Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Questioning credentials

I had written earlier about a revolt in the world of college admissions, and how the dean of admissions at MIT was trying to defuse a high-pressure system that encouraged people to exaggerate their credentials. Now, sadly, that very same dean of admissions has quit her job because she lied about her own credentials on her original resume for her first job with the school. And not a small lie, either . . . she fabricated three college degrees, when she had only attended college for one year and never graduated.

Jones must have been exceedingly popular and well-loved, because no one seems have a shred of schadenfreude for the incident, and the tone of everyone's announcements have been regret and sadness, not outrage and calls for reform. (Although someone, somewhere must have it in for her, since it was an anonymous phone call that tipped off the administration.)

When somebody screws up, and then we find out they falsified their credentials, people are outraged that an incompetent managed to dupe us. But the story is more complicated when someone who is obviously talented, highly skilled and very effective in their career turns up with false credentials. We're unhappy that the system has allowed someone to cheat, because that undermines the validity for all the people who paid their dues. Why spend half a dozen years working hard to get degrees, when you can just pretend you got them and still get the job? Jones' dismissal was clearly a matter of integrity and ethics, not competence.

But what's more troubling to the colleges (and those who attend them) is not a question of people counterfeiting credentials that have real value. It's worse than that. It's the sinking realization that maybe the degrees don't have that much value to begin with. If someone can have a successful twenty-eight year career with high visibility, and nobody could tell that she didn't have the degrees she claimed, can the degrees really mean that much? Could it be that a college degree is not all it's cracked up to be?

A college degree is not so much a certification of competence as an insurance policy against incompetence. Just because someone has degree, doesn't mean they will be good at a particular job. It just lowers the odds that they will be utterly unqualified. Employers look at college degrees as a proxy for real experience. Once someone proves they can do a particular job and do it well, the degree is somewhat superfluous. Which is probably why so many people lie about their degrees: once they get their foot in the door and prove their worth, they figure, "No harm, no foul."

I certainly don't want a world where more and more people lie about their accomplishments. But I wouldn't mind it at all if people start to give real-world experiences and demonstrated ability more consideration than degrees, diplomas, and certifications. That might lead people to focus more on really learning what they need to know to be successful, instead of just chasing after a potentially meaningless piece of paper. Which, in fact, was what Marilee Jones has been telling us for years.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Mr. Mom

A friend of mine from college, a brand-new parent, is contemplating becoming a stay-at-home dad. His wife has stable job that she really loves; he has a job that he hates, though he makes more money. He knows his mother will give him a hard time about it, if he does.

Here was my response to him:

Sounds like you've thought it through fairly well, but here's my take:
  • I agree with your starting assumption that one full-time parent is required for at least the first four years.
  • If you're still in the programming/consulting line of work, absolutely you'll have an easy time reentering the job market. In IT the only thing people care about is whether you can do the job. So no sweat there. Plus, it's relatively easy to work out of your home as a programming consultant, so you have a good path to resuming work when you're ready for it.
  • Full-time parenting can be stressful job, mostly because it's a 24/7 gig. You are always, always on call, and the client is very unreasonable and demanding, and you have little or no control. Your ego will get crushed into dust. If you ever believed that life was about you, this child will drive home the fact that what you want doesn't matter anymore.
    My wife never muched like work either, or at least she never found a job she really, really loved. She was happy to leave the workforce. But at the same time, she went through a profound change in her identity by being a mom. If you're used to defining yourself by what you do, parenting is going to be hard, because you have no visible accomplishments. Because parenting is a 24/7 gig, it tends to suck the oxygen away from any extracurricular activities as well. So be prepared for the psychological hit.
  • No matter who stays home with the kid, GET SUPPORT. All that "Gotta have a Group" stuff that Augie pounded into our skulls applies to parenting as well. You need peer support, at an intellectual and emotional and practical level. Janet is an Attachment Parenting leader, they're pretty good at supporting more enlightened child-raising. In California, you could probably find a group that specifically supports stay-at-home dads.
  • You wife does have one advantage as a full-time parent, which is her biology. Breasts are extremely useful for the first couple years of raising a child. I'm not being sexist here but . . . Well, I am being sexist. Millions of years of evolution have made a remarkable mechanism for instantly feeding the perfectly appropriate food to a child, whenever they need it at a moment's notice. To say that a bottle is the same thing is like comparing a real human leg to a prosthetic leg. There is a stunning amount of scientific evidence for significant physical, intellectual and emotional benefits for extended breast-feeding. Not to mention the sheer convenience . . . Mixing up formula in the middle of the night is a pain in the ass. Now, the advantages of breast-feeding may not outweigh the benefits of having a full-time parent in a stable and supportive home situation, so this is not a deal-buster, but it IS an important factor to consider.
  • Your parents . . . Well, nothing to be done about your parents. I don't know anything about your mom. If she's the kind who will kvetch about the same thing endlessly, then I would not hestitate to tell her that you don't want to hear it. Period. As in, go home and don't come back until you can shut up about the job thing. Parenting is hard, and the last thing you need is someone with emotionally privileged position in your life telling you that you shouldn't be doing it. I suspect she will be willing to keep her opinions to herself if she sees that it is necessary in order to have a relationship with her grandson. Again, GET A GROUP to support you through that sort of thing.

Hope this helps. Good luck!


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Divining purpose from talent

I started listening to The Purpose Driven Life again. I had started in on Frank McCourt's Teacher Man a while back and got distracted. So much for finding my life's purpose in 40 days.

One of Rick Warren's premises for the book is that a person is specifically shaped by God to serve a specific mission on the planet. Your talents, personality, and circumstances are (literally) designed to make you fit for a specific ministry. So, if you study yourself carefully, you should be able to discern what it is you're supposed to do.

That sounds reasonable, especially since it's approximately what every parent and high school guidance counselor ever said: "Find something you're good at and that you enjoy, and do that." But the fallacy of finding your purpose from your talents is shown somewhat in one of the stories in the Millenium episode I wrote about earlier. One of the devils, Blurk, tells of how he hitchhiked one night with a young man, Perry, who confessed to be interested in true crime and serial killers. The devil, seeing all the signs, pointed out that the young man was probably interested in the subject because he himself shared all the attributes of a serial killer:
Blurk: White male in his 20s; the abused product of a broken home who spent
his youth setting fires and/or torturing animals; an early addiction to drugs
and/or alcohol. Inability to hold a steady job or relationship with women.
Spending all your free time thinking about turning your masochistic/
mutilation/sex fantasies into reality! To say nothing of the fact that you
drive a van, and keep a roll of duct tape in your glove compartment!"

Perry: How the hell did - ? What are you trying to tell me?

Blurk: Play the hand you've been dealt.

And so Perry goes on to become a serial killer . . . just because he would be good at it. That's an extreme example, but it illustrates the point: talent alone is no guide at all to divine purpose. You still have to discern what's the right thing to do. And the right thing might, in fact, be entirely opposed to one's nature.

(As an aside, I saw a story in the News & Observer about former state agriculture commissioner Meg Scott Phipps returning home after serving four years in federal prison for extorting campaign contributions from State Fair vendors. Her local community was supportive of her, but they didn't talk about her actual crimes much because, as on business associate put it, "they accepted the fact that that was the hand she was dealt." I couldn't help but think of Blurk's promptings . . . people really do use that phrase to excuse all kinds of things.)

In fact, I would go so far as to say that divine calling is more visible precisely when it opposes one's own natural inclination. In a documentary on Mother Theresa and the Sisters of Charity, a number of the sisters confessed to feeling completely unmatched to their calling: "Every day I got up with the intention of leaving. But God wouldn't let me go." After her death, some of Mother Theresa's writings indicated that she herself suffered profound and lasting doubts about the nature of her ministry; she had an initial inspiration to work in Calcutta with the poor, but afterwards she went her entire life with no divine affirmation for her work. Far from seeing this as a problem, the Chuch officials overseeing her candidancy for sainthood see her doubts as evidence of a miracle: "How could she do so much, without the benefit of any divine revelation?"

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Poor me

Whenever I am driving off to some job I am dreading, or maybe even off to some routine chore but I'm obsessing over some other problem, I will experience the EEHIETM effect: "Everyone else has it easier than me." I'll see a guy riding his bike on the sidewalk, or a pair of blondes in Carolina sweatshirts running (and there are always, at any time of day, multiple pairs of blondes in Carolina sweatshirts running in Chapel Hill) and I'll think, mostly unconsciously and barely articulated: "They have it so easy. They don't have the worries I do. I wish I could be one of those normal, untroubled people." The effect is nearly universal; everyone I see gets the same reaction. Only the homeless or the profoundly ugly prompt the opposite response: "Jeez, I'm glad I'm not them."

These thoughts don't stand up to a moment's rational analysis. I know that I'm one of the luckiest SOBs on the planet, and I wouldn't trade places with anyone. I know that no matter how carefree someone else may seem, they have their own seething cauldron of anxieties. That guy throwing a frisbee in the quad is probably putting off doing his thesis. Those girls maybe trapped in dead-end relationships with guys with dead-end jobs. For all of my worries, I don't have any real problems: my family is healthy, I have enough money, I enjoy my job, I am hopeful for the future.

And yet, in the moment of anxiety, everyone else seems to be better off. A self-righteous narrator screams in my head: "Why can't these idiots understand how much stress I'm under!?!" Nor am I alone in this line of thinking. No matter how busy I am, every single person I meet, be they college student, housewife, or CEO, seems to think they are busier than me. "No, I couldn't possibly, I'm way too busy for that, maybe some other time."

So, it's become a mindfulness exercise for me:
If other people don't have the worries and troubles I do . . . that's ego.
If nobody understands how hard I have it . . . that's ego.
If the stress of my commitments seems unbearable . . . that's ego, too.

Everyone has worries. Everyone is busy. Nobody is appreciated as much as they ought to be. You will bear up under the stress.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me

At last night's SKS meeting, Kenny showed an episode of Millenium, a supernatural/crime TV show from the mid-1990's. The episode is entitled, "Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me," and it's been a staple of SKS meetings for the last ten years because it is one of the most extrordinarily philosophic pieces ever to appear on television. If you've never seen it, I would strongly encourage you to do so -- you can rent the Season Two DVDs from most video stores or NetFlix.
It's sort of a Screwtape Letters story -- four demons, disguised as old men, gather at local coffee shop to discuss their techniques for damning souls, and gradually realize that their is at least one person who can see their true essence. Follow the links to read a synopsis, if you can't stand to wait, as other fans have made much better descriptions of the episode than I could.

(Warning: Spoilers follow.)

I could write at length about each one of the demon's stories and it's implications, but I'll stick to what struck me about the stories last night:
  • Kierkegaard, among others, have been critical of modern Christian churches for their relative apathy in regards to sin and salvation. The bar for salvation is set remarkably low these days: a simple profession of belief is all that is required to win eternal life, and while virtue is seen as a result of a lifetime's development, salvation is considered a gimme. Such casualness about salvation is in direct contradiction to Jesus' teaching, which stressed that it was a rare thing: "Many are called, but few chosen," (Mathew 20:16) not to mention "Straight is the gate and narrow the way that leadeth to salvation." These stories were the first suggestion I've seen in a long time in the popular culture that saving your soul might require extraordinary means. All the humans discussed by the devils led live dominated by inertia, continuing unvaried in their path until they met their untimely end. It was only those who made a conversion (literally, "to turn around"), who escaped the damnation awaiting those who live ordinary lives.
  • This story almost trumps C.S. Lewis' vision of devilry for sophistication, because it has the audacity to actually sympathize with the demons as well as their victims. When Frank Black sees the demon Toby for what he really is, the most cutting, most true thing he can say is, simply: "You must be so lonely." No burning lakes, no hellfire and brimstone is required to punish these beings; their punishment is eternal isolation. The devils try to brush off the comment: "See? He just took you for the grieving boyfriend." After all, humans are the lonely ones. But when Toby repeats it again, "You must be so lonely," all the devils are silent. They all slink off, one by one, into the darkness, trying to forget.
  • Most people who come to the SKS would not initially consider themselves to be "spiritual seekers." They usually have to sit through a semester or two before they start to see their life through a spiritual lens. What is it, then, that brings them to the meetings? "They want to know that they are OK, and that they belong," Lauren said. In some ways, you could define the spiritual impulse as an ever-deepening attempt to connect, to be accepted by God and man. This show takes the same position, seeing damnation as isolation, and salvation as communion.
  • One of the demons' techniques is that of minor annoyances: he throws newspapers in puddles, gives undeserved parking tickets, verbally abuses coffee shop clerks. I thought it was ingenious to take such things seriously; it doesn't really take that much frustration to make us prone to evil acts ourselves. Most of my own unkindnesses are the direct result of "losing my cool," being overwhelmed by minor adversities just long enough to forget what's really important. I have often devalued disciplines like yoga or transcendental meditation that deified relaxation as a spiritual state, but there is a lot spiritual value in being able to remain calm.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut 1922-2007

Here's what Kurt Vonnegut taught me:
  • Vonnegut was the first author I read with whom I could not identify, and at the same time had a profound effect on me. Vonnegut was, at the time at least, a polar opposite from me: he was an atheist, a humanist, a pacificist, and perpetually irreverent, while I was an stiff-necked conservative agnostic struggling to be a believer, with little tolerance for flippancy towards profound things. Looking back on it, I can see how valuable that experience was. I wish everyone could be moved by things written by someone they disagree with, and come to love and admire someone who has all the wrong opinions. It creates a heady vertigo of the soul; it makes you believe, perhaps for the first time, that you could be wrong about some things, and that that might not be altogether a bad thing.
  • Vonnegut's writing was probably the best portrait of existentialist experience. Nobody ever did a better job of showing how senseless the world was, and still love it anyway.
  • I often told people, "Read one Vonnegut novel a year." As much as I enjoyed his work, I couldn't stand more than one a year. Humankind cannot bear much reality. Still, that will last you quite a long time. If you start as a senior in high school (which is the exactly correct time to start) you will finish in your mid-thirties, which is about the time you will start to feel like you really know what he's talking about.
  • Stylistically, Vonnegut was the first to teach me that less was more. He succeeded where Hemingway failed utterly. He was probably also the first to show me that simply telling the truth was the best way to have any hope of having any impact.
  • God dammit, we must be kind.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Summa Cum Laude

Friday's Wall Street Journal had a story on "The Most Praised Generation Goes to Work," describing how many employers now struggle to heap praise onto the twenty-somethings that grew up with lots of positive affirmation and can't stand to be without it. Older managers are baffled by the trend, and while handing out an unending stream of "atta-boys" is contrary to their nature, they feel they have to do it or else lose their younger talent.

According to the Enneagram personality typing, I am a Type Three, a "Performer." It might as well be labelled "Praise Junkie," because Threes fundamental sense of worth derives from how they imagine other people see them. I understand all too well how legitimate ambition and desire to succeed can degrade into a reflexive, unending need for praise and recognition. I have great sympathy for those who became hooked on positive affirmation; vanity is a cruel master.

Still, I don't think those managers are losing too much if their uber-stroked employees hit the door. This is not merely a matter of communication style, where you can swap one set of words for another and keep going. This need for constant affirmation is a serious limitation on a person's capacity. When I hire someone to do a job, it's not necessarily because I need a skill set that I don't have myself -- usually it's because I don't have time to do everything, and I need to delegate to others. I hire out work because I want to stop thinking about it. By that standard, the best employees are the most autonomous: those who just do their jobs, reliably and well, with a minimum of supervision. But if I have to watch an employee's every move, providing feedback every minute, then my attention is still chained to that job. If the management overhead is too much, I might as well have done it myself.

Could a praise junkie possibly be fit for genuine leadership? Could someone who needs a pat on the back every day possibly start and run a business? Because, last time I checked, customers are not known for giving out unstinting praise. Just the opposite: they tend to be full of demands. Vendors do not fret over your feelings. Employees, if they think about you at all, usually complain, or (these days) demand that you give them the pat on the back. Entrepreneurs, with their large and varied constituencies and perpetually limited resources, play an unending game of "Who am I going to disappoint today?"

I suspect that the younger generations praise-fixation is also an attention deficit in disguise. The trend towards "snack culture" -- where the content is short and the payoff quick -- has attenuated their capacity to stick to something for a long period of time. In those realms where they did exercise discipline -- school, sports -- the activities were completely defined, with clear winners and losers, beginnings and endings. They probably didn't get enough unstructured time: time to play in the sandbox, time to read a book, time to organize their friends into a baseball game. Their parents taught them to win the game; it never occurred to them the world needed people who can make up new games.

To accomplish anything of real significance, you have to be liberated from the need for praise. You have to want something else. You have to be focused on the accomplishment itself, rather than people's opinion of it. Rather than teaching managers how to praise, they should be holding workshops for the employees: "Learning to live with ambiguity."

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