A better way to live, work, and prosper?

In closing out my blog posts for this year, I’d once again like to share a vision for a truly kinder and gentler society, offered in 1981 by John Ohliger (1926-2004), a pioneering, iconoclastic adult educator, community activist, and writer (not to mention dear friend):

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

Although John’s political views placed him squarely to the left of center, he was not one for ideological browbeating. Even his frequent use of the term “radical” suggested more a general distancing from mainstream technocratic and consumer culture than a rigid sociopolitical and economic worldview.

Now more than ever?

The society John envisioned becomes ever more compelling in the wake of this economic meltdown.  It is likely that many of us will have to moderate our buying and owning of “stuff” during the years to come. As the obscene term “jobless recovery” is shaping into a reality, we are knocking on the door of a long-term period of a difficult job market and lower pay and benefits.  Retirement, where possible for those in their later years, will require judicious spending.

In sum, the years ahead may require us to think about what makes for a good and fulfilling life.  John’s vision invites us to consider a potentially healthier and more satisfying way of living, even if material goods are in shorter supply.

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For more about John Ohliger, go here.

Bullied at work? Avoid making these common mistakes

(Image courtesy of all-free-download.com)

(Image courtesy of all-free-download.com)

Oftentimes I am asked by reporters for standard-brand advice on how to handle a potential workplace bullying situation. I inevitably respond that because these scenarios have so many variables, it would be unwise of me to suggest a one-size-fits-all set of recommendations.

However, I feel much more comfortable identifying common mistakes that people make in dealing with bullying at work. Here is my list, based on many years of working in this realm:

1. Self-blame — While some degree of healthy self-reflection can make us more effective at work and in life generally, too many targets blame themselves for what is happening. They repeatedly try to placate bullies who will not be placated.

2. Waiting too long — On countless occasions, targets have told me that they waited too long to grasp the situation and take appropriate action. Perhaps they didn’t see the situation for what it was — a common occurrence. Maybe they hoped that the situation would go away or improve, until it was too late. It’s no fun to be treated abusively at work, but delaying acknowledgment of it can be even more detrimental to your livelihood and health.

3. Relying solely upon in-house “assistance” — Those who depend on the HR office to make things right may later regret it. Especially when the bully is a manager and bullying behaviors are common in a given workplace, HR often sides with the boss. Likewise, employee assistance offices are not going to represent a target against an alleged bully; that’s not their role. At best they may offer some coaching and coping assistance.

4. Not keeping records — Maintain a chronology of everything that happens. Save e-mails, notes, and any other physical evidence — but do not take anything that’s not yours. Although legal protections against workplace bullying are inadequate on the whole, you may have the makings of a legal claim. If nothing else, you’ll have a record of what happened in case you need to present it to someone.

5. Acting impulsively — Being bullied at work sometimes can lead people to act impulsively, saying or doing things they’d like to take back. It’s a natural reaction, but try to avoid it. If you cannot resist, it’s possible that your bully will point the finger at you for being mean and abrasive! After all, workplace aggressors can be masters at provoking and button pushing.

6. Being consumed by the battle — This is much less a “mistake” and more a common response to being threatened and traumatized, but many targets get consumed by their situation and inhabit this vocational warzone during most of their waking hours. If you feel like this is starting to describe you, then by all means consult a mental health professional who is knowledgeable about treating psychological stress and trauma.

7. Refusing to acknowledge the need for an exit strategy — This may be part of the fight or flight response prompted by a threat, and it may relate to the all consuming nature of some bullying situations. In any event, some will continue to fight a battle that cannot be won, while foregoing exit strategies that remove them from a toxic work environment and put them on the road to another position.

A better approach

There’s a lot of questionable and sometimes dangerous advice out there on how to handle workplace bullying situations, offered by people who are not subject matter experts on this topic. These sources are no substitute for understanding the dynamics of workplace bullying and how they relate to one’s specific circumstances.

Instead, do your homework, reach out for help, strategize, and act smartly. Take a hard look at the Need Help? resources page of this blog and dig deeply into some of the materials recommended there. Only after assessing options and risks should you act. It may not be easy to do this in the midst of a stressful work situation, but it’s your best bet for creating a decent outcome.

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This post was revised in June 2016.

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What if we paid less attention to advertising?

From its modest beginnings, advertising has grown into a one trillion dollar a year industry and the single biggest psychological experiment ever carried out on the human race.

Adbusters, The Big Ideas of 2011

I once joked on Facebook that Apple is so good at marketing that it could package horse manure in a box, sell it as “i-Krap” high-end fertilizer, and make a mint from it.

Heck, I’d probably buy a box myself, and believe me, I’m no gardener. It’s just that whenever I go into an Apple store, I want to hand over my credit card and ask them to bring me new gadgets in shiny boxes.

Galbraith got it right

One of my intellectual heroes, the late John Kenneth Galbraith, brilliantly dissected the post-World War II American economy in classics such as American Capitalism, The Affluent Society, and The New Industrial State. Among other things, he articulated the central role of modern advertising in creating consumer demand.

Galbraith noted that advertising started out as being merely descriptive, and people could make rational purchasing decisions accordingly. But then sales pitches became manipulative, crafted around persuasive appeals to induce purchases. This became especially prevalent during the 1950s and 1960s, when the American economy was going full throttle and the nation’s middle class was flourishing.

It’s not just the big corporations

Fancy advertising isn’t limited to the corporate world. In my industry of higher education, colleges and universities spend students’ tuition money and alumni contributions to produce fancy, glossy brochures that make them sound like the dreamiest places imaginable.

And let’s not forget that every election season we’re treated to a bevy of spin, half-truths, and outright lies in the form of advertising for candidates we like and don’t like. Talk about piles of i-Krap!

In the meantime

What if the need for cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s were marketed with the same fervor as efforts to sell fancy cars, clothing, and electronics? What if appeals to end world hunger or support public education appeared on television as frequently as pharmaceutical commercials or political ads?

If we’re going to allow ourselves to be manipulated, then at least we should be cajoled into supporting stuff that can really make a difference in our lives and those of others.

We’d have to rework work

Of course, if humans developed a stronger immunity to modern advertising, we’d have to rework the world of work dramatically.

Why? Because if we based our purchases of goods and services on purely descriptive information and reviews from previous consumers, it is likely that our spending patterns would change mightily. This would have a significant effect on the kinds of organizations that are viable and the types of work that need performing.

Do what I say, not what I have done

I plead guilty to being influenced by effective advertising and make no claim of complete immunity in the future. However, I think it would benefit all of us to ask whether a potential purchase will truly bring us satisfaction or fulfill a bonafide need. Those few seconds of pause may save us from making purchases that clutter up our homes, eat up gobs of time, or otherwise do not deliver true value.

In closing, I’d like to recommend a book, Brooks Palmer, Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (2009). (Yes, I’m shilling for a product!) Over the years I have read, or tried to read, several books promising to make me less of a pack rat. This is the first one that resonates with me, tossing in some insightful psychology along with sound how-to advice.

Working in a blizzard

The first big blizzard of the season has hit the east coast, and it means very different things to folks in various lines of work. Right now I’m stuck in Manhattan (a great place to be stuck!), and here are some of the impressions that sank in as the snow piled higher and deeper:

  • If you’re a small storefront business owner or work for one, this is no fun at all. As I walked across 48th Street yesterday and passed a variety of pizza shops and restaurants, I realized that these businesses are affected profoundly by the blizzard. Those hoping to catch waves of holiday tourists stopping by for a quick bite to eat may have been very disappointed and suffered lower receipts.
  • For anyone who helps to keep physical plants going, a blizzard means hard work. Last night I passed by over a dozen workers moving snow the old fashioned way, with shovels and backbone.
  • For the cast and crew of La Cage Aux Folles (and others on Broadway), it meant the show must go on! And so last night those in the smallish audience — my cousins Judy and Aaron and I included — were treated to a first-rate performance as the snow piled up outside.
  • Waitstaff at the hotel diner where I had a late night snack had to deal with thoughtless guests who traipsed through to the connection to the hotel without ordering a thing, dragging the snow in with them and making the floor slippery and dangerous. I guess the blizzard rendered the 20 or so more feet they could’ve walked to the hotel’s main entrance too difficult to navigate.
  • If your job involves working with information and can be done remotely, you’re probably in luck. Laptops, the Internet, and cell phones have enabled telecommuters and road warriors to do their jobs from just about anywhere.
  • When I talked to my friend Vin who works for Con Edison in New York, all his plans were up in the air because of what the blizzard might mean for those who work to keep the lights on in the city.
  • Customer service reps in any business related to travel, in person and on the phone, were having their patience tried as they dealt with frustrated travelers. Late yesterday evening, the woman at the reception desk at my hotel said her shift had been crazy and was not ending anytime soon.
  • This morning, some will get paid even if they can’t make it to work. Others will lose a day’s pay if they can’t make it in or their place of employment is closed. “Snow days” are great for some, but surely not all.
  • If you’re a TV meteorologist or weather reporter, this is it! Talking about 70 degree days with a touch of clouds probably gets a little dull, but a big ol’ blizzard is a blast.

Just a few snippets about working in a blizzard in the Naked City…

A 12-step program for compassion

Karen Armstrong is a noted author on religious affairs. Her latest book is Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010), a mix of faith, philosophy, and self-help. In it, she offers a 12-step program to help make the world a more compassionate place:

  • “Learn About Compassion”
  • “Look at Your Own World”
  • “Compassion for Yourself”
  • “Empathy”
  • “Mindfulness”
  • “Action”
  • “How Little We Know”
  • “How Should We Speak to One Another?”
  • “Concern for Everybody”
  • “Knowledge”
  • “Recognition”
  • “Love Your Enemies”

This is not easy stuff. Armstrong’s program requires introspection, honest self-evaluation, and conscious effort. Perhaps I’m betraying my own limitations here, but I do believe that folks who attain the final step of loving their enemies should be designated junior saints, or at least get a certificate!

Connecting to work

In the U.S., we are so used to associating work with performance, productivity, and competition that the introduction of a term like compassion into that mix may sound naive or silly. But if we are going to build institutions that embrace individual dignity and social responsibility, and if we are going to free our workplaces from bullying, discrimination, and retaliation, then maybe a little healthy compassion would be a good thing.

It often has been remarked that when we enter our workplaces, we leave at the door fundamental rights that otherwise are part of everyday life, such as free speech and privacy. Likewise, ideas such as compassion, empathy, and dignity, while valued outside our workplaces, are rarely mentioned, and even less often practiced, inside them. Are the needs for control and power and to ride herd on workers so critical to productivity that we must abandon these values once the workday begins?

On giving

You know the old holiday saying that it’s better to give than to receive? Well, I’ve been thinking about it a lot in connection with a recent BBC radio segment (link here) on a new initiative called Giving What We Can.

Giving What We Can (website link here) is a group of some 60 individuals who have pledged to donate 10 percent of their total income until retirement to efforts addressing poverty and suffering in the developing world. The campaign was started by a young Oxford University researcher named Toby Ord. Here’s a snippet from Tom Geoghegan’s BBC story:

Toby Ord, 31, has in the past year given more than a third of his earnings, £10,000, to charities working in the poorest countries. He also gave away £15,000 of savings, as the start of his pledge to give away £1m over his lifetime.

And he’s started a campaign to recruit, Bill Gates-style, other people to give up at least 10% of their lifetime’s earnings in the same way. A year on, 64 people have joined his movement Giving What We Can and pledged £14m.

Ord is not claiming to have taken an oath of poverty. As the piece explains, he and his wife Bernadette Young, a physician who has joined him in taking the pledge, live modestly but comfortably in Oxford. In fact, they believe that many people in developed nations can make this commitment without experiencing severe hardship.

The Problem

It is hard to contest GWWC’s basic premise: People making decent incomes in developed nations are the most economically privileged on earth. (Doubts? Check out the GWWC “How Rich Am I?” calculator, here.) For those of us who enjoy relative comforts of home and hearth, our everyday financial challenges pale in comparison to those who are experiencing unimaginable hunger, deprivation, and want. From the GWWC website, here are the stakes:

Of the 6.7 billion people in the world today:

  • 2.7 billion people live on less than $2 per day
  • 1 billion of these live on less than $1 per day
  • More than 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water
  • More than 800 million people go to bed hungry each day
  • More than 6 million children die each year from preventable diseases
  • More than 100 million children are not getting even a basic education
  • More than 800 million adults cannot read or write

Tithing

The 10 percent figure draws upon the concept of tithing, which has roots in religious faiths:

Indeed, the idea of giving 10% to the poor has been with us since ancient times (when the givers were much poorer than we are today) and still exists in many religious circles in the form of tithing.

I am not sufficiently versed in sacred texts to identify exactly where and how the idea of tithing appears, but an informative Wikipedia article on tithing will help you fill those gaps.

Who has pledged?

Notably, the list of Giving What We Can members (link here) appears to be long on younger grad student-types and short on lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, and CEOs in the heart of their careers. Does this mean that GWWC is a passing fancy, a product of idealistic youth? Perhaps. Some of its members may drop out when mortgages and family obligations put greater pressure on their personal finances.

But I have a feeling that GWWC is more than that. At this point in its young life, GWWC has an unassuming seriousness of purpose and a moral core about it. For that reason, GWWC may have a strong appeal to people who are older and more financially secure, especially empty nesters and single folks who have nest eggs. While the thought of donating a tenth of one’s income at that stage in life may be daunting in terms of gross amounts, the idea of making a difference in this way can be deeply meaningful — especially when one understands the impact of even modest donations in the developing world.

It’s about choice, not guilt

What impresses me about Giving What We Can is the tone of commitment and reason, not preachiness and guilt. I’ve sent away for information and will be giving this serious consideration. I haven’t yet committed to taking the pledge — I want to get a better sense of the guidelines defining what counts as a qualifying donation and how my current charitable commitments fit into that scheme.  We’ll see.

For folks struggling to pay the rent, looking for work, or wondering how they’ll be able to pay their kids’ tuition bills, Giving What We Can may not be a viable option. But others may be looking for meaningful ways to give back. This is a worthy possibility toward that end.

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The Giving What We Can website contains a ton of thoughtful content on philanthropic giving. It’s worth a serious look even if this particular pledge is not appropriate for you right now.

Does life begin at 46?

Conventional wisdom about life’s journey, suggests The Economist magazine, is that our path is “a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death.” If so, then why is the cover of the magazine’s year-end issue headlined “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46)”?

To find out, look inside for an interesting piece about life’s “U-bend” (link here). Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age.

The Economist cites research studies to back up its proposition, overcoming the presumption that this is more Boomer-inspired babble about how 60 is the new 40. For example, the article references a 2010 study by researchers from Stony Brook and Princeton universities, which found that:

Enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, then pick up; stress rises during the early 20s, then falls sharply; worry peaks in middle age, and falls sharply thereafter; anger declines throughout life; sadness rises slightly in middle age, and falls thereafter.

Obviously such studies represent aggregate findings; plenty of folks fall outside of that pattern, and life’s ups and downs can occur at any age. But the research indicates that the U-bend is an independent phenomenon:

(C)ontrol for cash, employment status and children, and the U-bend is still there. So the growing happiness that follows middle-aged misery must be the result not of external circumstances but of internal changes.

What of age 46? It turns out that globally speaking, overall happiness levels bottom out at 46. And according to a British Labour Force Survey, respondents’ self-reporting of depression peaked at 46.

Emotional intelligence improves with age

But wait! There’s even more good news (at least for anyone who is getting older, i.e., all of us). ScienceDaily reports on a UC-Berkeley study indicating that emotional intelligence improves with age (link here):

Their findings — published over the past year in peer-review journals — support the theory that emotional intelligence and cognitive skills can actually sharpen as we enter our 60s, giving older people an advantage in the workplace and in personal relationships.

According to lead researcher Robert Levenson:

“Increasingly, it appears that the meaning of late life centers on social relationships and caring for and being cared for by others. . . . Evolution seems to have tuned our nervous systems in ways that are optimal for these kinds of interpersonal and compassionate activities as we age.”

What does this mean for work and workplaces?

The aging workforce presents lots of challenges in terms of compensation & benefits, emerging retirement and labor market transition questions, and the like. But this research indicates a benefit as well. Our workforce has the capacity to become wiser, more compassionate, and happier. Maturity, it turns out, can be our ally. It would behoove us to take advantage of this promise as we weigh the kind of workplaces we want in a post-Great Recession society.

It also means that we can pursue vocations and avocations with a better idea of what kind of work brings us happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment. We do not necessarily have total control over this question. Bills must be paid. But to the extent we have choices, they can be informed by our wiser understanding of what is important in life.

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Some related posts:

Will our avocations save us?

Work and the middle-aged brain

What will be your body of work?

Are you a marathoner or a sprinter?

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Barring important news developments, I’ll be devoting the remainder of my posts this year to pieces envisioning a healthier society.

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