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.

Seeing things however you want

Life is a hard thing to figure out. There’re billions of people on this planet with an equal number of different opinions. In my line of work, I see thousands of people a day and in the finest capacity one can see them out side of a hospital system; an airport. Watching folks mindlessly float about like the outer electrons of a highly reactive element is both hilarious and horrifying. Trapped in the country of their mind, population 1, if a person sat back and simply observed they would be entertained for hours on end. As I sit here at my gate on standby for a flight I likely won’t get on I’ve seen 4 different people run into each other, a child urinate while turning the dividers into a jungle gym of sorts and listened to a number of breathtakingly pointless and self-absorbed diatribe.

This is it in a nutshell. The world isn’t merely overpopulated with our species, it’s overrun by a countless number of internally constructed worlds constantly colliding. The result is extraordinary…not in a good way…nor necessarily bad way either. I find it all really just odd. I suppose in the end the best thing to do is to assign an emotional response to it. The two most popular seem to be joy and hatred. Well maybe that’s a bit extreme, perhaps like or dislike is more appropriate. You are free to have whatever feelings you want and see the world however you choose. An obvious statement, I understand, but something that needs to really be re-enforced. There’s so much non-sense out there placing emphasis on feeling or seeing things this way or that, it’s really all just crap.

The reason its crap goes back to my opening paragraph. A person isn’t just seeing the world through their eyes, they’re seeing billions of little worlds dancing within the mainframe of a bigger world…one that’s shaped entirely by the individual’s collective experiences which in turn forges their perspective. You and I can not turn back the clock on life. We can’t change those unpleasantries chance threw our way and thusly are as much in control as out of control. For many folks this is what life is, whether they reside in one of the numerous economically disadvantaged countries on our planet or were simply dealt an insanely shitty hand in the “first world”, it is an up and down roller coaster with no immediate exit in sight.

With all this going on I simply suggest to take it for what it’s worth. If you find yourself disliking something then it’s probably safe to say it has little value to you. Little value should be assigned the according amount of your time, energy and emotion. The things you like feel free to assign as much of yourself to those as possible. Provided what you’re doing or not doing isn’t ridiculously heinous see the things in your life however you want. It’s your life to feel and do however the hell you want. There’re too many competing forces, too many folks caught up in their own realities to spend any of your time not working solely on the construct of your own. Harmony and balance will work their way out, or they won’t, that’s not your concern. Ultimately you are the only thing that matters.

Slow and steady wins the race

As someone on the outside looking in at the success of other’s I’ve noticed an interesting commonality. Lasting achievement doesn’t resemble a hurricane, it’s more a steady rain that provides the fields of life with just the right amount of sustenance to keep everything green. This is something visible to both the well-known and common person alike. The strange and interesting thing to me is how often this is overlooked. In our desire to have all the necessary items of existence ‘out the box’ ready we fail to recognize where the true success of the average lies – in the process of growth. The concept of steady improvement, adjustment and learning along with calculated planning has taken a back seat to dominance.

From the business world to sports a person can see this everywhere. A company and its board bring in a new CEO to replace an outgoing one who was not given enough time to execute their vision. A team drafts a player that was a high achiever at the collegian level with the blind belief that the level of success will automatically translate in the pro’s. The trouble with this thinking is that it puts little premium on tomorrow while placing nearly all the eggs into ‘today’s’ basket. We trade in impact for stability and in the end often get neither. Is there a solution to this conundrum? You bet there is and it involves a radical process…exercising patient.

To breakdown the pitfall of not allowing natural growth to take hold I’m going to turn to a place where it’s most obvious – the world of sports. Of all the positions in a sport one that has possibly the greatest premium is the quarterback in American football. Let’s take what many analysts consider to be the top five players as of 2018: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers. Of these guys only two of the five (40%) were drafted in the first round and neither (Roethlisberger or Rodgers) was selected in the top 10. Also, of note is that the teams Aaron and Ben played were a complete non-factor in the race for a college championship title – Miami of Ohio unranked the entire season and the University of California finishing the season 7-4 in the 25th spot.

The point of this divesture is that reaching a certain level of success, on whatever stratosphere it exists, relies perhaps more in the foundation than the completed project. Time changes things and the ability to adapt is often time as critical as skill level. Peaking, while a naturally occurring phenomenon, should not be where the greatest concentration is placed, albeit sport or life. Rather I purpose a two-prong approach. The first, operate within a healthy framework of output. Whether that is athletically, academically or even professionally – too much, too soon, ultimately equals something that doesn’t last. The second is prepare for the transition. This one is a little tricky because it requires a lot of self-reflection and/or unbiased 3rd party opinion. An ounce of honest, intelligent, reflection is worth a pound of long term future achievement.