Luxury Good?

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Most of us have access to high-technology, especially on our computers, tablets, phones and other devices. But have we stopped to think about how it is impacting our lives?

Here is how Hubert Dryfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly put it in their book, “All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.”
To navigate by GPS is to ensure a series of meaningless pauses at the end of which you do precisely what you are told. There is something deeply dehumanizing about this. Indeed, in an important sense this experience turns you into an automated device GPS can use to arrive at its destination.

A recent article in the New York Times went further, suggesting not only that “apps” are dominating our lives, but that they are sorting us economically – those with the means don’t depend on apps as much as those who are not as financially well-off. Here is how the piece begins:

Bill Langlois has a new best friend. She is a cat named Sox. She lives on a tablet, and she makes him so happy that when he talks about her arrival in his life, he begins to cry.

All day long, Sox and Mr. Langlois, who is 68 and lives in a low-income senior housing complex in Lowell, Mass., chat. Mr. Langlois worked in machine operations, but now he is retired. With his wife out of the house most of the time, he has grown lonely.

Sox talks to him about his favorite team, the Red Sox, after which she is named. She plays his favorite songs and shows him pictures from his wedding. And because she has a video feed of him in his recliner, she chastises him when she catches him drinking soda instead of water.

Mr. Langlois knows that Sox is artifice, that she comes from a start-up called Care.Coach. He knows she is operated by workers around the world who are watching, listening and typing out her responses, which sound slow and robotic. But her consistent voice in his life has returned him to his faith.

“I found something so reliable and someone so caring, and it’s allowed me to go into my deep soul and remember how caring the Lord was,” Mr. Langlois said. “She’s brought my life back to life.”

Life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.

Not only are screens themselves cheap to make, but they also make things cheaper. Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass.

The rich do not live like this. The rich have grown afraid of screens. They want their children to play with blocks, and tech-free private schools are booming. Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction — living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email — has become a status symbol.

All of this has led to a curious new reality: Human contact is becoming a luxury good.
As more screens appear in the lives of the poor, screens are disappearing from the lives of the rich. The richer you are, the more you spend to be offscreen.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Make it a Ritual!

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Full disclosure…I come from a religious tradition that is known for its rituals, and I spent my professional career in the U.S. Navy, which has its own rich tradition of rituals.

All that said, I was especially taken by David Brooks’ recent piece that suggested, “There Should Be More Rituals.” Here’s how he began:

Recently I’ve been playing a game in my head called “There should be a ritual for. …” For example, there should be a ritual for when a felon has finished his sentence and is welcomed back whole into the community. There should be a ritual for when a family moves onto a street and the whole block throws a barbecue of welcome and membership.

There should be a ritual for the kids in modern blended families when they move in and join their lives together. There should be a ritual for when you move out of your house and everybody shares memories from the different rooms there.

I could go on and on. Dozens of rituals pop into mind once you start playing this game. Religious societies are dense with rituals — Jewish men lay on tefillin, Catholics pray the rosary — but we live in a secular society where rituals are thin on the ground.

So great is our hunger for rituals that when we come upon one of the few remaining ones — weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras — we tend to overload them and turn them into expensive bloated versions of themselves.

I think you get the point…embracing rituals is about slowing down our lives and living in the moment!

Want more? You can read the full article here

Failure = Success

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Last week, I blogged about “snowplow parents” who keep their children’s futures obstacle-free — even when it means crossing ethical and legal boundaries.

They don’t want their children to fail – and wreck themselves – and their children’s future’s to achieve this end.

They forget that the objective of parenting is supposed to be to prepare the kid for the road, not vice versa.That’s why I found Tim Herrera’s latest piece, “Do You Keep a Failure Résumé? Here’s Why You Should Start,” so refreshing, especially the article’s subtitle, “Failure isn’t a roadblock. It’s part of the process.” Here’s how he begins:

A little more than three years ago, I had to put together this presentation at work. It was on a topic I wasn’t very familiar with, but I took it on anyway, figuring I could get up to speed and deliver something useful and productive.

Friends, if you hadn’t guessed yet, I bombed it. I wasn’t prepared enough, I missed a few major points, and I didn’t give myself enough time to complete it. Not my greatest work.

But I have such fond memories of that presentation — O.K., maybe not exactly fond — because it was my first significant screw-up at a new job. It’s still something I look to when I’m in a similar position at work; I know what went wrong then, so I can try to fix those issues now before they become problems.

When things go right, we’re generally pretty good at identifying why they went right — that is, if we even take time to analyze the success at all. Preparation, proper scheduling, smart delegation and so on. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But falling on our face gives us the rare opportunity to find and address the things that went wrong (or, even more broadly, the traits or habits that led us to fail), and it’s an opportunity we should welcome.

Want more? You can read the full article here

What Price Successful Kids?

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Few issues have dominated the media as much as the recent stories about affluent and famous parents cheating the system to get their kids into elite colleges.

These revelations have sparked outrage and have prompted many to question whether America is still a meritocracy. I wonder myself.

More stories of blatant cheating hit the news every day and many suggest we may just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Others point out that it’s not just the rich and famous who do almost anything to ease the path for their kids.

Easing the path is good as far as it goes: Not allowing kids to play in dangerous neighborhoods, taking advantage of specialists in school if a child is having trouble with reading or other subjects, being thoughtful regarding which friends they pick – those are all okay for most.

But today, the term “helicopter parent” has been replaced by another one, “snowplow parent,” those who keep their children’s futures obstacle-free — even when it means crossing ethical and legal boundaries.

Here’s how a recent article that addressed the issue began:

Nicole Eisenberg’s older son has wanted to be a star of the stage since he was a toddler, she said. He took voice, dance and drama lessons and attended the renowned Stagedoor Manor summer camp for half a dozen years, but she was anxious that might not be enough to get him into the best performing-arts programs.

So Ms. Eisenberg and others in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the affluent suburb where she lives, helped him start a charity with friends that raised more than $250,000 over four years.

“The moms — the four or five moms that started it together — we started it, we helped, but we did not do it for them,” Ms. Eisenberg, 49, recalled. “Did we ask for sponsors for them? Yes. Did we ask for money for them? Yes. But they had to do the work.”

She even considered a donation to the college of his choice. “There’s no amount of money we could have paid to have got him in,” Ms. Eisenberg said. “Because, trust me, my father-in-law asked.” (Ms. Eisenberg’s son was admitted to two of the best musical theater programs in the country, she said, along with nine more of the 26 schools he applied to.)

Want more? You can read the full article here

American Dream

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An enormous amount of ink has been spilled in books, articles, the blogosphere and elsewhere bemoaning the fact that the “American Dream,” is over.

For many who measure that dream by income, net worth and high-end material possessions, they would agree with this thesis.

But they’ve never asked the majority of American’s who stipulate they ARE living that dream. That’s why I was drawn to a recent op-ed, “We’re Still Living the American Dream.” Here’s how Samuel Abrams begins:

I am pleased to report that the American dream is alive and well for an overwhelming majority of Americans.

This claim might sound far-fetched given the cultural climate in the United States today. Especially since President Trump took office, hardly a day goes by without a fresh tale of economic anxiety, political disunity or social struggle. Opportunities to achieve material success and social mobility through hard, honest work — which many people, including me, have assumed to be the core idea of the American dream — appear to be diminishing.

But Americans, it turns out, have something else in mind when they talk about the American dream. And they believe that they are living it.

Last year the American Enterprise Institute and I joined forces with the research center NORC at the University of Chicago and surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,411 Americans about their attitudes toward community and society. The center is renowned for offering “deep” samples of Americans, not just random ones, so that researchers can be confident that they are reaching Americans in all walks of life: rural, urban, exurban and so on.

What our survey found about the American dream came as a surprise to me. When Americans were asked what makes the American dream a reality, they did not select as essential factors becoming wealthy, owning a home or having a successful career. Instead, 85 percent indicated that “to have freedom of choice in how to live” was essential to achieving the American dream. In addition, 83 percent indicated that “a good family life” was essential. Want more? You can read the full article here

Happy?

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Some of you reading this may be part of America’s professional elite – and you may have the wealth to prove it.

But most of you (us) are not, and somewhere deep inside we may wonder if only we were part of that professional elite we might be demonstratively happier.

Thing again. I had vaguely thought the answer was no, but when I read Charle’s Duhigg’s excellent piece, “Wealthy, Successful and Miserable,” I got it – big time. Here’s how he begins:

My first, charmed week as a student at Harvard Business School, late in the summer of 2001, felt like a halcyon time for capitalism. AOL Time Warner, Yahoo and Napster were benevolently connecting the world. Enron and WorldCom were bringing innovation to hidebound industries. President George W. Bush — an H.B.S. graduate himself — had promised to deliver progress and prosperity with businesslike efficiency.

The next few years would prove how little we (and Washington and much of corporate America) really understood about the economy and the world. But at the time, for the 895 first-years preparing ourselves for business moguldom, what really excited us was our good luck. A Harvard M.B.A. seemed like a winning lottery ticket, a gilded highway to world-changing influence, fantastic wealth and — if those self-satisfied portraits that lined the hallways were any indication — a lifetime of deeply meaningful work.

So it came as a bit of a shock, when I attended my 15th reunion last summer, to learn how many of my former classmates weren’t overjoyed by their professional lives — in fact, they were miserable. I heard about one fellow alum who had run a large hedge fund until being sued by investors (who also happened to be the fund manager’s relatives). Another person had risen to a senior role inside one of the nation’s most prestigious companies before being savagely pushed out by corporate politics. Another had learned in the maternity ward that her firm was being stolen by a conniving partner. Want more? You can read the full article here

Unsung Warriors

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Much has been written – most of it reasonable, but some of it shrill – regarding women in the U.S. military.

While integration of women into the U.S. military has progressed by leaps and bounds in the last few decades, one place that has remained a male-only bastion has been Special Operations.

Or has it? Four Americans were killed by a suicide bomber in Syria in mid-January. One was U.S. Navy Cryptologic Technician Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent. She was operating with the U.S. Navy SEALs. While not “officially” a SEAL or other Special Operator, she was just as vital to the mission as her male counterparts – and just as vulnerable.

Here is how a recent New York Times article describes how Chief Petty Officer Kent served – and died.

Given who she really was, military officials had little choice in how they described Shannon Kent. They said only that she was a “cryptologic technician,” which anyone might assume meant that her most breakneck work was behind a desk.

In reality, she spent much of her professional life wearing body armor and toting an M4 rifle, a Sig Sauer pistol strapped to her thigh, on operations with Navy SEALs and other elite forces — until a suicide bombing took her life last month in northeastern Syria.

She was, in all but name, part of the military’s top-tier Special Operations forces. Officially a chief petty officer in the Navy, she actually worked closely with the nation’s most secretive intelligence outfit, the National Security Agency, to target leaders of the Islamic State.

The last few years have seen a profound shift in attitudes toward women in combat roles. Since 2016, combat jobs have been open to female service members, and they have been permitted to try out for Special Operations units. More than a dozen have completed the Army’s Ranger school, one of the most challenging in the military. Some have graduated from infantry officer courses, and even command combat units. And in November, a woman completed the Army’s grueling Special Forces Assessment and Selection course, the initial step to becoming a Green Beret.

Yet Chief Kent illustrates an unspoken truth: that for many years women have been doing military jobs as dangerous, secretive and specialized as anything men do. This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Easy Not To Be Rude

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Remember when e-mail was novel? Remember Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the 1998 movie “You’ve Got Mail.” Recall how excited she was when her computer went “bing.”

We’ve come a long way in the last two-plus decades since that movie. Most of us feel we are drowning in e-mails. The difference is how we deal with it.

That’s why I found Adam Grant’s piece, “No, You Can’t Ignore E-Mail. It’s Rude,” so refreshing – and useful.

Far from being a polemic against those who ignore their e-mails, he shows how those who can’t (or choose not to) keep up are hurting themselves at work and in life. Here’s how he begins:

I’m really sorry I didn’t say hi, make eye contact or acknowledge your presence in any way when you waved to me in the hallway the other day. It’s nothing personal. I just have too many people trying to greet me these days, and I can’t respond to everyone.

That sounds ridiculous, right? You would never snub a colleague trying to strike up a conversation. Yet when you ignore a personal email, that’s exactly what you’ve done: digital snubbery.

Yes, we’re all overwhelmed with email. One recent survey suggested that the average American’s inbox has 199 unread messages. But volume isn’t an excuse for not replying. Ignoring email is an act of incivility.

“I’m too busy to answer your email” really means “Your email is not a priority for me right now.” That’s a popular justification for neglecting your inbox: It’s full of other people’s priorities. But there’s a growing body of evidence that if you care about being good at your job, your inbox should be a priority.

When researchers compiled a huge database of the digital habits of teams at Microsoft, they found that the clearest warning sign of an ineffective manager was being slow to answer emails. Responding in a timely manner shows that you are conscientious — organized, dependable and hardworking. And that matters. In a comprehensive analysis of people in hundreds of occupations, conscientiousness was the single best personality predictor of job performance. (It turns out that people who are rude online tend to be rude offline, too.) Want more? You can read the full article here

China!

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An enormous amount of ink has been spilled regarding China and especially China’s rise. I have blogged about China frequently on this site, most recently, earlier this month, here.

When I saw David Brook’s recent Op-Ed, “How China Brings Us Together,” I wasn’t prepared for his subtitle: “An existential threat for the 21st century.”

It got my attention – and it should get yours. Here’s how he begins:

I’ve always thought Americans would come together when we realized that we faced a dangerous foreign foe. And lo and behold, now we have one: China. It’s become increasingly clear that China is a grave economic, technological and intellectual threat to the United States and the world order.

And sure enough, beneath the TV bluster of daily politics, Americans are beginning to join together. Mike Pence and Elizabeth Warren can sound shockingly similar when talking about China’s economic policy. Nancy Pelosi and Republicans sound shockingly similar when they talk about Chinese human rights abuses. Conservative and liberal policy thinkers can sound shockingly similar when they start talking about how to respond to the challenge from China.

For the past few decades, China has appeared to be a net positive force in world affairs. Sure, Beijing violated trade agreements and escalated regional tensions. But the Chinese economic explosion lowered our cost of living and expanded prosperity worldwide.

But a few things have now changed. First, instead of liberalizing, the Chinese regime has become more aggressive and repressive. This is just a snippet. Want more? You can read the full article here

Climate Panic

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Climate change! Some have called it an existential threat to humanity. Others have denied its existence.

If one thing is true it’s that the arguments about climate change have become increasingly shrill and that it is increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

That’s why I found Davis Wallace-Wells recent, short article on the subject so refreshing. He explains the “why” behind our inability to take on this challenge in especially compelling terms. Here is how he begins:

The age of climate panic is here. Last summer, a heat wave baked the entire Northern Hemisphere, killing dozens from Quebec to Japan. Some of the most destructive wildfires in California history turned more than a million acres to ash, along the way melting the tires and the sneakers of those trying to escape the flames. Pacific hurricanes forced three million people in China to flee and wiped away almost all of Hawaii’s East Island.

We are living today in a world that has warmed by just one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s, when records began on a global scale. We are adding planet-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate faster than at any point in human history since the beginning of industrialization.

In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released what has become known as its “Doomsday” report — “a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” as one United Nations official described it — detailing climate effects at 1.5 and two degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). At the opening of a major United Nations conference two months later, David Attenborough, the mellifluous voice of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and now an environmental conscience for the English-speaking world, put it even more bleakly: “If we don’t take action,” he said, “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Scientists have felt this way for a while. But they have not often talked like it. For decades, there were few things with a worse reputation than “alarmism” among those studying climate change. This is a bit strange. You don’t typically hear from public health experts about the need for circumspection in describing the risks of carcinogens, for instance. The climatologist James Hansen, who testified before Congress about global warming in 1988, has called the phenomenon “scientific reticence” and chastised his colleagues for it — for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat actually was. Want more? You can read the full article here