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

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

Godspeed, Barack Obama

obama-farewell

I found President Obama’s farewell speech magnificent. Maybe he did divide the nation. So did Abraham Lincoln. On matters of principle it’s necessary to force us to face our lesser selves. Social justice, inequality, racial bias, healthcare as a human right, healing our polluted planet, science and data as benchmarks, yeah, those are divisive issues that need to be in our faces.

Where he divided us on the what, he will be a historic figure in the continuum of our empathy — as he said, this is a process and we’re not where we need to be. Where he divided us on the how, I have empathy for the lines where we split — that is political and he is admittedly imperfect, driving us to carry the torch to fix the unsolved problems of implementation.

We should disagree, but not as much about the what as the how. It’s healthy to divide on the how until thesis and antithesis resolve in synthesis. Where we can disagree respectfully on matters of resource allocation, we can commit to working together toward compromise. Where we shouldn’t disagree on matters of fairness and sustainability, we must continue to grow as a nation and people.

Barack Obama leaves office loved by many not just within our borders, but in the global community where he is a welcomed traveler. That kind of passion is extraordinary. His style is content. He is embraced as an ambassador of authenticity, positive change, and achieving complex goals. He reminds us what we can be if we set the bar higher than we can ever imagine.

Among those of us who feel this sense of love, our admiration is heartfelt and has been earned. Love is about inspiration and aspiration. Love causes us to care more, work harder, and believe in a call to service. We know this because we have lived it together, guided by his leadership, knowing we are part of something that has mattered and will continue to matter.

On this Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday, it is my true joy to say the only words I know that express my pride, admiration, and humble gratitude to the outgoing President of the United States: Thank You. His courage, his life example, his visionary contribution to our world may not be repeated in my lifetime. To have shared these eight years with him from afar has reminded me that hope is possible, good deeds are possible, one person’s life can forever make a difference for the better in the legacy of selflessness.

I don’t think I have ever been more inspired to thought and action than I have by this man. He will forever be in my heart. He makes me want to spend my remaining years trying even harder to help lift humanity a tiny inch higher.

Yes, we can.