What Could Have Been But Never Will

In one of my all-time favorite essays, cartoonist Tim Kreider names and examines The Referendum: the “phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt.”

Drawing on personal experience, Kreider explores in precise, poignant prose the cross-cutting tensions (internal and otherwise) and melancholy that comes with trying to figure out if the grass on the other side really is greener, and if so how much.  A few money quotes:

“Friends who seemed pretty much indistinguishable from you in your 20s make different choices about family or career, and after a decade or two these initial differences yield such radically divergent trajectories that when you get together again you can only regard each other’s lives with bemused incomprehension.”

Quite a lot of what passes itself off as a dialogue about our society consists of people trying to justify their own choices as the only right or natural ones by denouncing others’ as selfish or pathological or wrong. So it’s easy to overlook that hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a poignant insecurity, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.”

“Watching our peers’ lives is the closest we can come to a glimpse of the parallel universes in which we didn’t ruin that relationship years ago, or got that job we applied for, or got on that plane after all. It’s tempting to read other people’s lives as cautionary fables or repudiations of our own.”

It’s a fantastic piece and well-worth saving and coming back to periodically.  This is especially true for most of the people reading this blog, as I think that The Referendum tends to come well-before midlife among educated big-coastal-city types by dint of constant exposure to diverse lifestyles and opportunities.

Note that The Referendum is a direct manifestation of the Kundera Principle, and when properly sublimated becomes the basis for much great art.


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The New Schoolhouse

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what an ideal American education system would look like.  I’m not alone on that.  People are questioning our current system’s value at all its levels, from elementary school through higher ed.  Given the sea change that’s happening in the American economy right now – globalization, recession, etc. – this makes sense; if the way the world does business is changing, it stands to reason that we’re going to have to change the way we educate our citizens if we’re going to stay competitive.

With that in mind, here are a few off-the-top-of-my-head improvements that I think would do us some good:

  • Start teaching kids informal logic in middle school.  Add in statistics in high school and emphasize that math over the more-complex-but-less-practical maths that don’t make sense for kids who won’t use it later.  The idea is to make sure that young adults can navigate the 21st-century data deluge and reason between conflicting arguments by the time they leave high school.  We want people to be able to think critically and synthesize and manipulate ideas and spot weak points and nuance.  Being able to do these things is critical to being an informed and engaged citizen in a modern society, which is what every educational system should aspire to produce.
  • Beef up old-school home economics and make it mandatory for high schoolers.  Courses should include personal finance and light micro- and macroeconomics.  There’s no reason kids should be taking advanced calculus but graduating without knowing how credit cards work or why interest rates matter.
  • Make vocational training (at the high school level and beyond) a viable and attractive alternative to standard college-preparatory curricula.  College isn’t for everybody, and there are plenty of jobs that can’t be outsourced: mechanics, chefs, nurses, plumbers, etc.  These are all good jobs that need doing.  The danger here is tracking kids into these programs based not on interest and ability, but on socioeconomic status or behavioral history.  More and better trade schools will obviously cost money – public/private partnerships with big companies that need skilled workers?  That dovetails nicely into…
  • Practical learning – internships, apprenticeships – should be an integrated part of the curriculum starting in high school: just a small part starting as juniors in high school, gradually increasing in proportion to classroom time until senior year of college or vocational school, when class time is basically nil.  A student’s first taste of the “real world” shouldn’t come after graduation.  Plus the work experience will help kids decide what majors are worth the money/time investment.
  • On that same note, high schools and colleges should look to incorporate more project-based group work into the curriculum in preference to rote learning and test-time regurgitation.  Emphasize leadership and entrepreneurial skills.  There’s not much demand in the market for memorizing trivia, but leadership, initiative, and creativity are always in short supply.  And luckily these are digitally transferable.  Which is why…
  • Universities should encourage people to pursue online degrees.  Though these were once the object of much mockery, there’s no reason online higher education can’t be viable for most majors.  Online courses allow people to get quality instruction for a fraction of the cost of going away to school, while conferencing tools allow for the interactivity that might otherwise be lacking.  Plus then schools could downgrade on physical real estate, keeping only those buildings necessary for practical application learning (labs, libraries, smaller classrooms for group work).  Win-wins all around.
  • And last but certainly not least, that popular refrain: more math and science.  But don’t gut the arts, though.  That’s not cool.

Notice that I’m cherry picking here.  That’s the blogger’s pleasure: I can pick and choose what I want to deal with and leave the heavy lifting – charter schools, interdistrict school choice, funding – to the wonks.  Let’s hope they’re not so persnickety.  And more competent.

So what about you?  What measures do you think would improve the American education system?

Hat tip to all the friends I’ve discussed this stuff with over the years, and to the education policy tank I worked at for part of a summer and quit.

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Shawshanking Your Great Escape

Many a working stiff dreams of a Great Escape – a way out of the daily grind and into the life he or she spends all day fantasizing and surreptitiously Googling about. But how does one bridge the gap between daydreams and reality? As in all things substantive, Shawshank has the answer.

In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Sodomy, institutional cruelty, male bonding (unrelated to sodomy), good works, and throat-lump-inducing-old-man-suicides ensue. I refuse to give any more exposition than that because you should have seen Shawshank by now. Which is why I won’t bother with a spoiler alert before telling you that Andy escapes in the end.

And what a glorious escape it is. See, Andy had an Evil Plan. Over the course of two decades, Andy tunnels his way through his cell wall using only a tiny rock hammer. He deposits the debris from his labors in the prison yard every day and hides the hole in his wall behind posters. Using his plum position in the warden’s office, he steals bank account numbers and clothes and everything else he’ll need on the outside. When the time finally comes, Andy doesn’t hesitate – he does exactly as he’s planned, climbs through his tunnel and 500 yards of human waste and finds himself celebrating his freedom under a roaring stormy sky. Behold.

Andy’s escape is informative. Learn from him in planning your own.

1. Andy had a plan. Don’t just sell everything and head out West with the idea that you’ll figure it out when you get there. Winging it in 21st-century America is not the move.  While you’ve got the security of your current job you should be doing as much homework as you can on the career you want to move into: who the players are, how they’ve gotten where they are, how people make money doing what you want to do, all that nitty-gritty stuff. Do as much work in the field as you can squeeze into your schedule to develop the skill set that will let you hit the ground running when you make the transition. If that means doing it for free (which it very well might), then so be it. And you need to network in your soon-to-be-new field. And get your money up. The point here is to have as much infrastructure in place as possible before you make the jump to minimize transition friction.

2. Andy was patient. Andy waited twenty years to make a break for it. Twenty years of hard time. Twenty. Years. Why? Because he wanted to get it right. He knew he only had once chance to get away so he took his time and put all the pieces in place so that when it came time for the actual escape all he had to do was follow through. If fictional Andy Dufresne can do twenty years in a sweaty fictional jail, patiently executing his Evil Plan, then you can handle a few months more of filling out TPS reports for Bill Lumbergh while you get some practice doing whatever your thing is. Because you don’t want to go out half-cocked and end up having to crawl back to the hamster wheel. That’s just soul-crushing. Be patient, do it right the first time, and then never again.

3. Andy was willing to get dirty. The man climbed through 500 yards of convict poop. You ever seen convict poop? All the bad cafeteria food those guys eat? Turds like muddy roadkill. I draw that simile to illustrate for you that, even with the infrastructure in place, things will probably be hard. If you’re starting a business or going back to school or carving some other new life path for yourself, it will be disruptive and difficult in ways both imagined and unforeseeable. You will have to work hard, you will have to adjust your lifestyle, and you might fail a few times. Expect to be surprised. And when you are, stay the course. You planned for it. You prepared for it. Now live it. Find the fortitude to live it. Because the truth is that what often separates the winners from the washouts is nothing more than pain threshold – who’s willing to crawl through the smelliest poop the longest.

I won’t promise you’ll get to Zihuatanejo. You can do everything right and still fall flat on your face. But if you plan well and crawl long enough, even if you do fall flat you might stand up and realize you like where you ended up.

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Building A Winning Team

In my experience, people tend to take on one of three roles in any organization: doers, thinkers, and indifferents. Doers are your classic alpha males and females, the jocks and business executives and soldiers who prefer action over talking and deliberating. They tend to favor hierarchical command structures and act decisively when problems arise, preferring to clean up after a bad decision in the future over wasting time considering options in the present.

On the other end of the spectrum, thinkers are intellectuals (using the term loosely). They like data and balancing tests and lots of lead time to weigh everything out. Thinkers aren’t so big on hierarchy and prefer to let the best ideas rise on their own merits. They tend to, though not always, have less-forceful personalities than doers.

The indifferents are the worker bees who just want to be told what to do so that they can do their part and get whatever it is they want out of the situation and go home. Most people end up in this category because they fall somewhere along the spectrum of doers and thinkers and so get swayed by whichever side has the strongest personality or most appealing idea.

The types all have something to contribute, though increasingly indifferents will find themselves without a seat at the table as organizations go leaner and people specialize more to deal with the global economy. It’s going to get hard for people who just want to get paid for showing up.

I think the optimal type mix depends on what sort of organization you’re running. Old-model massive corporations needed lots of indifferents with doers running things at all levels. Not much room for intellectuals there. Small start-ups probably only need a 1:1 ratio of doers and thinkers, as much of the work done by indifferents can probably now be outsourced. No matter what the organization, though, checks and balances have to be in place so that the thinkers don’t get swallowed up by the more dominant doer personalities, and conversely so that the doers aren’t stifled by constant analysis and second-guessing.

This means that both sides need to have a sponsor on the other side of the divide. The thinkers need a doer who sees the value in reasonable contemplation to shout the other alphas down when necessary, and the doers need a thinker who knows when speculation must yield to action. Preferably everybody on both sides can be so clearheaded, but this rarely happens. So facilitators who can get the best work out of everybody and synthesize contributions will be increasingly valuable.

Personally I absolutely hate group exercises because I find navigating these dynamics immensely frustrating. Politics is not my strong suit. But institutional leverage is an amazing thing when put to good use, so I try to keep these principles in mind whenever (I decide) a team needs me.

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General Theory #52

Life gets better – not necessarily easier, but less confusing and more fulfilling – when you stop pursuing things that everyone wants and start going after what only you could have.  Applies to careers, audiences, significant others, etc.  

In a world where love and long attention spans are scarce, it’s just good business.

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The Right Wrong

It’s ok to be wrong as long as you’re wrong in the right way. There’s no fault in arriving at the wrong answer because the problem was difficult and you drew a reasonable but incorrect conclusion based on the available information. That’s how you learn, and people generally won’t hold it against you. Just figure out what you botched and why and move on.

But if you were wrong because you were sloppy or lazy in your analysis, or you were rushing, or you just didn’t care, that’s a problem. That’s how you earn a bad reputation and stop getting choice assignments and new opportunities. Welcome to copy-and-staple duty.

You’ll be amazed at how often you can be wrong and still be seen as the right person for the job as long as you’re the right kind of wrong. But be wrong the wrong way once and see how long it takes you to live it down. Or better yet, don’t. How? Do good work. Every time. That’s the only right-kind-of-wrong-guarantee insurance I know of.

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The Cruelty of Having It All

I find Barack and Michelle Obama’s relationship interesting.  They are both high-achievers, and he obviously has a very public calling, and they are both admirably candid about the difficulties this produces, and so they provide a readily-observable model of a couple trying to “have it all.”  And so far, they seem to be doing a good job; they work hard (vast understatement acknowledged) but seem to also be very involved in their children’s lives and with each other.  But they have resources most couples don’t.  What about the people in the world who have callings that don’t come with hired help and security details?  What about when they want families? 

There seems to me to be a moral dilemma before these folks.  A calling, by definition, is an all-consuming, selfish endeavor; it requires as much time and emotional and psychological energy as it can get, and the person giving it generally loves doing so.  But families need those resources too.  Relationships with friends, spouses, and children all require time and energy in order to grow and stay strong.  By nature, those types of relationships – especially the one between parent and child – require selflessness. 

So what happens when a person consumed by a selfish calling puts himself in a position where selflessness is expected or required of him?  In my experience, his loved ones get hurt.  Spouses and children go neglected or not provided for or both.  The person with the calling generally feels bad about the situation but can’t or won’t change, at least not without sinking into a depression that’s just as harmful to the people around him.  No matter how it plays, it’s a mess and people end up damaged.

This leads me to think that, to prevent anyone from being ground up in the gears of their passion, maybe people who have a calling in life should make the difficult decision to only have romantic relationships with people like them and avoid having children. 

This would obviously be hard: even if you have a calling, you can’t control who you love and you were made to reproduce.  But ultimately it seems like the morally righteous thing to do.  Because forming relationships with (or creating) people to satisfy one’s own needs knowing that one is unable or unwilling to fulfill theirs in turn is to treat other people as means to an end, and not ends unto themselves.  And when this causes people emotional or physical pain, to whatever degree, then in my book it’s immoral. 

But I guess then that my book implicitly says that the pain suffered has greater weight than whatever pleasures are enjoyed in the process; that it is better to not be alive at all than to be alive but neglected or impoverished or both; that it is better to not fall in love with someone who is ultimately going to hurt you than to fall and get crushed but to be a crushed thing that experienced that purest, highest emotion.  And I’m not sure I’m comfortable saying any of those things.  So I guess I’ve got some sorting to do.

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