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?

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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.

Business Week, meet the Freelancers Union: How to help self-employed workers

Richard Greenwald of St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, in a column for Business Week (link here), examines some of the legal hurdles facing workers in America’s freelance sector:

Today, the fast-growing freelance workforce is shouldering costs and risks formerly borne by companies. The self-employed can’t get unemployment insurance or file for workman’s compensation, and they aren’t covered by most federal or state employee labor laws, leaving them little recourse beyond spending precious time and money in small claims court if they aren’t paid.

Worse, the self-employed are taxed as if they’re medium-size employers, but they can’t deduct health insurance premiums and other expenses that bigger companies can. . . .

Health-care coverage may be the biggest roadblock. For years most freelancers were locked out because they couldn’t afford the high premiums. Now, despite its promise, the health reform law isn’t improving access to care for all Americans.

In terms of legislative action, Greenwald suggests:

Congress should reenact the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010. This piece of the stimulus, which expired at the end of last year, allowed freelancers to fully deduct their health premiums before assessing Social Security and Medicare tax. Then let’s amend federal labor law to cover the nonpayment of consultants so they have recourse through the Labor Dept. rather than suing in small claims court.

Freelancers Union

Many of these measures would please the Freelancers Union, an advocacy and support organization for America’s 42 million independent workers. In a blog post last year, I summarized the three-point policy agenda for freelancers by the group’s founder, Sara Horowitz:

Independent workers need (1) unemployment insurance to stabilize their income – and the U.S. economy – when they are involuntarily unemployed; (2) protection from late or denied payments, which 77% of freelancers have faced; and (3) access to affordable health insurance, which is prohibitively expensive to an individual on the open market.

Freelancers Union advocates in New York have been lobbying for the Freelancer Payment Protection Act, which would allow freelance workers to file claims with the state labor department for unpaid wages from deadbeat clients.

Shape of things to come

I think we may have some common ground here, built around an emerging consensus that supporting the freelance sector is a way of building tomorrow’s labor market. Hopefully advocates for legal reform will be successful in their call for changes to our labor protections and benefit provisions.

Possibilities

For those dealing with a layoff or recovering from a job where they were bullied or harassed, there may be an understandable tendency to dwell on the negative experiences of the recent past. But ultimately, if they want to turn things around, they’ll also want to envision the possibilities for something better.

This is much easier said than done. Nothing is more frustrating and even infuriating than to be told that it’s time to “get over it” or to “move on” from a horrible experience at work. Indeed, that experience may be with someone for a long time. Job loss, bullying, and harassment leave their marks.

And yet, the ability to look ahead is a key to finding that better place.

During the 2+ years I’ve written this blog, I have identified a number of books, websites, and resources that may be helpful to those who are forging solutions and options that will move them toward a better place.  I thought it might be useful to collect them, as well as a few others I haven’t mentioned, in one post. Here goes:

Inspiration, letting go, moving on

Career envisioning and job hunting

Richard Bolles’s What Color is Your Parachute? is a classic career guidance and job hunting manual, updated yearly. Go here for Bolles’s website.

Career coaching

Personal career coaching may help you define a better path. For example, Career Planning and Management in Boston offers career counseling services for individuals (link here). Principal and co-founder Dan King (and member of the New Workplace Institute advisory committee) has posted a host of excellent advice columns on the website, including “Fight or Flight: When Your Job Becomes a Nightmare” and “What Do You Want To Be In Your Next Life?”

Quitting, defining your role, and connecting

Among Seth Godin’s many great little books, The Dip (2007) helps you decide when to quit or hang in there, Linchpin (2010) helps you to define an indispensable role for yourself, and Tribes (2008) teaches you how to lead and connect.  Godin’s website (with lots of free goodies) and blog can be accessed here.

Starting a business or non-profit

Starting your own business or non-profit organization is hard work, but it may be an attractive option for those who have a great idea and a desire to call their own shots.

SCORE offers free, confidential, small business mentoring and training. Go here for the SCORE website.

The federal Small Business Administration is another helpful resource. Go here for the SBA website.

Boston University offers a four-course online certificate program in entrepreneurship. Go here for the program description.

The NOLO Press offers some excellent guides on navigating the legal end of creating businesses and non-profits. Go here for their small business page and here for their non-profits page.

The Free Management Library has a helpful page on starting a non-profit, here.

Lifelong learning

Especially if you’re considering a career switch, obtaining additional education and training may be advantageous. My advice is to consider all the options, taking the one that gets you there effectively, in the least time, and spending the least amount of money.

In elevated order of time and expense:

Independent learning

Learning what you need on your own is the most cost-effective approach. Three books — Ronald Gross, Peak Learning (1999) and James Marcus Bach, Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar (2009), and Anya Kamenetz, DIY U (2010) — are helpful resources.

It’s possible to learn a lot on your own. For example, I recently blogged about Josh Kaufman’s Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business (2010) and his accompanying website.

Continuing education

Non-credit courses, taken at a local college, adult education center, or online, can give you introductions to new vocations and professions and teach you needed skills.

Certificate programs

A certificate program can be useful in terms of both education and credential value, while requiring less time and expense than a full-blown degree. Colleges and universities (in person and online) offer certificate programs, as well as some adult learning centers.

Degree programs

A degree program can provide immersive study and a valuable credential, but it also can be expensive and time-consuming. Investigate this possibility thoroughly. Many people can get where they want to go without obtaining a new degree. But if you want to enter certain professions, such as teaching, nursing, law, and others, a degree program is the standard door opener.

Non-traditional options

Temping as a bridge strategy

Too many companies treat temporary workers shabbily. However, temp work can be regarded as a bridge to something better. You’ll find helpful information about the overall temp job market (here), pros and cons of temping (here and here), and temping strategies (here).

Freelancing

For freelancers, temps, and other workers in non-traditional positions, the Freelancers Union may be an important source of information and support. Go here for its website.

Telecommuting

For some, telecommuting is an attractive and perhaps even necessary choice.  To learn more about telecommuting options, go here (basics) and here (future of telecommuting).

Good luck!

These resources just begin to scratch the surface of the good stuff that is out there for people. If you find yourself ready to consider your next steps, I hope that some of this will be helpful to you.

Seth Godin’s “Alternative MBA”: A model for training future entrepreneurs?

In late 2008, entrepreneur and author Seth Godin posted an online announcement, inviting applications for an “Alternative MBA” program that would involve spending six months in residence with him and a small cohort of fellow learners who would create and execute plans for new enterprises (link here).

The idea

In pitching the idea, Godin took issue with both the cost and substance of current MBA programs. His homebrewed, unaccredited MBA program would emphasize hands-on project work and would not charge tuition. The original proposal anticipated students providing help on some of his projects, an expectation that was dropped once the program got underway.

This is how he originally described it:

Here’s the program I’m interested in creating:
One hour a day of class/dialogue
Four hours a day of working on my projects
Three hours a day of working on your personal project
Five hours a day of living, noticing, doing and connecting

Results

Godin’s announcement generated a lot of interest, including this exchange on Business Week’s forum discussing whether it was a worthwhile undertaking for participants. Some 350 people applied, 27 were chosen as finalists, and ultimately 9 were selected.

Near the end of the program in 2009, Godin posted a report about what the group had accomplished (link here), sharing his delight with the results:

We’re almost done, and it has exceeded every expectation I had for it, and I think there are some broader lessons worth sharing.

Here are two projects that came out of the program (with excerpts from their websites):

Fear.less

fear.less is a free online magazine that empowers people through unique stories of overcoming fear. From entrepreneurs, business leaders, artists and scientists to survivors of extreme experiences, these stories demonstrate the hidden potential we have to confront our fears and come out victorious.

The 150 Project

The 150 Project believes that the future of marketing is utilizing online communities for sales, marketing, support and innovation. We help companies connect to their customers or “tribe” through social media and online community platforms. We lead with the problem and solution and not the technology. We work with everyone from best selling authors to enterprise public companies.

“Final Takeaways”

Godin listed four major lessons from the experience:

  1. If you have the resources and wherewithal to run a program like this, you should.
  2. If you’re stuck, getting unstuck is not only possible, it’s an obligation.
  3. Find some peers and push each other.
  4. Making friends for life is difficult to overrate. Every one of these people is an all-star and I’m glad that I got to know them.

What’s (very) old is new again

A millenium ago, many of the earliest universities were guild-like groups of scholars who offered instruction to small cohorts of students seeking their expertise and guidance. Later on, as universities began to assume their more modern forms, schools such as Cambridge and Oxford would adopt tutorial style teaching methods that emphasized one-to-one contact between instructor and student.

Against that historical backdrop, Godin’s “alternative” program bears strong similarities to the origins of higher education.

A model?

Does this mean we’ll see more such efforts from accomplished practitioners and academicians? I don’t see a groundswell yet, but the opportunity to do intensive work over an extended period of time with leaders in a field is an awfully attractive approach.

Furthermore, at least in the U.S., the costs of pursuing undergraduate and graduate degree programs have reached alarming levels, as I’ve written before (here on student loans; here on higher education generally; here on legal education). In the case of a budding entrepreneur, why spend upwards of $100,000 or more to get an MBA if Godin’s approach is a faster, cheaper, and more effective avenue towards creating a start-up?

More such initiatives could emerge, and perhaps proliferate, in niche contexts where people have specific reasons for participating and where the educational experience, networking opportunities, and affiliations will outweigh the lack of a formal degree. Given the price tag of higher education these days, a lot of folks might be happy to pursue that route.

Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No

(image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

Every organization needs individuals who can sign off on new ideas. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. But what happens when these people are obstructive gatekeepers who stand in the way of innovation and creativity?

Defining a gatekeeper

In his excellent book The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010), Chris Guillebeau defines a gatekeeper this way:

Gatekeeper. n. 1. A person or group with a vested interest in limiting the choices of other people. 2. An obstacle that must be overcome to achieve unconventional success.

Sound familiar? If so, read on.

Human hedgerows in organizations

Guillebeau encourages people to find more independent ways to work, and many would benefit from considering that possibility. But what about the vast share of people who, by choice or circumstance, work in conventional organizations?

Mediocre, underperforming, and dysfunctional organizations are filled to the brim with gatekeepers. They sap creative and entrepreneurial energies, discourage innovation, and chase away — literally or figuratively — those who bring generosity of spirit and mind to the enterprise.

Dealing and negotiating with a Dr. No can be a maddening experience. He may be limited in terms of his own performance and presence, but often he functions as a mighty human hedgerow at blocking positive change.

Groups, too

Groups functioning as gatekeepers — such as committees with oversight and approval authority — often are driven by shared desires to control organizational agendas. They are master practitioners of groupthink. In worst case scenarios, a gatekeeping group can become a mob, acting out against an innovator or a non-conformist.

It gets personal — and sometimes passively-aggressive

Many gatekeepers resent “live wires” who bring originality and fresh energies into the room. Accordingly, the bureaucratic, gatekeeping mindset resists both new ideas and those suspected of harboring them. It is likely that someone regarded as a non-conformist will experience extra heavy gatekeeping resistance to a proposal or suggestion, simply because of the source.

In darker situations, gatekeeping can be a form of intentional exclusion, perhaps a passive-aggressive, bullying-type tactic. It’s a way of keeping someone in their place, blocking them from advancement, or preventing them from making a unique contribution. A manager who resents a talented subordinate can use gatekeeping as a way to keep them down, while maintaining plausible deniability that the decision was on the merits.

What gatekeeping is not

Okay, there can be another side to the story.

Some ideas just aren’t very good. At times, an individual proposing an initiative may lack the judgment, ability, or even trustworthiness to pull it off successfully. And even the best of organizations have dealt with individuals who cloak naked, clawing ambition and outright power grabs under the guise of being innovative. 

Troubleshooting proposals at the outset can save organizations a lot of frustrations and blow-ups later, not to mention time and money. Good organizations wisely and fairly vet new ideas, as well as the individuals who offer them. Good ideas and good people can pass an honest review of asking what can go wrong.

How to cope with them

When confronted with genuinely obstructive organizational gatekeepers, what are your options? Consider these questions and possibilities:

1. What can you do on your own authority, without running afoul of gatekeepers and putting your job in jeopardy? For example, maybe your idea or project doesn’t need gatekeeping approval under the protocols and policies of your organization.

2. Can you go around gatekeepers through intelligent and strategic manipulation of your bureaucracy? Perhaps you can get the green light from someone above them. That said, consider such options very carefully. It can burn bridges and leave you defenseless.

3. Is there a way of packaging your idea that makes it seem less innovative? Boldness is threatening to the average gatekeeper. Maybe you can pitch your proposal as more run-of-the-mill stuff.

4. If you’re not in the good graces of the gatekeepers, can you enlist the support of someone who is less threatening to them? Perhaps a colleague who is perceived as less of a threat can be out front in obtaining the go ahead.

5. Is this an idea that will keep until a gatekeeper is removed or you change your situation? Delaying implementation of an innovative idea creates the risk that someone else will beat you to it. But sometimes you can bide your time until circumstances change.

As you can see, there are no easy answers concerning how to navigate these dreamkillers. But sometimes it is possible to work around them, and hopefully that will be the case when you have an awesome new idea worth pursuing.

***

This post was revised in August 2020.

“Work is broken” (Can we fix it and remake it?)

Work is broken. This line was invoked by several speakers during opening sessions of the annual meeting of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA), held on January 6-9. It stood as a repeated acknowledgment of the deterioration of the employment relationship, the loss of good jobs, and the overall state of work in America.

LERA (website here) is the nation’s leading non-profit, interdisciplinary research and education association for scholars and practitioners in fields concerned with workplace relations. Work is broken was a telling admission from folks who have been researching and practicing for decades.

Let me count the ways

Of course, work may be broken in different ways to different people.

To workers who have been unable to obtain work for months or perhaps longer, we’re talking about the enduring effects of a recession that economists claim ended in June 2009. (That reminds me of a certain President who stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a big “mission accomplished” banner behind him….)

To workers who have been bullied or harassed out of their jobs while company executives or HR officers turned the other way, we’re looking at work environments so bereft of ethics that basic human dignity has been cast aside.

To workers who now are hearing that their pension plans may go under, we’re witnessing the breach of a social and legal contract that offered a decent retirement in return for many loyal years on the job.

Fixing work

Straight jobs

We need to rebuild our base of what some call straight jobs. By that I mean conventional jobs in the service, retail, and manufacturing sectors that provide a fair day’s pay for a good day’s work. Solid jobs where people are treated decently — some perhaps short on thrills and challenges, but at least paying for life’s expenses while providing the dignity of a paycheck.

Straight jobs anticipate working in offices and cubicles, factories and construction sites, and retail outlets of various shapes and sizes. They are fine for many people. After all, conventional employment can provide security, stability, and built-in resources — not a bad deal!

Recovering a balance of power

On a systemic level, we need to re-embrace the 3-way structure of employment relations in which workers, management, and government have a voice at the table in determining workplace governance. This was the case during the heyday of the American economy, covering roughly the late 1940s through 1960s. Our system reflected a better balance of countervailing power between major stakeholders in the employment relationship.

Labor movement

Accordingly, we need to rebuild our labor movement. Intense employer hostility to unions, weak government enforcement of labor laws, and changes in the labor market have resulted in that balance going way out of whack, especially in the private sector where individual workers are largely on their own to secure better pay and working conditions.

Unions are not a panacea. The bad ones are no more virtuous than lousy corporations, and I have heard many, many complaints from workers who were let down by theirs. Nevertheless, strong, effective, and inclusive unions remain the best way to channel concentrated employee power and voice for the largest number of workers.

Something different…

Equally important, we have to empower the creative and entrepreneurial instincts of those who want to do something different. Here’s why:

Our economy badly needs the jump start effects of new businesses. Supporting the creation of small businesses is a means to that end.

Furthermore, for some, straight jobs are limiting or even stifling. The 9 to 5 thing may be a long-time American staple, but it’s not for everyone.

In addition, many of these traditional work settings are, by their very nature, breeding grounds for dysfunctional and unethical behaviors. For example, unchecked workplace bullying rarely occurs in a vacuum; those who bully typically have been enabled by their organizations. Similarly, organizations where executive pay has become excessive usually have created the conditions that allowed it to happen.

Increasingly I am skeptical that most organizations with entrenched, dysfunctional cultures are capable of significant change. Perhaps a “marketplace” of ethical behavior can supplant some of the bad apples with entities capable of both productivity and decency.

Remaking work

So, what are some of these new ways of working? To encourage your brainstorming and visionary thinking, take a look at these resources, the first two of which I have mentioned before on this blog. Together they raise a world of possibilities:

Freelancer’s Union

The Freelancers Union (link here) is an advocacy and support organization for America’s 42 million independent workers, who represent roughly 30 percent of the workforce. These include “freelancers, consultants, independent contractors, temps, part-timers, contingent employees, and the self-employed.”

Seth Godin

Godin (blog here) is a bestselling author of books on work, careers, and entrepreneurship. His pithy works, in the forms of books and free online materials, encourage us to think imaginatively about how we spend our time working. For previous posts on Godin, go here.

Chris Guillebeau

Guillebeau (website and blog link here) is a writer on a crusade to encourage people to follow their dreams, not what others suggest for them, even if it puts them at odds with the mainstream.

He is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (Perigree 2010). Although the book suffers from a touch of youthful arrogance (he appears to be in his early 30s), his message may resonate strongly with folks experiencing a midlife crisis who are in search of inspiration and guidance to do something different with their lives. It’s a quick and excellent read.

Much of the book was developed out Guillebeau’s much-downloaded free pdf, A Guide to World Domination. He has a lot of great ideas, and I’ll be returning to his work in future posts.

***

Panel on Psychological Health at Work

If we’re going fix and remake work, then psychologically healthy workplaces must be part of the mix. Thus, I appreciate that LERA hosted a panel I organized titled “Psychological Health at Work: The Roles of Law, Policy, and Dispute Resolution.” I’ll have more to say on the subject matter of the presentations in future posts, but for now, here was our lineup:

Moderator

Heather Grob, Saint Martin’s University

Panelists

John F. Burton, Jr., Rutgers University (NJ)—Workers’s Compensation Benefits for Workplace Stress

Krista Hoffmeister, Colorado State University (CO)—Beyond Prevention Through Design: Perspectives from Occupational Health Psychology

Debra A. Healy, Healy Conflict Management Services (OR)—Mediating Workplace Abuse: Does It Work?

Tapas K. Ray, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (OH)—Costs of Stress at Work: Who Bears Them?

David C. Yamada, Suffolk University (MA)—Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Harassment: Emerging Legal Responses


Rework on Rock Stars: Academe, are you listening?

Software entrepreneurs Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are the co-authors of Rework (2010), a pithy book about management and leadership. Inspired by the Seth Godin School of Succinctness (in fact, Godin blurbs the book), it’s a collection of several dozen short mini-chapters devoted to managing and working with people and creating positive work environments.

Chasing rock stars

Fried and Hansson urge organizations to skip the pursuit of a handful of “rock stars.” Instead, companies should work hard on creating a “rock star environment” that unleashes the best that everyone has to offer. They note that “there’s a ton of untapped potential trapped under lame policies, poor direction, and stifling bureaucracies.” Eliminate that and other bad stuff and “you’ll find that people are waiting to do great work.”

Academe’s devotion to star chasing

If only the higher education industry could heed these words! All too often, the obsession with hiring rock star faculty overcomes any notions of building a rock star work environment.

Academe is in the midst of an era positively consumed by matters of institutional reputation and prestige. As such, many colleges and universities break open their piggy banks to recruit and hire “superstar” faculty who, they believe, will take them to greater heights. Any sense of logic or fairness concerning salaries and perks goes way out of kilter, creating valid resentment among others not so favored.

Inevitably, some of the supposed rock stars bring a rock star ‘tude while falling short of rock star performance. Too bad these schools haven’t learned the lessons of the National Basketball Association, whose franchises throw piles of money at young men who act like they belong in the Hall of Fame before they’ve even made their first all star team.

In reality, academe is filled with smart, hardworking people who teach well, contribute quality scholarship in their field, and render service to their institutions and the public. The true, genuine superstars, however, are few and far between. Academic institutions, trapped in their own culture of hype and prestige, frequently overlook this basic truth.

Are we staring at a long-term era of scarcity?

In a piece for the Jan.-Feb. 2010 issue of The Futurist (membership magazine of the World Future Society), Stephen Aguilar-Millan, Ann Feeney, Amy Oberg, and Elizabeth Rudd painted a bracing view of economic life between now and 2050:

The world economy will experience scarcities of natural resources from now until the middle of the twenty-first century, when a post-scarcity world becomes a reality….The world between 2010 and 2050 is likely to be characterized by scarcities: a scarcity of credit, a scarcity of food, a scarcity of energy, a scarcity of water, and a scarcity of mineral resources.

Similarly, consider this excerpt from a piece by Don Peck in the March issue of The Atlantic, which I included in a previous post (link here) about the effects of the Great Recession:

The Great Recession may be over, but this era of high joblessness is probably just beginning. Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men. It could cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a despair not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years to come.

Our challenge

If these bleak forecasts turn out to be accurate (or even close), then we are looking at a long-term period of difficult times. This will not be easy for generations who have lived during an age of material excess, fueled by easy credit and a belief that economic prosperity is our birthright.

Our challenge will be to find ways to live good and meaningful lives in an era of scarcity. It will require revisiting the values that led us to this mess and reorienting our lives and lifestyles so that we are less about stuff and more about humanity. Instructive on these points are the words of my late friend and pioneering adult educator John Ohliger (1926-2004), which appeared in a 1981 issue of his newsletter Second Thoughts:

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.

World of work

Obviously this will have a profound impact on the world of work. In the U.S., we’re already seeing this with persistently high unemployment rates and extended periods of joblessness. It is quite possible we have not hit rock bottom.

And yet, we live in a world where so much remains to be done. It’s not as if our needs for food, housing, goods, and services have suddenly disappeared. It’s not as if our lives are as enriched as they could be by music, words, and art. And it’s not as if all of our sick and elderly are receiving proper care, all of our bridges, tunnels, and roadways are sturdy and safe, and all of our kids are learning and growing at school.

So, is there a better time than now for our creativity, entrepreneurship, and enterprise — informed and inspired by a healthy dose of humanity — to rise up and shape our future, lest we be limited by forces we let control us?

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The article in The Futurist, “The Post-Scarcity World of 2050,” is available online to World Future Society members.

I am working with John Ohliger’s wife, Chris Wagner, to revive Second Thoughts as a blog. To read the initial posts, go here.

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