Maybe our modern day heroes are simply “weird”

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Who are our modern day heroes, the folks whose words and deeds inspire us to do meaningful, important, and joyous things with our lives?

I’ve been watching a 1981 interview with mythologist Joseph Campbell, conducted by Bill Moyers. It’s a bonus add-on to the 25th anniversary edition of “The Power of Myth,” a celebrated PBS series featuring Moyers’s extended interviews with Campbell later in the decade, right before Campbell’s passing.

During the interview, Moyers asks Campbell whether our modern age (circa 1981, of course) is capable of generating true heroes. Campbell demurs, observing that the fast pace of modern life and our worship of fame and celebrity have made it very difficult for our culture to produce genuine heroic figures.

Campbell made that observation over 20 years before the Internet became a staple of our lives. Hmm…

Privatizing the “hero,” worshiping the celebrity

Moving to today, it’s clear that we have “privatized” many of our most notable “heroes.”

For example, take the high tech guys. Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. And gals, like Sheryl Sandberg. Or perhaps Donald Trump for wannabe moguls.

We also conflate the hero with the celebrity, such as entertainers. The Kardashians. Justin Bieber. Miley Cyrus. (Oops.)

And then there’s the sporting world. You know, the “warriors.” LeBron James. Aaron HernandezAlex Rodriguez. Lance Armstrong. (Never mind.)

Maybe our genuine heroes are, well, weird

But perhaps all is not lost. Possibly our more contemporary personal heroes are weird, to borrow from the title of a book by author and entrepreneur Seth Godin.

Godin’s 2011 book, We All Are Weird, centers on a culture shift. He suggests that the vast array of choices we have leads us to find niches of interest that may not be shared by everyone. Music, food, reading, you name it. It means that we’re all a little bit weird in our tastes and preferences.

So let’s apply Godin’s ideas to our search for modern day heroes. Maybe we don’t have as many mega-heroes as in days gone by. Instead, we may find our heroes in our respective niches.

Speaking personally

For example, my biggest hero in the law is Anthony Amsterdam, a professor at NYU’s law school. You may not have heard of him, but Tony enjoys legendary status among many public interest lawyers for his civil rights work. Tales of his prodigious intelligence and work ethic have taken on mythic (and mostly true) proportions. Tony also is a very influential legal educator and legal scholar. You can read a wonderful profile of him by Nadya Labi here.

I have other heroes, too, and it’s likely that you’ve never heard of them. Here are three in my elder category:

  • My late mom, Betty Yamada, was a kindergarten teacher at a low-income school in Indiana. To some of those kids, she was the most stable and caring adult presence in their lives. After she retired, she volunteered for Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, and a local hospice. She did it all without fanfare, and she was a great mom too.
  • My dear friend Brian McCrane is a retired Navy officer who served on destroyers during the Cold War and was skipper on two of them. I doubt that we’ve ever voted for the same presidential candidate in a November election(!), but to me he epitomizes the term “an officer and a gentleman.”
  • My late friend John Ohliger was a pioneering adult educator, writer, and activist who continually challenged the educational status quo and was a devoted lifelong learner. John tilted at windmills. His work cut across traditional boundaries and disciplines. I don’t know if I would be writing this blog if I hadn’t met him.

From these heroes and others, I continually draw lessons and inspiration, and I am a better person today as a result. Isn’t the power of example one of the most special long-term gifts provided by any real hero?

So here’s to our search for heroes extending well beyond the obvious and iconic figures known to many. Instead, let’s identify the extraordinary folks who have had a more direct and special influence in our lives.

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Related posts and materials

“Follow your bliss”? Parsing Joseph Campbell’s famous advice (2012)

Cuban Missile Crisis 1962: Cooler heads prevailed on and under the sea, as well (2012)

A better way to live, work, and prosper? (2010)

Kind hearts, not angry ones, are needed now to help others (2009)

I explored John Ohliger’s unique public intellectual role in this book chapter, The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual — published in Andre P. Grace, Tonette S. Rocco, and Assocs., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009)

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This is my 1,000th blog post. Thanks for reading so far!

Are “empathy” and “workplace” compatible concepts?

Dr. Roman Krznaric, writing for the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley, marshals the latest research on empathy to identify the “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.” Here’s the list, and the full article explains what’s behind each:

  • “Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers”
  • “Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities”
  • “Habit 3: Try another person’s life”
  • “Habit 4: Listen hard — and open up”
  • “Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change”
  • “Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination”

Application to the workplace

Do these habits lend themselves easily to the typical workplace? Many readers who found this blog because of unpleasant or abusive experiences at work might lean toward the negative, and I have to say that I share some of that pessimism.

Furthermore, there’s empirical data to support those negative impressions of the emotional state of the workplace. A recent Gallup Poll indicated that 70 percent of American workers “have ‘checked out’ at work or are ‘actively disengaged,'” as Ricardo Lopez reports for the Los Angeles Times. These high percentages of emotional disengagement have been pretty consistent since 2000.

Granted, empathy does not necessarily equate to engagement in one’s job, and vice versa, but I’d be surprised if there’s not a strong correlation. It follows that fostering a workplace full of people who cultivate those habits is a worthy ideal. While I can imagine even the best of employers getting a little nervous about Habit 5(!), the other five seem completely compatible with a productive and high-morale workforce.

And what about those employers who don’t get it? Well then, maybe some of that “mass action and social change” is exactly what the doctor ordered. Surely that is a fitting thought as we approach Labor Day 2013.

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Related post

Roman Krznaric is the author of How to Find Fulfilling Work (2012), which I reviewed earlier this year.

Insiders, outsiders, and change agents

It’s an ongoing, never settled debate: To create positive social change, is it better to work from within the established system, or to challenge the status quo from the outside? I think about this often, and here are a few quick thoughts, with a gentle warning that I will engage in some abstract, academic-type reflection:

Advantages & disadvantages

The insider role, ideally, allows one to have some concrete say in how things are done. You’re inside the room, so to speak, and you have direct input. But it’s also easy to mistake incremental change for systemic change and to get caught up in conventional perks of power.

The outsider role, ideally, allows one to advocate for change in a more visionary way, unfettered by internal politics. You’re able to say this is how it should be, without apologies. But one also can fall prey to lobbing grenades from the sidelines rather than engaging the real world.

At times, individuals have wrestled with both roles. In this context I think often of Mark Satin, a political author, lawyer, and one-time 60s anti-war activist whose writings over the last 15 years have been defining what he calls the “radical middle.” Mark went to law school in his 40s, desirous of having more of an impact within the mainstream. (We met when he was a student in my lawyering skills course at NYU.) You can infer some of his internal dialogue on the insider vs. outsider question, and see how he came out on it, in this 2002 essay, Professional Schools Are Our Social Change Incubators Now.

It takes both

Both insider and outsider roles are necessary to make a difference. And over the courses of our lives, we may find ourselves alternating between those roles. One day you’re working for the grassroots non-profit organization advocating for policy change, the next you’re moving to the public sector to implement it.

Of course, it’s not always a matter of individual choice. Insider status requires the ability to enter the halls of power. If entrance is blocked, then one’s options boil down.

It’s also worth noting that self-perceptions and perceptions of others may vary greatly. Someone who regards herself as a perennial outsider may be regarded as a consummate insider by others, or vice versa.

A third option?

Over the years I’ve had many conversations about the insider vs. outsider paradigm with Dr. John Bilorusky, a UC-Berkeley Ph.D. whose career in alternative higher education has included long service as co-founder and president of the Western Institute for Social Research. Some of those long chats have centered on the idea of operating at the fault lines between insider and outsider status.

I traditionally have defined myself as an outsider advocating for change. But in recent years I’ve started to understand the wisdom of aiming for those fault lines.

Above all, however, I have come to value, from a systems analysis perspective, the roles of well-meaning insider and outsider stakeholders in making positive change a reality. Accordingly, my best advice for prospective change agents is simple: Strive to find the role that feels right for you, understand its inherent strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and temptations, and go from there.

Study: Childhood bullying has long-term negative impacts

The experience of bullying in childhood can have negative long-term social and health impacts, concludes a new study published in Psychological Science.

Researchers Dieter Wolke (Warwick, UK), William E. Copeland (Duke), Adrian Angold (Duke), and E. Jane Costello (Duke) knew that “(b)ullying creates risks of health and social problems in childhood,” but they wanted to examine whether “such risks extend into adulthood.” Here’s the summary of their study:

A large cohort of children was assessed for bullying involvement in childhood and then followed up in young adulthood in an assessment of health, risky or illegal behavior, wealth, and social relationships. Victims of childhood bullying, including those that bullied others (bully-victims), were at increased risk of poor health, wealth, and social-relationship outcomes in adulthood even after we controlled for family hardship and childhood psychiatric disorders. In contrast, pure bullies were not at increased risk of poor outcomes in adulthood once other family and childhood risk factors were taken into account. Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage but throws a long shadow over affected people’s lives. Interventions in childhood are likely to reduce long-term health and social costs.

Lots of takeaway points

The takeaway points from this study are important and many:

  • Being a bullying target is associated negative long-term impacts;
  • Being both a target and a bully is associated with negative long-term impacts;
  • Being a “pure bully” is not associated with negative long-term impacts;
  • Failure to prevent and respond to childhood bullying has a short-term and long-term societal impact;
  • Positive interventions can make a difference.

Implications for schools, parents, mental health counselors, and policy makers

The implications for stakeholders involved with the care and education of kids are significant. Childhood bullying is not, to borrow from the study abstract, “a harmless rite of passage,” but rather a form of mistreatment that “throws a long shadow over affected people’s lives.”

Educators, parents, and mental health counselors should not treat reports of bullying lightly or dismissively. And school systems and policy makers must regard anti-bullying measures as integral parts of a safe and healthy educational environment.

The long-term impacts of bullying on members of groups more likely to be bullied, such as LGBT and disabled youth, merit special attention.

In public service ads and commercials, bullied kids are being told that “it gets better.” Hopefully that is the case, but this study illustrates how the baggage is carried forward into adulthood.

Neglected blog posts seeking more love

At times I will toil away at a blog post that I really think has something to say, only to find that it’s a dud with my readers. The WordPress platform that I use for this blog enables me to check how many “hits” a given article has attracted, and I can see which ones aren’t exactly lighting up the Internet. (In truth, a niche blog like this one rarely “lights up” the online world, but I’m cool with that.)

Anyway, as I close in on 1,000 posts for this blog, here are 10 articles that I believe fall within the “good-but-neglected” category:

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012) — On the importance of finding non-work activities that engage us.

I wish our political leaders would send us to the moon (2012) — A call for public leaders to inspire us, linking two nifty videos of JFK.

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (2012) — Consider the seeds planted by law schools and med schools.

Loyalty, “betrayal,” and workplace bullying: Does insider status matter? (2011) — As a denizen of Boston, loyalty and betrayal are key concepts to me!

Dignity amidst horrific indignity: A job shoveling s**t in the Łódź Ghetto (2011) — A WWII story that helps to illustrate how almost any job has inherent dignity.

What’s the plot line of your life story? (2011) — Is it about overcoming the monster, comedy, rebirth, or something else???

What if we paid less attention to advertising? (2010) — Instead of “them” telling us what to buy…

The moral obscenity of a “jobless recovery” (2010) — Read this and compare to where we are three years later.

On hiring consultants (2010) — I would underscore what I wrote here.

Work and the middle-aged brain (2010) — Some things we do not as well, some things actually better.

Workplace bullying: Human rights, public health, and mental health

Among the many disciplines that need to put workplace bullying more squarely on their respective agendas are human rights, public health, and mental health. Here’s why:

When an academic or professional discipline acknowledges the relevance of a topic and includes it in university courses, scholarly literature, and continuing education programs, generations of new practitioners and graduate students will bring that knowledge to their work.

With workplace bullying, it means that human rights activists will regard it as a profound violation of human dignity. It means that public health advocates will grasp how bullying at work impacts the health of workers and their families. It means that therapists will “get it” when clients share stories of abusive treatment at work.

Human rights

Human rights are often framed in a global context, putting a focus on nations with unstable governments and/or severe poverty. This emphasis is understandable and vitally important. In addition, we need to consider dignity violations at work. On this note, I was so pleased when the blog of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation recently published a piece on workplace bullying. Here’s how Rebecca Popham concluded the post:

There are some actions employees who are victims of bullying can pursue.  Depending on the situation and the extent of the bullying, these include coaching, working with a therapist, and seeking legal counsel.  Ultimately, though, workplace bullying needs to be addressed in the same manner that racial and other forms of workplace discrimination were tackled, resulting in legal protections.   The problem of workplace bullying has many causes and won’t be easily solved.  A good starting place, however, is greater awareness of the problem and making sure that its victims are heard.

Public health

Workplace bullying rarely appears in the public health literature, but a hardy few are making the case. For example, in 2010 Drs. Jorge Srabstein and Bennett Leventhal published a paper in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization on the public health implications of bullying across the lifespan, including the workplace:

Bullying is a major public health problem that demands the concerted and coordinated time and attention of health-care providers, policy-makers and families. Evolving awareness about the morbidity and mortality associated with bullying has helped give this psychosocial hazard a modest level of worldwide public health attention. . . . However, it is not enough.

Bullying is a multifaceted form of mistreatment, mostly seen in schools and the workplace. It is characterized by the repeated exposure of one person to physical and/or emotional aggression including teasing, name calling, mockery, threats, harassment, taunting, hazing, social exclusion or rumours. . . . A wide range of bullying prevalence has been documented among students and in labour forces worldwide.

Mental health

While subfields such as industrial/organizational psychology, occupational health psychology, and consulting psychology devote increasing attention to workplace bullying, clinical psychology and counseling continue to fall short. That’s why this March 2013 Counseling Today piece on adult bullying by Lynne Shallcross is most welcomed. It features counselor and coach Jessi Eden Brown, who is associated with the Workplace Bullying Institute and also maintains a private practice:

Unfortunately, graduating from college still doesn’t guarantee an end to bullying. A 2010 survey commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found that 35 percent of the U.S. workforce — an estimated 53.5 million Americans — report being bullied at work. An additional 15 percent said they had witnessed co-workers being bullied.

These statistics are all too familiar to Jessi Eden Brown, who serves as WBI’s administrator and also runs a private counseling practice in the Seattle area. About half of her clients deal with issues related to workplace bullying.

Framing it globally and individually

Together, the human rights, public health, and mental health perspectives help to frame workplace bullying as a fundamental issue of human dignity and as an important health concern. I hope there are enterprising practitioners, advocates, scholars, and graduate students in these disciplines who will help to fill in these gaps.

Bookends of a coming mega-meltdown

Twenty or so years from now, Americans will look back and ask: Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we accept some modest sacrifice to avoid the extreme suffering of today? Why did we ignore what was so perfectly clear back then?

No, I’m not talking about climate change, though you can add that one too. Rather, I’m looking at the scary, jolting confluence of sky high student loan repayment burdens concentrated on one end of the adult age spectrum, and woeful shortfalls in retirement funding for a majority of Americans on the other. I’ve written on both of these topics before (especially America’s retirement readiness), but let me add one excellent investigative piece and one important study to the mix.

Student loan debt

If you’re in college or grad school, or you’re a parent of someone who is, you likely know the score. Gone are the days when a few thousand dollars saved from the family budget covered a big chunk of a child’s tuition and expenses. Income levels have stagnated for most in the U.S., but tuition costs have soared. And the lion’s share of people seeking post-secondary education must borrow money, often gobs of it, to pay those bills.

If you want more detail, the Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi has written a superb investigative article — Ripping Off Young America: The College-Loan Scandal — that is must reading for anyone affected by the financing of higher education. Here’s a snippet:

How is this happening? It’s complicated. But throw off the mystery and what you’ll uncover is a shameful and oppressive outrage that for years now has been systematically perpetrated against a generation of young adults. For this story, I interviewed people who developed crippling mental and physical conditions, who considered suicide, who had to give up hope of having children, who were forced to leave the country, or who even entered a life of crime because of their student debts.

…[T]he underlying cause of all that later-life distress and heartache – the reason they carry such crushing, life-alteringly huge college debt – is that our university-tuition system really is exploitative and unfair, designed primarily to benefit two major actors.

First in line are the colleges and universities, and the contractors who build their extravagant athletic complexes, hotel-like dormitories and God knows what other campus embellishments….

…Next up is the government itself. While it’s not commonly discussed on the Hill, the government actually stands to make an enormous profit on the president’s new federal student-loan system….

The crisis is compounded by a horrible entry-level job market for recent graduates. It’s hard to pay off those loans and save a bit of money when you’re doing your 5th or 6th unpaid internship.

Retirement funding

In the meantime, at the older end of the population, the nation’s largest generation is hurtling towards the traditional retirement years. The only problem is that many Boomers will be in no position to retire, even if Social Security remains intact. Their numbers just don’t add up.

Recent confirmation of the dire situation comes from the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit, non-partisan research and education center. Its 28-page study, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think?, by labor economist Nari Rhee, is clearly laid out and alarming to read. Here are the major findings:

New NIRS research finds retirement savings are dangerously low, and the U.S. retirement savings deficit is between $6.8 and $14.0 trillion.

…The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.  

The findings confirm that the American Dream of retiring comfortably after a lifetime of work will be impossible for many. Based on 401(k)–type account and IRA balances alone, some 92 percent of working households do not meet conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income. Even when counting their entire net worth, 65 percent still fall short.

Where the twain meet

Let us fast forward 20 years and assume we’ve done nothing besides making some minor tweaks to Social Security and lowering the interest rate a tad on student loans.

It’s 2033, and millions of Boomers are working into their 70s and 80s, not by choice, but rather by necessity. The Social Security Trust Fund is running dry, and older Americans who didn’t have, or already burned through, retirement savings are faced with a 25 percent cut to Social Security benefits, funded now on a pay-as-we-go basis by payroll taxes on aging Gen Xers and Millennials.

These younger folks, by the way, are struggling to pay off student loans that are not dischargeable in a bankruptcy proceeding. For many, their finances have required them to make some hard decisions, such as having fewer or no kids.

Of course, this means they’re less likely to be in the market to buy the big suburban houses put on sale by older Boomers looking to downsize their living spaces and reduce living expenses. (It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as their credit ratings are blown from their student loans and the credit card debt they’ve taken on to make ends meet.)

In the year 2033, many of the Gen Xers and Millennials are hoping to pay off their student loans and modest mortgages (that’s all the house they could afford) by their late 50s. Some of their retirement prospects, by the way, are even dimmer than that of the average Boomer.

In 2033, what we could’ve done now will seem so obvious…

Obvious, but not easy. It will require belt-tightening by institutions and individuals who can afford it, higher taxes on some (including raising the payroll tax cap to beef up Social Security), creative public policies to recreate the retirement system, an all-out war on the student loan racket, more emphasis on community needs, and less tolerance for extravagance, waste, and corruption. Some kindness will go a long way, too.

It may sound like I’m preaching the meme of austerity. No, to the contrary. I’m suggesting that we strive to live comfortable, healthy, safe, and enriching lives rather than be in a state of want. But we’ll need a values adjustment to get there.

(By the way, much of this will help to address global climate change. Less mad, privatized consumption will have a cooling effect on our planet, literally and figuratively.)

Call me Chicken Little, Cassandra, whatever

The sky is falling. But this begs the philosophical question: If the sky falls on Washington D.C. and Wall Street, but no one there heard or felt it, did it really fall?

Seriously, at a time when dramatic measures are needed to avoid terrible societal and individual pain later, our leaders in the private, public, and non-profit sectors aren’t exactly sounding the alarm bells. And much of America is oblivious to, or willfully ignoring, this coming mega-meltdown.

We do have choices, but time is running out.

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