Are Our Stories Good Enough?

Browsing through Facebook, I’m always a bit stunned to find how often we share things from strangers (i.e. the internet) instead of ourselves. It’s so easy to view others’ extraordinary achievements (“Man leaps over fire to propose to fiancée!”) as much superior to our own (“Man nervously takes wife to a park only to give away proposal intent.”). We can’t compete, right?

But we can and should. Why? Because the internet is full of such extraordinary things, but our lives are not. Personally, I don’t care about random larger-than-life stories from the internet, but I do care about your everyday ones. The experiences of friends and family are far more valuable than strangers’, because it’s friends and family that we build our lives around. We should care much more about what happens to each other—whether serious, silly, or somewhere in between.

So in 2015 I implore you to share your thoughts and stories, and we’ll all enjoy them more. Even if they don’t involve catching a shark with your bare hands, or painting an incredibly realistic seascape on your sidewalk. And better yet, don’t be afraid to create new stories—because even though others have already done so, it’s your stories that matter most to those around you.

Every Day is Groundhog Day

It’s fascinating to think that this very moment is the culmination of everything you’ve ever learned to date—skills, habits, mannerisms, education, and even which things are truly important to you. On its own, each bit of learning seems so insignificant. But compiled over time, they represent an enormously important part of who we are.

Amusingly, I think I first started to realize this after watching the movie Groundhog Day. In the movie, Phil (played by Bill Murray) finds himself in a situation where he wakes up every morning to find that he’s living the exact same day as yesterday. It’s always Groundhog Day. The key, though, is that he retains his memory from day to day—and after some initial despair (and humor, of course), he realizes that he can use this to his advantage. He learns more about the girl he loves. He learns when to save people from ill-fated accidents. He learns to play the piano.

It is this last that really got me thinking: aren’t our lives, without the repetition of days, still essentially the same story? We float from one day to the next, often reacting to the events around us, without stopping to think about the true sum of these events over time. We turn away from piano when we consider how difficult a song seems to play, without taking a moment to think about easy it would be to learn ten notes.

And then ten more notes.

Going one step further, we can look at this in the context of our most important dreams—dreams that often seem so unattainable. But if we can break down the steps to those dreams, to the smallest of steps, we can create our own Groundhog Day experience.

Some people ask me why I’m so driven to move myself forward—mostly because it often seems to my detriment. Is it really helpful to study web design in the depths of the night, when sleep tries to force my hand? Is it mentally damaging to try to hold on to so many goals at once? I am not sure I know the answers to these questions, but I do know one thing: I don’t want to look back on my Groundhog Day and say that I’m no better off than when I started.  I don’t want to be the version of Phil that stares blankly at a piano on Day 74.

I hope that you don’t, either.

In Search of the Little Things

This afternoon, an avalanche of e-mail spilled steadily into my inbox, and for a moment I wondered if somewhere a great dam had finally crumbled beneath its own weight.  Support requests of many different types tumbled down the hill, and as I often try to do, I ran at them with the gusto of a child running up the wrong escalator.  Because that’s the only way that getting to the top of an escalator is any fun.

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m quite achievement-oriented.  I detest doing purposeless tasks – and love the image of a meaningful checkmark filling an open box.  Now more than ever, I’ve realized that every job in the world can ultimately be boiled down to a sequence of those checkboxes.  One after another they come, hour by hour, day after day, endlessly filling the gaps behind them with the next thing on the list.

If we look at our jobs this way, then the goal of every employee is quite clear:  get those boxes checked in the way that is asked of you.  Sometimes those tasks are open to various solutions (a design), while other tasks have completely pre-constructed solutions (a contract).  Regardless of the type, however, what’s interesting is how each employee goes about checking the box.

It’s easy to think no one is noticing.  But whether they realize it or not, employees are professionally and personally evaluated at every turn.  Most of these evaluations happen within the subconscious.  I often wonder by what measures others conduct these evaluations, but for me, I’ll let you in on a little secret:  I place immense value in how well you find and do the little things.

As my wife and I drove back home this past weekend, we stopped at an Arby’s.  We did so because, well, pregnant women have to make stops frequently.  As a husband, it’s my job to make sure my wife uses the restroom at the finest establishments possible – and thus Arby’s called to me amidst the sea of gas stations and less finer establishments.  We’d eaten a couple of hours before, so neither of us was hungry, and at 3:00 the place was mostly empty.  It was a uneventful stop.

Until the manager welcomed us to the restaurant.

He stood behind the counter, likely in his late thirties and severely overweight.  No employee sits for long within a fast food restaurant, so his feet were probably killing him.  As my wife headed to the restroom, I randomly took a moment to wonder what path might have led him here.  Does anyone say, “I want to manage an Arby’s twenty years after I graduate high school?”  Probably not.  But somehow I knew that his welcome was completely genuine, and I instantly sensed that whatever his path might have been, this was a man who had decided to take pride in his work.  He wasn’t going to phone it in, at least not today.

In that moment following his welcome, I didn’t quite have the heart to say, “I’m sorry, we’re just here to use the restroom.”  I certainly could have, and he wouldn’t have minded in the least.  But as I decided what I might order, I realized that I greatly treasure employees that do more than what they have to.  And by that I mean the little things – the things that take almost no effort at all.  Because these are the things that no one bothers to do.

As I made my selection, the manager kindly answered the lone question I had with no hesitation, which meant that he knew his menu well.  He waited patiently while his crew prepared my wrap in the back, and when it slid into the metal rack, he called out a thank you to them.  There was little doubt that he meant it.

Was this an earth-shattering sequence of events?  No, of course not.  But the world is full of people that do precisely what they’re asked to do, and sometimes they expend a great amount of effort doing it.  There are probably thousands of Arby’s managers that suffer through eight hours of fast food nightmares for a meager paycheck.  They meet their documented goals.  I’d wager, however, that there aren’t many who look past those goals and set their own, more important goals – completely driven by a inner desire to be something better.

In my eleven years of professional work, I have come across this type of person from time to time, and it’s little coincidence that I call many of them my closest professional friends.  They represent the person who looks past the black and white of a project to see where support may be needed.  They often do the work behind the scenes that goes uncredited.  They are the people that aren’t interested in the ordinary, everyday tasks but instead focus on how to make a room – and ultimately their company – a better place than they found it.

On my best day, I approach being that kind of person, but on other days I fall short.  I might unconsciously lower my standards to feel good about getting more boxes checked.  Or I may stare proudly at the bird in my hands and completely overlook the two in the bush.  But it doesn’t take long for that one person to come along and inspire me all over again – and in almost every case, that person has no idea that he or she did so.  Certainly the manager of that Arby’s did not.

When all is said and done, we spend a great portion of our lives in an office, working under flourescent lights in monotonous spaces.  Everything is ordinary about our jobs, because it’s all been invented years before we get there, by people with titles a lot higher than ours.  But what isn’t so ordinary are the tasks that lie beyond the norm.  If you take a moment to think back to several truly memorable experiences of your life, it’s interesting to consider what made them stand out the most.

Was it the big things, or was it the little things that you never expected?

The Forsaken

For a little while now, I’ve tried to figure out what it is about the current political discourse that so deeply disturbs me. There are all of the obvious things on the surface: the ceaseless stalemate, the fiery (and unfruitful) rhetoric, and the growing divide among our everyday neighbors. Perhaps worst of all, most cable networks fan these flames as a means to boost their ratings. Yet it goes further than that.

In recent months, almost all legislation (and accompanying debate) has centered around wealth. Those who don’t have it want the government to help them, and those who do have it argue for their right to choose where their wealth goes – obviously wanting to retain the right to distribute it as they see fit. Health care, taxes, Social Security, and the infamous bailouts all find their roots in wealth-based politics.

Every human being has certain rights, and one can easily argue that each person should be able to determine his or her own path. No handouts, no unfair advantages, and certainly no forced wealth distribution. Each of us should be, quite simply, what we make of ourselves. Obviously we don’t have have the same starting point as we arrive into this world, so there is an unspoken exception: that we should be able to inherit the hard work and/or wealth of our parents and grandparents. This seems fair enough.

When trying to understand the dilemma of whether or not to help the have-nots, though, there are two questions that come squarely into focus:

  1. Do they deserve it?
  2. Does it matter if they deserve it?

The answer to the first drives most of the discussion. It has become convenient to make the freeloading welfare mother the posterchild of the poor, and by extension cement the notion that most of these people do not deserve our assistance. Why would we continue to bail out such a lifestyle with our hard-earned money? Many would say this is senseless and pointless, and in almost all cases they would be right. But this not the question that matters – not really.

The question has always been: what happens to the people that truly do deserve our assistance?

This is where things get difficult. Let’s assume – for a moment – that 80% of the poor are more or less freeloading and deserve the situation they’re in. These are people that do not deserve any more of our aid than we’re already giving them, and recent cutbacks in government programs may actually spur them to step up to the plate. So be it. But no matter how we look at this, there remains the other side of the coin: the stay-at-home mother whose husband suddenly passed away, the man whose factory just closed due to outsourced jobs, or the family that can’t come close to covering the hospital costs of a son with cancer. Not to mention the tragic situation that everyone always overlooks: those unfortunate enough to be born with a lack of intelligence, which is something that cannot be overcome at any cost. At the end of the day, all of this leads to the one question that this really boils down to: is it worth helping these people, if it means that we have to help some of the freeloaders along with them?

Even at the low estimate of 20%, based on the number of Americans in poverty (a family of four with less than $22,000 in total income, or $11,000 as an individual) this would mean that approximately 8 million Americans would fall into the category of the deserving. Yet the idea of helping the undeserving poor is so repugnant that we continue to pull back from helping any of them. The discussion is boiled down to the ever-simple “yes” or “no” to government programs as opposed to trying to make them better.

So again, we have to decide – as a nation – to what extent we’re willing to help the undeserving as the price of helping the deserving. Many Republicans want to cut back as much government spending as possible, because they believe in the central philosophy of Every Man For Himself. Democrats want to improve the country from the bottom up, taxing the wealthy as a central means to do so. Yet largely caught in the middle are the millions of Americans who fall victim to both chance and the system – and through little fault of their own never really stood a chance to make a solid living for themselves. They are the casualties of our own internal war.

Perhaps it is as simple as this: the fact that the most deserving of these people are Americans should mean something. It should mean that they’re afforded rights, but it should also mean that their fellow citizens lend a hand when they hit the very bottom. It should mean that they don’t have to be terrified of getting sick, or know with certainty that their children will receive a terrible education. And most of all, it should mean that they’re not consistently looked down upon by those in power, with little regard for – or time invested in – their individual situations.

On a personal level, this is why I vote the way I do – because I see it as a necessity, not a choice. I’m not willing to sacrifice the deserving poor (whatever the percentage might be) until we build a system that gives them a chance.

The Glass Ceiling of Chivalry

Since the beginning of mankind, chivalry has held its head high as one of the great traditions of society. I’ve little doubt that if we could travel back through time, we’d see cavemen placing their companions closest to the fire, or Roman emperors ensuring that their wives had every luxury. In many men, there is something of a genetic disposition to take care of the woman next to us, whether it’s opening her car door or (in dire situations) ensuring that she’s the first one onto the lifeboat in an emergency. And so, as a society, we still embrace these traditions wholeheartedly, and the most chivalrous of men are our role models for graciousness.

But there is a darker side to this story.

Being subject to human nature, we are also bound by the psychological implications of what we do. We are a society that has long kept women at a position inferior to men, and even today salary analysis has unquestionably shown a sizable gap between the two. We have also never had a female president, and the one candidate that came close rose to power in the shadow of her husband. Constantly, we are reminded of the “glass ceiling” that exists in corporate America and beyond. And most incredibly of all, there are men and women alive today that saw their own mothers unable to vote in elections.

Publicly, no one is foolish enough to admit keeping women at bay. Privately, however, it is very much an open question. I think the assumption has long been that blatant sexism continues to lurk silently throughout our families and board rooms, but in practice I have found that this is not as black and white as it seems. As always, I think the answer lies a little deeper than that.

The question is: deep down, as men, do we truly believe that women are our equals? Do they share our capability for intelligent decisions? Do they possess the strength to do what needs to be done, regardless of the situation or emotions involved? Do they deserve the benefit of doubt that we constantly give ourselves, even amidst the notable failures of men in leadership?

My answer is an emphatic yes. But the solution to this problem is not as easy as it seems. In addition to changing our beliefs, as we’ve done slowly over time, we must also increasingly change our actions. And in this case, alongside the more obvious actions, we must also begin to wind down the longstanding tradition of chivalry.

This will surely provoke some negative reactions among readers here. Why, then, would I believe it? Because for every case in which a man takes care of a woman, there is an implicit belief that a woman needs to be taken care of. By its very purpose, chivalry is drawing the line between the provider and the dependent…and in the dependent role, I’d argue that a woman can never truly be a man’s equal. If you still find this hard to believe, think about it a moment: why is chivalry an embraced tradition? As men, we embrace it because it is the “nice” thing to do. Why, then, is it not acceptable for women to do the same? And wouldn’t we, as men, feel hurt if this right was taken away from us? The answer to these questions are quite revealing.

Of course, it’s entirely possible (as we continue to tell ourselves) that such generosity does not come with strings attached. But again, we are subject to human nature, and I simply do not believe that a man does not feel empowered when he holds the door for a woman, makes more money than she does, or allows her to go first in line. I think that, buried within our subconscience, men perform these roles because they feel it is the duty of the more powerful sex…and thus by doing so they become the more powerful sex. As a result, for this and other reasons, the glass ceiling continues to exist all around us.

As part of a new generation of men and women, I hope that we continue to see our paths merge together. I hope that when we glance across the board room table, men and women increasingly see each other across a level playing field. And perhaps most of all, I’d like to see us arrive at a place where men no longer feel like they have to take care of women.

For when the glass does finally shatter, I expect it won’t matter who takes the first step over it.