Recycling: Five years of Mays

Dear readers, with some 1,100 articles posted to this blog since its founding in late 2008, on a monthly basis I’m going to reach into the archives to highlight a piece from the corresponding month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they will provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

May 2013: Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings?

In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.

…Suicide is a scary, intimidating, and complicated topic, and it makes many of us uneasy. But a nation’s suicide rates should be among the prime indicators of its collective health and well-being. We need to “own” these statistics, understand what’s behind them, and do our best to respond to them. This will enhance our lives a lot more than obsessing over stock market reports and enabling corporations whose leaders don’t give a hoot about the rest of us.

May 2012: Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids

We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.

…Bullying-induced depression can impact parental care provided by mothers and fathers alike. But I suggest that there’s a disparate impact on women. Let’s connect the dots….

…In other words, the evidence suggests that we’ve got a cohort of bullied, depressed moms out there, and the pain of their experience at work is being passed on to their kids at home.

May 2011: What policy objectives should workplace bullying legislation advance?

With growing discussion about the enactment of workplace bullying legislation occurring both in the U.S. and in other nations, it is fitting to identify some of the broad objectives that any such law should be designed to further.

When I was drafting the Healthy Workplace Bill, I identified a cluster of public policy goals that should inform the substance of an anti-bullying law. These four figured most prominently….

May 2010: Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife

Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true. I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity.

Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this….

May 2009: Star Trek: To bold embrace passions…or to obliterate work-life balance?

With Star Trek and its heirs, life on a starship is all encompassing. The officers and crew live where they work. There rarely is such a thing as a “vacation,” unless beaming down to a planet that may serve up life-threatening beings or diseases counts as Club Med or the French Riviera. Alas, to my knowledge, none of the Star Trek incarnations feature an employee assistance program or union shop steward to address issues of overwork or chronic stress.



Messiness and creativity

My creativity is bustin' out all over

My creativity is bustin’ out all over (photo: Sandie Allen)

As the photo above suggests, this may be among the most self-justifying of blog posts: A short write-up of a recent study indicating that messiness may nurture creativity.

Marketing professor Kathleen D. Vohs (U. Minnesota) writes in Sunday’s New York Times about the results of a multi-layered study that she and her colleagues conducted:

Not long ago, two of my colleagues and I speculated that messiness, like tidiness, might serve a purpose. Since tidiness has been associated with upholding societal standards, we predicted that just being around tidiness would elicit a desire for convention. We also predicted the opposite: that being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions.

We conducted some experiments to test these intuitions, and as we reported in last month’s issue of the journal Psychological Science, our hunches were borne out.

I’ll let you read the full op-ed piece for a summary of how they conducted their experiments, but their bottom line is that messiness may enhance our creative impulses.

It follows that minimalist office designs, seemingly in vogue these days, may have unintended downsides:

At the same time, the working world is abuzz about cultivating innovation and creativity, endeavors that our findings suggest might be hampered by the minimalist movement. While cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.

It takes all kinds

Tongue-in-cheek aside, this is not a full-blooded case for messy work settings. Tidiness has its place.

Take, for example, the term “shipshape.” It refers to “meticulous order and neatness,” according to On a ship, everything should be in its place, and for good reason: Lives may depend upon it. If you step aboard a boat, and you see gear and gadgetry randomly strewn all around the deck, be worried, very worried. (Get back ashore, or jump if you must!)

Other work settings, however, present different priorities and purposes, and insisting that everything be shipshape could be detrimental to your ultimate goals. In fact, if we want to encourage creativity and innovation, perhaps our physical work environments might best reflect the very brainstorming occurring in our heads.

To bring it back to me: Yes, a lawyer’s case files should be organized and orderly. But maybe a law professor’s office can afford a few piles here and there (and everywhere).

A plea for art as vocation and artists as leaders

Kayhan Irani

What if our society made more room for artistic expression as a form of vocation and recognized more artists as leaders? Those are among the questions raised by Kayhan Irani, a self-styled “artivist” based in New York who uses her artistic and creative gifts to advance social change.

Kayhan has been a dear friend since 2004, when I invited her to Boston to present “We’ve Come Undone,” her compelling one-woman play about the challenges confronting immigrant women in the post-9/11 era. Since then, I’ve watched her define her vocational role and win plaudits for her artistic work, including a 2010 New York Emmy for a 9-episode educational television drama for immigrant New Yorkers and co-editorship of a book about the use of storytelling to advance social change. (Go here for her interesting and impressive bio.)

Yesterday on her blog, Kayhan asked readers to consider how art (of all types) can be sustaining work and how artists can serve as societal leaders. I wanted to share some of that with you and to offer a few responses.

Art as vocation

Kayhan first takes issue with stereotypes about artists and with assumptions that artistic work should not be a sustaining form of vocation:

The messages that are broadcast in our society about artists are that we are irresponsible, stupid, drug addicts, mentally ill, have questionable morals; and that art is frivolous, a diversion, not serious work, it’s only for some people, it’s stupid, and can’t pay the bills.  In order to maintain the status quo, we need artists to remain on the fringes of society, barely visible, always teetering on the brink of poverty and irrelevance.

These messages get enforced from a very early age.  Imagine an adult asking you, with pleasure, if you are going to be a lawyer or a dancer when you grow up; what about a firefighter or a painter?  From a very young age, we are steered away from art-making as a life choice.

Artists as leaders

Kayhan concludes by urging us to consider how artistic leadership can be a force for positive social change:

And that brings me to my main point: art and creativity are the most powerful forces we have for liberation.

Art can bring people together.  We don’t even need to speak the same language.

Art can make a way out of no way.  When people are living in oppressive situations, artists can help imagine a way out.  The fight for another world has to imagine that the impossible is possible.

Artists never stop questioning.  Creativity means to use your senses to engage in a process of inquiry.

So let the artists lead us.  Let us recognize that they already do!

Spot on

Kayhan’s call for a world where artistic expression helps us to envision better communities and lives sounds pretty good to me. And it sure would be nice if it was provided by artists who are able to earn a decent living from their work.

I’m not suggesting that we live without formal structures or ditch anything that smacks of “businesslike.” After all, as a lawyer and law professor, I believe that a world without the rule of law would be a pretty scary one. (I’m not exactly enamored with the legal system we have, but that’s for other posts.) And I fully acknowledge that enterprise and technology can bring us some neat stuff, such as the computer I’m using to produce this article.

However, we have got things way, way out of balance. In particular, the financial insanity that led us to the economic meltdown should have prompted a deeper questioning of basic values and major institutions, but I fear we are squandering that opportunity as we yearn for a “recovery” that puts us in a position to do it all over again.

In the meantime, many artists who have been dependent upon outside funding and non-profit sponsorship for their work are struggling even more.

New ways

So…to Kayhan’s eloquent plea I’ll add the need for societal structures that enable artistic work and are not as subject to the boom-and-bust cycles of our casino economy. I confess that I haven’t made all the “third way” connections between this and other forms of sustainable, community-oriented initiatives and enterprises, but I’m sure others have done so. Surely we cannot repeat the mess we’re in, right? Right?

Recycling: The Golden Rule at work, hanging together, and personal reinvention

With the holidays beckoning, here are three past articles that offer some positive ideas and messages:

1. What if we applied the Golden Rule at work? (October 2010) — Did you know this “rule” has its roots in many faith traditions?

2. Can communal responses to tough times lead us to better lives? (October 2010) — Hopeful, humane, and creative thinking for difficult times.

3. Seth Godin: Seven keys to personal reinvention (September 2010) — Better than a New Year’s resolution.

[Editor’s Note: In addition to maintaining a list of articles that have remained very popular on this blog — see the Popular and Notable Posts page — every month or so I’m recycling relevant posts from more than a year ago. Hopefully they will be of interest to newer readers.]

Steve Jobs: Brilliant, visionary, and (like most of us) imperfect

Apple store, Boston's Back Bay (by David Yamada)

Public reaction to the passing of Apple’s Steve Jobs after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer has become a phenomenon in itself. News media have devoted tons of space and time to stories praising his inventive, visionary work. Facebook was inundated immediately with expressions of sadness from Apple fans. Grateful customers have left flowers and notes outside of Apple stores, as this photo I took on Sunday attests.

When was the last time we saw such an outpouring of affection and mourning surrounding the death of a company executive and entrepreneur?

Remarkable personal legacy

I’m writing this article on my MacBook. Earlier this year, I bought an iPad. Though I don’t use it often, I’ve got an iPod too. And were it not for my loathing of cell phones, I probably would’ve replaced my ancient flip phone (with antenna!) with an iPhone as well.

So yes, I understand how Steve Jobs changed the way millions of people work and play, especially when our lives cross with digital technology. He believed in making products that were, in his words, “insanely great,” and quite often, he succeeded.

Many associate Jobs with his more recent innovations, but if you want to learn more about the early days of the digital world he helped to create, check out Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984) and Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything (2000 ed.).

But he could be a bully

Nevertheless, those interested in effective management should not overlook that Jobs was an extremely demanding boss who could become a bullying one. As David Streitfeld observed last week in the New York Times (link here), he “chewed out subordinates and partners who failed to deliver, trashed competitors who did not measure up and told know-it-all pundits to take a hike.”

In 2009, Forbes magazine named Jobs to its “Bullying Bosses Hall of Fame” (link here), noting that he “is known for his obsessive attention to detail and iron-fisted management style. He is often accused of making his subordinates cry and firing employees arbitrarily.”

Jobs was a genius, intolerant of what he perceived to be marginal work. Forbes pointed out that some of his subordinates produced the best work of their careers, but surely others withered under the blistering criticism.

Life lessons

Steve Jobs envisioned and created digital machines that have changed the everyday lives of millions. However, we can praise his body of work without ignoring that — like most of us — he had some things he should work on. After all, the lives of remarkable people yield more useful lessons when we regard them as gifted and imperfect human beings, rather than as icons.


Related post

What will be your body of work?

Do credibility and innovation mix?


Cover of “Poke the Box”

Is it possible to have both credibility with the Establishment and freedom to innovate?

Seth Godin captures it beautifully in this snippet from his latest book, Poke the Box (2011), in which he encourages people to create and market new, valuable goods and services. Here he summarizes the “paradox of success”:

People with no credibility or resources rarely get the leverage they need to bring their ideas to the world.

People with credibility and resources are so busy trying to hold onto them that they fail to bring their provocative ideas to the world.

Bingo. In two sentences he explains why new, fresh, promising ideas face such a challenge in getting their due, and why people and organizations who have “made it” sometimes become timid and cautious.

Risking credibility

There are exceptions to this dynamic, and not surprisingly they come from very successful enterprises that are in a position to risk some street cred.

Remember when Apple introduced its iPad? Many reviewers and computer industry gurus scoffed at this odd cross between a netbook computer and a smart phone, wondering if Apple had invested a ton of money and marketing into a clunker of a product that would soon disappear.

I felt the same way. I thought the iPad was a silly indulgence that had very little practical use. However, every time I stepped into an Apple store, I’d find myself playing with the iPads. And once the iPad 2 was announced, I knew I was a goner. (I now use mine regularly.)

Apple invented a market, created the conditions for that product to thrive (almost singlehandedly introducing the term “apps” into our lexicon), and now dominates that market — while its competitors serve up bad imitations.

Responsible risk taking

Okay, so Apple wasn’t exactly the corporate equivalent of Braveheart when it rolled out the iPad. Had it failed, customers would still be gobbling up Macs and iPhones. But it did demonstrate a willingness to be laughed at by those in the know…while saving the last laughs for itself.

Organizations and individuals who have established their credibility may have to make a judgment call on the worthiness of advancing a cutting edge idea or product, especially one that could undermine hard-earned credibility if it fails. But those who who play it safe often lose their edge and become pretty ordinary.

Starting out from scratch

That still leaves the question of folks at the starting gate. What if you’re a newcomer, an unknown, a novice, but you have a great idea that represents out-of-the-box thinking?

You’ll need perseverance and resourcefulness, plus a dose of good luck and the right timing.

However, because you’re not a known or prominent commodity, it’s possible that you’ll be greeted with dismissiveness rather than derision. There are advantages to being taken too lightly, not the least of which is the ability to move forward quietly, however haltingly, while the Establishment pretty much ignores you.

Once your idea or product gains some traction, people will take notice, and you may find yourself creating a new market or movement. This, of course, will grant you a big dose of credibility, in which case you’ll have to figure out what to do the next time you get a neat new idea.

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