The Courage to be Distinct

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a Dad who was struggling to understand his child’s nonconformity.  He described his son’s habits and activities – all a bit unusual but none troubling – with bemused admiration and wondered aloud just how OK it was for his child to be so different.  Concern that this boy was not interested in many of the same things as his classmates alternated with awe at his single-mindedness in pursuing the smaller universe of interests he had cultivated since elementary school.  Dad and son were clearly built differently.  There was no resolving the conflict between wanting to benchmark this child against his peers and a father’s pride in seeing his son pursue his passions so energetically.

This father’s conundrum reminded me of a phrase that caught my eye recently in a New York Times column by David Brooks.  In an April 18th piece entitled, “How to Leave a Mark on People,” Brooks described the differences between “thick” and “thin” organizations.  Thick ones become part of our identity.  We tend to “like the version of ourselves that is called forth in such places.”  Thin communities are transactional and exist for the mutual benefit of their members rather than calling them to some higher purpose.

In cataloguing thick qualities, Brooks wrote the following:

“It’s also important to have an idiosyncratic local culture. Too many colleges, for example, feel like one another. But the ones that really leave a mark on their students (St. John’s, Morehouse, Wheaton, the University of Chicago) have the courage to be distinct. You can love or hate such places. But when you meet a graduate you know it, and when they meet each other, even decades hence, they know they have something important in common.”

There is a dilemma in the “courage to be distinct” that is shared by that unsettled father and any number of thick and thin organizations.  We know at a rational level that we are attracted to uniqueness.  If a friend recommends a restaurant saying, “Its great – you can get the same meal there you could find in lots of other places,” we are unlikely to go.  Likewise, you don’t hear many candidates interviewing for a job saying things like, “You should hire me because I’ve pretty much got the same credentials and experience as the other people in this search.”  From the local retailer to the car manufacturer to colleges and universities and even churches and civic organizations, we know that differentiation is the mandate of the marketplace.  We share a goal to be exceptional, not necessarily the best (although that is OK too) but rather unique.  Yet we seem to possess an almost instinctive reluctance about distinctiveness even to the point of naming courage as the necessary virtue to overcome it.  Why?

A blog post may not be the best place to answer a question that has fascinated thinkers, social critics, and most recently, scientists, for centuries.  At the risk of skimming the surface, one answer to why it takes courage to be distinct resides in our neurobiology. Harmonious, conforming social connections release powerful neurochemicals that make us feel good.  In fact, one study demonstrated that changing one’s opinion as a result of social influence – that is, conforming to the prevailing way of thinking of one’s social group – releases a flood of dopamine into the brain.  When this dopamine response was artificially suppressed, researchers found that individuals were 40% less likely to change their minds.  If a neurochemical reward awaits us when we come into line, imagine the heavy neuro-lift required to move out of line from a conforming to a non-conforming perspective.  Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Originals, seems to have created a trend of online confessionals by simply posing the question, “When was the last time you changed your mind?”  Its a good question and, as often as not, is answered with, “I can’t remember.”

A lot more could and has been said about the human herd instinct.  Suffice to say that   each of us – parents, children, families, and colleagues – can be “thick” or “thin” – minded just like the most admired institutions and organizations that shape us.  Thick-minded people call forth the gifts of those around them.  They celebrate the idiosyncrasies of their children, friends and colleagues.  They know that the courage to be distinct is often difficult to summon and can tax both mind and spirit.  Thick-minded people nudge vision out in front of affirmation and value the inspirational potential of distinctiveness. And, most important, they see that potential everywhere – from the passions of a child to the mission of an institution that just might become thick enough to change us for good.


Leadership 101: Lessons

Since my last post including excerpts on leadership thinking, the Leadership 101 class convened and completed its JanTerm run.  The course was designed to encourage students to learn like leaders learn through direct experience, reading, reflection, dialogue, and vicariously through the stories of others.  “Insatiable curiosity” became a catchphrase repeated again and again by our authors and speakers as a habit of mind common to all effective leaders.  Our job as faculty was to create a setting for the exercise of that curiosity: put bright, engaged students in proximity to ideas curated from thinkers both ancient and modern, visitors who delivered compelling stories from their journeys in leadership, and each other’s early experiences as young leaders.  With these ingredients in place, then challenge them to learn by wrestling with their values, motivations, and purposes.

The paradox baked into the design of the course was that leadership can be learned but it cannot be taught in the conventional sense of the word.  Why is that?  Each of us begins the leadership conversation in a different place – not ahead or behind but different – and we make sense of our experience as leaders in infinitely diverse ways.  From the very beginning of Leadership 101, it was apparent that our visiting speakers were tested as often on their skills, knowledge, and technical competence as on their personal capacities for empathy, patience, resilience and selflessness.  An honest reckoning of what it takes to grow as a leader gets personal pretty quickly.  Our students heard and often repeated a leadership mantra that emerged from both our readings and our visitors:  “It’s not about you.”  The interdependence of that yin of servant leadership coexisted with the yang of growing as a leader: “It’s all about you.”  People follow people.  Trust, confidence and influence are responses to integrity and authenticity, not mandates of position or title.

All of the above meant that my two faculty colleagues and I had an opportunity to be students alongside our 22 juniors and seniors.  I can confidently say that the three of us would require a book rather than a blog post to catalogue all of the new insights and lessons learned.  Someday I may get around to that book but for now, I’ll reach back to an earlier reference in this blog and update an idea I understand better now than when I first wrote it.

A few posts ago, I quoted Dr. John McCardell, Vice Chancellor of Sewanee: The University of the South (and Leadership 101 guest speaker),  from his stirring defense of the liberal arts: “Nothing indemnifies you from the hard things in life.”  Dr. McCardell delivered this line in the midst of a persuasive argument for a broad education that would equip students with both knowledge of timeless wisdom and insight into themselves.  In his view – and mine – a liberal arts education provides essential inner resources to persevere when the inevitable “hard things in life” come along.

Three weeks of Leadership 101 demonstrated that part of aspiring to leadership is actually putting yourself in the way of “the hard things in life.”  Story after story from our readings, shared experiences in leadership, and especially our visiting speakers, highlighted the inevitable moments when steep challenges or stomach-churning trouble came along.  These moments carried potential consequences for others and, in some cases, very real and personal consequences for the leader.  In day to day life, we are often casual about these tales referring to them as “war stories” or “near death experiences.”  But the deeper question they raise is the “why?” of leadership.  If you know the “hard things” are ahead, why aspire to leadership in the first place?

Among the many answers that emerged from Leadership 101, two ideas resonated most deeply.  First, leadership is different from “success” as the world often defines it. Successful people find satisfaction in personal and professional achievement – nothing wrong with that.  Leaders, however, find their most profound joy is discovered in the self actualization of other people.  “It’s not about you” is all about helping others realize their potential to make a positive impact and finding purpose and fulfillment in that process.  Absent that, true leaders – as distinguished from the merely successful – do not find that prestige, power, or material gain are sufficiently fulfilling rewards for enduring “the hard things in life” that are predictable parts of their experience.

Second, our visiting leaders narrated the challenging episodes of their leadership stories with a sense of appreciation for all that they had learned from those difficult moments.  The “heat” was painful but also transformative, causing them to courageously face themselves and to grow in ways that they might have avoided in less troubled circumstances.  “It’s all about you” speaks to the critical importance of a growth mindset in effective leaders.  Leaders feel most alive in the moments they are learning, even when those lessons upset closely guarded beliefs about themselves, reveal humbling mistakes, or shed new light on their impact on those around them.

If I had to pick a single sentiment that was common to our speakers, our students, myself, and my two colleagues, I would choose gratitude.  Leadership 101 was a daily encounter with generosity – of time, insight, and hard won lessons.  For that – and for the learning that has continued even past the last day of class – we all remain thankful and inspired.



Leadership 101

I have been working with two faculty colleagues over the past few months to plan a course on leadership for Westminster students to be offered during our upcoming JanTerm. Leadership 101 is intended to expose our students to a sampling of the wisdom and scholarship that have grown up around the topic of leadership over time while also introducing them to leaders of all kinds in our community. A third aspect of the course will be introspective and reflective helping them to explore their strengths and aspirations as leaders.

Needless to say, it has been especially interesting to be engaged in planning this course while our presidential campaign and election has dominated the headlines. The post mortem on the final results and predictions about the future have already been framed in a variety of ways. Perspectives gained from the large body of work on leadership are worth adding to the mix as these often help define issues of the moment versus timeless dilemmas.

What follows are excerpts – with minimal commentary – from various texts that have defined and influenced this field of inquiry. There are countless others that could be added to these so consider this post to be an appetizer. Enjoy.

Thinking about leadership has been a preoccupation of humankind going back to our earliest recorded history. Below are two perspectives that put leaders in the context of mythology and history.

From Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership entitled, Concepts of Leadership: The Beginnings, by Bernard Bass.

“ Myths and legends about great leaders were important to the development of civilized societies. Stories about the exploits of individual heroes (and occasionally heroines) are central to the Babylonian Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, the Icelandic sagas, and the Ramayana (now they would be called cases). All societies have created myths to provide plausible and acceptable explanations for the dominance of their leaders and the submission of their subordinates. The greater the socioeconomic injustice in the society, the more distorted the realities of leadership – its powers, morality, and effectiveness – in mythology.”

From War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1933.

“Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes historic significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evident is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.

“The king’s heart is in the hands of the Lord.”

A king is history’s slave.”

 Some notions that are current today – like the concept of “servant-leadership” – reflect ideas with ancient roots in both Western and Eastern faith traditions. 

From Servant Leadership, Robert K. Greenleaf, 1977.

“The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then the conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be the later choice to serve – after leadership is established. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

In the Gospel of John 13: 12 – 15, Jesus says the following:

“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”

From Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu, sixth century B.C.

“The wise leader is like water.

Consider water: water cleanses and refreshes all creatures without distinction and without judgment; water freely and fearlessly goes deep beneath the surface of things; water is fluid and responsive; water follows the law freely.

Consider the leader: the leader works in any setting without complaint, with any issue or person that comes to the floor; the leader acts so that all will benefit and serves well regardless of the rate of pay; the leader speaks simply and honestly and intervenes in order to shed light and create harmony.

From watching the movements of water, the leader has learned that in action, timing is everything.

Like water, the leader is yielding. Because the leader does not push the group does not resent or resist.”

 As consideration of leaders and leadership moved from the realm of philosophers in ancient times to that of social scientists in the modern era, settling on a definition of “leadership” has turned out to be one of the most hotly debated topics in the field.

From another chapter of Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership entitled, The Meaning of Leadership, by Bernard Bass, 1974.

“There are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept…Leadership has been conceived as the focus of group processes, as a matter of personality, as a matter of inducing compliance, as the exercise of influence, as particular behaviors, as a form of behavior, as a form of persuasion, as a power relation, as an instrument to achieve goals, as an effect of interactions, as a differentiated role, as initiation of structure, and as a combination of these definitions.”

The emergence of leadership studies as a social science led to research in how a diverse range of leaders approach their work. A particularly rich vein of this work focuses on differences between men and women leaders.

From Ways Women Lead, Judy B. Rosener, Harvard Business Review, 1990.

“…the similarities end when men and women describe their leadership performance and how they usually influence those with whom they work. The men are more likely than women to describe themselves in ways that characterize what some management experts call “transactional” leadership. That is, they view job performance as a series of transactions with subordinates – exchanging rewards for services rendered or punishment for inadequate performance. The men are also more likely to use power that comes from their organizational position and formal authority.

“The women respondents, on the other hand, described themselves in ways that characterize “transformational” leadership – getting subordinates to transform their own self-interest into the interest of the group through concern for a broader goal. Moreover they ascribe their power to personal characteristics like charisma, interpersonal skills, hard work, or personal contacts rather than to organizational structure.”

It is, perhaps, cold comfort to realize that decades ago some of the most prominent thinkers in this field believed that we suffer from a leadership crisis. The following two excerpts were written under different circumstances but sound like conversations we hear all around us today.

From On Leadership, John Gardner, 1990.

“I do not find the problems themselves as frightening as the questions they raise concerning our capacity to gather forces and act. No doubt many of the grave problems that beset us have discoverable, though difficult, solutions. But to mobilize the required resources and to bear what sacrifices are necessary calls for a capacity to focus our energies, a capacity for sustained commitment. Suppose that we have lost the capacity to motivate ourselves for arduous exertions on behalf of the group. A discussion of leadership cannot avoid such questions.

“Could it be that we suppress awareness of problems – however ominous – because we have lost all conviction that we can do anything about them? Effective leaders heighten both motivation and confidence, but when these qualities have been gravely diminished, leaders have a hard time leading.

“Suppose that fragmentation and divisiveness have proceeded so far in American life that we can no longer lend ourselves to any worthy common purpose. Suppose that our shared values have disintegrated to the point that we believe in nothing strongly enough to work for it as a group. Shared values are the bedrock on which leaders build the edifice of group achievement. No examination of leadership would be complete without attention to the decay and possible regeneration of the value framework.”

From Leadership, James MacGregor Burns, 1978

“In the final quarter of our century (the) life-and-death engagement with leadership has given way to the cult of personality, to a “gee whiz” approach to celebrities. We peer into the private lives of leaders, as though their sleeping habits, eating preferences, sexual practices, dogs, and hobbies carry messages of profound significance. Entire magazines are devoted to trivia about “people” and serious newspapers start off their news stories with a personality anecdote or slant before coming to the essence of the matter. Huge throngs parade in Red Square and in the T’ien An Men Square with giant portraits of men who are not giants. The personality cult – a cult of devils as well as heroes – thrives in both East and West

“The crisis of leadership today is the mediocrity or irresponsibility of so many of the men and women in power, but leadership rarely rises to the full need for it. The fundamental crisis underlying mediocrity is intellectual. If we know too much about our leaders, we know far to little about leadership. We fail to grasp the essence of leadership that is relevant to the modern age and hence we cannot agree on the standards by which to measure, recruit or reject it. Is leadership simply innovation – cultural or political? Is it essentially inspiration? Mobilization of followers? Goal setting? Goal fulfillment? Is a leader a definer of values? Satisfier of needs? If leaders require followers, who leads whom from where to where? How do leaders lead followers without being wholly led by followers? Leadership if one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.”

American democracy has inspired many to ponder the particular requirements of leadership in a free society. An important insight from this line of inquiry is that leadership emerges from many places in a democracy.  I’ll allow Thomas Cronin to have the last word on this important topic.

From Leadership and Democracy, Thomas E. Cronin, published in Liberal Education, 1987.

“The most lasting and pervasive leadership of all is often intangible and non-constitutional. It is leadership fostered or embodied in social, political, or artistic movements; in books, in documents, in speeches, and the memory of great lives greatly lived. Intellectual leadership at its best is provided by those – often not in high political or corporate offices – who can clarify values and the implications of such values for policy. We have long ago, with Thomas Jefferson’s assist, repudiated the tired idea that “leaders are born and not made.” Today we realize that leadership is forged out of competition and challenge of competence.”

On Failure

I was catching up on my reading this summer and dug out a few recent issues of the Harvard Business Review.  I have always thought HBR is a trailing indicator of the currency of ideas in the workplace.  I am still a faithful reader but am also aware that my subscription is more likely to provide insight on what is already happening rather than foresight as to what might happen next.

So, when the May, 2016, issue arrived with a cover story entitled, “How to Really Learn from Failure,” I knew our conversation about failure had gone mainstream.  (In keeping with HBR’s ability to spot a trend after it has fully matured into a routine daily reality, the very next issue in June carried a cover story entitled, “Managing the 24/7 Workplace.”)  A quick search on Amazon confirmed the buzz around failure.  Multiple books suggest it is the key to success and one even tells us that it is a “gift” that parents can give their children.

“XBox for your birthday?  How about failure instead?”

I suspect few people predicted that “failure” would become a 21st century buzzword.  Somewhere along the path to a fully digital and globalized economy, we moved from failure being a function of miscalculation and mistake – and therefore an opportunity to correct defects the next time around – to failure serving as evidence of a healthy attitude toward risk.  In a world that demands a nimble approach to change, risk avoidance suddenly has all the appealing qualities of a terminal disease.  Experiment, iterate, innovate – success will belong not to the technocrat but to the mad scientist masquerading as a humble manager.

The failure phenomenon is an interesting instance of a business buzzword with a conflicted relationship to the subtle and overt messages parents hear daily.  The technological revolution that accelerated the development of our globalized economy also put parents on notice: your kid is competing with every other smart kid in the world now.  We are conditioned to believe that our children’s margin for error is thinner than ours ever was and that his or her vulnerability to missing out on a plus-sized version of the American Dream is real.  The message: Don’t mess this up.  Hone your child’s competitive instincts in those unassigned minutes of each day.  Be clear that the best choices are those that provide access to more of the best choices.  Stay focused on outcomes rather than process.  See threat before opportunity and value a script over improvisation.  Do your research and be ready to advocate.  Risk-taking may be a mandate for your professional life but it has no place in childrearing.

The problem with this relentless pressure on parents is not only that it runs counter to the failure movement, but it also conflicts with the current most-favored ideas from the parenting advice business.  Its all about developing resilience, grit, hardiness, and perseverance for today’s kids.  The last decade has seen a barrage of research and writing across all of these dimensions of how humans develop the ability to bounce back and adapt in the face of adversity.  Perspectives range from understanding these capacities as functions of character to more biological explanations of how neural networks in the brain respond to and recover from setbacks.  But make no mistake: in every theory, resilience takes root in the valley, not on the mountaintop.  Kids who are protected from falling down will not learn how to get back up.

Despite the buzz around failure and resilience, parents often surrender to the pressure to engineer their kids’ lives.  The “threat” end of the “threat/opportunity” continuum is often what we filter for in our news and in the stories of our children’s peers, whether their friends or cautionary tales from afar.  The pattern is sufficiently well-established to have its own handles.  Helicopter parenting is the most common, Black Hawk parenting a step beyond, with Fighter Jet Escort parenting being a special category.  It is surely no coincidence that the rise of this model for raising children corresponds to the epidemic of anxiety and depression that has rampaged through achievement-oriented American neighborhoods.

There is no question that parents are caught in a dilemma.  The competition does, in fact, seem stiffer and the world generally less forgiving.  And the peer pressure from fellow parents – relentless.  There are no easy answers or secret formulas but it can be helpful to find and keep a centering thought.  And for that, we turn from business and psychology to philosophy.

In the middle of the 19th century, Soren Kierkegaard, a Christian Dane considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, wrote Fear and Trembling, a meditation on the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac from the Book of Genesis.  In the midst of imagining the inner – but unwritten – experience of this father and son, Kierkegaard observed the following:

“Whatever the one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the foregoing…Thus no generation has learned from another to love, no generation begins at any other point than at the beginning, no generation has a shorter task assigned to it than had the previous generation.”

We don’t find Kierkegaard quoted too often in HBR or parenting advice bestsellers but he illuminates a truth worthy of reflection.  On the matters that matter – “that which is genuinely human” – there is nowhere to begin but at the beginning.  No accelerated classes, no skipping to the main point.  “No generation learns the essentially human from a previous one.”  Being a good parent is one of these essentially human experiences and Kierkegaard is right – there is nowhere to begin to sort out its conundrums and mysteries but at the beginning.

Kierkegaard’s wisdom also leads us to sort out the difference between the “essentially human” and “everything else” when we think about our children.  Assigning the overwhelming portion of our interest and concern to the former rather than the latter is our mandate.  Like us, our children begin at the beginning building those virtues that are not easily learned on a tight schedule: empathy, integrity, being a good friend, serving something larger than oneself.  The challenge of our times is to be there with them; not to build a resume but to find a path – from the beginning – to purpose and fulfillment.  Perhaps then, failure and resilience and the ambient anxiety that characterizes life in 2016, will give way to something more deeply satisfying.



Feeling a Bit Brittle

First, an update on my last post: The saga of the Affluenza Teen has unfolded in predictable and unpredictable ways in 2016.  Ethan Couch was eventually arrested in Mexico and returned to the United States where he is currently held in the Lon Evans (no relation…) Correction Center in Texas.  We learned from the local sheriff, whose derivative celebrity landed him on a national talk show, that Ethan is being held in an isolation cell “for his own safety.”  Here, his only form of diversion is watching old Richard Simmons exercise videos through the chute in his cell door.  Given the overwhelming research into the toxic mental health effects of isolation, it is ironic that a form of imprisonment reserved for the most dangerous inmates would be understood as in his best interest.  Perhaps “tough on crime” translates to “tough on affluenza” in this case.

Ethan Couch came to mind recently as I listened to a thoughtful and persuasive defense of a liberal arts education in the 21st century offered by John McCardell, the Vice Chancellor of The University of the South.  Vice Chancellor McCardell spoke to the way that a liberal arts education offers more than vocational training to get a good job.  It builds inner resources of resilience and personal capacity to lead a purposeful life, come what may.  I thought of Couch (and others) when McCardell noted, “Nothing indemnifies people from the things that make life hard.” Truer words were never spoken.

The presidential election cycle seems to have our country hyper-focused on the “things that make life hard.”   Our most successful candidates on either side have channeled and cultivated the grievances of the electorate across the spectrum.  Playing by the rules turned out to be a flimsy indemnification strategy.  Our real and perceived trials – underemployment, stagnant wages, discrimination, immigration, diminished global leadership, changing social mores, you name it – quickly transmute disappointment into anger.  Indeed, the mood of the country is most often described as angry and that anger is a bludgeon wielded by both candidates against each other and by the electorate against the status quo.

Anger, and the breathless “top this” solutions it inspires – from carpet bombing ISIS to converting to a socialist state – are more than political phenomena; they have many features of a social contagion as well.  The idea that human behavior could be contagious dates back to the foundations of modern psychology in the late 1800’s.  The theory goes that individuals in a group fear rejection if they act outside the norms of the group.  “Reduction of restraints” occurs when a norm is openly violated or modified and fear of rejection is thereby lessened.  The open expression of anger, in some cases over previously taboo topics, reduces social restraints and can lead to generalizing emotion well beyond the original subjects at hand.  So does the Affluenza Teen end up in isolation as a result of a not-going-to-take-it-anymore contagion?  Maybe.  Or do a group of men in Oregon enact an armed take over of a remote fish and game building because the norms restraining this kind of behavior have been reduced?  Possibly.  Social contagions are known to exist but identifying and proving them is neither simple nor easy.

We may not agree on what is or is not a social contagion, but we likely could agree that it’s hard to be happy and angry at the same time.  Vice Chancellor McCardell put his finger on something important in his assertion that a complete education is aimed at something more than just the skills or knowledge to make a living.  Our national impulse in challenging economic times has been to demand increasing return on investment out of schools, colleges and universities.  And, over time, that ROI has been defined more and more narrowly.  So public K-12 education is driven by standardized testing that suffocates curiosity and creativity.  Higher education, guilty as charged of ratcheting up tuition and saddling students with high debt, is increasingly evaluated in terms of the starting salaries and lifetime earnings of its graduates.

Not a single American student, however, will be indemnified from the things that make life hard by the mastery of facts on a test or a big salary.  Difficulties come our way from both personal circumstances and the inevitable unfairness of an imperfect society.  If contagious, radioactive anger is our best or only resource to tap in the face of adversity, what does that mean for the future not just of our democracy, but our institutions and quality of life?  By almost any definition, the United States has seen tougher circumstances than these, yet we seem a bit brittle.  Our current national mood may be revealing something missing in our educational agenda – the cultivation of wisdom, judgment, grace – once inspired by the liberal arts and now replaced by things seemingly more serviceable but far less ambitious.


Return of the Affluenza Teen

“I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me.  And that’s a broken system.”

Donald Trump, Republican Presidential Debate, August 6, 2015

The end of 2015 has witnessed the unfortunate reintroduction of “affluenza” into the headlines. This mash-up of influenza and affluence has been around since the 50’s but gained wider usage in the early 2000’s as various researchers found a correlation between general unhappiness and the relentless pursuit of “more.”  More stuff, more debt, more waste – affluenza commanded attention around the time of the tech stock bubble and an era of conspicuous consumption.  Like the flu, it has hung around long enough to mutate and infect new victims.

Enter Ethan Couch, the Texas teenager who at age 16 killed four people in a drunk driving crash.  Couch’s attorney’s successfully argued that he suffered from affluenza as the financial privilege of his youth had kept him from understanding that actions have consequences.  He avoided 20 years in jail and got probation instead – and an uproar.  Couch, now 18, recently fled the country after he was featured in a party video violating the conditions of his probation.  We would have been fine to have forgotten the case of the Affluenza Teen but, no, he’s back in the headlines and probably due for some well-deserved time behind bars.

One particularly notable part of the story is that Couch checked out to Mexico with his mother.  Thus, the affluenza virus was genetically modified by its encounter with helicopter parenting – a related pathogen – creating a sort of super virus. This strain ups the ante on affluenza offering “whatever it takes” permission from an authority figure for avoiding personal accountability.  It seems likely that Ms. Couch will spend some time in the Big House as well.

The story captures headlines and mindspace because it provides the “see, I told you so” moment for all the suspicions that The System – loosely defined but all-inclusive –  is rigged and unjust.  Fair or not, Couch’s narrative has been reduced to a single, outrageous idea: “I was just too rich and spoiled to be held responsible for killing those people.”  Further, even with a second chance, Couch apparently proved that his super strain of affluenza is highly resistant to intervention.  It’s not just that he cannot be held responsible, he has not even learned to be responsible.  The disease appears to disable the conscience.

Couch’s story is troubling enough by itself but its toxicity spreads as Affluenza Teen headlines connect to the anger currently coursing through our national conversation.  He is this moment’s bleary eyed and vacant poster child for a perception that business as usual means a personally tailored set of rules based on undeserved advantages – or disadvantages.  A large part of the population is having none of it.  One way or another, the gravitational force of this belief may be the deciding factor in 2016’s presidential campaign.

The pitfalls of affluenza seem obvious enough and likewise the remedies have been around since the dawn of civilization: clean up your messes, play fair, keep your hands to yourself, don’t take other people’s stuff, tell the truth, etc.  The cynicism encouraged by the Affluenza Teen and his counterparts among sports dopers, finance scammers, political operators, and many others doesn’t make these timeless truths any less valid.  For most people, behaving honorably rests on the fragile assumption that everyone else holds roughly similar values.  Doing the right thing as a sucker’s bet is hard to sustain over time.

Yet, the alternative is something far worse.  People from virtually every background and walk of life claim a variety of injustices and many of these claims have some validity.  Our worst instincts lead us to respond to the unfairness of everyday life by seeing what the system will let us get away with, embracing our status as victims, or retreating deeper into our alienation.  Some dignity is lost along the way as well as the personal possibilities offered by a more grace-filled, morally courageous path.  Perhaps more consequential than even these sacrifices, we run the risk of bequeathing a world to our children sure to become only meaner in time.  We can be certain they are watching and listening as always, looking for hints of what is to come.


Singular Deliverances and Blessings

…And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

Abraham Lincoln, from the original Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1863.

Happy Thanksgiving!  Cicero is often quoted as saying, “Gratitude is the parent of all virtues.”  If that is true, then Thanksgiving is a great holiday for more than just the turkey and football.  Its about giving thanks, shuffling fully gorged from the table to a comfortable chair for a nap in front of the TV, and then waking up a better person. That’s a pretty good deal.

I have been a less productive writer than I would have liked over these past months.  In addition to some significant professional projects, we have a new address and have conducted another thinning of our family inventory of memorabilia, unread books, and one-off objects of all kinds that can no longer even win a place in our basement.  Owning less stuff is on my Thanksgiving list this year.  So is having a chance to write.

If you consume too much news out of this phase of American presidential politics, you can end up a bit discouraged.  For better or worse, the early action in each party has little to do with leading and unifying the country and is more focused on a divide and conquer strategy.  So candidates create a world where rich and poor, citizen and immigrant, militant and pacifist, young and old engage in a zero sum conflict of catastrophic potential consequences.

Emphasizing differences and pitting one demographic against another is how our political parties “mobilize the base” and engage passionate voters early in the primary season.  Of course, later in the process one of these same politicians will be President and then shift course to “unite the country.”  You don’t have to be a pundit or a fortuneteller to know how that is going to work out.  Its a pretty crazy system.

It is also a dynamic in our politics that runs counter to the rhetoric around the skills that 21st century workers need to be globally competitive.  Just Google “CEO survey of 21st century skills” and you will see broad agreement around a short list that includes some version of the 4 C’s: critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration.  Its this last one – collaboration – that is perceived as essential to solving problems in a complex, interconnected world, yet seems to emerge from a different civilization than the one described by our candidates and their friends in elected office.

Why the disconnect between our politics and American corporate culture that is all about “silo-busting?” Not-for-profits that rise and fall based on their capacity to unite their communities behind a cause? Schools and colleges that increasingly are putting desks in a circle, rather than rows, both physically and virtually?

Any glib answer to this question is almost certainly wrong – and there are a lot of glib answers out there.  Perhaps the most important truth is that we are defining future success across virtually every sector of society in a way that exposes our political culture as a failure.  Ugh.

So, now for a more upbeat discovery.  I ran across a kind of antivenom to this divisiveness recently that is worth a few moments of reflection.  In 2003, Yann Arthus-Bertrand launched the 7 Billion Others project inspired by the supportive response from some villagers in Mali in a moment of travel crisis.  The website describes the project as follows: “From a Brazilian fisherman to a Chinese shopkeeper, from a German performer to an Afghan farmer, all answered the same questions about their fears, dreams, ordeals, hopes: What have you learnt from your parents? What do you want to pass on to your children? What difficult circumstances have you been through? What does love mean to you?”

Over 6000 interviews were completed with the results loaded into a website and also forming the material for an international traveling exhibit.  In a political season of sometimes manufactured discord, but on a day of gratitude and aspirational unity, browsing through the site offers an inspirational perspective through the lens of what we share in common. Take a look:

So maybe Thanksgiving, a national tradition proclaimed by a president who held the country together through a civil war, often celebrated by a collaboratively created family feast, and rooted in a catalyst for virtue, is the ultimate 21st century holiday.  Enjoy and give thanks.