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.

Corporate Key to Success #3: Meetings

(This is the third in a series of posts on Corporate Orientation.)

There is little doubt that the following is true: Corporations hold a tremendous amount of power in America, and this power has increased significantly in recent years. We often see it exercised in the form of large financial transactions, but where does the money come from? How is such unbridled power created?

Well, I’ll tell you – it’s created through meetings.

Very, very little happens in any corporate office outside of meetings. So as you begin your corporate life, this is where you should devote a huge amount of attention (after you’ve parked and found your cubicle, of course). It would not be overly dramatic to say that many of the world’s most promising businessmen have ended up as doormen and dishwashers because they never found a way to navigate the meeting climate of their businesses. Thankfully, I can offer a few simple rules to keep you afloat in such a fast-action environment:

  1. Rule #1: You don’t have to arrive on time. Sure, your meeting invitation says 10:00 – but like every great party, it is trendy to arrive fashionably late. Everyone is busy, after all. In the end, it always comes down to the law of averages, and the average is that there will be some poor schmuck who “respects everyone’s time” and shows up to start the meeting at 10:00. And by working longer at your desk, you’ve just become 15% more productive than that person.
  2. Rule #2: Talk over people on conference calls. Quite simply, you can’t “win” if you’re never heard (and neither can anyone else!). So take a good two or three minutes before the meeting starts to decide how it will end, then jump into the conversation at every chance to win over the attendees. This takes some perseverance, but remember, you’ve got the additional energy you saved from missing the first ten minutes of the meeting.
  3. Rule #3: Master the big moment. Few people realize that within an hour meeting, there is a window of about 10-12 minutes that truly matters. We call that The Big Moment.™ Why only 10-12 minutes? Well, because you have to subtract out the time waiting for the stragglers (including you!) to arrive, going over what you covered in the last meeting, predicting what you’ll cover in the next meeting, recapping topics for people that missed the last meeting because of other meetings, and talking about the weather from a windowless conference room. After all of this is removed, you only have to master those 10-12 minutes, and you’ll be a genius.
  4. Rule #4: Your Blackberry is your friend. I’ll warn you: relearning the rules of social interaction within a corporate office can be difficult. At home, for instance, if your spouse is talking with you about an important home project, you’d get beaten with a frying pan for texting in the middle of the conversation. In a corporate office, however, this is not the case. I can’t stress this strongly enough. If you’re in a meeting, using your Blackberry while someone is talking means that you are an Important Person. It also means that you’re kind enough to let others make decisions, because you trust them to do the right thing (although if your subconscious hears something that sounds wrong, don’t hesitate to stop typing and ask them to repeat it). Meanwhile, you’re racking up e-mail responses like levels of Angry Birds! If you’re still not sure, I’d ask you which sounds better: multi-tasking or single-tasking? Yes, I thought so.
  5. Rule #5: Take lots of notes. Within your first few days, talk to other corporate employees and ask them to show you their meeting notebook. Everyone has one. It’s the place that you’ll constantly refer back to when you want to relive some of your company’s greatest meeting moments – perhaps it’s best to think of it as one of those soaring sequences of movie clips at the Oscars. That time when the project went from yellow status to green status? It’s in there. Want to recall when you delivered the most action items last February? It’s in there, too! Of course, it’s likely that you missed a few things while taking those notes, but the important thing is that you have the notebook. No one can ever take that away from you.
  6. Rule #6: Make a streamlined agenda. If you find yourself in the unenviable position of making an agenda, realize that the only important thing is that you need to have an agenda. The most efficient meeting organizers master this by creating an initial agenda that is very generic, then recycling that agenda into each weekly meeting. Items like “Discuss Topics” and “Review Action Items” are especially efficient.
  7. Rule #7: Brainstorm using Post-It notes. If there’s one thing that kills a productive meeting faster than any other, it’s an idea filter. What is that, you ask? Well, you know how there are times when someone asks for suggestions, then an idea pops into your head, and you immediately think, “That’s the dumbest f&*king thing I’ve ever thought of in my life?” Well, never think that. You’re killing your own ideas! People need to hear those ideas, and that’s what brainstorming is all about. You don’t have to use post-it notes, per se, as a big paper easel will do – anything that can hold all of the ideas. Even the ones that would make your father shake his head with that sad, bemused, “What I have created?” look.

And there you have it. It may sound like a lot of things to keep in mind, but you’ll find that most people do not know these rules, and your way to success is already laid out in front of you. And it’s all possible via the magic of meetings.

Corporate Key to Success #2: Entrance and Navigation

(This is the second in a series of posts on Corporate Orientation.)

Upon entering your shiny new corporate office building, you’ll immediately notice a couple of things.  First, your hopes will be dashed by the decal on the front door informing you that bombs and guns are not allowed in the building.

No one covered this during the interview process.

There are a number of ways to lead in a given environment, but much like most Americans, you’ve gained the lion’s share of your knowledge by watching television, movies, and movies on television.  You know instinctively that whipping around a gun pretty much gets you whatever you want, and that if this doesn’t work, you can always go the bomb route.  (Coincidentally, your most successful pick up line in college also involved “dropping a bomb,” so it’s always had a proven track record for you.)  Suddenly you’re told that you’ll have neither of these things available to you.

After pausing for a very long moment, you’ll notice the second surprise:  that stairs are nearly obsolete.  There are various reasons for this, which I’ll get to in a moment, but in today’s world, you actually have to go on something of a treasure hunt to find a usable stairwell.  When you do, it’s like discovering your own tropical island—except for the scents of ancient coffee spills and past employee breakdowns.  And if you do manage to find the stairs and take them up a few floors, you’ll really frighten people when you open the door at your destination.

No one expects to see someone suddenly emerge from a door that they long believed to be a closet.

Now, how have stairs become obsolete?  The answer is semi-obvious: because stairs are like kryptonite for a corporate employee.  With countless meetings and cubicle conversations as your professional lifeblood, you’re going to need every once of wind that your lungs contain, and if you’ve ever seen a fire drill in a corporate office, you’ll know that sending employees down stairs depletes more oxygen than a kitchen fire in space.  It’s gotten so bad that I can guarantee it will only be a year or two before you see little oxygen panels in corporate stairwells—the same kind that you see on airplanes.

At any rate, we’re a little off track here:  the point is to prepare you for the reality you’ll face in your new job, and that reality exists in the form of corporate elevators.  Elevators that you’ll ride with your fellow employees for years to come.

If you’ve ever seen an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, you’ll know that crazy shit can happen on an elevator.  You get in, and everything seems fine.  You ride up one floor, the door opens, and suddenly you’re looking at The Last Person You Would Ever Want to See in This Moment.  At that point, there is really no way to avoid the situation, so that person gets on and the doors shut.

The next five minutes are excruciating.

I know what you thinking:  it’s impossible for elevator rides to last five minutes unless you’re either: 1) experiencing serious mechanical failures, or 2) you’re in Inception.  But it happens.  Time seems to tilt on its axis, and you’re paralyzed in limbo with The Last Person You Would Ever Want to See in This Moment.  There are awkward pauses.  You glance at the mirror on the side of the elevator, trying to check things out discretely, and you freeze when you see the other person doing the same thing.  You say, “Hi, how are you?”, engaging your automated greeting system, and the other person responds in kind.  You pray that he or she doesn’t answer truthfully, because you don’t want to spend the next four and a half minutes of this elevator ride pretending to be sympathetic.

Sooner or later, it ends, and between this and the parking deck adventure, you’re truly in mental anguish.

Most of the time, however, you can breathe easily (as long as you don’t suffer from claustrophobia).  You’re in a small, portable room full of strangers, and to make the ride successful you only have to abide by a handful of rules:

  • Remain equidistant at all times.  If you failed high school geometry, you’re in a bit of trouble here—I’d recommend a handy cheat sheet.  Essentially, though, you want to make sure that the maximum amount of space exists between every single person in the elevator (this is most obvious when there are four people, and all of them are huddled in each corner like the poor soul at the end of The Blair Witch Project).
  • Don’t make eye contact.  Stare at the back of the elevator door, stare at your Blackberry, stare at your watch…do anything but look at another person.  Fortunately, this is made easier by the fact that it takes a double breach to cause a transgression.
  • Due to the enormous upswing in after-hours corporate office raids (you’d be surprised how well motivational posters sell on the black market), make sure you know your super-secret elevator code if you’re in the office at odds hours.  There is a great side to this, though:  if you enter your code correctly, you feel like you’ve just saved the princess in Super Mario Brothers.

If you can do these things, and outlast a potential personality conflict for five minutes, then you’re off to a terrific start.

Corporate Keys to Success: An Orientation

For anyone arriving at a corporation for the first time, overweight briefcase or purse in hand, it can be quite a shocking experience. Society simply does not do its part to prepare you for this, and most corporate orientations take place several weeks into your actual employment. The hopeful anticipation of the interview process evolves into a sense of wonder.

You’re part of something big now.

Of course, you don’t really have any idea how true this is until you cross the threshold, and when you do, there is nothing there to guide you. Until now.

After over fifteen years in a corporate environment, I have finally found an opportunity to give back—to provide the orientation that I always wanted but never received. You will hold in your hand the most treasured secrets to corporate success. And when you ride those secrets to fame and fortune, you can thank me later with a heartfelt e-mail and generous tax-deductible donation.

Success, however, rarely comes wrapped in a tidy package. Sometimes the steps are messy, littered with the corpses of broken dreams and stagnant careers. I must ask you, then, to keep your eyes forward as we climb the ladder, and not to pause to stare at the lost souls we will pass in the night. They will only distract us.

Keys to Success #1: Parking Deck Navigation

Surprisingly, one of the most tragic mistakes that you can make happens before you even walk in the door. Crisply dressed and ready for action, you roll your Nissan Sentra into the corporate parking deck at 8:25 and prepare to hop out and stroll to your new job.

Only you can’t.

Every space on the first floor is full, and there is a 70-year old driver in front of you that looks like parking might be scariest thing he’s ever done. Now, you’d think that like the ridiculously bloated amount of “experience” you stuffed into your résumé, this man’s 55 years of parking experience would alleviate a certain amount of anxiety. But after a series of almost-turns, two random signals in the wrong direction, and one very long pause for mental processing, a feeling overwhelms you that is equal parts empathy and exasperation. You grab your door handle, half-ready to get out and push his car into a spot yourself—the only thing stopping you, of course, being that your car might be stolen in the twenty seconds you leave it.

And so you inch along, loosening your shirt collar and glancing anxiously at the cars stacking up behind you.

Thirteen right turns later, you’re still going. Sweat is trickling down your forehead, and you can’t help but think you’re starting to look disheveled. A moment ago the guy actually tried to get into a space, but seemed to forget that when he made his car selection, he had in fact clung to what has always proven true: size matters. So he has to abandon his attempt and continue onward. Your horn button now seems to grow in size under your hand, its warmth calling to you like an old friend.

But what if it’s a vice president? You recoil in panic and resolve to keep going.

As you round the next turn, you almost run straight into an enormous pick-up truck parked in a compact space—its tailgate open and hanging into the aisle like the beer gut of its likely owner. A small scream actually escapes you as you land hard on your brakes. At this point it’s a matter of pure survival.

Finally, at the top of the next ramp, the old guy turns left—clearly the wrong way—headed in the other direction out of sheer desperation. You can’t help but cheer his choice, even though it may mean his doom, but you feel comfortable assuming that nothing could penetrate the armored tank he is driving.

You speed up, elated with your newfound freedom, and almost run over the AVP of HR.

At this point, you’re emotionally broken, ten minutes late, and you can barely remember what you came here for in the first place. You’re googling “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” with one hand while parking with the other. And you’re still a seven-flight elevator ride from the street, where you’ll make the expected stroll into the office for the first time. If only the image in your rear view mirror didn’t look a little too much like a crazed sheepdog at the moment.

Have I scared you? Well, I hope so. But the good news is that all of this can be avoided with the right amount of awareness. So for my Keys to Success #1, be sure to do the following:

  • If you see an old man entering the parking deck, cut in front of him if at all possible. The best method of defense is offense.
  • Before you enter the main gate, silence your engine, roll down your window, and listen for the sounds of agonized screaming. If you hear anything amiss, treat the parking deck as an honest-to-God haunted house, and do not go in there. It’s far better to park on the street illegally and move your car in an hour.
  • Understand that “compact spaces” are nothing but a polite suggestion. If you have an oversized vehicle, it’s critical to understand you live in America and can parked the damned thing wherever you want to. Especially just around corners.
  • Allocate $400 a year to wheel realignment. No matter what the car dealers say, the only cars made to endure 5,500 turns a year in the same direction all have a NASCAR driver.

If you do these things, you’ll arrive at the office in reasonably good mental health, and we can finally begin the business of being a corporate employee.

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.