object

My husband and I sat in back-to-back chairs and were each handed five Legos: two yellow, one blue, one white, and one red. My husband built a stable object with all the Legos, then gave me directions on how to build the same object.

My version

During the exercise, I was told that I could ask for clarification. My husband never mentioned the colors, and I never asked which color Lego was where. You can see that I didn’t duplicate my husband’s object.

My object

In a second round, my daughter chose me to give her directions. I began by telling her that my object was like a pyramid, with the large blue and yellow Legos side-by-side.

Daughter’s version

My daughter didn’t duplicate my object. I guess there are two ways to interpret side-by-side.

How many different ways are there to build a stable object with five Legos?

The exercise was a concrete, no-fault way to understand that what you say and what another person hears can be different.

Not for the first time, I learned that when I focus on what I think and need, I’m pretty unlikely to get a message across to another person. The difference between what I said and what the other person heard can be miles apart or subtle. (Who knew there are two ways to interpret “side by side”? Being literal, I often see only what is in front of me.) I forget this basic fact about communication more often than I remember it.

About twenty years ago, I learned that it is my responsibility to communicate in a way that enables the listener to understand my message. If the listener doesn’t get it, I need to figure out the mismatch and try again. I do this when I work with authors, but I lose the skill when I talk with my husband and children. The closer the interaction gets to myself the harder it is to focus on the other person and what the other person needs. I suspect I’m not alone in this.


Hours passed. That xkcd comic popped back into my head. And suddenly I understood. This is how it works: You try to understand the other person; the other person gets you. And then you communicate.

It’s the same in negotiation. When you focus only on what you want, you can’t find a solution. You can have a power struggle, but I think that’s not much fun. When you focus on what the other person needs, or maybe on a mutual goal, you get to a solution.

Or think about networking. When your attitude is “me, me, me,” networking ends up feeling slimy (see Chapter 4 of Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha’s book, The Start-up of You). When you focus on the other person, you connect and everyone has fun. Maybe you even get some good work done or create some opportunities.

In Taekwondo, when you spar, if you focus on “me, me, me,” you won’t get very far. Actually, you’ll get kicked. I’m pretty sure that, one way or another, this is true everywhere. It just takes longer to notice.

You Are Not A Dog or Hamlet

What My Dog Is Teaching Me About Being Human

Taking my dog, Abbie, for a walk can be a challenge. Dogs are creatures of context. And when Abbie’s usual context changes, she becomes anxious. When she is anxious, food doesn’t or can’t interest her, and training becomes nearly impossible. Luring a dog into a behavior with food—few things are more rewarding to a dog—is an easy training technique for human and dog to master. So, Abbie’s anxiety has made it difficult to train her to heel, not pull on a leash, sit at a crosswalk, and so on.

With patience and persistence, I worked with Abbie so that she would feel comfortable enough in our backyard to eat. Outside, she mastered sit and come, and seemed to be having fun working in the yard. She’s a smart dog, and inside the house—in addition to sit and come—she has learned to trap and roll a ball, lie down, stay and wait, turn around, and greet visitors without nipping them.

According to a canine behavior specialist at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Abbie has global anxiety disorder. It has its greatest impact outside. The neighbor’s barky dog, Beemer, or the neighborhood red-tailed hawk causes her to tuck her tail between her legs and bolt for the patio doors. When we change the routine—put her harness on in a new location or go out the front door instead of the sliding doors—she visibly trembles.

About 300 feet east of our house (down the yard, through the woods, across the brook, on Twin Brooks Circle), someone is adding onto a house, and construction has been going on all fall into winter. Next door too. The noise and activity have changed Abbie’s context enough that training in the yard is no longer possible; she won’t eat outside. When the trucks and construction equipment are around, Abbie hides in the bedroom. Her woods— a dog’s aromatic playground, where she tracks field mice, bunnies, and deer—are no longer safe. The family room isn’t a safe hangout when the construction workers are around. On the one hand, maybe it’s a good idea to stay away from loud, noisy, large machines. On the other hand, when it interferes with daily life activities, like sitting in your favorite chair near your human, you’re in the realm of behavioral disorder.

All brains are plastic. When we have new experiences and learn new skills, new neural connections are created in the brain. With enough repetition and attention, these connections stabilize. Repeatedly attending to what makes you anxious, for example, is likely to lock in the anxiety. Although I can’t observe these processes in myself as they occur, I know they exist. But I digress, and you can read about neuroplasticity elsewhere (one of many relevant articles).

I am pretty sure that Abbie, like you and me, has some degree of self-awareness. When we sit at the table to eat, she gets a bone from the family room and returns to the dining room; she wants to do what her pack is doing. When the microwave beeps but I don’t get up to make tea with the hot water that is ready, she goes to the kitchen and waits. If, after a few minutes, I don’t retrieve the hot water, she barks as if to ask, “Did you hear the beep?” She created these tasks for herself; I’m sure she has working-dog in her DNA. But no matter how much I try to teach Abbie that the family room and her yard are safe, she cannot escape her anxiety. Self-awareness isn’t enough to overcome the combination of hard wiring and early life experience that creates global anxiety in a dog.

Abbie is a prisoner of her anxiety (but only in the moment). But I’m a prisoner of only my beliefs. As Shakespeare said, through Hamlet’s mouth, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

I might be hard-wired for anxiety or depression, to respond more readily to negative stimuli, to fight or flee. But I am not necessarily at the mercy of these reactions or my thoughts. I can observe, make connections, and self-correct. I can choose which thoughts to pay attention to, focus on what is productive and discard what is destructive, or at least not spend too much time with those thoughts. It is possible for me (and most people) to capitalize on neuroplasticity and replace anxiety with something else. This does not mean, however, that one should go through life singing “Hakuna Matata”.

Choosing healthy thoughts over anxiety or depression isn’t easy, though. Think about Hamlet, for a minute. His uncle has murdered his father in order to become king. His mother is aware of and okay with this. In itself that would be enough to put most people in a bad frame of mind. On top of this unsettling and dangerous family dynamic, the girl he loves, Ophelia, has rejected him because her father is suspicious of his intentions, an issue of socioeconomic class.

What’s a young prince to do in this situation, except run away to the jungle with a meerkat and a warthog? Oh, wait. That’s the Disney version. But maybe there is a point to The Lion King . When your environment is dangerous and unstable, go someplace safer. Find some allies and a mentor who will help you grow and become strong. And when you’ve matured enough, shoulder your responsibilities.

But if you believe that “Denmark” is a prison, you won’t do any of that. As long as you believe you’re trapped and helpless, as long as you don’t question and test your assumptions, as long as you accept the status quo, you are in a prison. Or possibly you are a young, depressed prince asking the wrong question.

The question isn’t “to be, or not to be,” as Hamlet asked. Abbie can tell you that you are. The questions for human beings are “how are you being?” and “how do you want to be?”

It doesn’t take too much to see that the prison door is open, if you’re willing to look. A chance encounter: something you read in a book, something you hear in a song, something you see on the street, in a movie, on TV, or from a friend, or a close call with death.

However, it takes a lot of effort, repeated effort, to walk through the open door. On the other side of the door is change; and change is unsettling, even frightening. It requires that we leave the past behind. The past is like sunk costs (see mistake #3), which are notoriously hard to deal with. But if you don’t deal effectively with sunk costs, you put yourself in a position of letting loss guide you. What if I fail? What if I lose? What if I die? And when you let loss guide you, it is all too easy to make decisions that are final, that you cannot later change your mind about (Broken Bells, “The High Road”).

For Abbie, life is simple: given that you are, do what helps you continue. Eat, drink, sleep, seek comfort. When in danger, either real or imagined, go someplace safe, fast. Don’t worry about how much water is in the bowl; if you’re thirsty, drink. A dog’s wisdom, but worthwhile for a human being to consider. But human beings can consider more.

How will you be today?

Kicking and Punching Your Way to Mindfulness

Does mindfulness really inhibit implicit learning?

Studying Taekwondo (I’m currently preparing for the 2nd degree black belt test), the art of kicking and punching, has taught me a lot about being human and about myself. What I’ve learned about being human makes me question much of what I learned while earning a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and what I read in a recent Science Daily report. Although this isn’t about me—it’s about all of us—I’ll be the guinea pig.

Taekwondo’s most famous kick is the roundhouse kick; it’s the workhorse of sparring. When an expert does a roundhouse kick, it looks awesome and simple. The simplicity is deceptive. A roundhouse kick involves several different movements: the knee of your kicking leg comes up, the knee of your standing leg flexes a bit, the foot of your standing leg pivots, the hip of your kicking leg opens and turns over, the kicking leg whips out and around, and finally, the lower leg snaps out to deliver the kick.

If an instructor were to tell you all these steps before you try to do a roundhouse kick, you would probably feel paralyzed. If you could still walk at that point, I would recommend running away, fast.

So, you begin to learn by watching a roundhouse kick and trying to do what you see. An instructor points out the pivot and coaches you to pivot your foot. The pivot comes first because it protects your knee; without the pivot you can damage or tear the ACL. During warm up exercises, you might practice picking your knee up. You might get down on the mat on all fours, lift your hip and leg up and out, and practice kicking. This isolates and strengthens your thigh and hamstring muscles and works your core. It also makes you look like a male dog about to pee. Another instructor might tell you to turn your hip over before you whip your leg around. And so it goes. You practice, focusing on one element at a time, and slowly a roundhouse kick emerges. One day it happens: you execute a roundhouse kick with power and snap.

While learning to do a roundhouse kick, I learned about habit formation, persistence, repetition, forgiving oneself, and mindfulness. The most profound learning is that there is no mind-body distinction. I feel a bit silly saying this because it seems so obvious. But years of studying psychology led me to think that something called mind exists separate from the rest of a person. And a mind-body distinction is a pervasive part of Western thinking. But through doing Taekwondo, I experience that a human being emerges from biological processes that can’t really be isolated. Humans are synergistic systems. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Fritz Perls reminded us (reminded us, because Aristotle noted it first). I am a human being, and therefore, I think.

But thinking, although human, is not always or necessarily a good thing. If you think while you practice Taekwondo, you are probably not paying attention—not focusing on what you are doing and what is happening around you. If you do not establish and maintain focus, you are likely to get punched or kicked. (Worse, you might punch or kick someone else. Try to explain that when you were supposed to be sparring with no contact!)

Another name for this level of focus and attention is mindfulness. You are fully in your body, attending in the moment to what you are doing and your environment: mind what you see, mind what you say, mind what you do. You both learn and practice mindfulness when you practice Taekwondo. Although following the breath is one of many ways into mindfulness, it is not all of mindfulness. Kicking and punching can guide you there as well.

So I had my doubts when I read in Science Daily (“Mindfulness Inhibits Implicit Learning — The Wellspring of Bad Habits”) that mindfulness can interfere with the formation of both good and bad habits. This conclusion runs counter to what I have learned and experienced practicing Taekwondo. The researchers, Chelsea Stillman, a PhD student, and Darlene Howard, PhD, from the Cognitive Aging Laboratory at the Georgetown University Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery, cover their bases and say the results are counterintuitive.

When I reflect about what I practice when doing Taekwondo, I observe both mindfulness and implicit learning occurring simultaneously. When sparring—the sport aspect of Taekwondo—you want to execute kicks and punches with as little thought about the techniques as possible. Instead you want to focus on the big picture of what your opponent is doing and act tactically and strategically. Thinking during sparring interferes with your ability to act. You rely on habit, built through training, to execute techniques. You observe your opponent, and react automatically to the twitch of a hip, the slight movement of a shoulder, a shift of weight. It all happens too fast for conscious learning and thought. But somehow (I suspect through implicit learning), you read your opponent and carry out effective attacks and counterattacks.

If psychology researchers want to learn about the impact of mindfulness on implicit learning and habit, they ought to study the elite Taekwondo masters similar to how meditation in an expert Tibetan Buddhist monk has been studied at the Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. (This research is reported in Destructive Emotions, A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, as narrated by Daniel Goleman, The Mind and Life Institute, New York: Random House, 2003.) Outfit headgear with electrodes and wireless transmitters and observe what goes on during a sparring match. The results are likely to be more interesting and less counterintuitive.


with the everyday antihero

Sometimes, life cycles through an extended patch of darkness. Randomness and chaos lay bad thing after bad thing in a weird competition to see which can build the longest road. But when you let down your guard and walk into peril thoughtlessly, it is as if you’ve invited your inner demons to come out for a walk. This is such a tale.

The e-mail came with perfect timing. Sephora was having a Smashbox eye make over event on Saturday from 12 to 4. One of my twin daughters, Elin, was going with a friend to his school homecoming dance that night. She could have her makeup for the dance done, it would look fabulous, and her sister, Sarah, could get her eyes done too.

We had recently gotten color-matched foundation (well, I got just a sample to try) at Sephora using their new digital photo technology; it looked good. I enjoyed buying basic makeup kits for my daughters. At 14, they are exploring fashion and makeup, and it’s going well. As I watch their success, my adolescent fashion trauma has begun to fade. It makes me feel there are possibilities. I’d have my eyes made over too, and it would be fun.

There was no line at the store. This is great, I thought. We looked at the Smashbox eye makeup display—so many colors and combinations to choose from: Photo Op Eye Enhancing Palette for blue, hazel, and brown eyes; fusion soft lights; rich gold, topaz, Neptune, gemstone, bronze, stone, iris, and sapphire. So pretty! My daughters went with a neutral palette; it surprises me that they are conservative. I asked them what they thought of a palette designed for hazel eyes. They shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders. But things were going well. I ignored the fact that my daughters seem to know what they are doing with makeup; they always look beautiful, enhanced. I’m like a magpie drawn to something shiny. I liked looking at all the wonderful colors.

I watched as the younger salesperson applied makeup to Elin’s eyes. She is artful. Elin still looks like Elin, only enhanced, just like that feminist makeup lesson I watched on YouTube. Sarah was next, and again I watched as her natural beauty was drawn out. I wanted that; I sincerely hoped for it. It’s hard to explain that longing feeling of “me too,” that leaning towards the positive and beauty. Caught between hope and fear, I worried about my age and my bad history with makeup.

The other salesperson, an older woman, with white hair and heavily made up eyes featuring sparkly charcoal eye shadow, lots of mascara, and bright red lipstick, was ready for another customer—me. I felt uneasy. I considered saying that I would wait for the other person; she was almost done with Sarah. I really wanted to wait for the person who was creating so much loveliness for my daughters. But it was awkward. So I went with the white-haired woman. And I chose the hazel palette, ignoring the voice inside that said, “go neutral.” I love purple. Isn’t it supposed to bring out the green in green eyes? Green eyes are special, right?

I sat on the chair. Elin stood across the aisle, where I could see her beautiful eyes. The woman asked me what colors I wanted to use. I looked to Elin for advice, but she shrugged her shoulders. Eventually, she relented and advised me to use the more neutral colors in the palette—matte ivory, champagne shimmer, sage olive shimmer. I did.

As the woman worked, I heard Elin snicker. This wasn’t going well. When I asked why, she said that she likes to laugh at me. I had a sinking feeling.

The woman said that she’d like to use the purple after all, in the crease. Would that be OK? I nodded. She held up a mirror and asked what I thought. All I could see were huge purple bags under my eyes (and a fleck of scrambled egg from breakfast on a tooth). I said, “I think I need more sleep.” This wasn’t going well. I think I heard Elin snicker again.

Next came the eyeliner. She applied it. She reapplied it. She paused. More eyeliner. A pause. Was that a sound of frustration? More eyeliner. She hands me a disposable brush to apply mascara. I admire the little tool; they didn’t have them when I was younger. She says something about sanitary conditions. All I can see in the mirror are little dots of bare eyelid skin peeking through the purple eyeliner. Why didn’t she use a primer? What do I know about primers?

We’re done, and the woman asks me what I think. What I think is that I look monstrous. I say, “Thank you, but this just isn’t for me.” She probably asked me why, but I was busy leaving as fast as I could. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. I didn’t want to see me like this.

When I tell Sarah that I think the makeup would be great for Halloween, she says, “Mom. It isn’t that good.”

I nearly run out of the store. My daughters are asking why I don’t get my complimentary make up bag. I’m wishing for a paper bag to put over my head. I walk as fast as I can to the escalator. “Mom,” they say almost in unison, “Slow down.” But I don’t want anyone to see me like this. I’m embarrassed. I race walk to the car. I think that I’m attracting attention to myself by walking so fast, but I’m triggered. I won’t slow down. I just have to get in the car, get home, get this stuff off my eyes.

I try to figure out whether it’s me, the makeup, the salesperson, all three. I ask Sarah questions about whether it’s me and my choices or the makeup artist. She’s not giving any answers.

At home, I grab the makeup remover. I try to be gentle, but I just want to get this stuff off my face. The makeup remover stings. I try hard not to think, “How could I be so stupid as to think makeup would turn out good for me?”

Don’t look for a happy ending here; I haven’t found one yet. Although I see beauty all around me in the world—in the trees decked out in fall colors, in the blue particular to the equinox sky, in my friend Amna’s tattoos, in my daughters—it eludes me.

All I have is hope, not in a bottle, that my lack of beauty is in my vision, that someday I will let the journey transform me, that I might see what someone else can see.

Not Left for Dead

Or Why I Hate the “News” Media

A CNN headline this morning reads: “Don’t Do It, Americans Say.” And the article link with it says: “No Strike on Syria, Most Say,” followed by a teaser: “Eight in 10 Americans think Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people, but they don’t want to do anything about it, a new CNN/ORC International poll says.”

The situation is so much more nuanced than that, but the headline, title, and teaser are oh-so-clickable. And that’s their point. Not the news, not solid information about what people are thinking and why. Just something CNN hopes will go viral. (And I’m helping, I know.) I’m not going to click, and I’m not going to share.

Maybe just this once, we American people are learning from experience and history, and we’re paralyzed in a good way. If we bomb Syria, we are just as likely to hurt as many people as Assad hurt in the first place. It’s one step closer to troops on the ground in yet another Middle East mess; and then we’ll throw in our own sons and daughters too. Maybe we’re sick of death stew. Maybe we’re learning to think before we act.

But that story isn’t as sexy as “they don’t want to do anything about it.” Could people get outraged enough to click, and click, and click by learning that we want to work out the possible consequences before we dump a few thousand bombs on Syria? Who is going to share that maybe, for the first time, we want to find a different way of addressing these problems?

Nope, that doesn’t serve the newsertainment industry’s monetization ends. It doesn’t mesh with the military-industrial complex’s goals.

In a better world, the headline would read: “Think First, Americans Say.”

Stand Your Ground Today, Pogrom Tomorrow?

I’ve been thinking about Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and President Obama’s response for a few weeks. I haven’t watched the news much since the end of the trial. I tried to read the text of the President’s remarks and couldn’t get past the phrase “respectability tax.” It was jarring, like a kick to the solar plexus.

In his biography, I Beat the Odds, Michale Oher speaks simply and profoundly about his experiences growing up in the ghettos of Memphis. Near the end, he talks about the importance of knowing how to dress and behave for different situations. I set this against the idea of a respectability tax. I thought about the crowds of people of all colors, wearing hoodies in solidarity with dead Trayvon Martin and every other African American. Something just didn’t feel right.

If there is a respectability tax, explain to me why Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard professor and highly-regarded scholar, was arrested by the Cambridge police essentially for having trouble unlocking the door to his home. I’m pretty sure he was wearing casual business attire, not a hoodie. It still amazes me that the Cambridge police didn’t recognize Mr. Gates.

I grew up in a sadly notorious town in eastern Ohio. You’ll recognize the name: Steubenville. My dad was a prominent citizen, a lawyer, a U.S. magistrate, president of the bar association, and at one time a rabbi at the Reform temple. Everyone knew Joe Freedman. I think of Mr. Gates like that.

This isn’t about hoodies. There is no respectability tax. This is about membership in a group, the color of your skin, and maltreatment as a consequence. The other day, I thought that if I could change the color of my skin, I would. And then I remembered a couple of stories.

In 1940, the Germans occupied Denmark. Playing politics, they did not round up and deport the Danish Jews to concentration camps until 1943, after the Danish government resigned. The apocryphal story goes that non-Jewish Danes protected their Jewish neighbors by wearing the same yellow stars that Jews were required to wear. Although this story is legend not fact, the Danes did successfully protect the Jews living in Denmark. Only about 470 were sent to live in Theresienstadt, a ghetto (not a death camp) in Czechoslovakia. Only about 120 of the 7,000 or so Jewish Danes died during World War II.

I was born in 1955 into that first generation after the Holocaust. In 1965, I was sitting in some waiting room and overheard a couple of older women speculating about whether someone was Jewish. “She’s got such a big nose, and those thick lips,” one of them said to the other. “She must be.” I wondered if they were talking about me. Maybe that same year, we took a sightseeing drive through a neighborhood near Pittsburgh (my mother grew up in Pittsburgh). I saw a sign that said “No Jews allowed.” That was the sight we had driven to see.

So when I read an African American writer’s words in the New York Times that young African American men are viewed as a problem, it sent a little shiver down my spine, a little frisson of fear. Yeah. And problems have solutions. Thinking about problems and solutions, hoodies and yellow stars, ghettos and singling out people because they look a certain way, I begin to feel sick.

All my life, I have felt just a little insecure. An airplane or helicopter flying over my house can generate anxiety. A knock on the door can do the same. This cultural fear in my DNA has gotten better since I earned a black belt in Taekwondo, but it’s still there. Certain conversations about ancestry and family history still bring tears to my eyes. All of those details are gone, lost in the ashes in Eastern Europe.

Maybe we don’t have pogroms. But the way we have begun turning our backs on or looking away from the poor economic conditions that many people of color live in is close enough for me. A disproportionate number of African Americans live in poverty. A disproportionate number of African American men are in prison. You know this.

No one can convince me that getting out of his car was the right thing for George Zimmerman to do. I think he got out of his car because he had a gun and a stand-your-ground law. But there’s a chance that Trayvon Martin would have been shot anyhow, by the police. It’s happened, even in the liberal Northeast.

Still, I’m horribly idealistic at heart. I think we have a constitution that has answers to the questions that remain. I think that we don’t need stand-your-ground laws; most states have other laws that address self-defense issues. I hope to see a day when stand-your-ground laws are found unconstitutional and found to violate civil rights.

Yeah. And I know we have been here before. German Jews thought they were good German citizens and had some rights.

Trayvon Martin is dead. But that’s just a highly visible example. A Google search will tell you that between 7,000 and 8,000 African American men die from gun violence in a year. Homicide statistics tell an uglier story. Even though only about 13 percent of the U.S. population is African American, more than half the homicide victims in a year are African American.

Do we really need to go through this again?

It All Depends on What You Shrug About

Through a glass

There are many ways to read a novel, and Atlas Shrugged is no exception. Entrepreneurs tend to read it in a particular way. But if I were to read it, I would get something different out of it, in spite of the guidance Ayn Rand gave readers about what she was up to in the book. You can say what you want as clearly as you can, but what it ends up meaning to another person is beyond your control. Ayn Rand must have known this. But I digress.

While reading Brad Keywell’s recent essay “A Book That Changes Lives,” the first thing I noticed was something positive: “I had never before read a story about relationships—spanning those in circles of business, friends and romance—where everything centered on the quest of reaching one’s highest calling…. The most respect, admiration, and love went to those who had a clear definition of their purpose and who strove for it despite the odds….” The Hero’s Journey! Maybe Atlas Shrugged isn’t as bad as I’ve thought it must be.

But wait. He says he had never before read a Hero’s Journey story featuring someone in business. What about A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life? (All right, that’s a movie not a book; but still, bankers!)

Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series wasn’t around when Brad Keywell was a boy. But her central character, Mai-Ili Mei, is certainly a hero. And it is Mai’s business acumen that gets her into trouble at the outset and in the end saves her and the future of the Hundred from her barbaric husband. If a hero like Mai exists in story today, there must have been business-based heroes long ago.

Keywell also says that “… it’s important no one feel guilty about making money…. Profit is a healthy and vital aspect of capitalism, and is a worthy endeavor.” I think close to everyone in the U.S. would agree that profit is healthy and vital. It’s just that profit isn’t the only worthy endeavor in economics or in life. That is one of the points of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge’s problem is not that he is a business man; it is that he has focused his life on business to the exclusion of all else. And the purpose of the ghostly visits is to broaden his point of view and enrich his life.

No one says that anyone should feel guilty about making money. But people have a problem with an attitude that says “I’ve got mine. Who cares whether you have yours.” Or worse, “I’ve got mine, and that means I’m blessed. You don’t have much, therefore you must deserve to be poor.” People who think this way either haven’t read the story of Job or don’t understand what it means.

I walked away from the essay with a few other impressions. Keywell seemed to say that society scorns innovation. I tried to figure out what society he was talking about, but I could only think of Europe and how the Church reacted to Copernicus and Galileo during the 1500s and 1600s. One of America’s core beliefs is the value of progress; you don’t have progress without innovation. In fact, some of our folk heroes are innovators. Remember Benjamin Franklin?

In the end, Keywell has a few things to say about philosophy, particularly about Plato (“…some philosophies can be inhibitors, like Plato’s doubting about whether we even exist and his denying that the material world is real.”), Aristotle (“…such as Aristotle’s conviction that the pursuit of happiness is at the core of human existence, and that the good life is one of personal fulfillment.”), and Rand (“…what we perceive around us is reality, that people are capable of dealing with this reality and pursuing a good life, and that humans are thinkers, and therefore, heroes who can achieve greatness.”). I can agree with these points about Aristotle and Rand (but not Plato), as far as they go.

But he concludes: “Unleashing the power of human ingenuity is imperative, and it’s unethical (and immoral) for anyone, governments or others, to get in our way.” And here, I disagree. Vehemently.

This type of conclusion seems typical of an uncritical reading of Rand. Philosophies are created in a particular time and place. They grow out of a culture and a set of experiences. And once they are shared, people learn them in a time and place and culture. It is important to look at Ayn Rand’s views about capitalism and government in the context of her life. She was born in 1905 in Russia, graduated from Petrograd State University in 1924, and came to the U.S in 1925. During her first twelve years, she experienced life in tsarist Russia. Although not religious Jews, her family must have been aware of the anti-Jewish pogroms that occurred through 1917 and government-sponsored anti-Semitic literature. During her teens, she experienced two revolutions, one civil war, being displaced, having to flee her home, and periods of near-starvation; it is significant that the Bolsheviks (effectively the government at that time) confiscated her father’s business. Later as a young adult, she was kicked out of university for being bourgeois (as were others; she was later reinstated and graduated in 1924). No wonder Ayn Rand was a proponent of free-market economics and limited government!

In the end, it all depends on what you shrug about. Do you shrug about millions of people living in poverty, generation after generation? Or do you shrug about confiscating someone’s property and livelihood? Neither of these positions is justifiable. Setting up a dichotomy like this creates a straw man argument (or a plot device). Our business leaders and innovators should have the critical thinking skills to notice this.

Ayn Rand has a reputation in some circles as being immature in her thinking, and that assessment is made for a reason. Although Rand makes many good points in Objectivism, her philosophy, she stops too soon.

The point is not “I’ve got mine; who cares about you.” Nor is it “I have nothing, so I’m going to force you to share yours.” The point is to find a middle way: I’ve got mine. What is the best way—or even a good way—to make it possible for you to get yours. I’ve had mentors, you should as well. And so on. Living a life of personal fulfillment and helping others are not mutually exclusive.

I think most people don’t understand how their history and experiences influence what they perceive in the present and what they can conceive about the future. And they don’t know that it is possible to change this. That capacity for self observation and ability to change what we think is part of what makes us human. Or it’s part of what we get—our operating system—because we are human. The critical thing is knowing that the capacity exists, knowing how to use it, and choosing to use it. This sounds like some of the ingredients of innovation to me.

Yes, it’s imperative to unleash the power of human ingenuity. But don’t stop there, and don’t run over anyone else. Extend a hand. Innovate for everyone. Find a third way. Find another way. Find a middle way. Find a new way.

Image photography by Sarah Rungren and Marilyn Freedman

There Has Got to Be A Better Way

In the beginning and the end, to create a career around work that you love to do takes self-development, an unrelenting positive attitude, and a lot of hard work. And that is just to set your foot on the path. Regardless of the outcome, it is the most enriching thing you will do; and the rewards are not what you think and hope they are.

Sometimes I get caught up in the positive and inspirational, and I write something that on reflection seems a little ridiculous. For example: Fortunately, think tanks, industry groups, and the government keep track of the current economic status, develop jobs projections, and make this information freely available. It is to everyone’s benefit to make getting employed as smooth a process as possible.

Why are these sentences ridiculous? Even with all of the information out there—job outlooks and projections, new jobs created, job postings, career advice—the probability of getting a job (let alone the right job) seems like it’s in the realm of winning the lottery. Dr. John Sullivan, a leading expert in talent management, says that the odds of getting hired can range from 0.004 percent to about 3.5 percent.

I’m pretty sure that it makes sense for employers to try to hire the very best people. And I’m pretty sure that it makes sense for people to find the very best job that they can. But the process on either end is not smooth.

Companies find more reasons to reject a person than they find to talk with a person, maybe because of the number of applicants—a minimum of 250—for a posted job. A lot of companies won’t even talk to a person who is unemployed, even if they are qualified. They tend to knock recent college graduates out of the screening process because they don’t have experience; a common belief among many hiring managers is that college graduates are not prepared for the workplace. People with non-white sounding surnames are invited for interviews about 50 percent less often. And rumor has it that companies don’t want to hire those over age 45.

Head hunting guru Lou Adler points out on his blog at LinkedIn that “there is only a 1 percent chance that a person who submits a resume will be invited for an interview.” And Dr. Sullivan points out that of the 1,000 people who might see a job posting, only about 20 percent will apply; the one person who is offered the job has only about a 33 percent chance of getting that offer; and there’s a 20 percent chance he or she will turn down the offer. Even though you must craft a resume targeted to the keywords that match a particular job, a recruiter will spend only about 6 seconds “reviewing” it; they visually scan for job titles, companies you worked at, start and end dates, and your education. That’s it. No one reads the impressive material that makes you special. And that cover letter you so carefully crafted? Those are read only about 17 percent of the time.

Companies doing the hiring think they are failing anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the time. A large company (more than 1,000 employees) might spend a little over $4,000 to hire a new employee. Across the economy, large firms are spending anywhere from $10 billion to $22 billion a year hiring employees. That’s a lot of money to spend on a process that has a 30 to 50 percent failure rate.

Close to 28 million firms and the government sector in the United States provide jobs for a little over 155 million people. Still, the unemployment rate in June 2013 was 7.6 percent, and close to 12 million people were unemployed and looking for jobs.

Why does it take so long for people to match themselves with the right jobs, and why does it take companies so long to find the right employees? Human resources professionals and recruitment experts are aware of the problems—they live them. People looking to change jobs and the 11.8 million unemployed people are suffering too.

The latest jobs report says that 195,000 new jobs were added to the economy in June 2013. I wonder how long it will take and how much money will be spent to fill those jobs. And will they be filled by people doing what they love or by warm bodies?


  1. Sullivan, John. “Why You Can’t Get A Job … Recruiting Explained By the Numbers,” Advice (blog), Recruiting Intelligence Recruiting Community, May 20, 2013,
  2. Adler, Lou. “Despite Setbacks, the Future of Hiring Looks Promising,” LinkedIn (blog), July 5, 2013,

I Wish My Name Was Hiro, and I’m Here to Save You

I’ve been captivated by the television series Heroes, which ran from 2006 to 2010. My favorite line is “My name is Hiro Nakamura, and I am here to save you.” Hiro says this to a woman he eventually comes to love, but he isn’t able to save her. Nakamura, played by Masi Oka, is my favorite character because even after tragedy and failure, he regains his good humor and persists with his (first) mission to save New York City from being devastated by a nuclear explosion. The line he repeats rings and resonates in my head most days.

Although New York is unlikely to be devastated by a nuclear explosion in the near future, the world itself seems to be exploding, imploding, or just spiraling into more craziness, depending on the week’s events.

Even as Europe slips into another recession and the citizens of Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain languish without jobs, incomes, or much of a social safety net, the EU’s economic and political leaders call for continued austerity, which deepens the downward spiral.

In the U.S., as the economy begins to recover and corporate profits rise, the middle class shrinks and the poor become poorer. In spite of the poor economic status of many U.S. citizens, Congress tries to cut the SNAP program. In spite of the fact that the unemployment rate for recent college graduates remains high at 8.8% and starting salaries are shrinking, Congress has allowed the interest rate on student loans to double, from 3.4% to 6.8%. The death toll from gun violence since the shootings at Newtown, CT, is up to at least 5,556 (as reported at; the CDC estimate is 16,686), and we’re only half way through the year. Still Congress doesn’t consider gun control legislation.

Meanwhile, good economic news is also bad. As the economy is recovering, the housing market is beginning to pick up. But Congress never enacted sufficient regulation of the financial system; so as the housing market heats up, it is possible that the same types of events that set the stage for the 2007-2008 financial meltdown are reoccurring.

Meanwhile, skilled professionals who have been out of work since 2008 can’t find jobs because they’ve been out of work, or they took the initiative to start their own business, or they are over 45, or all three. And yet they have exactly the expertise and qualities that companies say they are looking for.

Meanwhile, companies are worried that they are about to see massive employee turnover as people see the potential to find a better job elsewhere. They say they want to hire people for the long term. But everyone knows that at the first sign of another economic downturn, she or he will be laid off. Can you expect loyalty from employees if you are not willing or able to offer loyalty to them? Of course, we could just lie to each other.

Meanwhile, the New Economics Institute’s video on income and wealth inequality recently (well, back in March 2013) went viral. The video’s point is that inequality is much worse than we thought it was. My guess is that I’m the last person to hear about this and that prospects, particularly for those in the middle and at the bottom, are really bad.

Where, I wonder, is Hiro?

Hiro Nakamura has been described as having a “cheerful optimistic personality…with misguided notions about how the world functions…a very childish and immature character in many ways; simple things are enough to delight him and cheer him up…no matter the circumstances.” (Biography for Hiro Nakamura, If Hiro has a philosophy it is that “what one does can affect the future.”

Although naïve in some ways, Hiro is sublimely wise in others. From glimpses of his future self, it becomes apparent that he loses his naïveté once he perceives the pattern that is unfolding. But he never reins in his sense of justice and responsibility or his willingness to use his abilities for the benefit of others.

I didn’t realize how many awards Heroes won—26—until I looked it up on for this blog post; the series was nominated for more than 80 awards. It won television program of the year from the American Film Institute in 2007. The AFI said, in part, “…Tim Kring’s ambitious…drama not only entertains with super-human abilities, but it speaks to an audience that yearns for hope in a world where cynicism abounds. …its separate story lines… share a message for the global community—within each of us is a stronger, better self with special abilities beyond what we can even imagine. “

I know I can answer the question “Where is Hiro?” if I look in the mirror. You’ll also find where Hiro is if you look in the mirror. I know that—even working together—like Hiro, we can’t save everyone. The world is a sorrowful place, and shit happens. But it’s possible to willingly and cheerfully take responsibility for what we can, to be delighted by simple things, and to reach for our stronger and better selves.

Addendum: I was toying with the idea of starting Hiro groups, kind of like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In groups. But, truly, we don’t need another organization. We need to participate more in the ones that already exist—Habitat for Humanity, United Way, Project Bread, your local Occupy group, wherever you can do the most good and help the greatest number of people in a way that brings joy into your life.

Who Is the Enemy?

Or Government Surveillance Is Just Another Distraction

In The Hunger Games, Hamitch often reminds Katniss to remember who the enemy is. I study Taekwondo and end up asking myself that question a lot. So it doesn’t surprise me that when I read news stories about the NSA, government surveillance, and Edward Snowdon, I end up thinking about who the enemy is. There are lots of possibilities: the NSA, the Obama administration, Snowdon, the Bush administration, Dick Cheney, conservative Republicans, the religious right, terrorists—it goes on and on. If I think more broadly, I can add the financial system, unregulated capitalism, the 1% or the .01%, and so on to the list. Who is the enemy?

When I spar with either of my Taekwondo masters, he does something interesting. At some point during the 1 ½- to 2-minute round, he’ll wiggle the fingers on one of his hands, usually a raised hand. It confuses me. I don’t know where to look. I have to spend mental resources to deal with or avoid looking at the wiggling fingers. It slows me down, eventually to the point where I’m stunned for just a second. Then I get punched. Or kicked.

I’m beginning to suspect that the NSA surveillance issue is like those wiggling fingers. The conservative war on women, while it has real consequences, is also like those wiggling fingers—a distraction. So is just about every political issue floated in the newsertainment these days. (Except income inequality; that issue is probably not a distraction, and may be one of the things we are being distracted from doing anything about. Notice that it doesn’t come up in the “news” as often as other issues or stay there very long when it does.)

So, who is the enemy? Most likely, it is me. Or, from your perspective, it is you.

In spite of the cautionary tales in The Hunger Games, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Minority Report, or the Bible that are invoked to scare us into paying attention to one thing or another or acting in one way or another, the real enemy is ourselves. What are your goals? How do you want to live your life? What brings you happiness and satisfaction?

When you make choices that do not take you one step closer to your goals or that are inconsistent with how you want to live your life, you are acting the enemy. You are standing in your own way, tripping yourself, creating your own roadblocks. This is true even if you think you have no goals or no idea of how you want to live your life.

What do you want to do with your life? What have you done today that takes you there? Me, as Ben Gibbard writes, “I want to live where soul meets body/And let the sun wrap its arms around me/And bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing/And feel, feel what it’s like to be new” (“Soul Meets Body” written by Benjamin Gibbard; Lyrics © EMI Music Publishing). And no amount of government surveillance or media distraction can keep me from doing that.

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