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Friday, December 23, 2016

Power, Money, and Prestige

Readers, I want to be clear about something. I have nothing against power, money, and prestige (PM&P). To be honest, I admit that I feel around exemplars of PM&P similar to the way I feel around celebrities. That is, I don’t want to show that I’m super excited to see them. I don’t want to show anyone around me, nor do I want to show myself, either. 

That had to be said. I mean, really. Who can resist PM&P completely? And why should they be resisted? We all probably agree that some combination of PM&P, if not all three, is a recognizable type of success. However, here’s the thing. PM&P is not to be courted directly. Not for real, lasting success. PM&P are all very well, but not as ends in themselves. They’re okay as offshoots. Like ATP in the Krebs Cycle. Or happiness. Happiness is another thing you can’t really seek directly. It’s a byproduct of worthwhile activity and general life choices and mindset. Same with PM&P. Don’t take it from me, though. Take it from people with PM&P. To a one they’ll tell ya they weren’t gunning for that stuff. They were pursuing their interests, interests that also aligned with benefiting others, usually, and weren’t at all hung up on success, or PM&P. 

I realize you are actually “taking it from me” even though I say not to. Because you are reading my words. But presumably you get my drift. I could name a couple people I know who have PM&P and tell you what they’ve made or done and why. And it wasn’t simply because they wanted to win, or to have everyone think they are the greatest, or to have enough money to smother Kellyann Conway. They earned it by being invested in work that was meaningful to them, and by excelling at that work. Adam Grant talks about this in Give and Take, which is still on my mind. While both givers and takers can amass PM&P, the takers often go down in a tremendous fall. Grant talks about Enron Corporation and its disgraced head Jeffrey Skilling being a big taker. He certainly amassed PM&P, but then it all fell apart and he was left with notoriety. Food for thought these days, no?

Related to this, although at this moment I can’t remember why, is my conversation with my friend A. It was all so clear while I was walking the dog. Then I lived out the rest of my day, with shopping and driving people places and an a senseless political argument on Facebook with an obdurate and rude person who I unfriended, and now I’ve lost the sense of what I wanted to say. Anyway, A and I were talking about dealing with competitive feelings. It’s easy to get into a state, when comparing yourself with others, by assuming their lives are much better than yours and that somehow they have some secret to handling life that you are desperate to get in on - and at the same time are desperate to avoid letting them know you feel desperate about that. However, A said, that moment you allow yourself to talk openly to a friend and you learn that she is just as concerned about her child’s strange behavior as you are about yours, you realize you are not the only one with those uncomfortable feelings. You realize we are all just trying to make it through, and we all have our challenges.  

Which reminds me of a conversation with the college student about the book The Happiness Effect by Donna Freitas. This book is about the pressure everyone, especially teenagers, feels to present a happy, polished self on social media. Then, because they all read everyone else’s social media feeds, they feel bad because their lives don’t feel as happy as their friends’ curated online lives make them out to be. 

I pointed out that this is an old problem - or a natural tendency - the tendency to show different selves to different people and in different situations. The difference now is that those things are made concrete on social media. 

The cure is honesty. Focusing on meaning and purpose. Forgetting about PM&P. Anne Lamott might call it “radical honesty.” I'm not that touchy-feely, though. That phrase - blech. However, the point is, recognizing that we don’t have to go around bleeding on just everyone, but that we do need a few close friends and family members who we feel comfortable dripping on every now and then. When we let them bleed on us, too, then we can face those things that make us insecure, the things that make us long for PM&P. Because let's be real. That hankering after those things is about insecurity. Even though we can all look around and see a shining example of a person with PM&P who, nevertheless, needs to trash the people around him, we still too easily delude ourselves into thinking if we had just a bit more, we wouldn't worry so much. For most of us, that's just not true. 

In closing, I would like to offer the following ideas about success, courtesy of a young person. Then I will dismount my high horse. 

  • Success is about achieving goals. But it is also about more than that. 
  • Success is about being happy. But maybe that’s not exactly true.
  • Success is filling the void with friends. 

Add to those my maxim, “It is almost always better to exercise.” 
Eat in moderation. 

You (and by you I mean me) are now well set up to enjoy the holidays. See you in 2017. May it be a better year than 2016.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

It Takes More Than a Dollar to Save a Dollar

So. I bought these new boots a couple of months ago. Just this week, I finally got around to buying some of that waterproofing spray for them. At the shoe establishment - a national chain - DSW - I found not one but two kinds of waterproofing spray. One can was large and fat and cost $5.99. One can was slender and shorter and cost $12.99.

 “What’s the difference?” I asked the cashier, who was both tall and slender, and he said, “That one’s better. It lasts longer.” 

Which one do you think he pointed out?  That’s right, the more expensive one. So I picked it up. Yes, I was about to buy it. But then something broke through in my brain. A little voice inside me doubted. A little voice inside me said, Hope, don't fall for the fake news. So I picked up the cheaper spray and read the label. No warning about reapplying frequently or anything like that. Just a cocktail of noxious chemicals. Just like the ones the more expensive bottle promised to spray into the air. 

Reader, I bought it. I bought the cheaper spray. There's lesson in there for all of us. Something along the lines of how much harder it is to save a dollar than to spend one. That’s because it takes more than a dollar to save a dollar. Unless you’re a kid who gets an allowance. But to earn enough money to save a dollar can take a lot of money. So don’t waste it. Something like that. 

In other news -
It’s hard, but I’m breaking my social media habit. Things got a bit too compulsive with me and Twitter over the last couple of weeks. I got into a thing with a couple of trolls. This led to a long conversation with a conservative man that caused me to spend a lot of time researching facts to combat his fake news take on things. In the end, the conversation was overtaking my brain, and while the arguing and the research were helpful to me because they forced me to express myself clearly - not to mention to read the news closely - ultimately, it was a waste of time. He went his way, I went mine. Nobody changes anybody's mind unless they're ready to change. And I decided I need to get off Twitter. 

One of things this guy said was that he read a couple of my blog pieces. After he read a couple of my blog posts, he said he recommended I call what I’m defining something other than success. According to him, I’m not talking about success as much as I’m talking about love or something else. He pointed me to some guy with some theory about levels of love. I ignored it, because he was being very unloving about immigrants and I was busy sending him links to Pew Research articles. 

I suppose this guy was trying to be helpful. I suppose he meant it as a nice gesture, but I couldn’t help thinking that this guy totally missed the point. If I call what I’m defining something other than success then I’m no longer redefining success. Now, he was a commercial real estate developer, which means - and I here stereotype freely - that he has that traditional, old-school, money+ power +prestige definition of success. You know, the one that was crushing me until I figured out a way to feel successful without those things. At least some of the time. But I do see what he means. 

I’ve certainly thought about the issue. Am I actually really talking about success, or am I talking about improving quality of life, or creating meaning or happiness? Well, I’m talking about all of those things. But I am also talking about success. As in, a feeling of accomplishment, a feeling of purposefulness, a methodology for pursuing goals and a system of living that contributes to all of those things. And here’s the thing. Even if I’m a canary in the coal mine of the dark and murky future, I know it’s more important than ever to sing my little song. 

So. Let’s tawk, Readers, about the key to success of having like-minded others who act as loving mirrors for you. I mentioned this in passing last week, when talking about Adam Grant and how he focuses on collaboration and other skills that lead to the greatest success. Collaboration is actually different than having loving mirrors. Collaboration means working together towards a common goal. Cultivating like-minded others means accepting help from others to help you reach your goal, and doing that for others in return. 

One thing that works quite often is establishing a regular gathering of these like-minded others. Entrepreneurs do this. Benjamin Franklin did this. Napoleon Hill recommended (men) start Mastermind groups. As I’ve mentioned, I have a monthly conference call with a couple of like-minded women. We have been meeting over the fiber optic cables for over five years now. Each of us has her individual goals, and we report on them to one another, offer each other support, suggestions, pep-talks, or ideas as needed. As you know, I’ve been through ups and downs. Well, we all have. 

Today, our conversation started out down. We were all down. But by the end, we were all up and inspired. My friend C (as in, Met Her in College), said, after a few minutes of rumination on current events, that we have to make sure we take care of ourselves and continue to work towards our goals. We cannot allow ourselves to become demoralized and immobilized. We have to strengthen ourselves so that we can come back strong. This was heartening and inspirational. 

But we are more than inspired. We are successful! Take E. She started out with an idea she wasn’t sure how she wanted to develop. Over the past five years, she tried writing a book, had an agent, lost the agent, gave up on the book, considered a podcast, felt discouraged, started a website, hosted a gathering based on her project, and from that gathering got the idea of a new way to work with her material. She’s turning it into a stage production with help from people she met at the gathering she hosted because of the idea she had five years ago. In between, there were times when she wanted to give up her project entirely, but we, her loving mirrors, convinced her it was important and worthwhile to pursue. And now she feels she has the right format for her idea, and she has a director and an actor and writer to help her bring it into production. 

That is the value of meeting with a group of like-minded others. They act as loving mirrors who reflect your possibilities back at you, give you courage when you lack it, and show you a better you. 

I call that inspiring. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Give and Take by Adam Grant

Readers, the husband thought my last post was super-depressing. That came as a shock. I had thought I had managed to convey something positive by taking us back to classical values. Well. I am moving on. I don’t want to depress the husband. Also my father told me to. Specifically, he said, you are not alone in being upset, but we all have to move on. After he said that, he also said, “It’s a little bit like building a bridge over the river while the banks are eroding.” This might not sound like the most positive statement. It might actually sound like a pretty depressing assessment of the current situation. But then I took a broader view of things. That’s life, after all, isn’t it? Building a bridge over the river while the banks erode? I mean that’s just life. Or exercise and the race against decrepitude. 

Oy, that’s depressing, too. Hell. I was trying to be funny. 

Anyway, I am not going political this week at all. Instead, I am relating the following items.

Item: This text message exchange happened (during the middle of a school day)
9th Grader: What’s Nai-Nai’s number? Everyone’s texting their grandparents.
Me (after sending the number): Why are they?
9th Grader: We’re talking about Confucianism. 

Which I found very sweet, very funny, and a possibly appropriate use of technology during Global History Class.

Item: After talking to my dad, I picked up a book about success and managed to get engrossed in it. I moved on. So that’s what I’m writing about today. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, by Adam Grant. 

Adam Grant, who should not be confused with Adam Ant, the New Romantic musician of the 1980s with a flair for a ruffled shirt and a flowered lappet, is a professor of Organizational Psychology at Wharton School of Business. He has some interesting things to say about success.
First of all, he says there are three kinds of people. Now, a lot of people say there are two kinds of people, and then they tell you what kinds. They are the kind of people who do something, and the kind of people who do not do it. Well, Adam Grant not Ant says there are three kinds of people - and then he tells you what kinds. Which means he is not one of those kinds of people who say there are two kinds of people. He's the other kind. 

Anyhoo, those three kinds are these:

  • Givers- give more than take
  • Takers- bend reciprocity in their favor (take more than give)
  • Matchers - operate on principle of fairness and try to preserve equal balance of giving and getting.

Okay, if you're at all like me, already you want to know which type is the best type to be. You want to quiz yourself and skew the answers so that you'll come out as that type. Well, I'll get there in a sec. (Think Polonius - "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." Then remember that Polonius is a fool.) Now, Grant’s talking about the business realm, as are so many writers about success. In the personal realm, he says most people are givers. But the business realm is where many people look when they think about success. So I ran with it. These three types are styles of interaction in the work world. All three types can succeed, says Grant. However, givers are special. They tend to be at both the very bottom and the very top of the “success ladder.” Matchers and takers tend to “land in the middle.”  He then goes on to explain his theory, with lots of anecdotes about famous givers and takers. For example, Kenneth Lay of Enron. Big taker. Frank Lloyd Wright? Also a taker. Famous givers? Jack Welch of General Electric. Abraham Lincoln. But a lot of very successful givers remain in the shadows, not known outside their fields, because of their natural style - to give freely of their time, of their help, of their ideas, and to not worry about repayment. Eventually they do get repaid, big time, but they tend to be a little more shadowed. He mentions George Meyer, who was a major shaper of “The Simpsons” television show, and several others with very interesting careers as engineers, venture capitalists, and researchers. 

Key to success for givers? Knowing when to receive help and always being open to repaying it later. Not keeping score when helping someone, because you never know when they might help you out later. And - networking really, really well, so when they do need help, they can attract the most talented helpers, who come willingly to their teams. 

Speaking of teams, these givers are universally team players. They are not concerned with being the one who gets all the credit. They put the good of the project above all else. By behaving in this way, others who work with them don’t feel competitive with them. They gain “idiosyncrasy credits,” which apparently is a real term - positive impressions generated in a person by the generous behavior of an individual towards a team. The giver exhibits “expedition behavior,” a term coined by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to define the best mountaineering practices: “putting the group’s goals and mission first, and showing the same amount of concern for others as you do for yourself.” 

Underlying givers’ success, says Grant, is a fact about success that gets overlooked. That fact is that success always involves team effort. Even though the public tends to look at achievement as a solo act, all achievement comes from group effort. That's what made Grant choose relational style as a defining characteristic of success. So, people who can motivate a team to put the mission ahead of themselves are bound to do better work than people who are either concerned with making themselves appear to be the best, or with keeping everything even-Steven. Grant goes into the ways in which teams help one another succeed. It sounds a lot like my success scaffolding plank of like-minded others. Givers tend to recognize and expect high potential and achievement from others - and they get it. This is acting like a loving mirror, reflecting at their team members what they believe they can achieve and by doing so, empowering them to achieve it. 

So. Be a giver. But - there's always a but - there are two kinds of givers. Selfless and otherish. There are the successful givers, who are mega-successful. And there are the unsuccessful givers, who are failures.

Here's the good news. The givers who fail, fail because they are too selfless and burn out. Sadly for them, because they're just trying to be really nice. And nice guys apparently do finish last. Luckily, they also finish first. And they get to enjoy themselves. That's because the givers who succeed are self-interested as well as giving. They are called otherish. They're motived by two engines, the engine of self-concern and the engine of advancing others' goals. That's the kind you want to be. 

Food for thought. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Aristotle, Buddha, Success

Confession: I saw “Hamilton” after Thanksgiving. Like everyone else, I was blown away by it. Of course, I’ve been steeped in the soundtrack for a year, thanks to my kids, so I was able to follow the lyrics  - and they are terrific lyrics. Ahead of time, I was worried that the show might be an anticlimax, but I have to say, it was better than expected. It was great. But I’m not here to add yet another rave review to the pile. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius, no doubt - and like the most successful geniuses, he has a team of like-minded others, also known as collaborators, to work with and to egg him on to success. But I don’t really want to talk about that right now, either. 

Here’s the thing I want to say. Before I saw“Hamilton,” just the soundtrack made me cry a little - his life cut short by that duel with Aaron Burr, his potential wasted - but watching it in our current political climate, I cried a lot. Of course a show about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution and ideals and sacrifice is bound to stir up patriotism. Well, mine was stirred. It may have fallen out of fashion, patriotism, but I have a deep well of it. So comparing the heroism and bravado of what went into founding a country with the country we have today led me to some sorry, sad tears. What we have now, Trump and his merry band of bankrupters, is an embarrassment. I’m pretty sure the country will survive; but it will take a lot of time and collective recalibrating of ideals to make it flourish. 

Speaking of ideals brings me to the magazine I bought recently, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. I bought it because I was waiting in line at the Honest Weight Food Coop and it was that or a homeopathic tablet for relieving anxiety. Anxiety? Who’s feeling anxious? 

Anyway, the cover article was about living an authentic life, which reminds me of another plank in my scaffolding of success: live according to what you value. But the article that most interested me was about the intermingling of Buddhist and Western ethics in our culture. Ethics, if I recall correctly, being a code of behavior. "Principles of right conduct," says my American Heritage Dictionary. Heady stuff, I know, but bear with me. Western ethics equals Aristotelian, according to the author of this article. Let’s not debate the guy (and yes, the author is a guy, bien sur, c’mom, womens, let’s get heard more MORE more. But I digress) let’s grant him that, even if it's reductionist. He’s talking about Aristotle’s eudaimonia, or human flourishing, the principle of living so that one expresses and develops oneself to the fullest potential. This is apparently Aristotle’s Good. Kind of like a Martha Stewart Good Thing, in the ethical realm as opposed to in the household management realm. I’m up for it. Or down for it. Yes, more down. I’ve been feeling kind of down. Which is repetitive, but it does tie into my theme.

As I was saying, the article says “the general Aristotelian notion that a life dedicated to the cultivation of virtue and the contemplation of wisdom is the best and happiest kind of human life is one that has been readily transplanted into Buddhism.” Western ethics have infused into Buddhist ethics so that we have replaced the ideal of living in a manner that will lead to “surcease” of suffering and the end of reincarnation with the ideal of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. In other words, the Aristotelian idea of human flourishing is an idea “so pervasive in Western culture that Westerners are often unaware of its source.” 

Indeed. I thought it was Buddhist. But it was Aristotle, brought to me by a bunch of Jewish seekers who went to India in the late 1960s to study Buddhism and returned to awaken the masses in America. Everything old is new again and old again and circuitous again. But never mind. One thing I definitely value is eudaimonia. 

Another point of the article is that for Westerners - and for many, if not most, Easterners - the Buddhist ideal of attaining nirvana and ending the cycle of rebirth and suffering doesn’t stand up to modern science and other influences. This essential of the Eastern strand of Buddhism just doesn’t work for we cynics. We are not used to living in a caste society where our roles are defined for life. We are not accustomed to resignation about this life and to therefore work on our selves to prepare to come back in the next life as something a little more evolved on the spectrum of life. We are not into delayed gratification if the delay is of multiple lifetimes. Nope, that is definitely not Western. We are focused on this life. And many of us, whether we practice Buddhism or another kind of self-improvement, hope to achieve a quintessential Western ideal. Human flourishing. And we all assume that we all agree that the flourishing of all humans is the goal. 

Or at least we did, until we realized the Conservative movement has steadily, over the last thirty years, while we were improving ourselves, swept us all up into a giant burlap bag, and with this election, pulled tight and knotted the drawstring over our heads. We are now like a bunch of kittens stuck in a sack about to be heaved over the railing and drowned in the river of life by a bunch of white dudes who have apparently didn't agree with us that human flourishing is the greatest good. 

So maybe we need  to start believing in rebirth and so on. Because maybe there’s not much we can fix about this life. 

Oh, gosh, I’m sorry. Did that last paragraph skew too bleak? I’m trying to move away from politics. Politics, after all, is the rearranging of the deck chairs on the ship of state. It’s the trajectory of the ship we need to think about most. 

So what constitutes human flourishing? This is the big question. We keep thinking flourishing depends on ever-increasing piles of money. Yet we are proved wrong about that again and again. We do need enough money to feel like we’re flourishing, but it’s not as much as we think, and there are other things we need to flourish. We need to feel like we are helping others. We need to feel part of a community. We need to have ways to center ourselves. We need to have purpose. We need external supports, which is where government and community come in handy. We also, as a psychologist I recently spoke to said, need to do the inner work to improve our lives. 

And also, we need to call our elected representatives and let them know what we think about those deck chairs, and we need to try to arrange them so that everyone can have a good seat.