What Is Normal?

I have never given a commencement address. Maybe someday I’ll be asked. No, I’m not fishing, just pondering the opportunity to rant a bit in academic garb. Ah for the chance at an honorary doctorate of anything from anywhere! Okay, now I’m fishing.

If I were invited to give such a dignified speech this year, I think the question I might pose to students is:

What is normal?

Why that? Much of what I’m hearing these days is all about getting back to something called normal.

What is normal after the Covid-19 pandemic?

What is normal after three months of shelter-in-place directives?

What is normal after the brutal police murder of George Floyd?

What is normal after millions of people flood into the streets for weeks to protest against systemic racial discrimination and social injustice?

Maybe what bothers me isn’t so much the idea of normal as the notion of getting back to some previous state that is somehow better than where we are at the moment.

Perhaps we want to believe there will a new normal. In that new normal, would it be possible we could all agree on what would constitute a better normal?

Could we all agree that honesty should be normal, that we shouldn’t lie, particularly when the consequences to others of not getting the truth could be dire?

Could we all agree that believing in science should be normal, and in unforgiving matters such as health and safety, documented facts should triumph over manipulating opinions?

Could we all agree that exercising our right to vote should be normal, that in a democracy we are better served if every citizen votes, that it should be easy to vote, that elections focus on well-reasoned policy instead of lobbyist agendas, and that politicians seek office to be public servants where scandal and mudslinging take a back seat to critical issues?

Could we all agree that the unquestionable dignity of human beings should be normal, and that matters of race, ethnicity, gender, faith, sexual orientation, and age have no place in one person casting judgment on another?

Could we all agree that acknowledging life as precious should be normal, that empathy is preferable over insult, that competition can make us better when we all play by the same enforced set of rules, that learning is preferable to ignorance, that opportunity is unequally distributed and a more level playing field lowers the barriers that help us pursue our dreams?

I suppose that might be a new normal, even a better normal, but I doubt a vast majority of us could agree on the details that constitute that level of agreement. It’s not something we can go back to, because it’s not something we ever had.

So what is this normal we’re thinking is just over the next big hill, after the coronavirus vaccine is widely distributed at low cost, every racist criminal who has committed an atrocity is prosecuted, and national unemployment returns to 3%?

Would it surprise you if I suggested that the new normal will not be dissimilar to the prior normal?

That normal is likely to remain turmoil.

Remember, this is a warm-up for a commencement address. I have to make a critical point you are supposed to encode as part of an inspirational framework for the many difficult choices you will face for the next five to eight decades.

That’s my point. Normal is turmoil.

Notice I didn’t say that form of normal is good. I just called it out as real. Turmoil came before us. We are in turmoil now. When this turmoil is behind us, there will be more turmoil. I didn’t invent it. I’ve just lived it.

Turmoil is normal because we live in an age of enormous change. Change is also normal, but most people really don’t like change. They say they do, but they don’t. Change is unsettling. Change forces us to embrace new norms. A normal reaction to change is turmoil.

Another word for turmoil is volatility. If you invest in the stock market, you have likely learned that volatility is not the exception, it is the norm. Certainly there are periods of trading calm, but the truth is the market is wildly volatile. If you put your money into equities and haven’t braced yourself for seismic fluctuations, you have either deceived yourself or been deceived. You can’t control or predict market fluctuations. No one can. Before any strategy of diversification matters, you have to decide if you’re in or you’re out.

To the extent we have acquired any form of assets, we have the choice to get in or get out of investments, to accept or reject the upside or downside of the norm of volatility.

We don’t have that choice with everyday life. We’re stuck with volatility.

Why would my commencement advice be to ready yourself for perpetual turmoil? I haven’t the intellectual authority to examine the realms of good and evil as states of nature one way or the other, but I will be so bold as to embrace the notion that progress and reform are directionally consistent. We may not follow a linear path of questioning all that has come before us or how to address it, but the state of upheaval that erases former ills and allows us to tackle the next set of falsehoods repeats itself generation after generation.

It’s usually messy. It’s usually painful. You can wish it were otherwise, but there is scant evidence to prove that it’s not.

I don’t believe anyone said it better than Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The same can be said for science. We are going to be wrong way more times than we wish before we are right. Then when we are right, we are going to be wrong about something else. The trick is not to replace an established fact with an irresponsible opinion while we are wrestling to replace a terribly concocted opinion with a newly demonstrated fact. If any aspect of your work involves the proof or disproof of hypothesis, you know the path is about as linear as the tunnels inside an ant farm.

The question of trying to live with normal raises the question of what is extraordinary, the very definition of which is NOT normal. Yet in our dynamic, global, connected world, extraordinary events will continue to be our norm. Exponential advances in technology assure this.

No broadband internet, no working at home. No mobile phones with built-in video cameras, no catching a vicious cop in the act of murder and broadcasting the evidence. More technology is coming, folks. It’s all going to be very normal. If you don’t think it’s going to bring turmoil, I think I’ve lost you.

If you were graduating today and I had something that I could assure you would be true, it would be that all of the maturing years ahead of you will be filled with volatility. You are going to have to make a lot of decisions swiftly in response to turmoil. Precedent is not always going to be relevant, because precedent too often is going to be old-normal wrong.

Nimble thinking, quick thinking, flexible thinking, balanced thinking, and compassionate thinking will be consistently required to navigate this turmoil. Accepting turmoil as normal requires the essential skill of close listening and lifelong learning. Quickly separating noise from authenticity in order to process and respond to unknown situations is not a nice-to-have tool; it is an essential skill that must be honed.

Noise is the enemy. Facts are your friends. Sound evaluation and informed consensus-building are the building blocks of crisis avoidance and resolution.

Let me wrap up with a parting thought. Earlier this year, before this latest round of turmoil and while focused on the last (remember the ancient impeachment hearings?), I was at a social justice panel where the final question posed to one of the panelists was to offer a brief phrase of hope.

After a long pause, that panelist, an immigration attorney, suggested that her longstanding immersion in vicarious trauma has led her to some minor comfort in vicarious resilience.

Vicarious resilience. That was a notion I found both humbling and empowering.

Vicarious resilience. That was a notion I wanted to embrace.

This attorney represents refugees and asylum seekers stuck at the border facing endless obstructions. They never give up hope. She takes on their vicarious resilience and makes it her own to continue fighting the nearly impossible fight against all odds.

I have written a lot over the years about resilience, but not in that frame of reference.

If normal is turmoil, then our path through normal just might be vicarious resilience. Write that on the back of your diploma and remember it through your retirement.

Never give up hope.

Oh, and as Steve Jobs would say, one more thing:

Black Lives Matter.

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Photo: Pexels

Embracing Puerto Rico

It wasn’t exactly a slow news week.

Covid-19, a.k.a the novel coronavirus, was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.

The President of the United States declared a national emergency. As he described his proclamation, those were “two very big words.”

The stock market crashed.

The NCAA canceled March Madness.

The NBA and NHL suspended their seasons.

MLB postponed Opening Day of the 2020 season.

Disney closed all its theme parks.

Travel between the United States and most of Europe was announced to be suspended.

Schools began closing and attempting to move course instruction online. Thousands of classroom teachers who had never heard of Zoom quickly discovered modern videoconferencing.

Other than 9-11, I can’t remember a week like that.

Meanwhile, I had arrived the previous weekend with a team of volunteers in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We had committed to a service trip there more than six months ago partly to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, but also to begin a wide-ranging relationship between our university alma mater and our clearly underserved fellow American citizens about 1150 miles southeast of Florida.

While we were getting media snippets of the chaos on the mainland, we found ourselves highly engaged in a set of more basic, everyday challenges faced by the people of Puerto Rico.

We learned about the historic struggles of Puerto Rico, approximately 400 years under Spanish authority and just over 100 years under American governance.

We learned about the deeply personal, unique, and diverse culture of Puerto Rico in music, dance, mural art, proper apparel, naming public buildings, storytelling, legends, heroes, and political argument.

We learned that there seems to be an infinite number of delightful ways to combine rice and beans, in much the same way many on the mainland think of pizza or burgers. Puerto Rican cuisine, particularly Mofongo, is a source of creativity, pleasure, and national pride. Locally grown artisan coffee is exquisite. Although sugar cane is no longer harvested in Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth is the largest producer of rum in the world.

We learned through our host partner, Instituto Nueva Escuela (INE), how Montessori education is making a seminal change in the efficacy of Puerto Rico’s public school system. Understanding the social and emotional needs of children brings compassion into the classroom as a working platform organically linked to lesson planning.

We learned that the resources of our nation are spread unequally, but we can help to fix that in small ways by offering to redirect our attention to those in need.

We learned once again that before you can help anyone, you have to learn to listen closely to what they are saying. When it’s in a language other than your own, you have to listen even more closely.

We learned there really is a way of speaking called Spanglish, and that the idioms of an island landscape sharing Spanish and English languages are charming and fun to learn.

We learned the tact necessary to be a part of an adjacent community, the humility necessary to offer to teach new skills, and the camaraderie of sharing a purpose with like-minded volunteers absent an agenda other than to be helpful.

We learned that our love is always needed everywhere we are willing to share it.

This was my third trip with the Yale Alumni Service Corps, a collection of individuals who pledge time each year to enter the everyday lives of friends around the world we otherwise would never meet.

Our visit to San Juan focused on elementary and middle school education, public health, athletic sportsmanship, and construction projects to improve the local school infrastructure. My own prior experience in these programs centered on coaching small-business entrepreneurs, but this time I was assigned to a team dedicated to teaching newsletter writing skills to help information move more easily into and out of the classroom.

When you start the week explaining what a newsletter is and end the week with six classrooms each producing twenty beautiful newsletters, you get a sense of what kind of impact a single week can actually deliver.

When you see a playground without shelter from the sun on one weekend and a team-built canopy bringing comforting shade to that same playground the following weekend, you know the week’s work was well applied.

When a chorus of joyful children surrounds you singing their favorite songs and dancing a set of newly learned steps, you have a sense that the time you spent together might give them hope to continue their studies after you depart.

Puerto Rico was certainly hit hard by Maria, but that’s only part of the story. The main island of Puerto Rico is approximately 110 miles long, 35 miles wide, and home to more than three million people. These individuals are U.S. citizens, yet they have no vote in federal elections, notably the presidency. Although they elect their governor by popular vote, they have but one non-voting member of Congress.

While Puerto Ricans pay no federal income tax, they pay FICA and progressive local taxes. They work as hard as any Americans I know, believe in democracy as much as any Americans I know, serve in uniform and are deployed when called to war—and yet their voices in times of need are severely limited.

Puerto Rico endured a severe downturn in its economy tied to a loss of jobs in the pharmaceutical industry with a change in American tax policy. Just as it was making progress recovering from Hurricane Maria, it was hit by a devastating earthquake. In order to rebuild fallen structures that may not have met code restrictions over the past 50 years, clear title is required to receive FEMA or bank financing, yet there are few resources available to Puerto Ricans to secure title to property where families often have lived for generations.

When Puerto Rico needs help from its parent nation, where is the voice it deserves?

Think of it this way: If Puerto Rico were a U.S. state instead of a territory, it would have two senators and perhaps as many as six voting members in the House of Representatives. This isn’t an insignificant segment of our population. This is a vital, energized, eloquent citizenry in need of the attention our current laws are not offering them.

Will Puerto Rico someday be a state that enjoys all the benefits of representation so many of us do? Who knows?

In the coming decades while that is decided, I invite you when the opportunity allows to visit this gorgeous, magnificent, enchanted Caribbean gem and offer the gifts of your talent or treasure to speed its recovery. These are our fellow American citizens, and they welcome our friendship as much as our love. You will be embraced!

When we serve others, we fuel the spirit of our own souls. When you’re dancing the bomba in the warm tropical breeze, you might get a sense of how glorious outreach can be.

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Photo by the author on location with YASC.

A Gathering of Nothingburgers


Shortly before my latest college reunion, one of my classmates wrote on our class Facebook page that she partially dreaded attending the milestone gathering out of fear it might cause her to feel she was somehow a nothingburger.

Imagine that! Anyone else feel this way? Perhaps a truer question might be: Who hasn’t compared themselves to others and come up short? The real question is why at our age would it matter at all.

Were I to enunciate the personal and career accomplishments of this particular individual, I can assure you of all the descriptors I might be able to call upon to describe her, the term nothingburger would miss the target by at least a solar orbit.

Yet that doesn’t matter. She felt it, and following her enunciation, several dozen others shared the same sentiments. When I tell you these are highly accomplished people, I am not strictly speaking to their landmark achievements. I am speaking to their voices. I am speaking to their self-reflection. I am speaking to their commitment to family, friends, and strangers. I am speaking to their character.

Someone on that Facebook thread also suggested that most of the truly important and successful people in our class don’t bother to come to our reunions. I guess that would put us into a debate of what constitutes importance and success. For me, this argument would quickly devolve into the equivalent of a left-leaning politico trying to convince a right-wing politico of their unfounded opinions, and vice versa.

I don’t want to debate the definitions of importance or success, nor do I wish to admit by virtue of traveling to see some of the most interesting people ever to grace my life that I am somehow in a lower echelon of life progress. Let’s just say I am convinced that plenty of the most important and successful people in our class attended our reunion, and the ones who couldn’t make it or missed out will have an easy opportunity to correct this choice in slightly less than five years.

So what exactly happened at this gathering of nothingburgers? There isn’t time or space in a single blog post to recap the full play-by-play of events, but let me illustrate a few items that might cause you to rethink your own attendance at a reunion the next time you are invited.

First, we remembered with great affection those who graduated with us who no longer share the planet. Somehow that In Memoriam list has a bad habit of growing every five years. Once you pass a half-century in age, the curve seems to take on nasty exponential acceleration. To celebrate the lives of those no longer with us is to restate our love and admiration of their camaraderie. We did this with healthy respect and healthier zeal.

Second, in a closed-door session, a number of individuals stood up and shared some of the debilitating curve balls that hit them in life when they least expected it. We heard authentic stories of job loss, wrenching divorce, health ailments, children suffering serious medical concerns, regretful addictions, business betrayal, conflicted patriotism, losing one’s parents, self-doubt, lost dreams, and spiritual abandonment. The people who spoke were mirrors for those who didn’t. These otherwise private themes dominated sidebar dialogue for days and continue to do so now on social media. We listened with healthy learning and healthier comfort.

Third, we ate, we danced, we sang, and we talked. We did all of those in abundance. Okay, some people even drank, can you believe it? Mostly we just shared. Remember how much real conversation meant to you in the years shortly after adolescence? Remember how much pure ideas meant before mortgages, car payments, IRAs, and tax returns (unlike an endless conversation, those obligations all have to be handled on time, you know?). We did this with healthy appetites and healthier vigor—except for the dancing, only a few of us can still pull that off fluidly, though there were no penalties for trying.

Why might the people around us feel they are nothingburgers when they are nothing of the sort? I have two possible answers to offer, one awful and one remarkable. To the awful, people often feel they are inferior when they are belittled by others, to their faces or in abysmal gossip. To bypass this ramp, be neither actor nor audience. To the remarkable, humility and insecurity are often two sides of a coin. No matter how a reflective individual might care to value his or her life summary, seldom will a summary be satisfying. To bypass this ramp, we learn to accept who we are with the simple caveat that improvement is always within our grasp.

I also heard many people talking about whether they felt at home at college, either at the age of 18 or now. My answer coincidentally is the same way I respond about feeling at home in Los Angeles: not all of it, and not all the time. I find pockets of warm association, and that is usually enough for me to accept the whole, both with my flaws and the flaws of the whole. It sort of works for college as well.

I’ve discovered again that a school reunion doesn’t have to be about nostalgia. It can be about reconnecting. Where reconnection might be in short supply, it can be about meeting someone for the first time where fate and circumstance might have precluded an introduction in any of the previous several decades. It can also be a reminder of the simple things that reinvigorate our spirits: heartfelt dialogue, hard-won empathy, and genuine encouragement that the future doesn’t have to be the past.

Sometimes I think the creation of memories is a mystical algorithm all its own. Every memory has a starting point. It can begin 35 years ago or it can begin now. Both are valid. Neither makes you a nothingburger.

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Image: Pixabay

More Fallout from the Zuckerberg Files

Should the unintended consequences that emerge in the course of a company’s evolution be a primary concern of management?

Is the exponential creation of shareholder value still the overriding force when a wildly successful company grows even faster than its own outsized vision?

Are the naive philosophical aspirations of under-experienced entrepreneurs a get-out-of-jail-free card from the ramifications of otherwise noble intentions?

In answering these and similar questions, is Facebook somehow a different animal?

These are some of the issues examined by a new Frontline documentary recently aired on PBS that frames a deeply damning critique of Facebook and its leadership team. While purposefully steering past the warm-and-fuzzy aspects of Facebook’s innocent exchanges of family photos and recipes, The Facebook Dilemma dives into Facebook’s structural roots.

The critique presented is strident but not unfair: Why didn’t Facebook as an enterprise heed the many early warnings of the pervasiveness of its influence and more strongly consider mitigation strategies, and now that the political chaos has been unleashed, is there any possibility of getting the bad genie back in its bottle?

When Facebook launched, founder Mark Zuckerberg braved a bold and curious global community manifesto:

“Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.”

That sounds good on the surface, and it sounded so good to so many of Facebook’s early employees that they rallied around the life-affirming purpose. They believed they were building a platform toward the betterment of humanity.

Simultaneously, the size of the audience embracing the platform created a media opportunity unlike any other in history. No company has ever thought about achieving monetization of a billion (heck, now two billion) individuals. To make sure no money was left on the table, Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg from Google to build that side of the equation.

The inherent conflicts soon became apparent. Facebook claimed to be a technology company, not a media company, even though its business model was selling advertising, which is what a media company does. To be the most valuable media company it could be, it needed two things: the world’s most in-depth data warehouse, and a rule set of utilizing that data with the fewest possible restrictions.

As a business, this all made sense. As you can see every day in the public company’s enterprise value, it worked beyond all expectations. The problem remains, it was initially fueled by another slogan:

“Move fast and break things.”

This ethos is not unique to Facebook. One of the tenets of Silicon Valley is to drive value from what is called an MVP, a minimum viable product. The point is to get a functional offering in the market quickly, find where it is successful, worry little about its failings, and start to iterate while building cash flow. Success is defined first by penetration (audience reach) and second by monetization (lifetime customer value). When things go sour, startups try to fix them, but because success is winner take all, most teams unapologetically expect there will be a lot of sourness to sweeten.

The question Facebook has encountered is unsettling: Is its very business model antithetical to fixing the byproducts of its success?

The Frontline documentary illustrates many of the ways Facebook has gone sour. Arab Spring. Fake news penetration in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russian intervention in media buying in the same election and outrageous exploitation of privacy by Cambridge Analytica. Violence in Myanmar.

Even Roger McNamee, a celebrated early investor in Facebook, took it upon himself to act counter to his own financial interests and ask Facebook management to step back and rethink the implications of its mindset. They did not heed his warnings. They were either too optimistic, too idealistic, too hooked on winning, too greedy, too ambitious, too arrogant, too busy to see the light of day, or a combination of all of those.

Facebook management has been reactive on all these fronts and done what it can to play whack-a-mole as crises emerge. Executives and managers there admit repeatedly they have been “too slow” to address the ramifications of their global viral adoption. The “too slow” apology parrots Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress. It was a well-played chess move. It reveals no ethos of a fundamental commitment to a proactive playbook of innovative solutions. It’s a cost center, not a profit center.

Traditional media companies work under the direction of a qualified, responsible editor. When a journalist makes a mistake, the media brand runs a retraction. Facebook doesn’t want to be a media company, and it doesn’t want to be an editor, but any way you slice it, the algorithm that sits under News Feed is a robotic editor more likely to show you what it thinks you want to see than what is true or real. Then a perfectly targeted ad is inserted. That is how the game has been won at Facebook. It’s a winning formula. Any risk to changing that is far riskier to the company’s stock price than a few incidents of political unrest.

The real question remains: If Facebook’s mission requires that the company remove most obstacles to the free flow of information, the result of which is to facilitate unfiltered speech, the result of which is chaos, can it both stay true to its values and smooth over the chaos? And if the company is selling some of the most valuable ads in the world because the vast archive of privacy data is what makes those ads click, how can it impose limits on the interests of its ownership?

It’s a greater good question, one that capitalism believes is best left to the free market to solve, but in this case, it’s almost impossible to see how that gap is bridged.

Zuckerberg likes to say that Facebook is an “idealistic and optimistic” company. He said it when we was hauled before Congress to address the breach of privacy trust. When he was a younger man, it was a quaint proclamation I could have believed were it not for the true origin of Facebook as a college hook-up site. When he says it today, it sounds cynical. People who work for him might still be drinking the Kool-Aid. He’s selling advertising, justifying it, and trying to dodge regulation. To wit, he’s doing his day job as CEO.

Part of the problem might be social media itself. Its greatest strength is its greatest weakness. While pure democracy of publishing without a filter is liberating, audiences can easily be misled and mislead each other in chaotic exchanges of raw opinion. Add in bad actors buying access for covert agendas and the danger can become uncontainable.

Shortly before Zuckerberg testified earlier this year, I wrote a post entitled Is Facebook the Next AOL? At that time I wasn’t sure. Now I am. The byproducts of Facebook are so pernicious and likely unresolvable, I do think at some point the vast audience will abandon the platform. The cost of trading one’s privacy for family photos and recipes is too high. I don’t know when that will happen, and Facebook has a ton of cash so it can last a long time, but I expect the devoted masses will eventually exit their loyal addiction in self-defense. I don’t think this invention can adequately address the inherent conflict of interest it has created to thrive. Creative destruction will replace it with a better, more respectful product.

A brand is a promise. When trust is eroded, a brand dies.

I remain active on Facebook, but the broad notion that the world would be better as an open and connected place has always troubled me. Maybe it’s because I grew up as a kid learning of Nixon’s enemies list. Privacy to me always seemed to matter. Today’s political climate almost makes the Nixon era seem welcoming.

I’ve long subscribed to the notion that technology is advancing much faster than our ability to understand its implications. I saw that in my early career with the addictive nature of computer games. We see it all around us with people’s attention glued to mobile screens as they bump into each other and fall into fountains. We don’t really know what this stuff is doing to us. We buy it and use it and another tech company goes public.

Silicon Valley moves fast and breaks things because it’s good for business. Collateral damage is expected and as long as a company survives and grows few real tears are shed. Expecting it will change is unrealistic. It’s a form of realpolitik. Expediency wins over ideology because of the vast money at stake.

Since you’re probably staying on the social media playing field indefinitely, protect yourself. No one else will.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Image: Pixabay