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

Calling Out the Aberration

blue-capab·er·ra·tion [ab-uhrey-shuh n] noun; 1) the act of departing from the right, normal, or usual course; 2) the act of deviating from the ordinary, usual, or normal type; 3) deviation from truth or moral rectitude; 4) mental irregularity or disorder, especially of a minor or temporary nature; lapse from a sound mental state.

Source: Dictionary.com

I didn’t want to write about Donald Trump this month. I wanted to write about anything but Trump. I have a half-dozen articles on business topics in draft. I wanted to finish and publish one of those. Anything but Trump. Yet when I started to go down the “don’t write about Trump” path, everything else seemed trivial.

The weeks since Trump has taken office have already produced the worst series of lies and public trust abuses I have seen perpetuated on our nation in my lifetime. Language now seems a game to be played no matter how trivial or serious the topic, from inauguration attendance to made-up massacres. Like many I know, I am not getting over it. There is no getting back to normal until this con man is out of The White House. Then we’ll see what normal looks like.

In two weeks’ time we now have “alternative facts” and “so-called judges.” I grew up learning that we had verifiable facts and elected or appointed judges. One of us had a poor education or wasn’t paying attention. A “so-called judge” might be a guy in a bar blowing off steam who disagrees with a ruling whose opinion matters about as much as mine.

In middle school government class I learned about separation of powers. Does the President comprehend the idea that there are three equal parties at the top of this org chart or does he think our judges report to him? We elect a President, not a king. Please, someone explain the reality show rules to him.

Beyond the betrayal of our American values, what worries me most about Trump is the global perception that his words are all of our words. In the few weeks he has been on the job there is widespread talk of torture being okay, border walls commencing construction, economically senseless tariffs proposed, and a shamefully discriminatory travel ban ordered. We must emphasize those are his words, not all of America’s words. He is speaking for the window of time he is in power.

This will pass. We will fix it. Tell the world.

Last week I posted largely in jest that in the next election Trump’s opponent should adopt the borrowed slogan, “Make America Great Again.” We could print millions of blue caps with his own mantra. It would be more fitting than ironic. He might even sue for trademark infringement. That would be cool.

It is essential that we keep telling the world that Trump is not making America great again. He is an aberration in our social evolution. Write down that word and share it. Aberration.

Trump’s behavior is not normal. He is anything but normal. Some would say he is a sociopath. American history is progressive when it comes to civil rights. Even when conservative leaders have been in office our direction has been toward personal freedom, not authoritarianism. The Trump administration is an aberration and must be called out for it over and over again so people around the world know he does not speak for all of us.

We are divided as a nation, but at least in the popular vote, no matter what he says, there are more of us who legitimately voted for someone who wasn’t him. The global community needs to see, hear, and understand our division. That is what we mean by forming a resistance. I don’t care if he has a support base applauding him. I can say this with great conviction: anyone who is buying his act has been duped. Unless they are already in the 1%, they are going to get nothing for their loyalty.

Regardless of opposition, the words of global leaders matter. Imagine if a newly elected leader in Germany proclaimed on inauguration day: “From now on, our agenda is Germany first.” Imagine hearing that from a democracy with an uneven past. Would that sound like your fellow nation was on a positive track?

That is what people around the globe are hearing from the United States, but it’s not all of us, it’s him and whoever still buys his delusion. Pure self-interest is by definition not an admirable form of leading by example. It is exploitation and imperialism. That’s the tone we are now broadcasting from The White House.

If we have lost our core value of empathy, we have lost our place as an example of democratic leadership. I don’t believe the majority of us have abandoned empathy, which directs my voice to calling out the aberration. Trump may be my elected president, but he doesn’t speak for me. The world must hear the voice of everyone who feels that way to be reassured the tide will turn.

People ask me if we are preaching to the choir on social media, talking to ourselves until we are exhausted and even more anxious. Unless you live in an anti-Trump enclave and all your friends are anti-Trump, I say keep shouting out loud. People who are following Trump blindly need to hear that we are not backing down. More important, people outside the United States need to understand that we are not united in our support of this aberration.

Do not assume everyone across the globe understands the full idea of democracy, particularly those already living in silenced societies. Simply because Trump can list 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as his sometime address for the next few years doesn’t mean he speaks for all Americans. We have to let the world know there is a resistance so they don’t give up on us. They see it in every word we utter against his tyranny. Our words and our fight are their hope.

This is why the Women’s March matters.

That is why the airport protests matter.

That is why talking frequently on public social media matters.

Numbers count. We need to be globally visible.

I have spoken with numerous first-generation families over the past few weeks, and they are terrified. They are American citizens or residents by right, yet they fear an executive order could change their status in an instant. They are not comforted as they should be by a president who represents their interests. They fear upheaval. They fear uncertainty. They fear persecution. They fear oppression. They fear for their families. The President has done nothing to make them believe he cares for their interests. A cabinet of billionaires tells them where the President is focusing his attention.

Say it and say it again. Raise your voice. The resistance is real.

Keep making noise. It matters.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Can They Hear You Listening?

Consultant?  Mentor?  Coach?  However you might be trying to encourage someone who is already an outstanding professional do what they do better, what is most likely to get in your way?  It is quite possible that professional is not accustomed to being on the receiving end of good coaching.  Any leader who spends most of their time getting things done promptly, inspiring a team with excellence, may have forgotten or never have learned how to be open to quality feedback.  That may seem like the executive’s problem, but it is clearly a challenge any great coach should be excited to accept.

One of the key problems many executives face is the impossibility of getting honest, useful feedback, often until it is too late.  A study last fall from the Kellogg School of Management identified the Icarus Paradox as a particularly pernicious factor in the continuing success of accomplished CEOs.  Where top executives are often most in need of quality feedback, they are often at the disadvantage of their own nervous circles.  Exaggerated levels of flattery and opinion conformity are too often the norm within organizations, leaving the already exposed leader even more exposed than necessary, too often in the spirit of being well-meaning.  “My advice would be to remember that the higher you are, the more likely you are to be ingratiated, and therefore you should make sure you get advice from people who do not depend on you,” wrote Northwestern professor Ithai Stern, one of the authors of the study.

There’s some interesting advice — seek input from someone who has no reason to flatter you, but rather is 100% aligned with you objectively for success.  Sounds like opportunity with huge upside for the right person ready to provide that challenge in a manner where it is unfiltered, constructive, and uncompromised.  The goal is not so much self-enhancement of the individual as it is strategic enhancement of the individual’s mission, upon which so many are depending.

CTI Executive CoachingSounds like an ideal place to be, but how do you get there?  Surely it’s possible for someone like Baseball Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax to return to his Dodger roots and offer a pointer or two to Cy Young Award Winner Clayton Kershaw, who is still early in his career and confident enough in his own pitching to know how to listen to a legend.  What if your experience is different from that of the person you are coaching — can you still be of high value?   Because I do this every day with world-class individuals who do things I could never do, I promise you that you can — but you do have some immensely hard work ahead of you.

Imagine you could help anyone in the world get better at what they do in a professional context, regardless of his or her area of expertise or your own.  Hey, this is for fun, pick anyone you want — an artist, an athlete, a headline corporate leader.  Great, keep that person in mind, and presume you are not renowned for the same things they are.  How are you going to get past the barrier of getting them to accept your insight?  That perhaps is a much bigger challenge than getting the fantasy assignment in the first place.

You might be saying to yourself your initial goal has to be to establish rapport, and that would be a good place to start, but what does it mean?  In the Executive Coaching Workshop I lead with John Vercelli at Coaches Training institute, we talk less about the notion of rapport, and more about the notion of empathy.  In the many exercises and role-playing scenarios we run, we have yet to find two individuals so disparate in life experience that they cannot find a path to empathy.  In this context, empathy is the basis of common understanding, an appreciation of shared aspirations and motivating factors, an interlinking of common goals outside the specifics of a work-oriented task.  No matter how far apart people begin, if they make the effort and commit themselves to finding reciprocal empathy, they can find common ground to break down a set of complex problems quickly and consistently.  The outreach that constitutes the task of discovering empathy leads to the bond of trust that is essential in any coaching relationship.  Find empathy, establish trust, and the process of being open to outside support is not nearly as hard as it seems.

Is it any wonder that this kind of trust is difficult for an executive to exhibit in the hyper competitive workplace?  Anyone in a position of leadership is constantly faced with endless conflicts of interest, mixed messages, hidden agendas, and far too much flattery.  When a coach can break through all that noise through the powerful act of focused listening, the next person likely to listen might be the executive.  That could constitute an unequaled breakthrough and the beginning of a powerful business friendship.

If Professor Stern and his colleagues are right about the Icarus Paradox, and senior business leaders can be set up for a fall by unrealistic levels of strategic confidence fostered by too many piled up compliments, then the smartest ones are going to look outward for the right kind of listening and more useful forms of feedback.  That’s a field day for the executive coach willing to step up and be honest, empathetic, and a confidential source of creative exchange.  With that kind of listening, flattery can be replaced with progress.

The Art and Science of Coaching

Most great athletes wouldn’t think of stepping into competition without a coach, both in practice running skill drills and on the sidelines during an event for strategy and encouragement.  Where you find a great business leader, there is often a similar proxy — a mentor helping guide them, either a current boss, a past boss, or a colleague who just cares enough to help.  When you want a coach and aren’t lucky enough to have a mentor, where can you turn?  Some have tried executive coaches, paid professionals hired to fill the role, sometimes successful, sometimes not.  Because I find the role of being a mentor the most satisfying aspect of my career, I have taken up an interest in coaching over the past few years and learned through experience some stuff worth sharing.

John Vercelli, with whom I teach the Executive Coaching Workshop at Coaches Training Institute, recently sent me an article from Human Resources Executive that largely captures why we created our new program.  The article, by Andrew R. McIlvaine, pretty much says everything I was intending to write in a post here, not the least of which is:

Too many executive coaches lack the business experience necessary to help clients.  But others say such experience isn’t necessary to effect real change — and in some cases, it may even be a hindrance.

John and I are somewhere in the middle (surprised, huh?).  We believe it is virtually impossible to be an executive coach if someone hasn’t developed empathy for the job of the executive.  Yet we also believe that just because someone has significant executive experience, that may not qualify them to be a world-class executive coach.

That’s why we decided to lead the Executive Coaching Workshop together, and are having a blast doing so.  John is a longtime member of the faculty at CTI and now serves as Director of Corporate Programs.  I have taken courses at CTI, but I am not a certified coach.   I have immense respect for the work of the coach, but that’s really John’s expertise as one of the senior curriculum designers for CTI.  My role in this program is to help prepare a new wave of coaches to step into the corporate arena by placing them in real world simulations that illustrate the weight of walking in an executive’s shoes.

We can no more substitute a lifetime of making business decisions in a few intense days of training than we can alter the personality of someone who doesn’t appreciate empathy to exhibit it.  What we can do is paint a picture of what high level business decision-making is like day-to-day as well as year to year, and how a good coach can add value to that decision-making by helping frame the context of situations as a resource and sounding board rather than an “answer machine.”  The combination of John’s co-active creativity and my goal oriented pragmatism — both tempered by true commitment to human potential and respect for the individual as well as the team — seems to be working.  Here are a few things we have learned in the initial trials:

1. Role-Playing Creates Memorable Models: When we take prospective executive coaches and load them up in exercises with the burdens of time bound goals, intense competition, market forces, unforgiving shareholders, management hierarchies, and corporate politics, they start to understand the client by becoming the client.  Of course this is no substitute for the reality of the client’s struggles, but it’s a good start down a path toward empathy.  If you have a little high-octane improv you want to try out, there’s nothing quite like giving your material a no-fault test run.

2. Intellectual Curiosity Can’t Be Faked: If you want to cheer people on, you need to be interested in what they do.  As obvious as it may sound, an expressed interest in business is prerequisite to being a recommended executive coach.  Reading the Wall Street Journal regularly, digging into corporate annual reports, subscribing to industry email newsletters, participating in webinars — all of these help to build a shared vocabulary around profit and loss, return on investment, and growth opportunities.  Where prospective executive coaches don’t find the subject matter naturally interesting, easy flowing dialogue is not easy.

3. It Takes a Toolkit: There is no single path to success for the executive, and there is surely no single connect-the-dots methodology for successful executive coaching.  The dynamics of today’s business environment are fierce and opaque, creating a landscape of ambiguity that has to be constantly reevaluated and balanced.  There is no reward without risk, and helping the executive to consider risk requires an establishment of trust and credibility that constantly has to be reinforced.  We believe empathy is possible through extrapolation of life experience, but thin analogies will only get you so far.  Experience and knowledge compound over time to broaden the context of dialogue, convincing us that process is your friend to the extent you have the personal resources to chart new paths under immense pressure.

How deep can organizations go with coaching?  A recent post in Psychology Today suggests that even a CEO can benefit strong from an executive coach, although building that level of trust and empathy is no small task.  The point is that everyone can benefit from a sounding board, and in a perfect world everyone would have one that embodies a level playing field of shared knowledge.  Since that business utopia is unlikely to emerge anytime soon, we think great executive coaches will be increasingly in demand, but like anything worth the money, the difference between good and great can be considerable.

The science of coaching is most likely to be revealed through improved business results, the scoreboard of performance upon which the client’s metrics will be formally evaluated.  The art of coaching may seem more abstract, as each coach will undoubtedly develop his or her own style for working with the client to achieve the anticipated metrics, but without concrete improvements in financials, style won’t much matter.  John and I believe you can’t have one without the other, and it is the integration of this vision that motivates us to help fill that toolkit.