One person’s garbage…another person’s treasure

Chances are if you were born before the 1990’s you’ve heard the above expression. While part of me wants to chalk it up along with many of the others I’ve mentioned on this site as having little to no value the older version of myself sees some unspoken wisdom in this notion. Having spent a part of my youth living with my post-depression era grandparents it’s easy to identify the obvious financial undertones of the statement but it’s in the extension of this ideology to the other areas of life that a reward just as great can be reaped. Allow me to share a pair of examples.

The first example that comes to mind is oddly enough intimate relationship(s). Take the man or woman that has [recently] been dumped by an otherwise uncaring, asshole partner. Whether or not they’re a physical or emotional gem is a matter of debate but odds are 50/50 that the person is. Now throw the fact they are leaving an otherwise unhealthy experience – which likely has lead them to engage in things such as questioning their self-worth – there is a strong chance they will be putting their best foot forward with their next ‘at bat’ while simultaneously making some beneficial personal changes…making them an ideal mate. Just as one places an empty candy wrapper in a waste receptacle people are equally disposable. One person’s relational garbage is potentially another person’s treasure.

A second example, and for the sake of being brief the last in this article (though there are several more), is a person’s career choice. Though this could be considered an extension of an individual’s financial actions I’d like to draw attention to the non-monetary side of this life consideration. The inspiration for this example came from a chance encounter with a passenger I had on a flight recently. Though I hardly consider anything chance; more like the law of averages in operation. The gentleman, a D.C. attorney, had recently graduated from Georgetown and was working in his first year as patent lawyer for the US Patent Office; a fact I cued in on from of all things a pen he was taking notes with. In the majority of cases I don’t care for engaging on a personal level with customers as I find most, particularly in first class, to be uninteresting middle management clogs but I have a penchant for law so I took up the chance to speak further with him.

 

After several minutes in dialogue I discovered a very interesting facet to his line of work. The first was an existing shortage of patent law lawyers. Having a sister who is an attorney and formerly having considered law school myself I knew there wasn’t a shortage of trial attorneys, corporate lawyers or even family attorneys but never gave much thought to intellectual property. During the middle part of our conversation he said something that struck me and ties directly back into the topic of this piece. Somewhere around his last year of law school he began collecting feedback from his classmates, gauging where their focus and interests within the field lied. What he discovered was that the overwhelming majority were hellbent on corporate, securities or criminal law and just like that he knew what he wanted to do. He went on to explain further the logic behind this – you see patent law was boring, required as much if not more case reading and interpretation than other types of law, paid well but not house in the Hamptons well and possibly most important lacked any prestige.

 

It was the last part of what he said that got the small motor between my ears I’ve mistaken for a brain spinning. Patent law felt as though it was a career middle child of sorts…easily overlooked and in some circles considered a garbage part of the profession. Once again, one person’s trash another person’s treasure. No struggling to find work, working 100+ hour weeks to make partner and even the healthy possibility for starting a family if that was a person’s desire. These types of nuances, personal and/or professional, exist more often than people think. Whether discovering the rebounding and wounded partner or the what’s behind the curtain of a professional subset, life can be like a giant estate sale with hidden prizes to be found underneath the surface. In order to access an awareness to these things all a person merely has to do is listen and be diligent. Time and a level of patience affords every one of us the opportunity to discover some type of trash we will soon discover is a Rembrandt.

The Wheels on the Bus

While on my way back from a family visit (the main reason for taking some time off from writing) I had the privilege of sitting next to a very opinionated man during the unfortunate return flight back to Chicago. He and a colleague of his were speaking on some socio-economic issues they both apparently felt those around them needed to be aware of. As is often the case the dogma spewing from his mouth was as one sided as a boxing match between Helen Keller and Mike Tyson in his prime would be. I could almost see the Politifact meter failing off the left side of it’s accuracy curve. I listened intently as I knew at some point the opportunity to engage this grossly misinformed individual would happen and little did I know I wouldn’t even be waiting to take off.

Thanks to a momentary ground stop of inbound traffic into ORD this fine fella and I were able to first exchange glances and as soon as he noticed what I was browsing through on my Reddit feed in his mind I must have been fair game. As the seconds ticked off the clock of life I could see the anticipation building on his face. Finally, I turned to him with a look that must have conveyed the statement ‘you can begin speaking your non-sense now’ because the dogma began to flow like diarrhea. After first lambasting my preferred sources of news – The Guardian, Mother Jones, the CBC and Reuters (The Wall Street Journal received his approval) – he then proceeded to go on about the topic I currently had on my feed, a report demonstrating how a series of large corporations could in fact afford to pay their employees more money in lieu of massive stock buybacks.

His position was that as a public company it was completely up to the executives and shareholders to determine and approve such a strategic decision. While in principle I agreed with his position I followed up his statement with a query – what were his feelings on such programs as SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, etc.? Not to my surprise he was vehemently against the entirety of them. To which my response was that if the minimum wage was increased to say $14/hr many of the people who depend on these programs would a) make enough to be self sufficient and b) no longer qualify for these programs thus reducing the tax revenue necessary to support these discretionary programs. Also, it would help to reduce Medicaid enrollment (currently @ 64.9 million people) as a small percent of people could thusly afford to purchase insurance in the marketplace.

The gentleman paused to take my little spiel in. I went on further to explain this is how most of life exists – not just in terms of politics, sociology, finance, etc. – that the answer lies in looking past the obvious, foregoing the process of emotional attachment and seeing that the problems of life can go around and round in an endless circle, never resolved only argued over, or a solution can be sought. This part is incredibly difficult though as it requires a skill that many of us lack, myself included, entirely…pragmatism. It’s hard to say what keeps us on this bus ride to nowhere…pride, lack of education, indoctrination…who knows? Regardless of what’s to blame and at the expense of a lot of wasted time let’s just assume that we’re never truly correct about anything. This sounds counter-productive, and at some point along the road it is, but to second guess what we think…what or how we approach something can be a very valuable tool in breaking the circle and the chains that bind us.

Being okay with Nothing

We live in a world defined by the things we have. Whether it’s the title of our job, the house we live in, the car we drive, the cell phone we use or even the clothes on our back, our craving for identity thru the material world is like a drug. Apple, Nike, Amazon, Versace, these companies are the pushers and we the people the customers. Every day millions of items are purchased through various channels, propelling forward the capitalist, consumption machine. The craving for joy and meaning is temporarily fulfilled. This system, ushered in during the First Industrial Revolution, has become the stalwart of ‘westernized’ society for the last three hundred years and isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Where I differ from many of the left leaning, anti-capitalist, quasi-anarchists, is that I don’t view this system as the enemy of humankind. It is merely a part of our natural evolution. Whereas humanity has moved from polytheism to monotheism (and ideally one day to a system beyond the preoccupation of religious fascination) our economic system has traveled a historical road itself. From kinship production, to slavery, to feudalism, to capitalism continuing all the way to the government planned system of socialism to most recent…the government-controlled system of communism, our marketplace trudges forward. As with most things in life the outcome of economic activity produces a small number of winners, a large number of losers and an enormous number of participants.

No one (well almost no one) is exempt from this. Its reach is like the light of the sun, touching almost everything it comes in contact with. I’m not going to ramble on about the need to strive for income equality (nothing in this world is equal, wages are no different) nor am I going to send the reader on a quest to Walden…if you don’t know who Thoreau is you owe it to yourself to read at least ‘Civil Disobedience’. I also am not going to suggest you answer the call of the Wild, though McCandless was definitely on to something. What I am going to do is suggest a simple vacation of sorts – not to the Bahamas, though the island can be relaxing – a vacation from want.

It doesn’t matter if you commit to a day, a week, a month or even a year; some things will require more time than others but ultimately its up to you. The focus here is to switch your life from wants to needs. Air, food, water and basic companionship (not virtual) are good starting points; the last item is not necessary as part of this experiment and in principle may affect the last part. To what extent you can the goal is ultimately nothing. Put the phone away or at least on ‘do not disturb’ accept to the most critical people to keep in contact with – an example would be an elderly, infirmed loved one. Goodbye electronics, limit the noise, travel nowhere, buy nothing, talk to no one. Engross yourself in nothing, you can meditate if that’s your thing but it’s not necessary, and do this for however long you can manage. What you’ll find is that nothing is not really being without, it’s not really anything, and I think you’ll be okay with that.

What I Owe You

Along with the continually unhealthy desire of people to be nice there is another idiotic concept that needs to finish its lifecycle sooner rather than later – that’s the idea of ‘owing’ people things. It’s one thing if a person owes a bank or a friend money, these are transactions in which there is some type of contractual agreement, written or spoken, that sets the expectations of the arrangement. No, what I am speaking of is this overwhelmingly burdensome belief that if something positive should happen to an individual that they have an obligation to return or ‘pay forward’ the generosity they received.

First, I want the reader to understand this, I am NOT suggesting that a person become a total, self-serving prick. No, what I’m specifically addressing here is the too often occurring state of leveraged one-upmanship. We all know this type of relationship either from personal experience or having a loved one in this kind of demented predicament. There’re a variety of names for it but two prevailing extremes tend to make these people easily identifiable. The most common kinds are the ‘control freak’ and at the other end of the spectrum ‘the user’. Their describable behavior patterns are well documented so I won’t elaborate.

What I do wish to do here is emphasis the value of taking emotional inventory of relationships; particularly the ones involving family and/or spouses. A person can use whatever metaphor they like when undertaking this action…me I like to think of it as house cleaning. The dynamic that exists between two people doesn’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) be spotless. A little dust and dirt are natural. Trying to get every nook and cranny borders on mental defect and if that’s the prevailing personality of one of the respective party’s I can assure you they are the aforementioned ‘control freak’. Ultimately the level of commitment between two individuals should be clean, livable, and operable within the presence of company. Sure, things will get messy from time to time (keeping the analogy going) but at the end of the day how we are with those who matter shouldn’t require more than a gentle spring cleaning.

Someone’s Punching Bag

You live and you learn…or if you’re someone like me you live and you don’t, not at least until life hits you in the face so hard you find yourself emotional concussed. Of the variety of topics, I’ve covered so far, ranging from professional to academic and even including personal there’s one item I realized I haven’t spoken on (at least of any great length) and that’s self-worth. While the concept has been touched on I want to speak to it in the form of a very common American phenomenon – participation in athletics. Americans LOVE their sports and I must admit I’m a pretty big basketball fan. The reason I’m drawing a line between the two is that they together illustrate a euphemism for almost all of life.

At some point in our history sport(s) became a right of passage. As we as a society completed/abandoned our conquest of what’s become the modern United States and her territories the focus shifted on rallying our people around something other than (near constant) warfare (didn’t work out but the thought was nice). After all variety is the spice of life. With the ushering in of the modern Olympic games in 1896, the development of American football, basketball, and modern professional baseball, people found a new way to socialize and shortly thereafter stratify individuals based on the combination of skill and genetics. Fast forward some 60, 70 years later and we found not only these sports as professions but as serious collegian activities as well.

From this historical understanding let’s proceed to weave this cultural caveat into the articles topic, self-worth. It’s natural for people to define their value in the context of others. What people think of us, their opinions – manifested through words and actions – have tremendous influence over our emotional framework. We seek acceptance and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing its something that can be leveraged against us. An area where this is blatantly obvious, yet for some reason never spoken upon, is the world of preparatory sports; namely high school athletics. It’s the perfect storm of social upheaval and (in many instances) the last step before coasting to adulthood.

The thing that makes this particularly note worthy is that in addition to being thrown into a world dominated by primal thought (which I’m certainly not against) – defined by a hyper-obsession with winning and domination over one’s competition/enemy – there is an additional toll not often thought of; the physical taxation levied on a person’s body. As someone that was a part of a national championship high school wrestling team and an attempted collegian walk-on I feel the aches and pains of what I’ve put my body through every single day and at 37 feel as if I’m someone 20+ years older. Through all the vigorous training I gained nothing. I was not a recruited athlete and received zero additional instruction or focus from any of my coaches. I’m not bitter about this and only bring it up to make a final point on the matter.

Athletics, like much of life, is a casting call in which most people will not even get a supporting role. There are many folks I’m sure that participate in these gaming events based not on a clear desire or passion for the activity but rather as a way to create value for themselves. My concern lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority (especially in sports that are extremely demanding in nature – such as American football and wrestling) will serve as little more than turning someone into the bricks upon which competitively superior participants will walk. Your injuries, frustrations and time spent in the mostly inefficient routine of practice illustrate an occurrence that happens also later in life; where in the business world those who are better connected, though inversely skilled to their colleagues, will once again use those around them to lift themselves up. I don’t wish to say that participation in sports is a bad thing, it’s not and is able to help a sizeable number of people in a variety of ways, what I am cautioning against is a person blindly throwing their future physical (and to a degree mental) health out the window in the statistical likelihood of receiving nothing in return. You’re likely worth far more than making someone else’s dreams come true.

Managing Expectations

To loosely paraphrase the writer Charles Dickens, from his novel Great Expectations, ‘suffering is stronger than all other teaching…it will bend and break us with the hope of it being into a better shape’. A truly ingenious observation. Much of society operates on the premise of hope. It liters religion as well as a large portion of contemporary society. The problem is that hope is a sit-down process in a world built only on action. Fortune may or may not favor the bold, it definitely favors the financially and genetically well-off, but all things equal it more often than not rewards the doers over the wishful thinkers. This I know to be true, as I have wasted most of my life being the later.

The question then begs where does wishful thinking come from and if it’s such an unhealthy practice what is the more appropriate life course to take? Let’s start with the first. Wishful thinking is a failure to recognize things in their truest nature. It is the suspension of data-based fact in favor of a sentimental and false reality. Wishing in fact has little to do with thinking and a lot more to do with hoping…and hoping has more to do with idealizing rather than realizing. In order for things to be or remain cohesive they have to be connected correct? If you and I are talking on the phone and our call drops we have become disconnected and on a microcosmic level we have become separated from one another because our signal was ‘lost’.

It’s in this state of being ‘lost’ we become (at least at times) extremely desperate to be found, to be saved, to be reconnected. We are vulnerable and in becoming so find ourselves operating on an increasingly emotional level. Constantly submitting a person’s thought process to this state is tantamount to giving your teenage driver a 12 pack of beer, a bottle of Xanax and the keys to a Formula 1 vehicle…essentially a terrible idea. Here we arrive at the second part of the aforementioned, ‘the more appropriate life course to take’. This one is tricky and likely why it is not done with greater frequency. The solution is in the above title – managing expectations. This goes back to the core of what I’m sure I’ve repeated numerous times; see, recognize, understand and plan accordingly.

See where you are. The ability to do this even a younger child can conceptualize. They can also mentally bridge the next part, recognize. Comparing oneself to others generally happens pretty early in life so constructively take advantage of it. Understanding who we are, how we relate to others and the required facets for living is a giant leap that once made, while not insuring success, is 3/4th the process. The final part is to plan accordingly. Take what you enjoy along with what you’re good at, in addition to what you’re not so good at, and begin to carefully craft the possibilities. When a person does this life becomes less of a guess and more of formulated calculation. Managing your expectations in the end is just as much an act of dealing with the distortions promulgated by those overly fixated on the ‘hereafter’ as it is about becoming self-aware. Shakespeare was correct when he stated that above all things be true to yourself…because, as you’ll discover, much of the rest of the world is hellbent on selling you its crap.

Look at Me

Welcome to the new world. In this world, things such as humility, candor, and sense of a unified purpose have been replaced by self-aggrandizement, back handedness, and the will of the individual. We have moved from a society of forward progress and achievement based on production to one of mindless consumption. Despite the tone of my words I don’t want it to be thought I find this backward slide a critique on society; particularly in America. This is a natural part of empire, we are western Rome leading up to the crises of the 3rd Century, only instead of Christianity to calm the fervent masses we have social media. The super natural has been supplanted by the ordinary and talent-less.

Where I would diverge from many of the critics of popular culture today is that I first don’t fret this transformation. History, as its been continuously stated, repeats itself and I am merely an observer. Secondly, the turning from the outward to the inner is the direct result of an overly subservient personal nature. The scales of balance between ‘me’ and ‘we’ have long been broken and the default of the human system is always back to the self. For of all the negative characteristics that can, and do, exist in the id the inability of the collective to carefully manage and respect the necessary autonomy of the singular person make it an even more unlikely candidate than pure, classical liberal thought to reign supreme.

As the world has grown to unsustainable proportion the competition has only gotten fiercer. Try as we may to wear a smile during our interactions people have become more of a concern than ever to other people. Our dispensing of kindness, particularly in business or potentially competitive settings, drives a greater number of people to judgement rather than analysis. We haven’t quite reached the point where we view each other as enemies by choice and colleagues by default but that is certainly a possibility. The concept of blending in is perceived as disastrous, yet becomes a necessity at some juncture particularly as group size increases. A bizarre duality that makes managing life feel like the equivalent of traveling backward on a one-way road, blindfolded.

Is there an end game to all this? What is a person to do that doesn’t know where they stand in all this mess? The only advice I can offer is for those at the fringes; for those people caught between generational commitments, those who are torn between the concepts of loyalty to others or loyalty to self. Simply remove yourself from the spectacle, at least for a period of time. When you can see how things unfold from the sideline you get a better sense of how the rules of life dictate the sport of existence. After this grace period you can then decide what works for you, an existence spent glorifying the self, honoring the group or if your especially clever navigating back and forth between the two. Personally, I haven’t mastered any of these skills but with an early enough start future generations possibly can.