When Night Falls

If you know me at all, then the odds are quite high that you’ve teased me about my odd sleeping habits. I certainly share in these laughs, because I know that I am not exactly normal in this regard.

But I certainly don’t place a lot of value in being “normal.” You probably know that, too.

Often, though, my tendency is stay up late at night is completely misunderstood. There are many of you that likely think I’m a horrible morning person, which isn’t true. I am never grumpy or angry in the morning, although I wouldn’t advise crashing into my bedroom at 6:00 a.m. It’s not that I have trouble sleeping, which my college professors can readily attest to. Nor do I have a creepy internet side business that I have to hide from the world (you’ll just have to take my word for this one). I think we’re all wired differently, and I just happened to be wired for the end of my day as opposed to the beginning of it.

As I write this post, it’s 12:51 a.m. The far majority of the east coast is fast asleep, hurtling unconsciously toward another work day. I am not. Perhaps the part of myself that I treasure most is the creative side, and that side—like a vampire in the night—loves to come out when the moon is high over the world below. It can be summoned at other times, but it never comes as willingly as it does now.

What does this mean? I honestly don’t know. But the late evening is the best time to watch thought-provoking movies or TV shows, their images drifting through my mind as it fades away to sleep. It is the time when all things seem possible: that if you look hard enough, in between the lines, there just might be a trace of magic in the night air. When the next day comes, with its strikingly bright sun, these things seem silly and foolish to everyone—certainly to me as well.

But I think that within many of us, there still exists a child that hasn’t been completely defeated by the realities of the world around us. A child that reads the adventures of Harry Potter and still thinks that there’s a slight chance that this world isn’t immune to such things. Of course, using the ever-present rational mind, no one actually believes this. I certainly don’t.

Sitting here, however, with the clock striking one, I inevitably start to wonder.  I think about all of the things in the world that still remain unexplained, and I think that it would be far too egotistical to believe that we know everything there is to know.  And I think that maybe–just maybe–there’s something there worth holding onto.

At least for one more hour.

It’s Time To Start Thinking

I am not a fan of leadership.

This is probably something that startles most people.  Everything we’ve been taught states that leaders are desperately needed to provide direction, and to set people down the right path.  The greatest companies on Earth excel because of their leadership, after all.  In religion, leadership is tremendously vital, as spiritual direction comes directly from a higher power.  Both of these examples are absolutely right, of course, and their clear advantages cannot be ignored.

But this principle fails largely because it is far too optimistic.  When we do come across a great leader, it is an incredible blessing.  Far more often, though, our leaders fall into a gray area–one that makes it much more difficult to tell right from wrong.  In many cases we don’t know them very well (such as in politics, where American distrust of Congress is soaring), and in others we follow those that were appointed leaders through some process we had nothing to do with.  We simply accept this as fact because it is the status quo.

More than anything, we know we badly need leaders because we’re told we badly need leaders.

I’d argue that this is far from the truth.  In too many situations we create a leader when one is not actually needed, and this almost always results in one individual becoming overpowered and everyone else becoming underpowered.  This in turn can cause resentment, and far too often it causes us to stop actively thinking for ourselves.  Trusting someone else to do the work is, unfortunately, vastly easier than actually doing the work.  This may be vital for hospitals and restaurants, but not for our day-to-day lives.

In contrast, the best leaders do not set direction, nor do they assume that they know more than everyone around them.  They listen. Instead of pushing down those “beneath” them, they elevate them upwards, and in doing so gain the tremendous power of collective thinking.  Let’s look at a hypothetical example:  two teams of twenty people, out in the wilderness, with only the goal of beating the other team to the finish line.  By and large, two types of scenarios can take place:

  1. One to three members of each team are elected as leaders, and the rest of the team follows. I believe this is by far the most common model, and of course it makes sense.  Someone has to step up and take control in order to get everyone moving in the same direction.  The clock is ticking.  Often these leaders are charismatic, and almost immediately they are looked upon to find the right path.  Their suggestions carry a great deal of weight, and in order to keep moving it becomes uncomfortable to openly contradict them.  Most people find themselves victims of “group think”, where ideas seem better just because everyone else is nodding along.  And the downside of this style, of course, is that a caste system inevitably emerges.  The group is split between leaders (the few) and non-leaders (the many), and regret and frustration quickly escalate—most of all among the more talented of those not leading.  Friendships also rarely cross this divide because of perceived inferiority.
  2. The twenty members of the team are considered equal, and a coordinator is assigned to facilitate discussions and organize group decisions. A rarer model, to be sure.  There are times when it is agreed upon, but dominant personalities inevitably stretch it at the seams in order to turn it into the leadership-first scenario (#1).  Not only will there always be people who think they are better than everyone else, but by definition there always are one or two people that are better than everyone else, and it is ever so tempting to turn leadership over to those that know the most.  But in this model, you have to stay the course—the biggest reason being that knowing more is far from knowing everything.  Even if the most talented members know best a remarkable 75% of the time, ignoring others’ input on the remaining 25% is a fatal mistake.  And so the leader in this case must absolutely be someone without ego.  It must be someone who excels in bringing out the best in everyone around them, not for their personal gain but solely for the gain of the entire group.

I have chosen recently to do everything in my power to pursue the second model, and to discourage leadership in its “usual” form whenever possible.  Whether it is a two-team race or a church group or a Fortune 500 company, we cannot continue to blindly trust the abilities of a select few.  This does not mean that we should ignore or berate our current leaders, though, which is another tragic mistake.  More often than not, these leaders are truly talented.  Instead, we have to stop taking things on faith and really listen.

We have to start thinking for ourselves.

In other words, it’s time to ignore the rhetoric, gossip and rumors that are inevitably going on around us.  We have to stop taking others’ opinions for our own.  I think you can imagine the results if everyone came to his or her own conclusions independently, and then a leader coordinated the results before working to bring the group to a consensus.   Even in those situations where the path is clouded with doubt, we would still retain the ability to look back and learn from our mistakes.

Because they’ll be our mistakes.

The Art of Creation

Looking back, it’s difficult to believe that this blog is now on its fifty-sixth post. A lot of small ideas have come and gone, and I’ve certainly found quite a bit of amusement in doing it. And I think there will be a good many posts to come. On the surface, it seems a bit like work writing these posts…but of course it isn’t. It’s fun, and energizing, and represents a lot of things that I can’t seem to find anywhere else.

It’s creativity.

I have to come to realize that more than anything, I enjoy the simple art of creating things. There’s nothing more exciting than turning a blank page into something vibrant with life–something that simply did not exist in this world before. (Of course, my parents had similar thoughts when they created me, and it’s hard to say whether or not they knew what they were getting into.) But there’s definitely a common theme when you look at a lot of the things that I enjoy:

  • When I play the piano, I often add notes, rhythms, or chords to the music on the page.  On many other occasions, I simply make things up–the song of that particular moment being lost to the wind when I am done.  In a few rare moments of dedication, I’ve actually captured songs and synthesized them through the computer, and I always get joy out of hearing them again.  It’s simply a fun process to go through.
  • My first loves in the world of potential careers were web design and architecture, both heavily revolving around the construction of new things.  Architecture always felt a little too far out of reach, but I think I will always have one eye on web design.  There’s something very attractive in the idea of building something that people will use, or walk through, or will be thankful for as a step along their journey.
  • My favorite games to play are always the most creative ones.  That’s why I was somewhat swept away by the game World of Warcraft , because it is the ultimate creative experience:  you create a character, give him or her a name, and breathe life into a world that did not exist before.  It’s almost like writing a movie script in a live environment, and there are some amazingly creative people to interact with.  It’s probably worth a post of its own to explain a bit better, because yes, I realize the face you’re making right now.  More on this later, then.
  • I enjoy humor greatly, and some of the most fun times I can ever remember are groups of friends making jokes and laughing together.  Part of it is the humor itself, of course, but an equally amazing part is the creative aspect of it:  in those situations, no one knows what another will say next.  It’s a comedic free-for-all, and it’s hilarious to hear what friends come up with in the spur of the moment.
  • And then, of course, there is creative writing itself:  this blog, for example.  I hope that you enjoy it half as much as I enjoy writing it.  Life always has its ups and downs, but I think there is always a certain level of happiness obtained from sharing things with another–whether it’s a blog, or a good movie, or a game-winning touchdown, or throwing your gap at graduation.

Noting all of these things, it’s difficult to believe that many of you would not share the same sentiment, given the right circumstances.  So as you push your way through the day to day grind, always try to take a moment to stop reacting and start acting.   Find something that you can create to make a difference, even if it only makes a difference to you.

And in the process, you just might start opening the eyes of others, as well.

Life For Granted

As each day goes by, it’s human nature to focus squarely on what’s in front of you.  We do the dishes, we watch TV, we make phone calls, and we chase our animals around the house.  Life, paired so tightly with time, continues its never-ending journey forward.  And so we move forward along with it.

There is, however, almost an undeniable expectation that the next day will be just like the last…or to put it another way, that everyone and everything that we know will continue to move forward along with us.  It’s the things we’ve always had that we most think we will always have.  Yet this, I believe, is one of the most tragic mistakes that we can make.

Now, I should point out that I am a person that flat-out detests being sad (which is why I prefer having a root canal to having a “good cry”).  I am very much an optimist by nature, but not blindly so.  For while there are some that will tell you that you can do anything…I am not that person.  Because I’ll tell you right now, there are some things you won’t do in a million years.  For me, it’s more a matter of perspective.

Let’s take the most illustrative example:  life and death.  No one ever thinks they’ll lose a loved one.  It’s extremely difficult to think about, and it sure as hell doesn’t cheer up the soul.  And that’s understandable.  But we protect ourselves so much against this thought that we do the opposite:  we take life for granted.  We go on, day after day, assuming that we’ll have our family and friends forever.  We hold in our minds a hundred things that we’ll do someday, never once stopping to consider that the only day we have for sure is today.  And each day that passes becomes a missed opportunity.

I think we’ve all lost someone we loved at some point.  Surrounding this loss is a feeling that it’s incredibly unfair–that while death is inevitable, there just seemed no way that it could happen to this person, on this day.  Deep down, though, I think we all know that this isn’t true.  We’re given an amazing gift to live on this planet, but it is not a gift with a guarantee.  It can be taken away in a moment’s notice, for any reason at any time.  This doesn’t make the possibility of death any stronger–there is nothing that will change that.  But it should make life that much more powerful.

And so while we wake up in the morning, hammering the snooze button through blurred vision and cursing another work day, I think there are also countless things to be extremely thankful for.  We have air to breathe, and people to laugh with, and a home to live in.  We aren’t in a war-ravaged land, as in Afghanistan, nor do we have to fend off disease at every turn, as in many African nations.  Most of us still have enough money to get by on, even when the economy takes a bad downturn, and we never have to wonder desperately how we’ll get our next meal.  We have family members that care about us, and too many friends that try harder for our happiness than they do their own.  We have rarely been the victim of any serious crime, nor do we have to live a life looking over our shoulder.  And of course we have the opportunity to live a free life in an incredible country.

Taking these things for granted is a choice we all make, subconsciously or not.  But I’ve found that the more you appreciate things, the happier you become.  You begin to see that we live amongst incredible gifts, and that even when darkness finds its way to us, it has far more light to offset it.  Appreciation is, after all, why a starving child finds so much more happiness in a meal than someone with his own personal chef.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Posting For the Highest Bidder

For the sake of argument, imagine the following, along with me:

My blog has caught fire in recent months, and averages 50,000 readers each day (I realize this is a little low, but again, use your imagination).  I have an annoying hyperactive Geico lizard that zaps its tongue all over the page while you read, and its ad revenue has nearly allowed me to retire from my job.  But not quite.  Sensing a real opportunity here, I hire a web traffic analysis company to research visitor interests and determine which stories generate the most traffic (i.e. revenue), and this research is provided to me two weeks later.  As the final step, I add a beautiful little tagline to my site: Sponsored By Cheez-It.™

Things are looking up!  The only problem is, the analysis company tells me that some of my more mundane posts don’t generate traffic.  It turns out that no one wants to read about stories without drama, or conflict, or hate-filled rants.  It’s time to spice it up!  In particular, I’m told that to make enough revenue to walk away from my daily cubicle life, I need to really stir the pot as much as possible, getting readers angry about various things in our culture.  The angrier they are, the more they’ll come, and the more they’ll trust me to “blow the lid” off of the world’s most awful happenings.  And if a slow month comes around, and I just can’t find things to blow the lid off of, well, I might just have to create a little fire where there isn’t one.  It’s a little white lie, right?  You don’t have to create things that aren’t there…you just have to cast them under the right light.  At the cost of a little manipulation…wham!  More revenue.

I think long and hard about this, about all of the things I wanted to do with this blog, and in the end I decide that it’s a small price to pay in order to work from home forever.  Simply typing posts for a living is a dream come true…and I make it happen.  Maybe it isn’t quite what I envisioned in terms of content, but there’s absolutely no harm done because it’s nothing everyone else isn’t already doing.

And so I make the leap, and I never look back.  The blog becomes a major hit.  Readers upon readers throw all kinds of incendiary comments onto each post, which in turn generates more buzz, and in turn brings in more readers.  Revenue goes through the roof.  I have legions of rabid fans.  I buy a yacht.  I sign autographs at huge rallies.  Celebrity status has now found me, and it fits like a glove.

Of course…at some point our collective imagination ceases to perpetuate this dream, and the alarm clock rudely awakens us back to the world where I return to my cubicle every day.  My posts have a weekly high of 47 readers.  I stumble downstairs, bitter with frustration, pull out my bowl of cereal and turn on the TV.  And then it hits me.

My dream isn’t a dream after all.  It’s alive and well in the 24-hour cable news channels.

CNN.  MSNBC.  Fox News.  CNBC.  If you look at the type of content each airs on a daily basis, it’s rarely different than what I’ve described above.  They’re addictive.  They’re interesting, because they uncover the dark side of nearly everything in America…and unfortunately, there are far more dark sides than anyone thought possible.  Righteous anger is probably the most dominant theme for avid viewers…a sense of “Those people are damned crazy and I’m glad this network finally gets it.”  Of course, when political lines are drawn, we’re made to think that half of our entire country is made up of pure idiots, idiots whose sole mission is to drag the better half of the country down into an abyss with them.

Behind the scenes, the paintbrushes of these networks never stop their unending chorus.  Black versus white.  Blue versus red.  Middle ground is boring, so you damned well better pick a side.

Love or hate thy neighbor.

It’s a chorus that becomes more and more accepted, simply because it’s what is in front of us.  Don’t believe me?  Take a little quiz for yourself, and write down ten types of people that you can’t stand.  I bet it doesn’t take long to finish the list.  And when you’re done, think of why you wrote down the groups that you did, and where you got the information from that made you say so.  It’s an intriguing exercise.

It has long been true that we’ve felt a strong bond with our sources of information–a sense of trust, when all is said and done.  We feel that those describing the news to us are instilled with a sense of duty, and an obligation to unravel the truth of an increasingly crazy world.  But the bottom line is that the news, like nearly everything else these days, is a business.  The network that paints the fairest, most journalistic picture will always fall to the network that has the better ratings.  And conflict drives ratings. More money means more influence, and as we’ve seen in cases of the financial sector, it means more hefty bonuses and a life that most people would never dream of.

The time is fast approaching that Americans will have a choice to make–whether to make a stand, or whether to let pure money and greed dominate the lives of so many.  We will have to decide whether or not we will think for ourselves, and most importantly, whether we will see the world for what it truly is:  an impossibly complex spectrum of gray, not the black and white that drives network ratings.  We will have to understand that simply because someone opposes our view, it does not mean that they are to be discredited, or their character attacked.  And we will have to acknowledge that no matter what our views, they will always be fundamentally flawed views.  No one will ever get it entirely right, particularly when we are constantly informed by those with financial motivations.

It’s a small thing, but I work hard each day to look at things from all perspectives, and to assume that people are doing things the best way they know how.  Even if it isn’t the most newsworthy story (and it never is), I’ll be damned if I hate the person next to me because he is passionate about something that he believes in.  For as long as he has thought this out for himself, I will greatly respect him for it.

And maybe—just maybe—that isn’t a small thing at all.