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

Trust Is Not Negotiable

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust.

I’ve been thinking a lot about truth.

I’m trying to wrap my head around what I thought for fiftysomething years were the basics: If we’re going to climb a mountain together, we have to agree on what mountain we’re climbing, where it is, are there airports nearby to get in and get out, has it been climbed before and under what circumstances—you know, the facts.

We won’t necessarily know the exact temperature at the top, the weather patterns tomorrow or the next day, the precise condition of the trail at every turn, those sorts of variables. There are always unknowns ahead of us that we’ll discover together, but if we can’t start on the same page, how can we possibly agree on plans to address the unknowns?

I find these days truly unsettling, not just because there is a debilitating health crisis before us, but because I don’t have enough trusted information to know what the crisis is and the ability to share in that belief set collegially with a vast majority of the population.

We are confused. We are bombarded with conflicting information. We are scared, anxious, and divided when we need to be informed, building consensus, and united.

How do we address monumental problems when we have little idea what we can believe?

In the age of the Internet, with the ability to share more factual information globally than in all of history, we are mired in noise.

How do we navigate a crisis and ask people to make personal sacrifices—not the least is the temporary surrendering of certain personal liberties—without a unified voice in leadership speaking with sound judgment and reverence for the impact of expert advice?

To me, the deepest impact of the Covid-19 pandemic beyond the tragic loss of human life remains the nagging head fakes that cause me to have no idea what to believe.

Contradictory information is not just a health concern. The unrestricted blending of fact and speculative opinion can undermine our entire economy. If truth blows in the wind, if we have no idea what basic financial information constitutes truth, how can we wisely invest? How can we guide careers? How can we effectively build plans for our future?

Trust and truth are not just about bidirectional knowledge transfer or multi-directional pollutants of critical exchange. Once we accept the notion that lies will be lies and are simply part of the fabric of sharing a planet, we effectively invite opportunism and exploitation as normal behavior. Today there would seem almost nothing that surprises us in lowering our expectations of those whose paths we may cross.

As quickly as the novel coronavirus was becoming a national emergency, some of our fellow citizens took it upon themselves to empty stores shelves of toilet paper, hoarding for themselves rather than caring about the needs of others.

As soon as hand sanitizer became scarce, many sellers of it started price gouging. Even though we have laws about profiteering in crisis, even though it is a purely inhuman act, they did it to extract obscene profits, to hell with the ongoing trust of their customers.

Earlier this month it was revealed that an international criminal operation was filing fraudulent unemployment claims in the United States. Congressionally directed funds meant to help people became the target of a scam. My own company saw one of the first fraudulent claims.

With so many people working from home, phishing and identity theft are on the rise. Credit card fraud is escalating. Fellow human beings see upside in the confusion brought on by the rapid adoption of technologies meant to connect us. Instead they would steal from us.

We are parroting unseemly behavior. We hear lies coming from our foremost leaders. Somehow that becomes permission to follow suit. Self-interest becomes justified and paramount. What we allow we let spread.

Why is all of this bothering me so much, beyond the underlying sickness it unmasks in our global community?

I am a brand builder. The basis of a brand is trust. A brand is a promise. Without trust in a brand, most products become random commodities. The balance of price, quality, and service is reduced to the lowest common denominator. Without brands, we don’t have customers, we have transactions. That is a pure downward spiral in economic viability.

I am also a business leader. When I say leader, I only can apply that descriptor in as much as people choose to follow me. Certainly I can impose hierarchy and insist on the power of authority. If you have ever managed creative people, you know how far that will get you.

If all trust is gone, then I have to assume trust in me is gone. If all truth is gone, I can’t expect anyone to believe anything I say is the truth. A complete lack of credibility in the chain of command is the fastest path to chaos in business I can imagine.

So yeah, it’s personal. If the societal fabric is unwound by manipulation and cynical agendas, my efficacy is also tainted. If you don’t trust my brand, you won’t be my customer. If no one trusts my direction, I can’t do my job and I will have no product to sell.

Is every detail in a company always able to be posted on the side of a cube wall? No, certainly not, there are all kinds of trade secrets and human sensitivities that merit protection. I am not particularly a fan of radical transparency. It sounds much better than it is and I have seldom met colleagues with the pure objectivity to pull it off.

Does it mean there is no way for us to walk down a path of honesty and clarity without a categorical imperative? If you don’t understand that there are shades of grey in decision-making that don’t cross the boundaries of trust, I’m not sure anything I’ve written here will be of value to you.

Integrity is a calling. It is a beckoning aspiration that molds and shapes behavior. Intention matters. Respect matters. Acknowledgment of consequence matters.

If you have shouldered the responsibility of executive leadership or brand stewardship, you know that once integrity is compromised, it is almost impossible to restore faith in a promise of any kind. We teach this to young children, why the smallest lie matters because it makes the next lie possible. Once you’ve lied or cheated and you’ve been caught, no one can ever be certain of your words again.

Am I giving up the fight against the absurd? Hardly. Am I done compromising around the notion of false equivalency? I’ve yet to compromise on values that are sacrosanct and I see no value dancing around an undisciplined contradiction that is empirically wrong.

We can’t let down our guard against emboldened con artists. The disease they spread will never have a cure.

Trust is not negotiable because truth is not negotiable. Talk yourself out of that and you have opted into the source of aimless unwinding.

Trust has to matter to you. Telling and hearing the truth has to matter to you. Commit yourself to demanding more of your own integrity, and one by one we might be able to rebuild our way out of unearned gains and stolen promises.

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Image: Pixabay

5 Key Learnings in Crisis

Many of us are trying to decipher some level of meaning in the Covid-19 crisis. I must admit, I’m unable to find any. This is an act of nature, an act of environment. I see no message in either the depths of pain and loss this disease is causing globally, or the resulting social and economic havoc that is its byproduct. I think if you’re looking for a clear definition of existential occurrence, this is as clear as it gets.

For better or worse, the dialogue doesn’t have to end there. Like any shock to the system, Covid-19 does offer us some learning opportunities. I’ve been thinking a lot about this the past several weeks. Here are five modest headlines I believe can be some of our more instructional takeaways once we together find a way to cross the chasm.

Leadership and trust are inseparable.

In the absence of recognized authority, chaos will fill the vacuum. We are seeing this and suffering with it day after day. The issue is not whether we are politicizing a deadly disease, whether our polarization is obstructing more sensible activity. In times of distress, we all crave calming leadership around which we can rally. As I have written many times before, trust cannot be assigned, it has to be earned. Effective leadership cannot be mandated. Leadership is acknowledged by example.

There is no such thing as alternative facts. A fact is a fact. While scientific practice can be revisited by disproving the conclusions around previously applied data, it can only be done so with more disciplined inquiry and even more rigorously evidenced data. An intelligent, educated population hungers for touchpoints of agreement that can be demonstrated empirically. without hype, manipulation, or ulterior motives. Our nation and our planet have indeed managed through historical crises worse than Covid-19. If you look back at how those triumphs occurred, you will likely see the link between leadership and trust on grand display.

Investing in readiness is not a luxury.

I wish I could find the words to express my dismay in how flat-footed our nation has proven itself in addressing a severe threat to our fundamental health and wellness. Even the most basic understanding of chain of command is absent in our adopted strategies and tactics. Many wonder if our collective investment in government will be there to protect us when we need it most. Today we turn on the television and hear wailing debate, not cohesive response. In a nation as wealthy and with as much advanced expertise as we have, how is it possible that medical personnel are making their rounds wearing plastic garbage bags rather than professional scrubs?

Few enterprises can survive a substantial blindside without some playbook on the shelf. If you have worked in a well-run company, you have been a part of scenario planning—deep discussions and studied research around abstract calamities. Sometimes teams immersed in these simulations consider the use of resources inefficient. If you’ve ever come out the other side of a whirlwind attack, you know how important having most of the debate behind you can be. Game theory developed with care is how bad problems become less bad, and opportunities become apparent in the fog of war.

We are more resilient than we may think.

When I think about the crises that have come before—our Civil War, the Great Depression, two world wars, nuclear proliferation—it’s hard to understand how we are still here. When you listen to survivors of monumental suffering talk about how they endured the unbearable challenges of their lives, it becomes clear that perspective and context are necessary to frame whatever tests may be interrupting our current plans.

We can handle more than we think we can. We can solve problems that at any given moment seem unsolvable. I’m not sure this crisis is as much about Covid-19 itself as it is about how poorly we are addressing it, and yet, the losses we will suffer will not be the last losses we endure. To lose a family member or loved one is untenable. To lose someone unnecessarily is impossible to rationalize. To lose one’s livelihood is a level of devastation we likely all fear and some of us will inevitably experience. As we work our way down the scale of loss, the true strength inside of us may as yet be untapped. Called upon to continue, we might see that the historical odds suggest there are brighter days ahead if we bolster the fortitude of resilience.

Bonding ahead of distance allows shorthand.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have been asked to work at home in a time where technology makes that proposition possible. Could the notion of sheltering in place two decades ago without broadband internet even have been an option? That said, not all teams were ready to work remotely, particularly leadership teams. If you were working well in a shared space there is a good chance you are succeeding with distance. If there was tension, anxiety, and aggravation before you had to communicate through a screen, I can only imagine your turmoil without in-person connection.

I know in my own company it would be a lot harder to manage our way through daily operations with a newly assembled management team than with teammates who already know each other reasonably well. Of course the timing of crisis doesn’t come with the convenience of established tenure. To the extent you believe something like a novel coronavirus will interrupt us again—and how could it be otherwise—I would suggest we use the ordinary times of our work to prepare for the extraordinary times that might otherwise derail us. This starts with the bonds we establish in normalcy.

All behavior is consequential.

I think about the difference between the business partners who are working cooperatively in this havoc to achieve long-range, positive outcomes and those who are shortsighted and only see the coming weeks ahead of them. Asserting one’s will, even asserting the letter of the law in a contract, is not how relationships are formed. Give a little now and you may have a customer for life. Insist on taking all that is rightfully yours and it might be the last speck of gold you extract from the mine.

Tone matters in a negotiation. Listening matters when opinions differ. If you choose to assert leverage because you think you can get away with it, if you believe that bullying tactics are how you protect the fort, you’re unlikely to enjoy a long and lasting impact on your industry. Business is a rollercoaster of cycles, and we aren’t all going up or down at the same time. Never forget that old cliche: Jobs in context are relatively brief; careers may be long or short depending on how you manage your timeline.

When I was circulating an early draft of this post for feedback as I often do, I was reminded by a wise friend not to miss the obvious lesson before us, the simplicity of appreciation. He reminded me that gratitude is profound, and it is always powerful to celebrate the goodness in what we have, the majesty in sharing each new day where the gifts within our reach should not be taken for granted. I think that’s good advice. I wish you the wellness that will return us to a revived global community.

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Image: CDC

 

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