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Happy New Year! Here’s your challenge. You—yes, you—right here, right now, have a chance, nothing more, a slim reed of a chance, at a year that counts.
So I’d be willing to bet you’ve been cutting back on the sugar and vowing to get to Inbox Zero. 2014 is the year you will finally floss! And make junior vice president assistant director!
Before you get carried away by your Evernote file of Paleo recipes and your elaborate new system of Outlook sub-folders — you have a bigger opportunity here. Being the person you were put here to become.
I believe, first, in a humble, simple truth: that each and every one of us is here to live a life that matters. And we must do so by making each and every moment of each and every day of each and every year that we are privileged to live count.
And while dental hygiene is important, I’d like to postulate four resolutions that will help you create something that matters even more: a year that counts.
Don’t give up on your dreams. If you want your year to count, don’t start with your goals. Don’t start with your plans. Don’t start with your objectives. Start with your dreams. The bigger, the more laughable, the more impossible—the better. We feel as if our lives count when—and only when—we brush against our dreams, with the fingertips of our days. When we feel them; when we know them; when we become them. Our dreams do more than “inspire” us—that insipid word so loved by TED talkers and motivational speakers. Our dreams infuse us. They sing to us of who we may become. They elevate us. For our days to count, we must feel—sometimes painfully, sometimes joyously, never easily—that our better selves are roaring, exploding, thundering to life. And our dreams are the songs that awaken them.
Never, ever give up on your dreams. Not when it’s difficult; and especially not when it’s sensible. Nothing is more senseless than the sensible choice to live a meaningless life.
Don’t be afraid to suffer. There are two reasons for human action, and economists, with their superficial talk of “incentives,” don’t understand either. Fear and love. What are you afraid of? Rejection, poverty, disgrace? Whatever you call it, here is what it is: suffering. But you must never be afraid to suffer. It’s not that suffering makes you “stronger”—for life isn’t merely an exercise in empty stoicism; and, indeed, suffering for it’s own sake is futile. Nor merely must you suffer for the “sake” of what you want—money, power, sex, fame. No: it’s that suffering is so intimately connected with love — with what makes life worth living. Your fears are not imaginary: they will, it is likely, come true. Yes, you will get dumped, axed, insulted. You will fail, stumble, falter. You will hurt, ache, yearn, long, want, despair. But that is precisely the fire in which all the elements of greatness—empathy, grace, tolerance, forgiveness, perseverance—are forged.
It is no accident that the word passion arose from the Latin word for suffering. When we treat suffering as merely pain to be escaped, we sacrifice passion in the process. In a world where so many want to feel passionate about their lives and their work, very few seem willing to suffer. But you can’t have one without the other.
Suffering is the fire that melts the glass of the person you must leave behind. Suffering signals the price of growth; and we can never learn the worth of growth if we are afraid to suffer.
Seek the mystery inside the truth, not the truth inside the mystery. We’re taught to be obedient rationalists—super-nerd-brains running computer programs that optimize the lives other people tell us we should want—instead of, you know, human spirits capable of creating the lives we could live. What gets measured, goes the old adage, gets managed. So analyze, test, explain, iterate! But the universe is not just greater than what we can explain—it is infinitely richer. Can you put love in a spreadsheet? Can you iterate towards friendship? Can you explain happiness?
The truth alone isn’t enough if you want your days to counts. The mystery in the truth is where life begins to count. Why does this person love me? Did I really create that? What inspired me to break the rules and say that? What the hell just happened?!
Uncovering truths alone can help us make sensible choices—but sensible choices don’t propel to lives that matter. That leap is only taken in the instant you venture beyond certainty, beyond reason, beyond logic. And you must make that leap beyond truth every day, if you wish your days to count.
Let you happen. We, we are told, must “make it happen”; if we wish our lives to be precisely so. But that is the social philosophy of a child. Is it true that we must press the lever, if we wish to obtain the rewards we seek? Sure. If we’re lab rats—or smiling, thoughtless automatons. If, instead, we are here to live lives that matter, resonant with purpose, luminous with celebration, here is what is truer: we must let ourselves be, in every instant, who we were meant to become. We must be more than lever-pressers. We must escape our cages. We must let “it” happen. What is “it”? All that which imbues our actions with meaning; without which life is little more than an empty, meaningless performance—good and bad. Love. Yearning. Loss. Grief. Heartbreak. Tragedy. Despair. Triumph. Will. All that and more—we must let happen, if we are to grow. What stands in their way, most often? The world? No. It’s us, ourselves—it is the worst in us, that will not budge, that will not yield, that limits us. That leaves us feeling thwarted; stifled; cheated—because, in truth, we are. We are cheating ourselves of meaning when we do not let life happen—and act as we are merely conditioned to, by the cheap desires programmed into us instead: Achieve! Earn! Spend! Die!
So let you happen—all of you. Free yourself. Want a year that counts? Maybe you have to end a bad relationship so that you can have your heart shattered into a million tiny aching pieces…so it can beat with a fiercer rhythm. Maybe you have to tell your NeanderBoss “no” instead of smiling and nodding like a spineless flunky. Maybe you have to apologize to someone, and look your shortcomings straight in the eye. Or maybe you have to start that company, marry that person, and put down roots — even when the ground beneath you feels like shifting sand. Or maybe you have to strike out and get lost in the unknown to find the opportunity on the other side. Whatever it is, let it happen.
Rumi once said: “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the sky”. What did he mean? Something like this: we truly know what it is to love only when we humble ourselves to what counts. Our days count—and only count—when we may love more than we could before. Think about it: if you loved your partner, job, house, city, country, family, friends, ideas…less and less every day, how would you feel about your life? Like it was empty, futile, senseless: like it hadn’t…counted.
Which instants count? They’re not the ones that fill up our wallets. They’re not the ones where we have a pretty girl (or boy) on our arms. They’re not the ones where we buy, have, possess, barter, win, conquer. They’re the ones in which humble ourselves to the meaninglessness of all that. That’s when we kneel. And come face to face with the sky.
So stop. Stop scurrying. Stop chasing. Stop worrying, envying, hoarding, scheming.
You’re free. (You always were.) And you have a choice–and a chance. At making it all count. Not just this year. But every instant. Every moment. It. Your life. You.
Here’s a great secret: you don’t only live once. You live an uncountable multitude of times; a lifetime in every day. And that’s more than enough for anyone.
The question isn’t if you’re going to die. It’s whether you’re going to live.
It was just a middle-school tennis match against a manifestly worse player, but I became overwhelmed with anxiety. Before we’d started, the most important thing was to win. But during the match, I just wanted to get off the court fast. Burping uncontrollably, afraid of throwing up, I hit balls out. I hit them into the net. I double-faulted. And I lost 6-1, 6-0. After shaking hands and running off the court, I felt immediate relief. My distended stomach settled. My anxiety relented. And then self-loathing took over. This was a challenge match for a lower-ladder JV position. The stakes were low, but to me they felt existentially high. I’d lost to the overweight and oleaginous Paul (not his real name), and the result was there on the score sheet, and on the ladder hanging on the locker room wall, for all to see.
This sort of thing—purposely losing matches to escape intolerable anxiety—happened dozens of times throughout my school sports career. My coaches were baffled. How could I look so skillful in practice, they wondered, and yet so rarely win a significant match?
Choking when you’re expected to perform—whether you’re squaring off in tennis or vying for resources or key accounts or a desirable role at work—is actually surprisingly common. It happens with some regularity to probably around one-fifth of the population. Since this response is at least partly hardwired (more on that later), it’s not something you tend to outgrow as you mature and gain perspective. Thirty years after that match with Paul, I still struggle with it. A lot.
People who choke can be peak performers in some settings, trembling mice in others. The list of elite athletes who have choked spectacularly is extensive. Greg Norman, the Australian golfer, became completely unglued at the 1996 Masters, nervously frittering away a seemingly insurmountable lead over the final few holes. Jana Novotná, the Czech tennis star, was five points away from winning Wimbledon in 1993 when she disintegrated under pressure and blew a huge lead over Steffi Graf. And then there’s Roberto Duran, who famously lost his world welterweight championship to Sugar Ray Leonard. With sixteen seconds left in the eighth round—and millions of dollars on the line—Duran turned to the referee, raised his hands in surrender, and pleaded, “No más, no más [No more, no more].” Until that moment, Duran appeared to be invincible. Since then, he’s been widely considered one of the greatest quitters and cowards in sports history.
That may sound harsh, but just about the worst epithet one can sling at an athlete—worse, in some ways, than ”cheater”—is “choker.” To choke is to wilt under pressure, to fail to perform at the moment of greatest importance. A technical definition, as laid out by Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago cognitive psychologist who specializes in the topic, is “worse performance than expected given what a performer is capable of doing and what this performer has done in the past.”
In any performance arena, from sports to the military to the workplace, choking is produced by anxiety and, ipso facto, viewed as an absence of fortitude, a sign of weakness.
Of course, it’s not that simple.
Research shows a strong correlation between your genetically conferred physiology and how likely you are to crack under stress. For instance, a person’s allotment of neuropeptide Y (NPY), a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates stress responses, among other things, is relatively fixed from birth, more a function of heredity than of learning. People high in NPY tend to be unusually psychologically resilient and resistant to breaking down in high-pressure situations.
But that said, there’s also an element of “nurture” at work here. Psychological resilience is a trait that can be taught; the Pentagon is spending millions trying to figure out how to do that better. It’s possible that those who thrive under pressure have learned to be resilient—that their high levels of NPY are the product of their training or their upbringing.
According to the explicit monitoring theory of choking, derived from recent findings in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, performance falters when you concentrate too much attention on it. This runs counter to all the standard bromides about how the quality of your performance is tied to the intensity of your focus. But what seems to matter is the type of focus you have. As Beilock puts it, actively worrying about screwing up makes you more likely to screw up.
To achieve optimal performance—what some psychologists call flow—parts of your brain should be on automatic pilot, not actively thinking about (or “explicitly monitoring”) what you are doing. Beilock has found that she can dramatically improve athletes’ performance, at least in experiments, by getting them to focus on something other than the mechanics of their stroke or swing. Having them recite a poem or sing a song in their heads, distracting their conscious attention from the physical task, can rapidly improve performance. Chronic chokers—especially those who are clinically anxious—are too distracted from the task at hand by a relentless interior monologue of self-doubt: Am I doing this right? Do I look stupid? What if I make a fool of myself? Can people see me trembling? Can they hear my voice quavering? Am I going to lose my job?
When you look at brain scans of athletes pre- or midchoke, says sports psychologist Bradley Hatfield, you see a neural “traffic jam” of worry and self-monitoring. Brain scans of nonchokers, however—the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world, who exude grace under pressure—reveal neural activity that is “efficient and streamlined,” using only those parts of the brain relevant to strong performance.
Does that mean those of us whose bodies are set to quiver in response to the mildest perturbances are doomed to choke any time the pressure is on? Not necessarily. Because when you begin to untangle the relationship between anxiety and performance, it turns out to be very complex. It’s possible to be simultaneously anxious and effective.
Take, for example, Bill Russell, a Hall of Fame basketball player who won eleven championships with the Boston Celtics (the most by anyone in any major American sport, ever). He was selected to the NBA All-Star team twelve times and was voted the league’s most valuable player five times. He is generally acknowledged to be the greatest defender and all-around winner of his era, if not of all time. No one would question Russell’s toughness or his championship qualities or his courage. And yet, according to one tabulation, he vomited from anxiety before 1,128 of his games between 1956 and 1969. His teammate John Havlicek told the writer George Plimpton in 1968, “It’s a welcome sound, too, because it means he’s keyed up for the game and around the locker room we grin and say, ‘Man, we’re going to be all right tonight.’”
Like someone with an anxiety disorder, Russell had to contend with nerves that wreaked havoc with his stomach. But a crucial difference between Russell and the typical anxiety patient (aside, of course, from Russell’s preternatural athleticism) was the positive correlation between his anxiety and his performance. When Russell stopped throwing up for a stretch at the end of the 1963 season, he suffered through one of the worst slumps of his career. For him, a nervous stomach correlated with effective, even enhanced, performance.
At some level, it’s normal—adaptive even—to be anxious in our postindustrial era of pervasive uncertainty, where social and economic structures are undergoing continuous disruption and professional roles are constantly changing. According to Charles Darwin (who himself suffered from crippling agoraphobia), species that “fear rightly” increase their chances of survival. We anxious people are less likely to remove ourselves from the gene pool by, say, becoming fighter pilots.
An influential study conducted a hundred years ago by two Harvard psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, demonstrated that moderate levels of anxiety improve performance in humans and animals: too much anxiety, obviously, impairs performance, but so does too little. Their findings have been experimentally demonstrated in both animals and humans many times since then.
“Without anxiety, little would be accomplished,” David Barlow, founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, has written. “The performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish; crops might not be planted. And we would all achieve that idyllic state long sought after in our fast-paced society of whiling away our lives under a shade tree. This would be as deadly for the species as nuclear war.”
So how do you find the right balance? How do you get yourself into the performance zone where anxiety is beneficial? That’s a really tough question. For me, years of medication and intensive therapy have (sometimes, somewhat) taken the physical edge off my nerves so I could focus on trying to do well, not on removing myself from the center of attention as quickly as possible. For those who choke during presentations to board members or pitches to clients, for example, but probably aren’t what you’d call clinically anxious, the best approach may be one akin to what Beilock has athletes do in her experiments: redirecting your mind, in the moment, to something other than how you’re comporting yourself, so you can allow the skills and knowhow you’ve worked so hard to acquire to automatically kick into gear and carry you through. Your focus should not be on worrying about outcomes or consequences or on how you’re being perceived but simply on the task at hand. Prepare thoroughly (but not too obsessively) in advance; then stay in the moment. If you’re feeling anxious, breathe from your diaphragm in order to keep your sympathetic nervous system from revving up too much. And remember that it can be good to be keyed up: the right amount of nervousness will enhance your performance.
wrapping up life rewind 2013 with a list of must-reads. a combination of articles, essays, poetry & quotes all worth your time. check them out in the links below.
written by don peck for the atlantic:
In 2003, thanks to Michael Lewis and his best seller Moneyball, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, became a star. The previous year, Beane had turned his back on his scouts and had instead entrusted player-acquisition decisions to mathematical models developed by a young, Harvard-trained statistical wizard on his staff. What happened next has become baseball lore. The A’s, a small-market team with a paltry budget, ripped off the longest winning streak in American League history and rolled up 103 wins for the season. Only the mighty Yankees, who had spent three times as much on player salaries, won as many games. The team’s success, in turn, launched a revolution. In the years that followed, team after team began to use detailed predictive models to assess players’ potential and monetary value, and the early adopters, by and large, gained a measurable competitive edge over their more hidebound peers.
That’s the story as most of us know it. But it is incomplete. What would seem at first glance to be nothing but a memorable tale about baseball may turn out to be the opening chapter of a much larger story about jobs. Predictive statistical analysis, harnessed to big data, appears poised to alter the way millions of people are hired and assessed.
Yes, unavoidably, big data. As a piece of business jargon, and even more so as an invocation of coming disruption, the term has quickly grown tiresome. But there is no denying the vast increase in the range and depth of information that’s routinely captured about how we behave, and the new kinds of analysis that this enables. By one estimate, more than 98 percent of the world’s information is now stored digitally, and the volume of that data has quadrupled since 2007. Ordinary people at work and at home generate much of this data, by sending e-mails, browsing the Internet, using social media, working on crowd-sourced projects, and more—and in doing so they have unwittingly helped launch a grand new societal project. “We are in the midst of a great infrastructure project that in some ways rivals those of the past, from Roman aqueducts to the Enlightenment’s Encyclopédie,” write Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier in their recent book, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. “The project is datafication. Like those other infrastructural advances, it will bring about fundamental changes to society.”
Some of the changes are well known, and already upon us. Algorithms that predict stock-price movements have transformed Wall Street. Algorithms that chomp through our Web histories have transformed marketing. Until quite recently, however, few people seemed to believe this data-driven approach might apply broadly to the labor market.
But it now does. According to John Hausknecht, a professor at Cornell’s school of industrial and labor relations, in recent years the economy has witnessed a “huge surge in demand for workforce-analytics roles.” Hausknecht’s own program is rapidly revising its curriculum to keep pace. You can now find dedicated analytics teams in the human-resources departments of not only huge corporations such as Google, HP, Intel, General Motors, and Procter & Gamble, to name just a few, but also companies like McKee Foods, the Tennessee-based maker of Little Debbie snack cakes. Even Billy Beane is getting into the game. Last year he appeared at a large conference for corporate HR executives in Austin, Texas, where he reportedly stole the show with a talk titled “The Moneyball Approach to Talent Management.” Ever since, that headline, with minor modifications, has been plastered all over the HR trade press.
The application of predictive analytics to people’s careers—an emerging field sometimes called “people analytics”—is enormously challenging, not to mention ethically fraught. And it can’t help but feel a little creepy. It requires the creation of a vastly larger box score of human performance than one would ever encounter in the sports pages, or that has ever been dreamed up before. To some degree, the endeavor touches on the deepest of human mysteries: how we grow, whether we flourish, what we become. Most companies are just beginning to explore the possibilities. But make no mistake: during the next five to 10 years, new models will be created, and new experiments run, on a very large scale. Will this be a good development or a bad one—for the economy, for the shapes of our careers, for our spirit and self-worth? Earlier this year, I decided to find out.
The “conversation about race” that public figures periodically claim to desire, the one that is always either about to happen or is being prevented from happening, has been going on, at full volume, at least since the day in 1619 when the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown. It has proceeded through every known form of discourse — passionate speeches, awkward silences, angry rants, sheepish whispers, jokes, insults, stories and songs — and just as often through double-talk, indirection and not-so-secret codes.
What are we really talking about, though? The habit of referring to it as “race” reflects a tendency toward euphemism and abstraction. Race is a biologically dubious concept and a notoriously slippery social reality, a matter of group identity and personal feelings, mutual misunderstandings and the dialectic of giving and taking offense. If that is what we are talking about, then we are not talking about the historical facts that continue to weigh heavily on present circumstances, which is to say about slavery, segregation and white supremacy.
But of course we are still talking about all that, with what seems like renewed concentration and vigor. Nor, in a year that is the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address and the semicentennial of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, are we simply looking back at bygone tragedies from the standpoint of a tranquil present. The two big racially themed movies of the year, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” are notable for the urgency and intensity with which they unpack stories of the past, as if delivering their news of brutal bondage and stubborn discrimination for the first time.
And one of the strange effects of this country’s anxious, confused, hopeful and delusional relationship to its history of racism is that such narratives often do feel like news, or like efforts to overcome willful amnesia. The astonishing experiences of Solomon Northup, Mr. McQueen’s protagonist, a free man from Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South in 1841, are not being presented to the American public for the first time. Northup’s memoir was an antebellum best seller, nearly as widely circulated in abolitionist circles as “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” A screen adaptation, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Avery Brooks in the title role (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in Mr. McQueen’s version), was broadcast on PBS in 1984.
Some of the film’s representations of cruelty — whippings, hangings, the sexual abuse of a young female slave named Patsey by her sadistic master — will also stir the memories of those Americans (like me) for whom “Roots” was a formative cultural experience. In 1977, when the mini-series, based on Alex Haley’s book, was first broadcast, it was heralded not only for its authenticity and comprehensiveness, but also for its newness. This was the first time such a story had been told in such breadth and detail, and with so much assembled talent. It continued, two years later, with “Roots: The Next Generations,” which was in some ways more groundbreaking for bringing attention to the often neglected decades of struggle and frustration that fell between the end of the Civil War and the birth of the modern civil rights movements.
Such stories, of course, do not stay told. The moral, economic and human realities of slavery — to keep the narrative there for a moment — have a way of getting buried and swept aside. For a long time this was because, at the movies as in the political and scholarly mainstream, slavery was something of a dead letter, an inconvenient detail in a narrative of national triumph, a sin that had been expiated in the blood of Northern and Southern whites.
D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” may look now like a work of reactionary racism, but it is very much an artifact of the Progressive Era, embraced by President Woodrow Wilson and consistent with what were then understood to be liberal ideas about destiny and character of the American republic. In Griffith’s film (adapted from “The Clansman,” a best-selling novel by Thomas Dixon), the great crime of slavery had been its divisive and corrupting effect on whites. After Reconstruction, the nation was re-founded on the twin pillars of abolition and white supremacy.
Which is also to say on the basis of terror and disenfranchisement. But that side of the story was pushed to the margins, as was the harshness of slavery itself, which was obscured by a fog of sentimentality about the heritage and culture of the Old South. This was the iconography of “Gone With the Wind,” and while the pageantry of that blockbuster seems dated (to say nothing of its sexual politics), the old times it evokes are not forgotten, as Paula Deen might tell you.
The appeal of “Roots” lay partly in its status as a long-delayed, always-marginalized counternarrative, an answer to the mythology and romance that had shrouded popular representations of the American past. Much doubt has been cast on the accuracy of Haley’s book (which was marketed as a novel based on family sources), but the corrective power of the mini-series lay in its ability to reimagine the generation-by-generation sweep of American history from a perspective that had not before been synthesized on screens or public airwaves.
In retrospect, “Roots” — which arrived on television a dozen years after the legislative high-water mark of the civil rights movement, in the more immediate wake of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy and the first “Rocky” movie — may have succeeded so widely with white and black audiences because it simultaneously opened and closed the book on America’s racial history. There were a lot more American families like the one in the mini-series, but also with their own distinctive sagas of captivity, freedom, migration and resilience.
Those intimate stories had never been shared in such a wide and public fashion and the reception of “Roots” had a catalyzing effect on the imagination of many black writers. Until then, slavery had been something of a taboo in African-American literature, whose thematic center of gravity was in the urban North and whose theme was the black experience of modernity. But “Roots,” clumsy and corny as parts of it look now, helped beget radical and ambitious novels like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” and Edward P. Jones’s “Known World.” They, along with artists like Kara Walker, took slavery as an imaginative challenge and an artistic opportunity.
But there was also a sense, after “Roots” and after “Beloved” claimed its place in the canon, that it had all been said. The white audience, moved by duty, curiosity and sincere empathy, could now move on. The horrors of the past, especially when encountered on television, cast a soothing and forgiving light on the present, where some of us could be comforted, absolved, affirmed in our virtue through the simple fact of watching.
But after such forgiveness, what knowledge? Post-“Roots,” a Hollywood consensus took shape that replaced the old magnolia-scented mythology with a new one, almost as focused on the moral condition of white people, but with a different political inflection. The existence of racism is acknowledged, and its poisonous effects are noted. But it is also localized, in time and geography, in such a way as to avoid implicating the present-day white audience. The racists are clearly marked as villains — uncouth, ugly, ignorant in ways that no one watching would identify with — and they are opposed by a coalition of brave whites and noble, stoical blacks. At the end, the coach and his players, the preacher and his flock, the maid and her enlightened employer shame the bigots and vindicate the audience.
There are variations on this theme, of course, but it is remarkably durable. It links, for example, “The Help,” Tate Taylor’s mild and decorous look at master-servant relations in Mississippi in the early 1960s (based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel), with “Django Unchained,”Quentin Tarantino’s violent and profane (if no less fantastical) examination of the same subject in the same state a little more than a century before. In both cases, a white character (Emma Stone’s writer; Christoph Waltz’s itinerant dentist) helps a black protégé acquire the ability to humiliate the oppressors. The weapon might be a book, a pie or a hail of gunfire, but the effect is the same. Justice is served and everyone cheers.
Some of us, perhaps including the white directors, are cheering for ourselves. Look how bad it used to be. Thank goodness — our own goodness — that it isn’t anymore. And of course it is never just the way it used to be. The abolition of slavery and the dismantling of Jim Crow really happened, against considerable odds and thanks to blacks and whites who took risks that later generations can only regard with awe and patriotic pride. The challenge is how to complete a particular story and leave the audience with the understanding that the narrative is not finished, that the past, to modify everyone’s favorite Faulkner quote, is not quite past.
Recent work by academic historians has emphasized the extent to which the exploitation and oppression of African-Americans — the denial of their freedom as workers and their rights as citizens — is embedded in the national DNA. Walter Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams” shows how the Cotton Kingdom of the 19th-century Deep South, far from being a backward outpost of feudalism, was a dynamic engine of capitalist expansion built on enslaved labor. “Fear Itself,” Ira Katznelson’s revisionist study of the New Deal, shows how the great edifice of American social democracy, passed with the support of Southern Democrats, rested on and upheld the color line. And while neither white supremacy nor slavery has legal standing or legitimate defenders in America today, it would be hard to argue that their legacy has been expunged, or to confine their scope to the benighted actions of a few individuals.
Racism is part of the deep structure of American life, which is to say a persistently uncomfortable and also a persistently interesting subject, a spur to artistic creation as well as historical research. “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave” may not be telling entirely new stories, but they are trying to tell them in new ways. Mr. McQueen infuses what looks like a conventional costume drama with the unflinching rigor that has characterized his previous films, “Hunger” and “Shame.” Mr. Daniels, the director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy,” blends melodrama, naturalism and brazen theatricality into a pageant that knowingly flirts with self-parody even as it packs a devastating emotional punch.
Some of that impact comes at the end of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which pointedly asks the audience to consider what has and has not changed. It is not much of a spoiler to say that Barack Obama is elected president, an event that is especially sweet and piquant for the title character, a black man who worked in the White House through the administrations of every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.
And it is certainly not a spoiler to note that in real life, Mr. Obama’s election and re-election have not ushered in an era of colorblind consensus. On the contrary, the fervor of the opposition to the president, and its concentration in the states of the former Confederacy, have at least something to do with the color of his skin. But Mr. Obama’s victories, and the resistance to them, have opened a new and complicated chapter in a continuing story, which means also a new interest in how the past looks from this particular present.
This chapter is being portrayed on screen by filmmakers like Mr. Daniels and Mr. McQueen, and written in journalism, fiction and memoirs by a rising generation of African-American writers that includes Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Laymon and Jesmyn Ward. Ms. Ward’s new book, “Men We Reaped,” is a Southern coming-of-age story that evokes a long tradition of black autobiography going back to slave narratives and (in its title) the words of Harriet Tubman and an old chain-gang work song. Ms. Ward’s stories of black men in tragic circumstances seem both ancient and contemporary, echoing back to the lives of those less lucky than Solomon Northup and connecting with the fates of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant III, whose 2009 killing by transit police in Oakland is the subject of the recent film “Fruitvale Station.”
What links these episodes is the troubling reality that now — even now, we might say, with a black president and a culture more accepting of its own diversity than ever before — the full citizenship, which is to say the full acknowledged humanity, of African-Americans remains in question. The only way to answer that question is to keep talking, and to listen harder.
Few people enjoy being alone, or at least feel somewhat socially rejected if they do. Nevertheless, solitude can make you more self-sufficient, add to your confidence, and help you get to know yourself a lot better. If being alone scares you, bores you, or just isn’t your favorite thing, here’s how you can fix that and make your time more productive.
You, like many people, might get stuck on the idea that being alone is like having some sort of disease—even if you’re the kind of person that prefers being alone. You might skip movies in the theater if you have to attend in solitude. Or maybe you criticize yourself for eating lunch at your desks instead of with coworkers or friends. Perhaps you spend too much of our time out with others because you just don’t know what to do when you’re by yourself. With a little work, however, you can make your alone time much more productive. With the help of Roger S. Gil, a clinician specializing in marriage and family therapy, and Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at NYU and author of Going Solo, we’ll look at the benefits of solitude and how you can use them to your advantage.
I’ve given up hope of ever fully understanding the fractured things I saw while chasing the Serie A soccer circus around Italy. Let me be honest. I got sent to write about racism, which I found in staggering amounts. But Italy isn’t like America, and racism there is tied into a thousand years of feuds, and hatred of anyone different, even if they’re from only a few miles away, and fascism, and the recent wave of immigration. That’s all in here, but it’s unfair to hide my predicament, which became clear after only a day or two. I’d fallen into a parallel universe of contradictions.
thompson travels everywhere from football terraces to refugee camps, trying to unpack things like a fan who was “a great dude…until he started quoting hitler and dropping n-bombs” or why home-born italians like soccer star mario balotelli are subject to xenophobic vitriol in their own country. he finds that the issues extend to all levels of football and in some cases, start with deep-rooted problems that stretch beyond the pitch. follow his journey in the compelling article below and let know what you think.
“I refuse to beat my chest over a grief that belongs to others, or shout about how terrorists messed with the wrong city. I find no virtue in braying over the capture of a teenager whose toxic grievances, and misguided loyalties, led to such senseless ruin. It is sad, all of it. The greater sadness for me is that America feels increasingly like a nation united by spectacles of atrocity. We pay attention, and open our hearts, only when violence of a random and gaudy enough variety strikes. But it shouldn’t take such calamity to awaken our decency, nor our devotion to causes of genuine moral progress. That, frankly, should be the price of our citizenship.”
writer steve almond reacting to the boston marathon bombing. check out his full article here (in which he talks about living in the city at the time, how the media’s coverage of the event, how people responded to the event & coverage, etc.) and let me know what you think.
Here’s a tiny question: what do you do when reach the edge of heartbreak? Consider the story of my good friend Priya. Let go from a successful career in finance, with no new opportunities on the horizon, Priya bravely decided to write a book about careers and meaning. One long year later, Priya’s blown through her savings, broken up with her partner, moved back to her parents’ place, and generally feels like her so-called future just went Vesuvius.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of…whatever. Ah, screw it: what’s the point, anyways? In that sentiment, Priya’s hardly alone. If you’re under the age of 35 and/or worth less than a few dozens of millions, you probably get the sinking feeling, by now, that you’re being written off by today’s leaders. Here’s the inconvenient truth…you are.
I don’t mean to get post-Bieber power ballad emo on you, but the great danger of this great hurricane of a never-ending crisis is that our will to live is quietly diminished. Not in the sense of jumping screaming off the nearest bridge — but in the less noticeable yet perhaps more lethal sense of resigning ourselves to mediocrity, triviality, lives we don’t want because they don’t feel they count. Hence: the great obligation you and I have right here, right now, then, children of the hurricane, isn’t merely to give up on life — but precisely the opposite: to redouble our furious pursuit of lives well lived.
I believe that each and every one us is here for a reason. Go ahead: get it out of your system. Roll your eyes, purse your lips, LOL, luxuriously wallow in cynicism for a moment — and then consider what tends to happen to those that have no great, abiding reason to be here. They sink, ineluctably, into depression; life seems to pass them by; they feel powerless, hopeless, fatalistic, and finally, come to see themselves as refugees from life; not creators of lives.
You and I know: homo economicus is about as good a role model as the love child of Freddy Krueger and Alien. Each and every one of us needs more than mere stuff and trinkets if we are to fully pursue happiness. We know: we need friends, security, stability, status, respect if we are to have a fighting chance at glimmers of contentment, delight, joy. Yet there is a truer need still: a reason to live fully, wholly, searingly; a reason that elevates us, at our best, past the mundane, and into the noble, good, and true. And unless this need is answered, our lives will always feel somehow reduced, lessened, blunted, a masterpiece seen through a veil of gauze, achingly incomplete. Each and every one of us is here for a reason; and it is that reason that anchors our stretching branches firmly in the soil of life.
So here’s the deal, broski. You and I don’t need a reason merely for romantic reasons; to add a celestial veneer of bogus miracle to the dreary predictability of our lives. Each and every one needs a reason for the most pragmatic of reasons: to evoke the best, noblest, and truest in us; and so to persevere in the pursuit of lives well lived. The tiny miracle of life is us — and whom we can choose to become.
So here are my five tiny rules for creating your reason.
Total surrender. Everyday for the last year, Priya’s gone to the café and…checked her Facebook. The self-help books and the mystical gurus will tell you: just imagine hard enough, and the life you so fervently desire will — poof!! — manifest. Let’s be honest: it’s a pleasant fairy tale for the nail-bitingly insecure. The simple truth is: If you want to live a life worth living, you have to do a lot (lot) more than merely wish for it: you have to work for it. And not merely in the brain-dead sense of “80 hours a week, at a job you hate, with people you hate, for a boss you want to stab, doing work that makes you want to projectile vomit, to benefit sociopathic shareholders that would rather see you miserable, fat, broke, and dead than fulfilled.” I mean work for it in a more profund sense: you must work to create a reason that demands from you nothing less than the furious, uncompromising pursuit of a life well lived; and if, like Priya, your so-called reason’s leading you to spin your wheels and go nowhere fast…it’s probably not one powerful enough to surrender to.
Absolute clarity. A reason is not a purpose. Priya’s real mistake is that she’s confused a purpose — writing books — with a reason: why the books must (not should, but absolutely, totally, must, or else your whole life will feel empty, wasted, pointless, over) be written. Imagine you were a master stonemason. Your purpose might be to build a great cathedral. But your reason might be to approach the divine, to leave a legacy, or simply to do great work. A purpose, then, is a set of accomplishments — but a reason is the animating force behind them; it is the “why” that gives sense to the “what”; and without it, all our “whats” may end up being empty, barren, senseless in the terms of a life that feels well lived. Priya, like many people I know, is a stonemason with a blueprint — but no incendiary, unstoppable, inescapable reason to begin building.
Real life. So if, like Priya, you can’t quite seem to put your finger on your reason, how do you begin? Here’s the trick. The reason isn’t found, or discovered. It is created. It is the great act of a life; the culminating act that joins our choices and decisions into a trajectory that resonates. A purpose is what you make: a book, a company, a bonus. A reason is what you live: knowledge, art, enlightenment, and more. What do you want your life to be? What is it that you want to live? When it comes not just to stuff, but to life, what is that you want to enact? You can’t answer this question like Priya’s been trying to: “books”. You must answer it in a more fundamental sense — “knowledge,” “art,” “education,” “enlightenment.” All these are better answers, in Priya’s case. They’re tiny steps beyond purpose, and towards the beginnings of a reason.
Radical simplicity. You can’t create your reason if your life is, pardon my French, full of bullshit. The answers above share one thing in common: they’re radically simple. Worthy, enduring, fulfilling reasons always are — because the timeless truths of life, which reasons exist to illuminate, are deceptively simple. So, forgive me, beancounters, but (as Priya still thinks) a reason is not a corporate mission statement (“To leverage my educational assets and optimize my career path!!”): it is the very opposite: a radically simple statement of why your life matters enough to you to fully, dangerously live it…past the edge.
Brutal honesty. You can’t create your reason if, pardon my French, you are full of shit. There are many reasons; but not all reasons are created equal. And you probably can’t create a worthy one if you’re not brutally honest with yourself about it. Raising a family and imbuing it with love; this is a grand and timeless reason; it elevates life. Vidal Sassoon’s reason: to bring art back to hairdressing? That’s a fantastic one. Pixar’s reason: creating heartwarming stories that bring people of all ages together? Works for me. Making minigames for advertisers to sell stuff to people they don’t really want to buy with money they don’t really have to live lives they don’t really feel? That’s a sucky reason, because it impoverishes life. Of course, the minigame maker might feel, in the moment, his work is rewarding — and it may be lucrative. But it isn’t likely to feel whole, for the simple reason that it’s reason is wanting in terms of meaningful human outcomes. The point here is not to create arbitrary divisions between which reasons are valid and which are lacking. The point is to start asking yourself, really: what is your reason? What would make it “good”? If you want to grab the top job at that megabank — why? If your reason is “to make a big pile of money,” you might want to think again. Why do you think, having made his billions, Bill Gates is trying to fix the world? He needs a bigger, better, truer reason.
Perhaps it’s true. Not all of us successfully create our reasons. But that is precisely why we must try. For it is in the reasonless that we see the power of life’s reason: the reason gives sense to life, and without sense, life feels like a maze, a trap, a game, an absurdity. We need a reason, because our reasons are what liberate us from lives that feel senseless.
Yet, Priya’s little parable tells us: reasons aren’t rational; they are larger than that: they are constructive. They aren’t tidy equations and models of life — yet nor are they mere wishes nor affirmations. They are the words in the language of life and death; words that come to compose the untidy, messy, often contradictory, thoroughly inconclusive stories we tell ourselves about what it means to have lived. And so they matter because they allow our lives, finally, to make startling glimmers of sense amidst the cruel senselessness and insensible beauty of the searing human experience. Only a reason has the magic to ignite, in the void, the spark; that comes to make a life feel that it has been more than accidents of fate colliding with chance.
And so it seems to me that you and I — the sons and daughters of the Lesser Depression, the orphans of modernity — we have three choices. We may retreat. We may revolt. Or we may rebel. We may retreat into digiphoria; the cold, joyless comfort of softly glowing screens. We may revolt, turning away in disgust, and become, in time, something like the leaders we scorn. Or we may rebel — and choose, here and now, even in the full fury of the storm, to answer the awesome challenge of lives well lived.
Reason is rebellion. It is through the creation of reasons to live fully that we rebel — and ignite lives worth living, instead of merely resigning ourselves to those that feel as if they aren’t. In reason, we rebel against immovable destiny, and gain a measure of freedom back from the stars.
Grace, then, is born in reason. And it is grace that gives us, finally, the power to love. To, through the heartbreak, the grief, and the joy, breathe life into possibility, and so breathe possibility into life. And that is what a life that feels burstingly whole, achingly full, timelessly true, is really all about: the power to love. And only a reason as solid and true as bedrock can give it to you.
So allow me to ask you again: what do you do when you reach the edge of heartbreak? Here’s my tiny answer: you create a reason to take you past the edge of heartbreak. And into big love, mighty grace, searing meaning, and limitless purpose. Hence, my question: what’s your reason?
When web designer Ben Blumenfeld was working for a major TV network, he was responsible for creating websites for mainstream shows. One day, he made a breakthrough that led to a significant uptake on a show, but the success struck Ben in a way he had not expected. His success meant more people would spend even more time watching TV, and he ultimately didn’t see that as a good thing.
The moment proved to be an inflection point for Ben. He decided to stop thinking of his career as something separate from himself, and the values, ideals and principles that were important to him. He believed in making a positive impact in his community, and realized his day-to-day work wasn’t aligned with that. He decided it was time to pursue a path that baked his mission into his career.
While still in that mindset, he received a phone call from Jeff Hammerbacher, the COO of a newfangled Silicon Valley startup with 8 million student users, who persuaded Ben to fly to California to meet the people working there. Later, when Ben mentioned his desire to make a positive impact in his community, the CEO assured Ben that the venture would impact the very way the human race communicated with each other, across cultures, political differences and national territories — literally bringing the world together. Ben concluded the CEO — Mark Zuckerberg — was either quite mad, or that he was a true visionary. Ben told me, “I knew Mark was going to build the company with or without me, and once I met the design team, I was just blown away. Every designer was insanely talented, both visually and technically.” And so, he decided to join in the effort.
In time, Ben would come to lead the communication design team at Facebook as they built the company from 8 million users to almost a billion. He found the scale of every initiative to be surreal. “It was strange to design experiments that were measured in millions of people,” he told me. But, he also knew that the ability to connect so many people offered a huge opportunity to stay true to his goal of melding his career and his intention to make a positive difference in the world. Ben had an idea to work with Stanford’s Peace Innovation initiative, in connection with Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, to start peace.facebook.com, which in turn sparked a conversation around the world about whether people believed we would reach peace in the next 50 years. (Incidentally, Americans are consistently far more pessimistic about this than other countries, such as Egypt, which is among the most optimistic). It was just one of the many ways that Ben decided to bake his mission into his career.
Most recently he left Facebook and joined with Enrique Allen to cofound The Designer Fund. Enrique is also part of the founding team at 500 Startups, an early stage seed fund and accelerator in Silicon Valley. The Designer Fund invests in designer-led startups that bake positive social impact into the mission of the institution. Instead of impact being an afterthought or separate project, like some company’s apologetic foundations sometimes appear to be. (Explore some of their inspiring investments here: Neighborland, Angaza Design, Solar Mosaic and Launchpad Toys).
I use the example of Ben to illustrate someone who’s approaching his career by design — not by default. It’s something that each and every one of us has the potential to do. When you get to a place in life where you’re questioning what the work you are doing — all the hours you’re spending — are ultimately adding up to, you need a process for evaluating what matters most to you. Here’s what I suggest:
Step 1: Sketch Your Career. It is so easy to get consumed by the stream of activities in our careers. We get so caught up in living our lives that we don’t stop to think sufficiently about our lives. We are reacting instead of being strategic. When I find this happening, I use this simple tool to get a broader perspective. You start on the left at the beginning of your career and end on the right hand side (today). You draw a single line up if you were enjoying the experience and down if it was unfulfilling for you. Write down where you were working, what you were working on, and any other factors that shaped your experience.
It ends up looking something like this:
Step 2: Connect the Dots. Use the sketch from Step 1 as a launch pad into being an anthropologist of your own life. Go somewhere quiet. You might think of it like a strategic offsite for your own life and career.
Ask: When was I truly happy and why? What activity or theme do I keep coming back to? What is my gravitational pull? When was work effortless for me? What isn’t working for me? When do I seem most like myself? When was it meaningless and why? When was work meaningful and why? Don’t rush the process. Pause long enough to listen. Write the answers down as they come so you can reflect on them later.
Step 3: Ask, “What Will I Create that Will Make the World Awesome?” That may sound like a bit of a wild question but an essential element of strategy is, to state the obvious, thinking about what we want to create in the future.
Ask: What would I do if I could do anything? What would I do if all jobs paid the same? If I could only achieve one thing in my career, what would it be? What do I really want? Again, these are big questions. But my experience is that people spend far more time worried about their job than in creating a vision for their career and how they can uniquely contribute to the world. (If you are looking for a pep talk, this three minute video from “Kid President” does a brilliant job challenging us to figure out what we can do to make the world awesome).
Many years ago I followed a process not at all unlike this one and, without exaggeration, it changed the course of my life. The insight I gained led me to quit law school, leave England and move to America to start down the path as a teacher and author. You’re reading this because of that choice. It remains the single most important — and strategic — career decision of my life.
It’s a simple process. But it can help us to break down some complex questions. Like the poet Mary Oliver’s beautifully haunting question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”