The Problem with Joker


I don’t write about movies often. On the occasions I do, it’s likely because something bothered me.

Joker really bothered me.

I can’t deny the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. He is a gifted actor. He gave a masterful depiction of a troubled, anguished, sick character.

That only makes my criticism more severe.

I’m also not going to argue against First Amendment expression. The creators have an inalienable right to make and distribute this work, for profit or otherwise.

That simply makes them guilty of intellectual laziness at best, and self-serving irresponsibility at worst. I think both have occurred, and I am deeply troubled by this because of the film’s enormous audience reach. Its success makes the laziness and irresponsibility all the more pernicious. They could have done better. They deliberately elected not to do so.

I’m going to tell you why I think this movie is psychologically problematic, but first, let me warn you, this will be one of the worst spoilers ever. Do not read a sentence further if you intend to see the movie and don’t want the ending ruined.

Okay, if you’ve seen it or don’t care to see it but want to know why I’m upset, please read on.

It is important to remember that the core source material for this literary work is a comic book. I read comic books a lot as a kid, and in fact I was about as big a fan of Batman as they come. That was in the escapist pages of a comic book.

The character portrayal in this onscreen depiction seems to me evolved from the school of naturalism, extending the realm of realism to a more interpretive form of social commentary. The extreme portrayal seems less a form of entertainment than it is a comment on cruelty and its origin. The clown makeup does not separate the storytelling from the gritty suffering in the streets. The imagery throughout could appear as hyperrealism, as Stanley Kubrick approached similar territory in A Clockwork Orange, but that would have required artistic choices that aren’t evident in Joker.

There can be obvious real-world consequences to confusing the worlds of fantasy and framing souped-up slice-of-life imagery as somehow predictive or inevitable.

The ending for me is what matters when an artist seeks to claim the high ground of unconventional storytelling, purposeful inclusion of uncomfortable scenarios, or violence that is meant to disturb us in order to reboot our thinking.

It is precisely the ending of Joker that is the biggest problem for me.

Even deeper than the ending is the punchline, which snaps into place so conveniently because the unmasked Arthur Fleck aspires to be a comedian. The irony in that kind of payoff could have been emotionally rich and telling. Instead, it’s simply exploitative because it’s enunciated as instructional.

Here’s the punchline: “You get what you f*ing deserve.”

I was almost okay with the movie until that line was uttered. That’s when I believe the writers, producers, and director abandoned moral ground and just went for accelerated shock value.

I guess it’s the writer in me that feels a churn in my stomach when fellow creatives let hope for commercial success undermine their better judgment. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about pride in authorship, embracing the seriousness of disciplined expression. There are consequences to our craft worthy of foresight.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to craft a satisfying ending to any story. The more outlandish the story, the more difficult it is to structure an acceptable conclusion. By acceptable I mean an ending that doesn’t waste an audience’s time and reflects the values of those who create it. No creative team wants to be embarrassed by an ending that ruins all that comes before it, but the true test of an ending is time. How we feel when we create something is one thing. How history treats it or how we feel about it decades after its creation are entirely different benchmarks.

My immediate sense is that there are at least two distinct, conscientious ways to think about resolving a work of popular fiction as the creatives involved start working toward an ending. There’s poetic justice and there’s existentialism.

If the intention is poetic justice, a wrong should be avenged. It should be made clear that evil will not triumph over good, and though any world is imperfect, the arc of our commonality ought to bend toward justice.

If the intention is existential—nature in its own social element—no moral summation is required; the world depicted is exact, unforgiving, and unapologetic. Yet here a storyteller with something to say may bravely suggest an observation of irony or social critique. The observed criminality may not be a tool pointing toward redemption, but it can be a window of material reflection.

Neither of these occurs in Joker, and that is where the bad is enshrined.

When late in the movie Arthur is invited on “The Murray Franklin Show,” he shoots his idol dead and utters the words: “You get what you f*ing deserve.”

It’s a carefully plotted moment and among the worst forms of premeditated murder imaginable, celebrated live on television before a presumably horrified viewing audience.

Sadly, that is just a setup use of the punchline. The truer horror is to follow.

A few minutes later, the wealthy Thomas Wayne and his wife are shot dead in the street by a rioting supporter of the savage clown. He echoes the same phrase: “You get what you f*cking deserve.”

Arthur uses his punchline to justify the act of homicide. That allows the stranger to justify his act of homicide.

This is an act of parroting. This is an act of emulation. In the story, both teaching and learning have occurred. Unfortunately, the lessons are abhorrent.

The moment the elder Waynes are slaughtered is without discussion or reflection specifically because it is integral to the larger epic of Batman. The child, Bruce Wayne, watches the brutal murder of his parents, which sets him on his life’s path to become The Dark Knight who will commit his adult life to avenging this wrong.

I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. That implied forward arc is not responsible storytelling. An act this vicious must be resolved in its own context or it is no more than isolated, exploitative horror.

Again, why am I so bothered?

Think of all the unconscionable violence around us. Think of the common occurrence of mass killings, of widespread gun violence too often triggered by mentally troubled individuals who have lost any sense of a moral compass.

Presume a tiny segment of the population watching this movie and these unnerving scenes are themselves abandoned victims of social cruelty. Might they see their own suffering in Arthur’s eyes? Might they also be in any way mentally disturbed as the film’s protagonist?

What message is this movie sending them? Is it a moment of necessary caution or claimed victory? Is it a moment of hesitancy or reinforcement of their unapplied curb on self-control?

What the hell is the purpose of this punchline beyond its catchy shock value? Was this two-beat mimicry necessary to secure the film’s blockbuster potential?

My answer is that the filmmakers could have done so much better if they’d wanted something better. They could have had their cake and eaten it. All they had to do was worry as much about the possible byproducts of the film’s success as achieving financial gain. It’s not that hard to care about what you’re saying directly or inadvertently. It just has to matter to those at the helm.

If you want to tell difficult stories, you work harder to create difficult endings. Don’t walk away from the problems you frame just because you can. You have the right, but doing it isn’t right.

Joker isn’t right.

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Photo: Warner Bros Gallery

Can Business Be Philosophical?

Recently I shared with you my passion for philosophy. You probably know I also have a profound passion for business.

And music, The Beatles, The Dodgers, wine, literature, children’s needs, social justice, and other stuff.

Back to philosophy and business: can they intersect?

This is where a lot of cynicism enters the picture.

Mark Zuckerberg says he is all about free speech and building global communities. He would have us believe a business—at least his business—should not be editing political expressions, even for accuracy. He asserts this is up to individuals to assess, or for the government to regulate if it can figure out a reasonable and fair way to impose guidance.

Should we believe Zuckerberg the visionary or Zuckerberg the voracious competitor? It doesn’t take a lot of analysis to know his goal is to keep selling ads, that any restrictions on free expression create a slippery slope for the addiction of his site contributors (i.e. all of us powering his pages with free content). It’s pretty clear he wants a level playing field around restrictions, meaning if the government regulates Facebook, he wants it to regulate all his competitors where he maintains a competitive advantage and is likely to win with ubiquitous rules.

Are free speech and “leave me alone to make money” compatible ideals, or the best possible excuse for self-interest?

Let’s try again.

Google’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” They are all about creating a definitive archive for global knowledge, about ensuring the best customer experience, and once upon a time about not being evil. That’s some philosophy!

Have you done a search on Google lately? Remember when organic search returns were clearly separated in columns from sponsored search returns? Yeah, that was before mobile made that largely impossible with much smaller screens. Today you practically have to be Sherlock Holmes to know what’s a paid ad on Google and what’s global knowledge. The keyword ads are everywhere. There’s a reason. They figured out how few bills the world’s information actually pays when displayed. They know which clicks are bankable in that trillion-dollar valuation.

One more for the road?

Apple wants us to believe it is at the heart of protecting our privacy, right to the edge of protecting the login codes of suspected dangerous criminals. Maybe that’s a big idea we have a hard time embracing because its scope means the tiny basket of bad eggs has to enjoy equal privacy if we want to protect the gigantic basket of good eggs.

Yet if privacy as a strategic mandate is a paramount position at Apple, how does the company abstract itself from all the apps that transmit our personal information to the data-mining servers of the world as fast as we type it in? Apple says it makes secure devices that are safe to use; that’s all they do and they do it brilliantly. If those devices open tunnels between those seeking data and those leaking data (again, all of us), that’s our tunnel to barricade or avoid, and it would be illogical to ask them to detour us otherwise.

Can a company have a point of view on elevated ideals, or are these polished notions just a bullhorn cry from the PR department?

I guess it all comes down to what we want to believe is a pure, important idea, and how far a company will go to spin a concept to its own advantage.

The issue is one of authenticity. Does a company truly embrace beliefs that are worth evangelizing, or are its statements around absolutes justifications of convenience?

Proclamations are not philosophy. A mission statement is not philosophy. Company values are not philosophy. All of these are constructs meant to unify the purpose of a business, but the business entity’s constant struggle with ambiguity, competition, and the demands of ownership too often compromises ideas when financial interests are at risk. We can say we want to act in a certain way, but will we always?

I have to admit, I have been guilty over the years of trying to inject philosophy into business practice. I have not been terribly successful. The conflicts of interest abound, and the enormously hard work of maintaining consistency can be exhausting. I used to have my employees read a book called Freedom and Accountability at Work by Peter Kostenbaum and Peter Block. It is about existentialism in the workplace. All but one colleague told me they couldn’t get past the first chapter. At least they were honest about it.

How do we avoid hypocrisy and cynicism in a world where we want to be better? We are often told Millenials want us to rise to a higher standard, that cause-based marketing resonates strongly with their brand loyalty. I think it is possible to “do good while doing well,” but I don’t think we accomplish this if we pretend we’re something that we’re not.

Instead of declarations that render themselves hopelessly artificial, companies can humble themselves in restraining their platitudes around the possible. Instead of attempting to hide behind crumbling categorical imperatives, business might be better suited to achievable standards that are consistently authentic.

Tell me the truth all the time, and I may trust you. Don’t tell me why your definition of truth is defined in the unreadable footnotes at the bottom of the page.

Be aspirational, and I may join in the celebration of your mission and values. Don’t tell me that your company has discovered or defined a nobility that somehow makes you better than your competition.

Be well-meaning in the goods and services you provide, whether ensuring quality or seeking a healthier supply chain, and I may respect your brand. Don’t proselytize and expect me to believe you are pursuing a higher calling—profits be damned—when transparency betrays your more obvious motivations.

A business can be great, even legendary, without being philosophical. Let it be honest, consistent, and authentic—that’s plenty to tackle and enormously difficult on top of being outrageously good at something. The agenda of business is measurable, culminating in success.

Leave philosophy to the philosophers. Who would that be? That can be any of us—the storytellers around the campfire, the quiet voices in a coffee shop, the ardent dialogue in anyone’s home. The agenda of sharing, exchanging, and challenging ideas is immeasurable and ultimately boundless.

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Photo: Pexels

Unfit: A Memo


TO: DJT, POTUS

FROM: Ken Goldstein, Author & Businessperson

RE: The Trump Legacy

SUMMARY ASSESSMENT:

You were unfit to hold the title of the executive office you won in election.

You were unfit to issue executive orders empty of study and laden with self-interest.

You were unfit to appoint cabinet officials whose job it is to challenge your opinions.

You were unfit to seek loyalty from the subordinates you bullied.

You were unfit to be seen as a role model by children in homes and classrooms.

You were unfit to talk of family values, ethical mandates, or moral imperatives.

You were unfit to order military action or report on its efficacy.

You were unfit to lay a wreath at Arlington.

You were unfit to represent our nation in state visits or international forums.

You were unfit to offer comment on science, health, or climate change.

You were unfit to speak of business norms or effective negotiation.

You were unfit to hold authority in the age of “Me Too” reform.

You were unfit to broadly attack our free press as perpetrators of fake news.

You were unfit to demand intellectual credibility when you lied consistently without regret.

You were unfit to be taken seriously as anything other than a threat to world stability and security.

You were unfit to embrace the gravitas of the immense power you commanded and the lack of humility you celebrated.

CORRECTIVE ACTION:

We will heal while you are mired for the rest of your years in shame.

We will recommit to values that embrace compassion and empathy.

We will again celebrate learning and understanding, particularly in matters of science and empirical knowledge.

We will rejoin the community of nations in saving our planet.

We will address income inequality.

We will recommit to healthcare justice.

We will acknowledge the safe haven of asylum and treat immigrants with dignity and kindness.

We will welcome the stranger.

We will not viciously insult distinguished participants in our democracy whose views reflect diversity of thought or background.

We will not embrace humiliation as a strategy to undermine those with whom we may disagree.

We will appreciate journalism and distinguish facts from dangerous manipulation.

We will reject the cynicism of pattern lying for convenience.

We will never forget the hardships we suffered under your fragile ego.

We will face the future with courage, hope, and love.

We will make our nation appropriately great again.

We will let time address your place in history.

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Image: Pixabay

The Study of Philosophy

With all of the ways one could spend four years in college, why would anyone study philosophy?

It’s impractical.

It’s largely self-serving.

Given the vast syllabus of reading necessary to be even modestly well versed in both Eastern and Western thought, there is terribly little material one can cover in such a short amount of time.

It makes no sense to absorb oneself in such an esoteric endeavor with such thin coverage and so little quantifiable value.

It’s an expensive way to squander time, and even harder to explain to those helping pay for it.

Yet I did it, albeit about three and a half decades ago. Truth be told, I still spend unreasonable amounts of time delving into such curious texts as Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

Why?

Why Then and Why Now are two different things. Let me try to begin with a justification, and then tell you how it has helped me to be better in business, better in service, better in life.

Philosophy is mostly about reading literature, but not the fun stuff. It’s mostly non-fiction, and it’s mostly argued opinion, if not conjecture. There is some history and an occasional parable, but mostly it’s very dense expository in translation. Occasionally you get to drill into something quirky and theatrical like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but that’s a tangent, not core curriculum. I mostly focused on the Western canon, so that means works originally composed in Latin, Greek, German, French, and Russian. The translations are often as head-scratching as the source texts.

From the middle ages to the Renaissance in Western philosophy, there is little differentiation between theology and philosophy, so if you don’t want to read about God, this is probably not going to be your thing. You can reject faith later as is often the tradition in modern existentialism, but you have to read a lot about it to reject it comprehensively. Faith is a subject of mainstream devotion and much conflict in our culture. It’s worth learning about it, regardless of what you choose to believe.

The tension in philosophy between quantifying the physical world and attempting to explain metaphysics is persistent and unresolved. Logical argument as a discipline embraces mathematics until calculations outreach contemporary science, forcing abstraction onto problems that later generations will solve. Laws, ethics, psychological motivations, justification for conflict and its resolution, and even aesthetic judgment all prove evolutionary. What is certainty at one time is speculation in another.

Rejection, revision, and reform are the guiding constants of substantial ideas. It’s all quite messy, contradictory, and exhausting.

Philosophy for me as a young person became a passion of personal growth, self-realization, and academic inspiration. It was helpful to me that it was mostly non-emotional because I was also a student of the arts, which were emotional. I needed the balance. I needed the complementary discipline. I needed to be satisfied that hard questions were worth attempting to answer, even if those who answered them began by rejecting the last person who tried to reject them. Somehow that all seemed progressive and appealing to me.

I also managed to convince myself that the power of logic was broadly applicable in almost any field of inquiry. At the very least I would find the structure of articulating an idea useful in dramatic storytelling. While it might not have seemed obvious or even apparent to me how that could be put to use in purchasing food for consumption, I had faith I would figure it out at some point.

Ah, faith—it surfaces in the least likely of circumstances.

There was also this quintessential challenge from Socrates in Plato’s Apology:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.

Those words messed me up because I took them seriously. I even wrote and directed a short film in college specifically about the reincarnation of Socrates in modern times to make this point. It was called Apology. It was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t, but the dialogues of Plato became so ingrained in my consciousness that I had to give it a try.

Failure came early and often after that, but with much clearer reason.

That was Why Then. Let’s cut to Why Now. Yes, there actually is a timeliness to all this.

Our next presidential election is on the horizon. A lot of awful stuff has happened since our last presidential election. I’m upset. I’m more than upset. I’m baffled, befuddled, and out of sorts. Our nation may never heal. I doubt we will get over these scars in my lifetime.

Philosophy remains my comfort zone. It’s a place I go to make sense of things that do not, will not, and perhaps cannot make sense. I wrestle with this all the time. It does not immobilize me. I get things done. To my surprise, I have indeed learned how to apply logical argument to my work. I use it in storytelling and even find ways to wind ponderous floating into the plots of my novels. I also use logic to make arguments in business—in sales, in legal, in coaching. That’s become a byproduct of philosophical usefulness. The core practice is now about coming to terms with the absurd.

I’ve heard all the rhetoric about how our president got elected, about somehow appealing to a forgotten middle class. He has never acknowledged income inequality as one of the defining issues of our generation, never displayed any evidence of empathy or humility, yet he declared himself the champion of hard-working people authentically in need of a break. Those voters may have been duped, but he is an absurdity, as is their loyalty. Our embrace of ignorance and authoritarian mindlessness is absurdity. I use philosophy to live with the absurdity. As long as I am wrestling with difficult ideas, I am convinced the wrestling matters.

Where there are ideas, someday there will be solutions.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Why are we here? Why is there consciousness?

To do this hard work.

To self-define in the name of combating the absurd.

To commit authentically to making that which is bad better.

Might there be such a thing as Applied Idealism? It’s a counterintuitive notion, difficult to contemplate certification, but spiritually tempting. Samantha Power grapples nobly with reaching for a more attainable abstract in her new book, The Education of an Idealist. It’s comforting to know we are not alone in our outlandish aspirations.

When I envision structures of evaluation, I often discover that the separation of thought and action is at best temporary, if not arbitrary. Logic does not exist outside a problem; it is embedded in the problem. Ethics aren’t distinct from rules and laws; they are expressed in the adoption of rules and laws. Pragmatism does not have to be isolated from hope. When I contemplate a model of assessment and apply it rigorously, I can be held in check by obstruction, but I can’t long be fooled.

As long as I can study, I can stay a fighter. As long as I can delve into the abstract, I will always have more stories to share with you. Once in a while I may even get you to chuckle. That’s when I know your mind is opening and perhaps ready to absorb something new.

In the end, is the study of philosophy a tragic waste of time? I guess for many that might be a fair conclusion. I’ll never see it that way. I see it as vital. I see it as necessary.

Stay tuned to this channel. There’s a lot more philosophy ahead. Considered yourself warned. Or alerted. Or ignited. Ideas are always free. What we do with them is seldom without cost.

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Image: Pixabay

From Nothing: Reflections from the Road

One of the rare joys of being a writer is getting to talk about your work. One of the even rarer joys is getting to talk about the same work more than once because it is being published in a new format.

From Nothing, my third novel published by The Story Plant, allows me that joy with the paperback release on October 7, 2019.

It’s two generous bites of the apple, separated by over a year of contemplation, during which I got to hear from readers on how this story impacted their lives.

It’s a privilege to reflect on how I intended the troubled journey of Victor Selo to stir emotion, and how that was played back to me by my cherished readers. Perhaps an appropriate context for this is leaning on some of the lyrics I borrowed for inspiration and attempting to tie them back to many of the comments shared with me at readings, in reviews, and in letters sent my way.

Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream …

That’s The Beatles, and they are everywhere in this tale. Probably the first thing people discover about Victor is that he is anything but relaxed. Life events just don’t afford him that luxury. Yet readers clearly made the connection between the invisible forks in the road chosen by Victor and the intense downstream consequences or results of their own unpredictable resolutions to unseeable moments of fate.

I found that I am not alone in boiling down my life to five or six key choices that I wasn’t necessarily aware were determinations of my ultimate twists and turns until decades after those quiet tests were unmasked. I have found great moments of connection in hearing readers see the fickle outcomes of their paths in the eyes of a character who is a stranger to their circumstances while a mirror for the task of connecting their own dots.

We are stardust, we are golden …

That’s Joni Mitchell, celebrated forever by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It has been hard to escape this refrain with all the milestone anniversary hoopla around Woodstock, but readers seemed to understand that nostalgia wasn’t a theme I wanted to explore. My devotion is to the miraculous artistry of the songs that stay with us, the melodies and harmonies that become attached to the events we navigate and reconstitute themselves during the many decades we interpret their significance.

Readers have joyfully acknowledged that context and relevance become inescapable in the songs that become their favorites. Think about your favorite song the first time you heard it and what was happening in your life then. Now think about the same song a decade later, and a decade after that. The song hasn’t changed, but you have. If it remains a favorite, there is a reason. Our favorite songs blossom as our lives expand. We may even have to abandon a song for a while when our history associates it with pain. Yet we can always return to a song, and it can return to us. That is the majesty of composition and the alchemy of our interactions with vibrant creative matter.

Guess it’s better to say goodbye to you …

That’s Scandal, one of the less famous bands covered in the Vegas clubs where Victor crawls his way back to self-confidence. Early in my thinking about the arc of this tour, I knew I wanted to include references to the biggest acts of our time alongside some of the voices that had equal impact on me even with fewer hits. I’ve enjoyed the engagement from readers asking me why I excerpted one song and not another, and whether I planned a sequel to fill out the playlist. I don’ think a sequel is possible, and the chorus sung here by Patty Smyth is a good reason why.

It is humbling to know that readers turned these pages to find out what Victor might learn from the corporate monsters pounding on him, and from the many misfortunes he believed he had overcome but never actually escaped. When I listen to people tell me about the past events that are holding them in place, I wonder if part of the glue that holds us together is the evasive hope that we can let go, that we can move on, that we can start again. Whether it’s business, invention, or love, the past is an obstacle we all understand. It is all too easy to suggest to another that letting go and moving on is usually our best bet, but how often do we courageously take our own advice?

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read From Nothing, I hope some of these thoughts may inspire you. If you do have occasion to pick it up in any of its releases and have your own interpretations to share, I would enjoy learning from you.

This is the soundtrack of our lives.

Opinions That Matter

Be cautious with the advice you seek. Be more cautious with the advice you offer.

I enjoy and appreciate seeking business input from all kinds of people on all kinds of topics, but lately, I’m noticing that much of what people offer is too off the cuff. I usually know a problematic opinion is coming my way when I spend several minutes framing the complexity of a souring issue, and the assessment I receive is preceded by this phrase:

“Why don’t you just…”

That warning prelude is often followed by a very simple response in a sentence or fragment encompassing very few words. Some examples of confounding suggestions:

“Why don’t you just reduce your overhead?”

“Why don’t you just hire someone else?”

“Why don’t you just find a new supplier?”

“Why don’t you just change the value proposition to your customer?”

“Why don’t you just worry less about your brand?”

All of these phrases were spoken in earnest, in a neutral tone without any particular agenda or adversarial intention. I said my thing and they said theirs.

There’s another warning sign that preceded these suggestions—the words were delivered quite quickly, the “Why” being initiated almost instantly on the period ending my lead-in sentence.

There is a word to describe this kind of give and take. It would best be described as “conversation.”

It could also be described as “bar talk.”

There’s nothing wrong with conversation or bar talk, as long as we realize that’s what it is. Banter is entertainment, not problem-solving. Words that pass the time are not thoughtful solutions. In matters of consequence, I find chit-chat troubling traveling in both directions.

The easiest response to a “Why don’t you just…” suggestion is probably the obvious: “Uh, yeah, we thought about that and ruled it out… months ago.”

A less polite response might be: “Buddy, can you take this discussion a bit more seriously?” If you are in a bar in the midst of bar talk with someone who has been drinking a few hours, be careful in selecting that response, or at least judicious in the tone you use to convey it.

The lack of thoughtfulness in idea-sharing may come down to a matter of confidence and overconfidence. I applaud you for having a quick response to my nagging torment. It is possible I missed the obvious in the fog, but when I hear my problems so easily solved, what I really hear is someone who might not have failed enough. We all fail and to some extent learn from failure, but where is the empathy in our counsel when it comes to someone else’s dilemma, where we are less likely to lose anything if we are wrong?

Some call that having skin in the game. There is nothing that will slow down your response rate quicker than putting your own money or success at risk. You may be confident in making an investment, but when it starts to flounder, overconfidence should have already left the building.

Opinions can be interesting, but when they fail to embrace consequences, they can undermine trust in relationships.

When I am sharing a problem with you, I am not simply venting. I am seeking an improved outcome. If you want to help me, try getting me to rethink the problem in areas I might be stuck. Try some of these approaches on me and you’re likely to catch me listening more intently:

“What is the data telling you about changes in circumstance?”

“When you made that choice, what were the key factors that led to your initial decision?”

“Are your competitors in the same boat, or is this unique to your company?”

“Is the situation temporary and likely to reverse with more usual market conditions, or have the market conditions fundamentally changed?”

“What other advice have you received on the topic, and how was it helpful or damaging?”

If I share a problem with you, I don’t expect you to have the solution. Unless I have gotten ridiculously lucky, you probably can’t solve my problem. Yet if we work through a set of abstracts together, it is possible you might cause me to look at the problem differently and start me on the path to identifying a new solution. Dialogue like that in times of trouble has infinitely more value than a spitball suggestion.

Ego gets in our way when we think the winning outcome of a discussion is to have the right answer. That kind of overconfidence is unrealistic at best and reckless at worst.

Our roles in listening to each other are about being helpful, about unlocking hidden secrets in our judgment and navigating safely around treacherous obstacles. Slam dunks may win bragging rights, but in my many decades on the job, I’ve never heard one that changed the landscape in real-time.

Our words have consequences. Noble advice requires discipline and credibility. If what you prefer is bar talk, let me know and I’ll tell you why I think the Dodgers lost the last two World Series. I can’t imagine anyone in Dodgers management asking my opinion on that. Why would they seek an opinion that didn’t matter?

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Image: Pixabay

Are Americans Happy?

Uber drivers can surprise you. They can shake up your thinking. They can get you to pause and reflect differently on the day.

A recent early-morning haul with an Uber driver to what I knew would be a long and unpleasant meeting did just that for me. The driver was an Ethiopian immigrant who had been in the United States for about a decade. He and his wife had come here for a better life. His two children were born here.

At first he was quiet, presuming I didn’t want any conversation at this hour. When the freeway traffic slowed our progress, I started to draw him out a bit. I was glad I did.

His basic sense was that America was filled with unlimited opportunities for anyone who wanted to work hard and apply themselves. The ability to make money here—legally and with relatively few logistical obstacles—was virtually unlimited. He actually loved being an Uber driver the past five years. He had control over his time, could spend time with his family, and while the income he earned was modest by American standards, he felt good about the quality of life it allowed him compared with his earlier years in Ethiopia, where money and opportunity were scarce.

What he didn’t understand was why so few Americans he met were happy.

To the contrary, he found most of the Americans he encountered unhappy. The people who rode in his car, no matter how well dressed or where they were going, largely seemed unhappy. The people he saw shopping in WalMart, with all the abundant product offerings on the shelf at such low prices, seemed mostly unhappy. When he took his children to school, which was free, most of the children and parents he encountered seemed unhappy.

He wondered why.

While he wouldn’t trade his life in America for any chance at a permanent return to Ethiopia, he shared that in his younger years, whenever he walked down the road, he would smile broadly and wave hello to everyone he passed, known to him or not. He said he tried that when he initially came to this country, but people looked at him like he was mentally unbalanced, so he stopped.

He told me in his village if someone didn’t come out of their home for a few days, it was normal to knock on the door and see if that person was okay. If they were sick, it was normal to ask if they needed anything from the market and to get it for them without asking in advance for payment. He said to do that here might land him in jail.

He told me when anyone in the village had any good fortune, the entire village would celebrate, and the person who enjoyed the good fortune would be predisposed to share it in small ways without anyone asking. He said when he moved into his current neighborhood, the advice he received from previous immigrants was to keep to himself, let neighbors be strangers, and not to expect to give or get much of anything from strangers.

His conclusion after a decade in the United States was that it was indeed a rich nation of financial opportunity, but with financial success of any level, happiness was not part of the deal. His promise to himself was to put happiness first, and anytime financial gain would compromise it, to put the need for joy above the need for more income.

It was a curious but not unfamiliar conversation that served as an ironic preamble to my next eight hours in a conference room with extremely large numbers being floated around various outcomes to a dispute, and not a single person smiling for the entire day.

I don’t actually think about this a lot, because I haven’t been taught to think about it a lot. I have been taught to work hard, to compete, to give my all at all times, to be respectful of the law, but to be wary of all opponents who might unfavorably tilt the apparent zero-sum game of financial haggling.

I do agree there is something very American about this. We were a country of underdogs that became a nation of global leadership. There is a Puritan work ethic we instinctively embrace that dates back to the first freezing winters of our original colonies. Sacrifice for the future is a mostly shared American value, and our popular literature seldom misses a beat in reminding us that winning is everything.

For many Americans, winning is who and what we are, what we aspire to be, and its cost is a necessary evil, a byproduct of the commitment it takes to be the very best at whatever we set out to do.

Are we happy? I am sure many of us are, and my driver from Ethiopia just hasn’t had the chance to meet you if you are.

It may be worth considering some mounting evidence to the contrary.

We are approximately 5% of the global population.

We generate more than 20% of the world’s total income.

We consume upwards of a quarter of the world’s natural resources.

That is a disproportionate share of global wealth that should be making a lot of people happy.

Our citizens own 40% of the world’s guns.

We consume 80% of the world’s opioids.

We incarcerate 25% of the world’s total prison population.

We have over 1000 active hate groups whose only point of validation is to buy into the lie of their ordained genetic superiority.

Does that sound happy?

No matter what we have, we seem to want more. We are a consumer society. Marketers like me helped make us that way. The problem with consumerism is that it has no logical end. If you have an antiquated iPhone 8, you are meant to want a reconceived iPhone 11. You’ll stare at it just as much, but it will have all the new features you think will make you happier. The stress created by having to pay for it is simply a factor of the replacement value.

Although we have all that wealth collectively, we embody income inequality almost as a leaderboard to remind us of the winners of the zero-sum game. We invented the 1%. Instead of trying to work it toward 10%, we are working toward 0.1%.

Too often I think we forget that we weren’t always this prosperous. Prior to the 20th century, we were a nation that barely survived its own Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history. We managed to prevail from two subsequent world wars in part because our continental homeland was not invaded.

We emerged after the Second World War as an industrial power with disproportionate military might and a shared conviction to democratize individual earning power. We enjoyed enormous quality living benefits in this brief window that globalization is now spreading more evenly around the planet.

Any notion of this as entitlement is ill placed. We were clever, innovative, opportunistic, and hard-working. The stars lined up behind us. The turnaround in our fortune was epic. I wonder what we really learned from that unparalleled shift in fate. Humility doesn’t seem to make the report card.

We discovered and celebrated optimism as core to our shared values, but did we protect the essence of its desired outcome—the pursuit of happiness?

I don’t see people in public places smile a lot, or visit the neighbors they don’t know, or wave joyfully to strangers on the street. I could be a little isolated, and I am sure there are many of you reading this who will disagree. If you are surrounded by happy Americans, do you think you are the norm or exception?

Maybe the notion of being happy is the problem itself. Perhaps it is antithetical to our nation’s DNA. If we presume that’s the case, and most of us aren’t going to be truly happy in America no matter what we achieve, perhaps there is another aspiration we can embrace.

Instead of trying to be happy, which is a long way to reach from our present core, maybe we can just be more appreciative of the opportunities around us.

I’m not suggesting a Pollyanna happy dance, given the vast discrepancies in our economic and social culture. I’m wondering if it is possible that, like the Ethiopian immigrant I met, we can identify a perspective around an appreciation for whatever benefits might be coming our way.

It could be as simple as relying on the descriptor “more”that we can be ever so slightly more appreciative of what we have and still keep grinding away at the hardships of our reality. The ramifications around empathy, privilege, and life satisfaction would seem unlimited. We might even begin to understand the inescapable realities of globalization.

Is it possible that Americans can be more appreciative?

I really don’t know. I think I’ll ask my next Uber driver.

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Photo: Pexels