Monthly Archives: April 2019

What if We Faced the Facts? I Am Part of this Cult and So Are You

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David Brooks’s Five Lies can empower us, one truth at a time

Before I’d finished reading Five Lies Our Culture Tells, I wanted to send it to everyone I know. David Brooks had clearly articulated my reasons for leaving a profession I’d worked so hard to join. (The article summarizes some of his new book The Second Mountain: The quest for a moral life.)

Given that higher education, business schools in particular, rely on and reinforce these lies, it was hard for me to pretend, to lie about the lies not being lies.

These lies (myths if you prefer, and I’m getting to them) have seeped into America’s water supply for so long, it’s hardly fair to pick on higher education. Or to assume that most educators and staff consciously choose to drink them down. But make no mistake: Education does Corporate America’s bidding. Whether there’s enough money for 2.5 percent merit increases or clean classrooms, the amount of corporate funding for public research and influence over curricula is staggering.

Administrators don’t push back too hard. They can’t afford to. Nor can their faculty afford the freedom to communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression or job loss. A little erosion of academic freedom can seem a small sacrifice when program funding, endowments and naming opportunities abound.

I wish I had a dime for every time I heard the term “professional” used in lieu of “political” or “quiet” or “agreeable”. As in, “She needs to be more professional in how she comes across.”

Professional is code for not stirring shit up. And by shit, I mean acknowledging that cultural lies exist. And that they’re passing for truth.

I tried my professional best. During corporate and big donor visits, it helped to pretend I was in a movie. But I didn’t pretend with students. And every once in awhile, when I assumed that those bright, blithe kids weren’t interested in questioning what they were fed (your brand is everything, people treat you as you train them to), one of them would prove me wrong by holding the lie up to the light.


The Five Lies

1. Career success is fulfilling

This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.

I see it as a hamster wheel or the “come on, kitty kitty” described by Alan Watts in Music and Life. After the AP classes, the perfect resume, the six-figure salary: You’ve arrived! Soon followed by inevitable letdown.

Brooks says, “The truth is… if you build your life around [success], your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.”

Of course, the hamster wheel is only available to those with enough privilege, access to loans, or luck to get their educational ticket punched. Not all beckoned kitties are able to follow the carrot when they’re malnourished or overwhelmed by the sticks.

And even if we were to imagine all Americans healthy, eager, and equally able to be herded, a career will not help us discover our life’s meaning. A career requires time and focus, usually demanding time away from those we love. Careers are simply how one or more jobs hang together over the course of our lives. What we do within the confines of each job can be meaningful, but the work cannot love us back.

2. I can make myself happy

As with education in general, I’m dubious about individualism. After years of studying social and organizational cultures, I’m aware of both its empowering and disabling aspects. Self-reliance is a noble value, yet it presumes that we have roughly equal access to food, shelter, education, jobs and mobility. Bootstrapping only works when you have boots that fit your feet.

Brooks points out the “lie of self-sufficiency,” the pretend belief that I accomplish happiness by myself. If I can do x or buy y, then I’ll be happy.

I’m unaware of any deathbed lamentations on not having acquired enough stuff. If you watched Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, you’d remember he talked a good deal about enabling others’ dreams. What you might not know is that he said “help others” or “helping others” 16 times.

Happiness is not simply found within. As Brooks reminds us, “It is found in the giving and receiving of care.”

It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.

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An invaluable lesson I learned just before I left academia is that no one benefits when I communicate from my shallows. More than a few of my students inspired me to dig deeper and become more vulnerably me, which pointed me away from higher education and toward more community work.

3. Life is an individual journey

This lie is related to ‘I can make myself happy,’ and the one that gives us the false notion that “freedom is the absence of restraint.”

Brooks says that in reality those who live best tie themselves down:

They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem and get called out of themselves by a deep love.

Two years ago I learned that my college wouldn’t support a position I believed we needed: a faculty liaison to connect business students with community leaders through service-learning projects. My idea was to expand students’ work experience (beyond corporate internships) to include non-profits in return for earned credit hours. Other benefits included learning how to work with limited resources on local issues, and the intrinsic reward of helping to improve one’s community.

I no longer wanted a job simply about me or my teaching. I felt less and less comfortable inside my business school silo, especially in a city with 40% poverty. Just as I learned my dream job wouldn’t materialize, a writer for the college’s slick magazine asked me: What do you do when you’re stuck in a career or job slump? I apparently gave this answer:

I’ve had several careers, and the feeling about where to go next has usually come from the community. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I need to think, ‘What can I do for others today?’

I was surprised to see it in print. As I read my own quote, it seemed to reveal its purpose. Three months later, I gave my notice.

4. You have to find your own truth

This is what Brooks calls “You do you!” It is the privatization of meaning… everybody gets to choose…

The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to [these communities] and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.

Brooks is right when he describes how most of us (who do ‘me’) end up with a few vague moral feelings but no sense of purpose. In fact, how, especially, are teens and young adults supposed to figure out their truth? Especially when:

  • A few people with power, prestige, or personal connection tell them what to believe.

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  • We are increasingly more insulated and isolated. Technology exacerbates these conditions (have you looked around a campus, restaurant or any public space, lately?) and our media — most of it — thrives on promoting fear and divisiveness.
  • The social-emotional guidance some of us received during K-12 is simply not available to millions of American students. As humans, we need time to understand our existence, knowledge, matter, values, reason, mind, and language — the content of philosophy.

Philosophy is not a substitute for religion. What leading a moral life may look like (while still retaining choice), and how morality differs from being lawful or ethical, is missing in education, business, and society at large.

5. Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people

This lie blatantly challenges America’s liberty and justice for all but we all know there’s more or less liberty and justice depending on who you are (i.e., what you or your parents are worth).

Although we adore a good rags-to-riches story, I think the truth is this: We love immigrants and native-born underdogs once they become rich, famous, and powerful. That’s when we fully adopt them. The same was true of the Irish, Italians, and Jews at Ellis Island. But this was never true of millions of African ancestors who disembarked from ships during the Middle Passage.

The message of meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.


The Takeaway: A Simple Syllogism

What I appreciate most about Brooks’s piece is that he widens our lens beyond faulty institutions and systems. Name something you don’t like about America and chances are it involves a behemoth, faceless institution: our political system, education, the economy, health care, welfare, Wall Street.

Instead, he gives us something we can (and do) own. He challenges us when he posits that our biggest problems are societal: they involve us. The real takeaway, then, is an opportunity. One that can be expressed as a syllogism:

We live in a culture (like any culture) that is based, in part, on lies.

We are each part of, and therefore responsible for, our culture.

We can change our culture.

How is this possible? Culture is vast, pervasive. But culture is merely the way we do things in various contexts. It changes. All the time.

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Culture is certainly influenced by leadership, but it’s not entirely foisted on us. On the other hand, it’s not always optional. We adapt quickly — one of our best and sometimes worst features. (Do you ever find yourself reaching for your phone because everyone else is hunched over theirs?)

The fact that each of us may be complicit in perpetuating a culture that doesn’t always tell the truth actually gives me hope.

We are more powerful than we are taught to believe.

When you tell one person that, in fact, their happiness doesn’t depend on a high-paying career or you reassure them that they alone cannot make themselves happy, you help them hold a lie up to the light.

We don’t have to quit our jobs or start a revolution to improve our society. As its members, we have both the right and the responsibility to stop pretending. To no longer lie about lies not being lies.

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Intersectionality: It’s Going to Get Harder Before It Gets Better

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One muppet on the street taught us empathy; surely we can learn the crossroads

One of my first teachers of empathy was a young amphibian on Sesame Street, a vulnerable companion sharing his lonely greenness. Like millions of kids in 1969, I related to and felt my heart swell with love for a frog, especially after I heard him sing.

Kermit the Frog remains my spirit animal of empathy. Hard to believe he is now, like me, AARP-eligible. A lot has changed since 1969 thanks to Sesame Street, Julia, and The Mod Squad — among the first shows to cast women, African Americans and Latinx in leading, positive roles.

Although diverse representation seems slow to me (one step forward, several back) I’m heartened when I look at demographics in the House of Representatives. Identities have moved beyond a handful of races and binary genders. Identities now include multiple intersecting identities. A good thing, yet reaching agreement is only going to get harder.

Even within the social justice space — a space culturally suited to more listening and less hostility than Congress — it’s getting harder. We hear more voices (again, a good thing) but it can be harder to fully listen, to take the time to reflect and to reach agreement without giving in to the same divisions we are trying to bridge.

I’m not specifically talking about white women coopting feminism. Although that’s definitely part of it. In a larger frame, it has to do with legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality: that individuals may experience multiple forms of prejudice simultaneously.

It’s the reason writers like Jennifer Kim advocate continual introspection, curiosity, and compassion to recognize troublesome statements and attitudes like these:

“I’m a woman so I show up to all the women’s events, but it’s not my place to be an ally to people of color.” Or, “As a member of a racial minority group, I’m extremely aware of the systemic oppression against my people in this country, but LGBTQ+ don’t deserve the same rights as I do because of [some faulty logic].”


Up Close and Personal

Twenty years ago, Sakina trained me to co-facilitate Ethnic and Race Study Circles in Raleigh, NC. After three years of working with Sakina in communities, schools, and local governments, she and I were offered contracts with the NC Episcopal Diocese and two corporations that wanted to move beyond Diversity 101 and build more inclusive cultures.

Sakina is now the top diversity officer at a large university system. She and I live 1000 miles apart instead of 10, but we try to catch up every few months. Two hour phone calls. Last month’s call happened around 2 p.m. on a weekday because Sakina had taken a mental health day.

She was dealing with a lot more than bureaucratic stalls and stops, power plays and politics. More than a refrain of our familiar convos about next career steps and “isn’t it time we make our podcast idea a thing?” This time it was a problem within her own department.

Specifically, push-back from the only white woman (let’s not call her Becky, but Brenna) who reports to Sakina. Brenna is director of the LGBTQ center. Several weeks ago, Sakina heard from several student and faculty allies who felt ‘scolded’ by Brenna.

“I’ve heard her (Brenna) jump on people about pronoun usage, especially after Toni (who is trans), was hired as her assistant. I mean, damn, I’m the first to want to know if I’m not being inclusive but there’s a way to do that. We can’t be turning people off who want to learn and support.”

After Sakina privately relayed her concerns to Brenna and offered coaching support, Brenna dismissed Sakina’s feedback. Brenna also went directly to Sakina’s boss, a VP, to file a complaint about receiving a 2%, instead of (the maximum) 2.5%, merit increase.

She Said, She Said

Of course my empathy lies with Sakina. She’s bright, collaborative and compassionate AF. Yes, I’m biased. And I’m aware (as I was that afternoon) that I can easily chalk up Brenna as another white female who can’t accept and back a Black female leader.

Maybe this is true; maybe it’s not. Perhaps Brenna is an entitled, neurotic mess — regardless of her boss’s race. Perhaps Brenna is only a warrior for non cis-gendered people and she can’t see the social justice forest for the trees.

All I know is that it’s going to get harder. But that’s gotta be okay. Slow progress or status quo? I’ll take the slow road. And try to remember that conflict is the harbinger of change.


Math as Metaphor

I think of set theory as a metaphor for shared social identities. People as circles intersecting to various degrees depending on their common identities, traits, and experiences.

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Let’s take Sakina’s and Brenna’s imagined commonalities. Their shared identities, traits and experiences show up as light beige-colored, eclipse-shaped overlap (pictured on left).

Sakina and Brenna surely value social justice (in general); they grew up female, have two degrees, and share a common nationality and organizational membership, for starters.

What does this mean, if anything? Do Brenna’s “issues” with Sakina exist because they don’t share enough common identity, like race or sex?

I don’t think so. First, to assume that shared identities equal a conflict-free zone is about as likely as the absence of dysfunction in families. Second, intersected (overlapping) circles illustrate that we can have any number of common identities — AND within those identities is more diversity, nuance, and sometimes very different meanings.

Intersectionality is different from intersecting identities. It’s about how those with the same identity experience their diversity. We can only try to understand, to empathize with each another’s greenness or frogness. Crenshaw’s one-minute explanation is well worth watching:

It’s hard work. And easy to understand why managers (of all identities) wish to hire those with similar identities, traits, and experiences. But this runs counter to reality: the world is increasingly diverse, regardless of our place in it. Equally important, hiring for homogeneity is antithetical to any kind of diversity— especially if you want an inclusive, engaged culture.

Math Has Its Limits

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Let’s suppose that Sakina’s and Brenna’s circles are almost totally eclipsed. Their circles significantly overlap — almost like twins. Looking at identity and intersectionality through the lens of set theory doesn’t account for infinite ways in which Sakina or Brenna might “see” or have experienced their identities, traits, and life in general.

Even if Brenna were Black and born to two professors (Sakina’s experience), she may have still pushed back on Sakina’s feedback; she might have tread the same path to the VP, instead of having a conversation with her manager. Everything could have happened, just as it did, based on neurology, chemistry, personality, and other idiosyncrasies.

Regardless of shared identities, no two people will see the world and their place in it similarly.

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Being woke about intersectionality is not just a mindset. It requires disciplined responsibility to have richer, more thoughtful conversations and to create more nuanced possibilities. This usually translates into more time-consuming work. At least in the short-term. Over time, though, trust engenders more candor. Collaboration becomes an easier, more efficient way of working.


It’s Not Easy Being Human

I’d love to tell you that Sakina’s problems with Brenna are over. That through my friend’s continued efforts at trust-building and empathy, Brenna was able to accept Sakina’s coaching. That Brenna is trying to change her approach with allies. That Brenna is taking responsibility.

I don’t know. But I’m learning it’s a sign of progress to be challenged, to hear push-back from others, especially those who work with me in the social justice space. It’s not personal and yet it is. I’m part of the work; my role is important. But, I don’t need to take challenges or criticisms personally. Especially as a white cis-gendered woman it’s essential that I take time to listen. To learn the crossroads. To get better.

Special thanks to my friend and colleague Sakina. I am because you are.

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Is There a Problem If I Can’t Stay Put?

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After 25 moves and six states, it’s time to find out

My household moves are hardly Ripley’s worthy, but given the average American moves 11-12 times over their entire lifespan, should I be concerned? According to the Social Security Administration, I have 25 more years to move. Biologically. If the government is right (what are those odds?), I could easily triple the average American. Why do I care?

Friday, we returned home from seeing a new listing. My husband says, “Maybe we should look for a place where it’s always spring or summer.” I look up from my laptop — 17 open tabs, 10 of them houses. Surely he’s not trying to sneak Costa Rica or Belize back on our list of locations. (We decided last year: even paradise is too cold without family a few hours away.)

Then he adds, “I’ve noticed that you start looking toward the end of every winter.”

Swallow. Okay, fair. And fairly accurate. With one 14-month exception in Nebraska, I have sought progressively warmer climes. But I wasn’t convinced that escaping winter is the whole story. (Maybe it is. I am all for finding out.)

What is “Normal”?

Although recent stats are hard to find, the average American moves about 11 times over a lifetime. Average doesn’t define what’s “normal,” it’s just one big mean. Money, mobility, age, education, ethnicity, and the economy (among other things) influence frequency of household moves.

Mover by Choice

There’s no term, none I can find, for people like me who move every few years. For me it’s usually 2–3 years a stretch. But here’s a crucial point: unlike millions of Americans, I have almost always chosen to move.

Counting all my household moves as an adult, 90% of them were based on my decision to move. Urban, poor Americans also move — driven by poor housing conditions, unresponsive landlords and other subsidized housing issues. One study found that about 70 percent of many relocation “decisions” among the poor are not decisions at all, but rather reactions to outside forces.

Also, Not a Serial Mover

Besides choice, another distinction is that people who move more than average are not necessarily serial movers. Yep, it’s a thing.

New York Times is where I first saw the term serial movers: “Those who eagerly hop back on the open-house circuit even before the aroma of fresh paint and polyurethane begins to fade — that is, if they ever stopped looking in the first place.”

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Despite the obvious connotation of the word serial and my desire not to have a moving-related psychosis, I don’t believe I am a serial mover. For one thing, I don’t continue looking after the closing. I do like to paint, and unless ceiling height poses safety issues, I do my own interior painting (and lawn mowing).

Serial movers seem motivated by everything from a desire for exploration, to the perpetuation of habit born in childhood, to a hunger for drama and excitement, to a fondness for extreme housekeeping. And these days, such appetites are stoked by a smorgasbord of aggressively marketed new buildings engaging in a constant battle of one-upmanship.

Desire for exploration: Check. That’s it. No childhood habit, no desire for drama beyond that which my three (now grown) daughters have already gifted, and certainly, above all, zero fondness for extreme housekeeping. (What is extreme housekeeping? Isn’t housekeeping unpleasant enough?) As for the one-upmanship, I care to impress as much as I’m an extreme housekeeper.

So How Much More Crazier Am I ?

Between birth and before moving into a shared dorm room, I lived in two places (actually, three: an apartment until I was months old, but have no memory of it). So, I don’t fit the army brat profile. I’m not replaying my formative years.

Photo for reuse: Wikimedia Commons

My first choice was to go to college; I was assigned to live in the tallest dormitory in the world. Given freshmen and sophomores had to live in a dorm, I wanted to try every conceivable type of room: After the double with Mary, I sought a single — which I learned made me less happy — and then a triple with Mary and Chris.

My desire to move within constraints is probably not inconsequential. It tells me that regardless of where I have to be, I want to explore all the possibilities.

Openness to Change

I like change. I get antsy or bored with too much certainty. When I taught trait-based leadership I’d take the Big Five Personality assessment with my students and plot our scores so we could see ranges and means. I was usually the highest data point at 95% on openness to experience. When another student scored similarly, I was able to guess: they were the one that loved to color outside the lines, suggest new colors, redraw the lines.

I can’t find any research on propensity to move and personality traits, so I’m spit-balling an educated hunch. The main question remains: is there a point at which moving reflects more than one or two dimensions of a “normal” personality? When might moving become a compulsion or something worse?

Experts Say:

When it comes to a psychological profile of movers, clinical psychologist Nancy J. Crown says that cookie-cutter explanations don’t exist:

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It would always have to be understood within the context of the particular person and their unique history. So you really couldn’t say that moving a lot means the same thing for everyone.

(Whew.) Yet, as Crown warns against overpathologizing frequent moving behavior, she also says:

There are some people who — either because of a lack of sense of who they are, or some feeling of inadequacy — may want to redo themselves in one way or another again and again. Something new is like anything is possible — you can sort of imagine yourself to be the person that you’d like to be.

Do I feel inadequate? No. Do I really know who I am and what I want to be? No. I’ve wanted to be everything from a blue fairy princess to a union organizer, a social scientist to Joan Didion. This year it’s Didion.

And I’m totally on board with anything is possible.

Finally, Crown adds that excessive moving could signal a fear of commitment and a consequent fear of closing off opportunities. Or, like procrastination, it can be a way to avoid failure.

Aha. Am I on to something? A fear of commitment to an imperfect place that follows me wherever I go? Or a fear of missing out on a place that’s out there… waiting for me?

A place to write in a sunny, warm, simple but comfortable, secluded but accessible, inexpensive yet quality-built cottage where tiny goats, cats and dogs frolic with or without our grandchildren on a few acres. Something in between Thoreau’s rustic single-room at Walden Pond and the airy Spanish Colonial of the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West. A place where I’ll never feel depressed or lacking, old or tired, worried or worn.

Or am I avoiding failure (or the chance of success)? Am I using my Zillow hour each day to inadvertently rob myself of writing time, to put off being as productive as possible in a perfectly imperfect house that is more than good enough for the next 25 years?

I’m momentarily calmed and then, just the thought of things being close to perfect reminds me of Ricky Bobby’s daddy Reese in Talladega Nights:

Yep, I guess things are just about perfect… it’s making me feel kind of itchy.

And without thinking, I open another tab.

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