The “butterfly effect” and working as an educator

I’ve just finished Stephen King’s new bestseller, 11/22/63, which centers on a modern day schoolteacher, Jake Epping, going back in time in an attempt to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. Even though it weighs in at nearly 850 pages, it’s an absorbing tale. And like the best of popular fiction, it’s both accessible (i.e., perfect for a long Thanksgiving weekend) and thought provoking.

Although the challenge of saving the President is the main plot driver, the novel also offers a terrific backstory about Jake’s work as a teacher, and naturally I found myself dwelling upon it.

Butterfly effect

King’s novel, and many time travel tales in general, embrace the idea of the “butterfly effect.” In science, the butterfly effect theorizes that a butterfly’s wings potentially could create a tornado hundreds or thousands of miles away. In popular culture, it has come to represent the idea that small changes in choices or actions may trigger or lead to ripple effects of a profound and unanticipated nature.

I make no claim of expertise about the butterfly effect’s legitimacy as a scientific theory, but I have to say that as a social phenomenon, it makes intuitive sense to me. One thing leads to another, say two of my favorite educators about the art and process of learning, Drs. John Bilorusky and Cynthia Lawrence, and the butterfly effect takes that idea to more dramatic ends.

Of course, inherent in the butterfly effect is its unpredictability. We can’t necessarily foresee these significant events, and they will be a mix of good and bad. (Butterfly. Tornado. Only good if you’re a storm chaser or a bored weather reporter.) That’s what makes the theory so appealing for time travel stories.

The work of an educator

However, I also know as an educator that a good act one day can spawn further good acts by others in the years to come. Indeed, that’s what teaching, mentoring, and scholarship are all about: If we’ve been at this business long enough, then we’ve witnessed what happens when our work has a positive impact somewhere down the line.

In essence, being an educator is an ongoing act of faith. On a day-to-day basis, the benefits of our work to others may not always be evident. In fact, a class or course that didn’t go as well as we had hoped, or a publication that doesn’t appear to be attracting much attention, may well cause us to wonder if we’re spinning our wheels or wasting our time. But on occasion, perhaps on many occasions if we are fortunate, we are gifted with the realization that our work allows us to make a difference, even if we’ll never be aware of its full effects.

Responsibility

I don’t want to overstate our potential influence. Folks, it’s not like our students and readers are hanging on to our every word — a basic truth that too many educators forget or never learn. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to put into the stream of human ideas and activity our best insights, understandings, and instructions.

And — even then — we have no guarantees how our lessons will be used or misused or forgotten. After all, butterflies are free, yes?

***

The butterfly effect and teaching

Heather A. Hass, “Teaching and the Butterfly Effect,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2004)

Paul D. Carrington, “Butterfly Effects: The Possibilities of Law Teaching in a Democracy,” Duke Law Journal (1992)

Wikipedia articles

Butterfly effect

Butterfly effect in popular culture

Book recommendation!

It has nothing to do with the main themes of this blog, but if you’re into time travel stories, check out Jack Finney’s classic illustrated novel, Time and Again (1970), which takes its protagonist back to New York City, circa 1882. Stephen King calls it the best time travel story ever written. For me, discovering the book some 25 years ago was a magical reading experience.

Freelance revolution and freelance realities

Is the independent, freelance sector our next great job generator and a path to living the dream?

Freelance revolution

Sara Horowitz of the Freelancers Union, writing for The Atlantic, says the surge of freelance workers is the “industrial revolution of our time” (link here):

…Today, careers consist of piecing together various types of work, juggling multiple clients, learning to be marketing and accounting experts, and creating offices in bedrooms/coffee shops/coworking spaces. Independent workers abound. We call them freelancers, contractors, sole proprietors, consultants, temps, and the self-employed.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, many of them love it.

This transition is nothing less than a revolution. We haven’t seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy.

Freelance realities

But going it on your own is no piece of cake. Alex Williams, writing for the New York Times, followed the entrepreneurial ambitions of disenchanted, well-credentialed escapees from Corporate America and found that realities can be tough on dreams (link here):

Plan B, it turns out, is a lot harder than it seems. But that hasn’t stopped cubicle captives from fantasizing. In recent years, a wave of white-collar professionals has seized on a moribund job market, a swelling enthusiasm for all things artisanal and the growing sense that work should have meaning to cut ties with the corporate grind and chase second careers as chocolatiers, bed-and-breakfast proprietors and organic farmers.

….The lures are obvious: freedom, fulfillment. The highs can be high. But career switchers have found that going solo comes with its own pitfalls: a steep learning curve, no security, physical exhaustion and emotional meltdowns. The dream job is a “job” as much as it is a “dream.”

Sorting it out

Both views are real. For those who have a promising, marketable new service or product and a desire to create their own business, the independent route may be the one to go. However, virtually every start-up requires grit, determination, countless extra hours, and a dose of luck and timing to succeed.

Creating new enterprises and fostering healthier ways of earning a living are vital parts of a responsive solution to the surfeit of dysfunctional organizations currently in existence and the economic challenges people are facing. I hope that combinations of private, non-profit, and public sector support can help people turn their good ideas and aspirations into reality.

Labor Day Reader 2011: Stormy weather for workers

Photo by David Yamada

Folks, by just about any measure, this is a brutal Labor Day. Millions of workers are without jobs, too many of the employed struggle with unpleasant or even abusive work situations, and the economy is in dismal shape. Here’s a snapshot of commentary on the state of American labor 2011:

To work, we need jobs

Labor Day newspaper features and editorials are all about jobs. For example, here’s the lede from Katherine Yung’s two-part series on jobs and the economy in the Detroit Free Press (link here):

Almost 2 1/2 years after losing his job as an inventory technician, all Mark Baerlin has to show for his lengthy job search are notebooks filled with information about the 343 jobs for which he applied.

So far this year, the Dearborn resident has gotten five interviews. None of them panned out.

In early July, Baerlin exhausted all 99 weeks of his unemployment benefits. He has been saving every penny he can, canceling doctor appointments and using as little water, lighting, air-conditioning and gasoline as possible. If the 51-year-old doesn’t find a job soon, he could lose his house.

Unhappy workers

America’s workers are very dissatisfied with their jobs and their employers. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer summarize important polling results in a New York Times op-ed piece (link here):

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has been polling over 1,000 adults every day since January 2008, shows that Americans now feel worse about their jobs — and work environments — than ever before. People of all ages, and across income levels, are unhappy with their supervisors, apathetic about their organizations and detached from what they do.

Future of the Middle Class

In a thought-provoking analysis for The Atlantic, Don Peck asks whether America’s middle class can be saved (link here):

Arguably, the most important economic trend in the United States over the past couple of generations has been the ever more distinct sorting of Americans into winners and losers, and the slow hollowing-out of the middle class. Median incomes declined outright from 1999 to 2009.

***

The post-war decades of the 20th century were unusually hospitable to the American middle class—the result of strong growth, rapid gains in education, progressive tax policy, limited free agency at work, a limited pool of competing workers overseas, and other supportive factors. Such serendipity is anomalous in American history, and unlikely to be repeated.

Yet if that period was unusually kind to the middle class, the one we are now in the midst of appears unusually cruel. The strongest forces of our time are naturally divisive; absent a wide-ranging effort to constrain them, economic and cultural polarization will almost surely continue.

Goodbye pensions, goodbye retirement?

Labor lawyer and journalist Steve Early, writing for The Progressive, warns of the demise of pensions (link here):

This Labor Day, workers need to beware: Management may be making it harder to retire.

That’s because more employers, in both the private and public sector, have phased out traditional pensions and replaced them with individual retirement accounts.

…The dismal performance of the stock market over the last three years has wrecked a lot of people’s 401(k) plans. But even before the collapse of Lehman Brothers — and the stock market’s current roller coaster ride — the shortcomings of 401(k) coverage were quite apparent.

On Wisconsin

The unprecedented attack on public workers and their unions in Wisconsin has become a matter of national significance. Dave Poklinkoski, writing for Labor Notes, reflects on the meaning of Wisconsin and lessons that can be drawn from it (link here):

The struggle in Wisconsin was the awakening that labor movement activists had hoped for—disproving the modern notion that those who work will not stand up for themselves. Several hundred thousand people rallied in communities across the state.

…But the recall elections of six Republican senators turned out to be an education opportunity lost, in a sea of negative attack ads.

And in our own corner of the world….

…we’re renewing our commitment to stopping workplace bullying:

For those who would like to become active in state campaigns to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, please go here. And for an extensive Labor Day interview with two pioneers of the workplace anti-bullying movement, Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, conducted by Bob Morris, go here.

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.

“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


Websites of the Week: Freelancers Union and YES! magazine

If you’ve been following this blog in recent weeks, you may have picked up on my sense that we need to find new ways of working and living in an age of uncertainty and economic turmoil. Two great sources to encourage our thinking and action are the Freelancers Union and YES! magazine.

Freelancers 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.”

The Freelancers Union is committed to providing “mutual support and community” and to supporting social entrepreneurship. It also endorse changes in the law that will enable independent workers to succeed. (For more on this, see my post summarizing founder Sara Horowitz’s three-part policy agenda to help freelancers.)

Spend a bit of time lurking around the Freelancers Union website. You may find some helpful information for your own career — or perhaps envision yourself doing independent work with more support than you imagined was available. Membership is free.

YES! magazine

YES! (link here) “reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions.” Its articles “outline a path forward with in-depth analysis, tools for citizen engagement, and stories about real people working for a better world.”

What I like about YES! is its hopeful balance. It acknowledges the darkness and attempts to light a candle.

Its website is jampacked with good stuff, including a full archive of articles, freely accessible. For now they’re also offering an online special subscription rate of $17 for one year (4 issues).

Recently I highlighted a series of articles in the current issue of YES! on building resilient communities. This is a prime example of the kind of creative thinking presented in the magazine and its website.

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I must admit that I have not thought through the full implications of the ideas offered by these resources in terms of work and workplaces. After all, I can hardly claim to be a freelancer, having worked in institutional settings for all of my career. And I have a lot to learn when it comes to the resilient practices favored by YES! magazine. But I cannot help but feel that we are going to have to adapt and innovate in response to the challenges facing us, and these two entities are prime among those that will help to show us the way.

Seth Godin: Who reacts, responds, or initiates?

In his 2008 book Tribes, Seth Godin identifies three things that organizations and individuals do: React, respond, and initiate.

Reacting to external events is “the easiest thing.”  It is “intuitive and instinctive and usually dangerous.”  Too many politicians and managers merely react to developments thrust upon them, and often badly.

Responding is “the second easiest thing.”  Responding to “external stimuli with thoughtful action” is “a much better alternative” to simply reacting. A response requires deliberation and planning.

Initiating is by far the most challenging of the three, but it is “what leaders do.”  They see a void or need and act upon it, thereby causing “events that others have to react to.”  They seize and create the agenda. They are the true change agents.

Simple but insightful

Godin captures, in one neat little commentary, the differences among so many organizations and managers.  Obviously circumstances may dictate when an entity or individual reacts, responds, or initiates. But think of your own world, whether it be a business, a community group, a school, or some other entity.  Who reacts?  Who responds?  Who initiates?  I’ll bet the answers to those questions reveal who are the change agents in that realm, hopefully leading society in positive directions.

***

Seth Godin’s website and accompanying blog (links here) offer an abundance of ideas and free materials for individuals and organizations.

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