Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Advice for Jenny Sanford

Confucius would have loved public relations. He knew that managing our public reputation is among our highest ethical obligations, one that is extremely difficult to get right.

It is made even more difficult by a culture that keeps telling us that appearances don't matter. How many times have you heard that the most important thing is what we have inside, not the image we show to the public.

Inner authenticity matters more than outward reputation. Inner emotion matters more than decorum, propriety, and standing tall.

By this thinking, public relations is an elaborate cover-up. Companies use it when they want to hide something. People use it when they have something to hide.

We have also been told that what really matters is how you think, not how you behave. Of course, you cannot repair your public reputation by engaging in mental gymnastics.

Only public behavior can restore your public reputation. If more people knew it, then we would not have had to wait for Jenny Sanford to show us how to handle a philandering politician.

All of which to introduce Tina Brown's advice to Mark and Jenny Sanford on her website, The Daily Beast. Link here.

Brown makes two points. One is incisive; the other is not.

First, she suggests that Gov. Sanford's apology was too wordy, too narrative, too full of the love that he was ostensibly saying was a mistake.

Brown is saying that an apology is a formal public ritual. It is a time for abject humility, not for poetic expression.

When you apologize you say that you got it wrong, that you are solely responsible for your mistake, that nothing justifies the mistake, and that you promise not to do it again.

If a man turns his apology for a love affair into a disguised paean to his lover, he is not saying that he made a mistake. He may regret having gotten caught, but Mark Sanford does not regret his love for Maria.

Second, Brown offered some less than helpful advice to Jenny Sanford. Here Brown let her emotions get the better of her, and that always produces bad PR: "Just when she set the table for a big-ticket matrimonial lawyer to have a payday on behalf of all the humiliated wives... the First Lady of South Carolina blew it. She chose instead a pious manifesto that lets the governor completely off the hook: 'I remain willing to forgive Mark completely for his indiscretions and to welcome him back, in time, if he continues to work toward reconciliation with a true spirit of humility and repentance.'"

You have to wonder what there is about that statement that Tina Brown could find offensive. Jenny Sanford chose to split the difference, to seek out a golden mean between the extreme reactions of revenge and silence.

The fact that the other humiliated wives chose silence, even to the point of being partners in crime, does not make Jenny Sanford duty-bound to take up their cause and unleash the furies of divorce lawyers.

Among these wives, Jenny Sanford is the one who did not stand by her man. She had previously asked him to leave home. When asked where he had spend Father's Day, she said she did not know.

She was decidedly not trying to cover for him. She was directing the world's attention to his actions, without injecting her emotions into the picture. Any emotional outburst would have served merely as a distraction.

But Jenny Sanford did not completely close the door to reconciliation. To the chagrin of Tina Brown she offered her husband a way back into his marriage.

Considering that there are children involved, hers was a generous gesture, one that most people will make, but also, one that shifted the onus to her husband and away from herself. She avoided the extreme position of cutting him off completely, and chose to show herself as someone who sought the middle ground.

Also, Jenny Sanford spoke for herself. Had she kept silent she would have been acting as the one who had been humiliated. Had she blamed the vast left-wing conspiracy she would have made herself a partner in crime.

This does not mean that she did not feel humiliated. It does mean that she knew something that escaped the other humiliated wives. That is, how to go about restoring her reputation.

She knew that extreme emotional outbursts, fits of pique and tantrums, and sulking in the corner... solve nothing.

When a humiliated spouse shows herself either to be emotionally overwrought or drained, other people begin saying that they can now understand why Mark Sanford was engaged in an extramarital affair.

After all, many couples like Mark and Jenny Sanford do manage to put their marriages back together. Some do not. At the least, all parties should do everything in their power to retain their dignity and self-respect.

Good Advice For Job Hunters

I have blogged extensively on how a job hunter should prepare for and conduct a job interview. My motto was: Don't sell yourself. Buy them.

See here, and here, and here.

Today, the MSN Career site offers some excellent advice that coincides with some of my own. If you are in the job market, it is well worth your time. Link here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Nation of Prurient Puritans

Victor Davis Hanson is puzzled. The more I think about it, the more I think he is right. Link here.

Hanson is puzzled about a culture that works itself up into a moralistic lather about adultery at the same time that it is gushing adoration for a notorious pedophile.

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about sex. We talk about sex all the time. To the point that modesty is, for most of us, a fading memory.

The internet has provided more access to more porn than ever before in human history. No one is America really seems bothered by it.

So we are striving valiantly to overcome Puritan morality, while at the same time condemning confessed adulterers like Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, and Elliot Spitzer.

Any time a public figure gets caught indulging some extracurricular sexual activities everyone rushes forth to condemn him.

It makes some sense that we hold our public figures, the pillars of our community, to a higher moral standard. They are supposed to be role models for all of us.

And celebrities, as Charles Barkley once said, are not role models.

And yet, however ill we think of adulterers, however much we condemn them for breaking their marriage vows, our opprobrium is mild when compared with the moral contempt we reserve for child molesters.

Except when the molester is a pop music icon.

Say what you will, but when we as a culture decided to glorify Michael Jackson we surely enabled his pedophilia.

If someone who dressed and comported himself like Michael Jackson was hanging around an elementary school trying to lure children to his playland, we would call the police.

And yet, when parents saw that it was the one and only Michael Jackson, they allowed their children to go off with him, to share his bed.

Reporting on a spontaneous demonstration of affection for Jackson in Union Square last Thursday evening, the New York Times reported: "Everyone there had watched him, sang with him, tried to dance with him, and yes, everyone was collectively aghast by much of his recent behavior. But he was 'ours.'"

Is there a better illustration of Hanson's point? If those people were all so aghast, why were they out there celebrating his life? I think that the reporter is correct when he says that people excuse Jackson because he was one of "ours."

But what does that mean? Have we become so thoroughly tribal that we are willing to excuse the behavior of anyone who is one of our own, who belongs to our tribe?

Some have tried to get out of the apparent contradiction by saying that it is really all about the hypocrisy. After all, Michael Jackson never tried to hide what he was. He never preached sexual abstinence or led a crusade against child molestation.

Here things get a bit sticky. Hypocrisy as it is used today has come to mean: not practicing what you preach. In truth, a person can commit a sin, know it as a sin, and denounce it as a sin...without being a hypocrite.

But that is the old version of hypocrisy. The new postmodern version tells us that if you believe in family values and commit adultery, then you are a hypocrite. But if you do not believe in family values and commit adultery, you are not a hypocrite.

If you enshrine this version of hypocrisy as the eighth deadly sin, you need but refrain from preaching moral virtue. Then you can do as you please. As long as your beliefs fit your actions, you are in good standing in an amoral world.

This is peculiar. It assumes that the best way to avoid being denounced as a hypocrite is to shut about about bad behavior.

Meantime, back to Hanson's question. Are we afflicted with a strange cultural dissonance? Or are we simply terrified of the genie that we have let out of the bottle.

As Hanson suggests, we have made a bet about sex. We as a culture have chosen to believe that if we think and talk about sex, if we become better informed about matters sexual, then we will have better sex lives.

And if we have better sex lives, we will have better relationships, better marriages, and better health.

We, as a culture, have wagered that exposing sex, thus, overcoming shame, will lead us to the Promised Land.

Why didn't anyone think of this before?

The problem is, more and more people are beginning to see that it is not all that easy. It looks like we are going to lose our bet.

Some are trying valiantly to put the genie back in the bottle. But most are doubling down.

They are telling us to increase our investment, expose more and more sex, excuse more and more bad behavior... until the moment when we have drained all of the fun out of sex.

It would indeed be a fitting denouement. And the only way to resolve the contradiction between prurience and Puritanism.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Blame It On Buenos Aires: The Mark Sanford Story, Part 2

If you liked my take on the Mark Sanford saga in my post of a couple of days ago, you will also like what Kathleen Parker wrote on The Daily Beast yesterday. Link here.

Her title, "The Passion of Mark Sanford" evokes "The Passion of Christ," suggesting that she is more apt than I am to see Sanford's suffering as Christlike.

Be all of that as it may, her exploration of the theme that I blogged about on Thursday is a welcome contribution to the discussion.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Jenny Sanford Gets It Right

Everyone knew that Hillary Clinton got it wrong. The same applied to Silda Spitzer and Dina McGreevey.

None of them seemed to know how to maintain their dignity while being roundly humiliated by their husbands. Blaming it on the vast right wing conspiracy was obviously wrong. Standing next to him while he was confessing was clearly not right.

Now along comes Jenny Sanford, the wronged wife of the governor of South Carolina, and she has clearly gotten it right. In one of those "I know it when I see it" moments, women recognized the brilliance of her handling of the situation.

See New York Times article here.

And in another article in the Times she says, memorably: "Not only will I survive. I will thrive." Link here.

Perhaps Jenny Sanford is a genius at public relations. As we saw in the case of the other humiliated wives, it is very, very difficult to get it right. Perhaps she has an unimpeachable sense of her own dignity and knows that her goal should be to maintain it at whatever cost.

Mark Sanford's Argentinian siren was, as I suggested, a master of the art of romance. She was especially skilled in making a human life into a Harlequin romance.

Jenny Sanford, however, excels at self-respect, dignity, and good character.

Who do you think will come out ahead in what is surely a culture war?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson, R. I. P.

Decorum dictates that we not speak ill of the dead. Yet, at a time when the media is indulging an unseemly display of fawning adoration for Michael Jackson, we do well to recall both his extraordinary talent and the abjection of his life.

If Michael Jackson is an icon, an image that merits adoration for its spiritual perfection, then the world needs more iconoclasts.

Among our more eminent iconoclasts I count the unfailingly decorous Emily Yoffe. Clearly and succinctly she blogged what we should all be thinking. Link to her post here.

Our culture needs be more careful about whom it elevates to the status of icon. If an icon is someone to be adored and admired, even worshiped, then the icon should present behavior that is worth emulating.

At a time when the cult of celebrity has reached obscene proportions we need all to take a step back and recalibrate our moral compass.

We should recall that the King of Pop was Peter Pan, a man who refused to grow up, and who created his own amusement park so he could surround himself with and exploit vulnerable boys.

The only difference between Michael Jackson and ordinary pedophiles is that Jackson never bothered to hide his attraction to children.

The world gave Jackson fame and fortune. He used them both as a cover for some very unsavory pleasures.

And how better to attract children than to appear to be one? As several writers have remarked, to their chagrin, the King of Pop was also the King of the Extreme Makeover.

Surely, there was something freaky and creepy about the persona that Jackson had crafted out of his addiction to plastic surgery.

Michael Jackson possessed a ferocious will to force his physical appearance to conform to an image and to make his life replicate a fiction.

His extraordinary musical talent was inviolate. Yet, we should not overlook what he did with the rewards that that talent gained him. And we must be clear that his is an example that no one should ever seek to emulate.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Blame It On Buenos Aires: The Mark Sanford Story

Yet another erotico-political saga is unfolding before our eyes. The respectable governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, has managed to turn his life into a Harlequin romance.

Read the emails between Mark and Maria here.

Sanford seems to have wanted to see his love affair as Biblical, but it is far more banal than that. When he talks about following his heart, when he writes erotic emails, when he drops everything to rush off to see his love... all of that comes from romance fiction. Don't ask me how I know.

Yet, Sanford was quoting Paul's disquisition on love from 1st Corinthians in an email to his mistress.

If Sanford thought that Paul was talking about romantic love, then he needs to find a new Bible studies group.

What is it that makes otherwise sensible people believe that there is a transcendent virtue in making their lives into soap operas?

It would be better if they took heed of the words of Daniela Drake that I read this morning on the Wowowow website: "Romantic love is not some utopian state of high moral rectitude; it's an emotion, and therefore fleeting. Science now shows that being in love lasts at most two years. One researcher calls 'being in love' a type of madness. Perhaps we shouldn't be making the decision to marry when we are temporarily insane."

I am sure that Drake would agree that we shouldn't make the decision to break up a marriage when we are temporarily insane either.

These words arrive too late for the hapless governor, though he could certainly have gleaned the same message from Shakespeare. Clearly, the moment he imagined that he could disappear for six days without anyone noticing was the moment when he took complete leave of his rational faculties.

Yesterday, Sanford apologized to everyone he could think of, in a discourse that seemed to be an inverse Oscar acceptance speech. But he could not keep it at that. He also managed to tell the story of how he had found true love.

An innocent conversation led to an innocent exchange of emails. That led to what he memorably called "that sparking thing."

Sanford seems to believe that it just happened, that a bolt of lightning or an errant match that found its way to the tinder box of his heart fueled a passionate conflagration. This makes it sound like he belived that his love affair with Maria Belen Shapur was God's will.

But this is simply not true. This kind of romance does not just happen. There is usually an invisible hand guilding it, even making it happen.

By all appearances, that hand was not the governor's.

Sad to have to say it, but Mark Sanford was a naif, a rube who got involved in a game he did not understand. He allowed himself to be seduced and did not even know that he was being seduced.

He is not the first powerful man to whom this happened, and will surely not be the last. The fact that a man has mastered the game of politics or business does not make him a sophisticate in the game of romance.

Whose fault was it? His, of course. A man who is husband, father, and governor should know better than to abrogate his responsibilities... no matter what the reason. Even if he succumbed to temptation-- apparently his Bible study class had never probed the subject-- his responsibilities were his and his alone to discharge or abandon.

Now, all that remains for the rest of us is to see the face that sunk Governor Sanford's political future.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Garrison Keillor Wants To Be Alone

Not an unreasonable wish, you will say. I concur.

Garrison Keillor writes a paean to solitude, to the occasional wish to be alone. To reflect in tranquility, to muse, to allow the mind to do its own thing. Link here.

It doesn't sound so bad. Surely, people who cannot be alone, who cannot, as Pascal famously said, sit alone in a room, are revealing an underlying despair.

Perhaps they do not like their own company. Perhaps they need constant reinforcement, lest they feel completely depersonalized.

Of course, Keillor is not recommending that we all go out and become hermits. Or that we take the ultimate reactionary step of trying to get lost in nature. Or that we retreat into hermetically sealed rooms, cut off from texting, sexting, tweeting, and email.

As William Saletan has written on Slate.com, electronic connections are virtual, not real. Even if they are coming to take the place of real connections between real people, this surely seems like a trend that we would do well to resist.

If these virtual connections were so fulfilling, people would not be so compulsive about maintaining them.

Keillor's point is well taken. As connected as we all are nowadays, connection does not mean anything if we never have a few moments for ourselves.

I suspect that people who are always connected are really disconnecting. When someone sits in a meeting reading emails on his Iphone, he is disconnected from the task at hand, from the people who are really sitting near him, with whom he ought to be connecting.

The cure for the mania to stay electronically connected is to carve out a few minutes, or even more, in your day to be alone with yourself. Get to know yourself; you might even like your company.

Once you are comfortable with your own presence, perhaps you will feel better about being present to others. You might even feel that you are not constantly obliged to absent yourself from meetings, from dinners, from parties, to send and receive text messages.

It would be a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Is Work More Therapeutic Than Therapy?

For several years now Dr. Sally Satel has questioned how much therapy can really help people who have been traumatized by a catastrophic event like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. As she put it: "can outsiders bearing therapy provide meaningful help in times of crisis." Link here.

She has concluded that therapy is not really needed: "... mental health advisers acknowledge that local economic and social recovery is a prerequisite for improved psychology, not a consequences of it."

Therapy that tries to help people to process their traumas tends to make them see themselves as victims. Once they enter that mindset they will be less likely to do the work needed to rebuild their lives.

To which she adds a well-known quotation by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Richard Mollica: "the best antidepressant is a job."

Last Saturday Dr. Peter Kramer addressed the same question in the Wall Street Journal. Link here.

We all know Dr. Kramer as the author of "Listening to Prozac." Clearly, he has been in the forefront of those who have addressed the question of what works for psychiatric patients.

In his Journal article he concludes that work works: "Writing about the antidepressant Prozac I suggested that it can act as a co-therapist, nudging patients out of stale perspectives. Work is a yet more useful colleague; it offers patients particular lessons about how they behave and how others respond."

He adds, in words that resonate with the thinking of Drs. Satel and Mollica: "When I see patients who have been injured in their private lives, by past abuse, say, or by a recent trauma, such as divorce, often I suggest that they invest new energy in their careers. The workplace ... is more neurally instructive than the sphere of intimacy. When it functions well the office teaches us when to stand our ground and when to be strategic."

Dr.Kramer takes it a step further when he shift the nexus of psychological development from the nuclear family to the experience of work: "Who we are in our solitary relationships and in our close relationships is a product of who we are on the job. Increasingly, it's the workplace, as much as the home, that provides lessons about how to face personal challenges."

Kramer's article was occasioned by a reflection that today's college graduates are facing a decidedly unfriendly job market. He expresses his regret that many of them will suffer emotionally because they will not have the opportunity to launch careers.

Ironically, he adds, this same generation has learned in college that work is alienating and dehumanizing, the enemy of love and intimacy.

It is a harsh irony that so many young people are about to learn the hard way that the professors who taught them to devalue work were grievously wrong.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Naomi Wolf's Iconomania

Icons are made to be loved and adored. When your rational faculties are overwhelmed by your passion for an icon, you suffer from iconomania.

Witness Naomi Wolf's now famous article about Angelina Jolie in Harper's Bazaar. Link here.

Willa Paskin has captured Wolf's iconomania well. Writing on the Doublex blog, she called the piece: "...an absurd, overwrought, swooning, love letter to Angelina Jolie, the woman who, in Wolf's analysis, most fully embodies 'having it all.' It is just about impossible to read this piece and simultaneously remember that Wolf is a serious feminist and a thinker." Link here.

Virginia Postrel took issue with Paskin, for being too charitable to Wolf. She wrote: "...I do not regard Wolf as a 'serious feminist and a thinker.' She's a feminist, certainly, but neither serious nor a thinker. She's an emoter whose work typically generalizes from her narcissistic neediness to the 'female experience.'" Link here.

Is there anything left to be said?

Let's try. First, Naomi Wolf is a celebrity intellectual who pretends to be able to grasp great ideas and who then disseminates them to a larger public.

In this role she is definitely influential. Point that I noticed when I first started hearing women drawing life lessons from "The Beauty Myth." See my blog post here.

Feminism aside-- because no man is qualified to enter the debate over who is or is not a good feminist-- I consider Wolf a major figure in promulgating the values that define the therapy culture.

As her Jolie piece makes clear, she follows the basic therapeutic principle that getting better means rewriting our personal narratives and making our lives into enacted fantasies and dreams.

I will not burden you with references to the eminent psychotherapists and psychoanalysts who have been hawking these ideas. Any therapist who has suffered the influence of psychoanalysis has likely bought into them.

What matters is that it is Naomi Wolf, not the graybeards of the therapy world, who is selling these ideas to American women.

Take Wolf's assertion of Jolie's iconic status: "Her persona hits an unprecedented level of global resonance... because she has created a life narrative that is not just personal. It is archetypal. And the archetype is one that really, for the first time in modern culture, brings together almost every aspect of female empowerment and liberation."

Or this: "...Jolie's image is not just a mirror of one woman but also a looking glass for female fantasy life writ large."

Not only does Wolf traffic in images and illusions; she is proud of it. Worse yet, she is such an accomplished mythmaker that she completely ignores reality.

Iconomaniac that she is, Wolf simply forgot to think.

Do you believe that Angelina Jolie's "global resonance" matches that of Princess Diana?

And does Wolf seriously believe that a pretty-boy actor with bad skin is the ultimate alpha male? More than the future King of England? More than the President of the United States?

As for the Jolie narrative, Sadie Stein of Jezebel.com sets us straight: "Brangelina are totally enigmatic; we don't know anything about them except the Harlequin-worthy synopsis."

But... why Angelia Jolie and why now?

Apparently, feminism is losing some of its luster because its mythic promise of "having it all" seems beyond the reach of mere mortals.

So Wolf counters by transforming a mediocre movie star and homewrecker into the woman who has it all. Thus, Wolf is telling young women that they can have it all, because Angelina does.

If they do not, the fault lies with a patriarchy that forces women into choosing one life path to the detriment of another.

In Wolf's mind, here's the deal the patriarchy offers women: "The deal is that they may realize one aspect of their personality, but at the expense of many others. And the deal is usually that if they choose 'too much,' a terrible punishment one way or the other awaits them."

Say what? I assume that Wolf is not telling everyone to go out and develop a multiple personality disorder. But if she is saying that women who choose "too much," who overreach, are punished, this sounds awfully familiar. It is the stuff of tragedy. The Greeks called it hubris, and applied it equally to men and women.

All human life involves choices. When you choose one path you are usually closing off your access to another. An individual who can choose all paths at all times is simply not human... she is a goddess.

But when you tell women that they should aspire to being goddesses, you are telling them that they should strive for perfection. Unfortunately, this is going to make them chronically dissatisfied with what they have.

Remind me of why this is desirable?

But Wolf knows that Angelina Jolie is not real. She is a fiction. As Wolf says: "Her icon status now has more to do with our dream life as women than it does her career choices solely as a film star."

Icon is a nice word for it, but Wolf is working with caricatures and stereotypes. When she praises Jolie for taking another woman's husband, she justifies it by saying that "self-entitled... males ... have traditionally taken what they wanted and let the emotional chips fall where they may."

Have there been men who have done as much? Yes, there have. And have there been women who have trampled on custom and gotten away with it? Yes, there have.

Does that mean that we should all behave that way? I think not.

More pertinently, are those who behave this way exemplars of the truth of human nature? Not at all.

Even if amoral men have been doing this from time immemorial why does that make it a right and desirable way for anyone, man or woman, to behave?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Road To Success Is Paved With Failure

Yesterday I posted a link to Paul Tudor Jones' speech to the graduating class of ninth graders at New York's Buckley School.

To the relief of some, I did not offer very much commentary.

Today is a new day, so I will post some of my thoughts on the speech.

Jones wanted the teenagers to know that the road to success is paved with failure. And that your success will depend on how deeply you experience the shame of failure and how well you learn to overcome it.

He wanted these adolescents to know that behind great success there lies a series of extremely painful failures.

Take these points as benchmarks against which you can measure the rules that our culture is imparting.

Ask yourself this: do we still allow children to fail? Are children allowed to do poorly in tests, are they allowed to get things wrong, and are they allowed to be called on the carpet for having made egregious errors?

I suspect that this is not always the case. We have all heard about the empathic school administrators and teachers who are terrified at the possibility that a child might fail at something.

These officials have banned dodgeball and spelling bees because some of the children will feel badly for not coming in first. Worse yet, they have introduced fuzzy math, where there are no right and wrong answers, because one person's wrong answer is another's expression of creativity.

Where these policies are practiced, children are not allowed to fail. They do not know what it feels like to fail. They do not know what it feels like to let themselves down. They do not hate the shame of failure with every sinew of their being.

The consequence: they are not being prepared to succeed. And they will lack the motivation to succeed.

Jones told his audience about his own failures. He did not sugarcoat them; he did not say that they were good experiences. He did not try to show people how to palliate the pain of failure.

Instead, he offered something of real value. He told them how to use failure to gain success. He showed them how he picked himself off the floor, how he went back to the drawing board, how he attacked problems anew, and how he kept on doing it until he succeeded.

This is not the way therapy has traditionally taught people to deal with failure. Therapy and its culture has tried to make failure a meaningful experience, one that you should understand, one that you should integrate into your life narrative, one from which you should use to learn more about your miserable upbringing and your childhood traumas.

Therapists feel your pain. And they do not want you to feel too much of it because then you might not like them as much. They want you to feel that today's shame is not really about today's failure. It hurts because it reminds you of a forgotten childhood trauma. One for which you were decidedly not responsible.

Paul Tudor Jones is saying that your failure is your alone. Don't go out and blame others for your mistakes. The experience is not a meaningful reflection on your character; it need not be integrated into your life story.

To make failure into a stepping stone to success get out of your mind and back in the game; keep trying until you get it right.

If you do not own your failures, you will not own your successes. If you blame others for your failures, you will have to grant others the credit for your successes.

Then you will never really enjoy your successes because you will never really feel that they are yours.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Paul Tudor Jones on Failure

One of the perks of being a billionaire, and legendary, hedge fund manager is that people pay very close attention to what you say.

Such is the case of Paul Tudor Jones whose address to the graduating class of 9th graders at a New York private school has attracted considerable internet traffic.

What does Jones consider to be the secret to his success? Nothing other than knowing how to deal with failure, with major failure, with emotionally crippling failure, and with the shame that comes with it.

I have posted on this topic before, and am happy to offer a link to the text of Jones's speech. Link here.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Vengeance Is Thine

The Bible has taught us to be slow to anger and to turn the other cheek.

When you run out of cheeks, however, your thoughts might reasonably turn to revenge.

Speaking of self-help books (see last post), here is one that examines the possibilities for revenge with suitable caveats and analysis of the emotion. The author is Eva Nagorski. The title is, dare I say, self-explanatory: "The Down and Dirty Dish on Revenge: Serving it Up Nice and Cold to That Lying Cheating Bastard." Link here.

Just in case you would like to sample Nagorski's wares, Newsweek was kind enough to excerpt the book. Link here.

Help Yourself: Are You Addicted to Self-Help Books?

Liesl Schillinger has a guilty pleasure. Or better, she has a guilty addiction. Drawn into it against her will, she cannot shake her attachment to self-help books. Link here.

Self-help books. Advice Manuals. Books that offer tactics for dealing with life situations. Schillinger is hooked to them.

The educated elite, the cognoscenti, look down on people who read such things. They scorn the trite pieces of pseudo-wisdom such books offer. They prefer, as Schillinger suggests, to glean true wisdom from the great works of literary fiction.

Why waste your time with "The Rules" when you can bask in the glow of Jane Austin or George Eliot? Or better, why repair guiltily to the self-help aisle at Borders when you can undergo psychotherapy.

Therapy that wants to touch the depths of your psyche its goal will try to connect your mundane existence with the great myths and legends of the past. And this does not only apply to Freud.

If your life is a fiction writ large, then your goal will be to keep reading, the better to discover how it turns out. If you take a self-help book at your guide, Schillinger implies, you will have a say in the as-yet indeterminate outcome.

Say what you will about the authors of "The Rules," but they did not see dating as a romantic fiction. They saw it as a game, with players and rules. They wanted women to learn how better to play the game.

For which they have been roundly denounced as suburban housewives.

If you believe in true love and are waiting to be carried off on a gauzy cloud of rapture, there is something slightly offensive about the notion that dating and relationships are games.

But if you get involved in a game where you do not know the rules and the code, you are likely to become a pawn in someone else's game. And it will feel like you are part of a drama.

Examine a eye-opening piece of advice that Schillinger gleaned from an eighty-year old book entitled: "The Technique of the Love Affair." The line that struck her was: "It is desirable for the happiness and well-being of a woman that she should be frequently, or at any rate constantly, pursued."

Of course, she cannot be pursued if she does not know how to play the game. The book does not offer a course in how to make your sentimental attachments feel like Anna Karenina's.

People who hate the notion of making love into a game tend to aim for complete openness and honesty. And yet, if you make your heart an open book, or wear your heart on your sleeve, this will greatly decrease the likelihood that you will be constantly pursued. Why pursue something that does not have a whiff of mystery.

Self-help books offer different possible moves for different games. They point the reader toward the game, invite him or her to define a strategy and then to go out to do what is necessary to actualize it.

No one should feel embarrassed to read self-help books. Yet, our therapy culture has marginalized them, put them off to the side, consigned them to the illiterati... those who cannot grasp the large ideas or do not want their lives to be world class psychodramas.

The therapy culture wants to make your life into fodder for fiction. It cares little whether you are a success, whether you are a person of good character, or whether you achieve your goals. What matters is that your life becomes a great story.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Boorish and Boring

Naturally, we are all intrigued by human anomalies like boors. Never knowing when we will encounter one, we prepare ourselves by rehearsing the different ways we can normalize a situation that falls outside of the domain of normal human commerce.

Yesterday I posted about Mark Edmundson's article about bores. There I suggested that Edmundson's bores were also boors. You can, after all, be boring without being boorish.

People who are overly fastidious or punctilious are boring without being boorish.

In response to Edmundson I offered a number of different ways we might engage a boring boor in conversation. As Edmundson suggests, conversation is the cure for boringly boorish behavior.

Bores and boors are anomalies because they fail to respond to the subtle cues we read in our interlocutors during a conversation. A twitch, a nod, a sigh, a frown, a smile... we normally use these cues to orient our speech.

When we see that our listener is attentive and engaged, we are likely to continue on the same topic. When we see a sign that our listener is bored we move on to another topic.

A bore, however, presses ahead, with more fervor and intensity, as though the failure to engage the other person were a sign that he is not trying hard enough.

Or else, as Edmundson offers, bores see the world as a stage and cast themselves as performers or storytellers.

Of course, some people think human life is a story writ large and that the normal form of human conversation, the kind that expresses our soul, is storytelling.

This means that there are cultural forces that encourage boring and boorish behavior.

Edmundson offers other explanations for the phenomenon: "I am not sure that bores, who often act in what seems a kingly fashion, don't feel at all regal, but operate out of a sense of despair." He adds: "Some bores seem to be lonely. They have such a need for human contact that they come on too strong."

Surely, there is truth to this. If someone is boring, if he refuses to enter into conversation, he will have fewer friends. And that will naturally make him more desperate to sustain even an unsatisfying connection, no matter the cost.

For a person in despair, any connection is better than none.

Bores avoid conversation. They find it threatening, not only to their finely crafted personae, but to the purity of their thought. When we enter into conversation we allow our thoughts to be subject to what is called the marketplace of ideas. And they are not likely to come out of that marketplace looking exactly as they did when they walked in.

In Edmundson's words: "Bores don't want their one-sided, usually self-deifying, constructions of reality punctured by anyone or anything else."

Well said. I would add that they do not simply not want this to happen; they cannot afford to have it happen.

Edmundson continued: "...there's something slightly autistic about the bore's take on the world, and usually something a little skewed. His sense of things hasn't been aired out by exposure to other people's views."

The bore does not want to test his ideas; he does not believe in trial and error. He believes in the intensity of his own conviction.

Also, he refuses to collaborate with others, because they would involve giving up sole authorship of his thoughts.

The bore wants to preserve his own ideas, pristine and inviolate, and he undertakes a tactical assault on his interlocutor-- essentially shutting him up--in order to protect his grand ideas from questioning or doubt.

As Dr. Kristina Jones noted on my Facebook page, the bore is a type of narcissist. Some, she suggests, are very engaging and entertaining. And thus, not as boring as their fellow boors.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What To Do When He's Boring You

One day Prof. Mark Edmundson encountered a colleague in the hall. He offered a polite greeting: How are you? The colleague, a man whose demeanor was mildly intimidating, responded by launching into a ten-minute lecture about his life. When the colleague finished, he left no time to hear anything about Edmundson and simply took his leave.

Edmundson was flummoxed. He knew that he was being grievously offended, and yet, for fear of offending his interlocutor, he meekly chose to offer a polite good-bye.

Then, Edmundson wrote an extended meditation about everything he wished he had been able to say to his boring, or better, boorish, colleague. Link here.

The meditation raises some interesting and important points, but it does not restore the dignity that was lost in the process of being lectured at.

After all, when someone talks to you as though he is reading from a script, the experience deprives you of your place in a human conversation, and makes you an anonymous member of an audience.

Edmundson is correct to say that a person being talked at suffers an indignity.

Assuming that we have all found ourselves being talked at or lectured at, how can we respond to turn the lecture into a conversation? As Edmundson says, this must be the goal of any intervention.

Surely, the correct approach is to interrupt, but without interrupting. If you cannot get a word in edgewise you will need to find a way to draw attention to yourself without overly offending the person who is lecturing you.

To interrupt politely... that is the challenge. You will need to make a gesture-- like starting to cough or dropping something on the ground-- that breaks the rhythm of the other person's verbal performance.

Or you might single out one point as especially worthy of attention and declare that you would like to write it down immediately, lest you forget it.

Beyond that, you can use some reverse psychology. You can interrupt the narrative flow to exclaim how interesting the story is, how happy you are to hear it, how much you want to hear more of it.

Someone who feels he has to lecture you is assuming that, given the choice, you would not want to listen to everything he has to say.

Try taking the opposite position and say that you are thrilled to hear what he has to say. You can even ask for more detail. The purpose: to throw him off of his script and require him to improvise.

Then, there are the impolite responses that tend to embarrass the other person. Under some limited conditions these are useful. Surely, you have to be on very good terms with a person to know that he will be able to join in the joke when you embarrass him.

When a professor is lecturing you as though you were a student, a captive audience, you can, dare I say, raise your hand.

You can raise your hand and request permission to ask a question, to go to the rest room, or to pick up your child from school.

A final option is this. When your friend finishes the extended narrative of his latest comings and goings, you might say that you had something important to tell him, but now you do not have enough time to do it.

This way he will know that his rambling speechifying has cost him something.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Don't Do It By the Book

The "It" in the title of this post is marriage. The occasion is a remark by Dahlia Lithwick on Slate's Doublex site.

Commenting on Sandra Tsing Loh's "Atlantic" article about her divorce, Lithwick declares that the problem with Loh's marriage and the marriages of her friends is that they are all based on what the participants have read in books. Link here.

To quote Lithwick's great insight: "Anyone whose marriage is predicated on the idealized images of glossy magazines, the dopey optimism of parenting books, and the dispassionate optimism of whatever Marriage Sucks book is in vogue this week is almost doomed to fail."

The moral: put down the books, don't try to make a human relationship correspond to a fiction, and get back into your life.

"Misery Poker"

When you learn a new skill you naturally want to show it off. Why spend all those hours mastering the skill if you are going to keep it to yourself.

If other people have acquired the same skill, you will naturally want to compete with them. You gain confidence by pitting your skill level against theirs.

When people go into therapy they are sometimes told to say whatever comes to mind, regardless of the effect it has on their listener.

Of course, this is abnormal, and, dare I say, socially dysfunctional behavior. But once you learn it, the chances are very good that you are going to show it off to your friends and family. What is the point of spending so much time learning to free associate if you have to repress it before you go out into the world.

Besides, therapy has declared that when you do not speak whatever is crossing your mind, you are self-censoring. It adds that self-censoring is contributing to your emotional distress. Doesn't this mean that verbal incontinence-- to call it by its real name-- is therapeutic.

Many forms of therapy also promote another dubious social skill, an offshoot of free association, called complaining.

In fairness we should note that some therapists have understood the danger involved in encouraging people to complain all the time. They invented solution-focused brief psychotherapy. When you are focused on solving your problems you are less likely to imagine that you will gain psychic benefit by exposing your psychic pain to the world.

I would add that cognitive and behavioral therapies also do not encourage people to complain about their problems.

Yet, traditional forms of therapy, the ones that have produced the therapy culture, have told people to express their feelings. If a sufficiently empathic therapist commiserates, then the patient would presumably be cured.

In some offices this process passes for a human connection.

When I practiced therapy I noticed that some patients believe that they must bring a passel of complaints to every therapy session. They have been persuaded that they would not be playing the game properly if they came to therapy to discuss things that were going well.

The source of this bad habit seems to lie in the confessional, of all places. You would no more go to confession and say: "Bless me father, for I have not sinned" than you would go to a therapy session and announce that you had done a great job dealing with your problems. You would feel that you were wasting your time and your therapist would accuse you of not addressing your issues.

This lengthy preamble to introduce Elizabeth Bernstein's Wall Street Journal article, "Misery Poker." Link here.

Bernstein begins by declaring: "Misery once loved company.... Venting helped people bond and made them feel better."

In other words, in the old days complaining was therapeutic. Or at least we thought it was. Last I heard, the nation's physicians wrote 120 million prescriptions for anti-depressants last year, so, perhaps commiserating did not make us feel that good.

Anyway, Bernstein makes an important point when she notes that this therapeutic palliative has ceased to work. "But as times get tougher complaining is starting to look more like a blood sport than a coping mechanism. Stressed to the max and desperate for everyone to know it, many of us are trying to trump each other with our carping.... Instead of sharing our misery, we seem to be using it as a competitive mechanism."

So, therapy taught people a coping mechanism. When they discovered that it no longer works, they assumed that they were not doing it well enough. Thus, they tried to hone their complaining skills by competing with others.

Now you can regain your mental health by mastering the skill of whining.

The therapy culture should feel proud.

The Worst Work Habits

Today MSN offers an essay by Anthony Balderamma listing the 10 worst work habits.

Since a good part of character building involves replacing bad habits with good ones, I am pleased to be able link his list. If you are looking for a job or want to keep your job, if you have these habits you would do well to correct them.

Link here.

Monday, June 15, 2009

To Friend Or Not To Friend?

Regardless of whether or not that is the question, Facebook has accomplished one thing: it made "friend" into a verb. Now, friend is not merely something you are; it is something you can do to someone. Sometimes, whether they like it or not.

As Facebook grows and proliferates we now friend people we do not even know, or, do not know very well.

As was to be expected, some people have been horrified that the honorific "friend" is being conferred on people we do not know. Worse yet, when people have hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends, they cannot really be friends with all of them.

Does this spell the end of intimacy as we know it? Does this create a false sense of intimacy that will spell the end of civilization?

Of course, not.

Frankly, I cannot get too worked up over the loss of intimacy, or even the cheapening of the label friend, because Facebook is not really about intimacy.

Facebook connects people, sometimes superficially, and allows them to keep in touch through something that resembles a community. At a time when people are hypermobile it is good to be able to keep in touch with people you have met in the past, even if only superficially. There is no great virtue in losing contact.

As for the horror of friending people you have never met, the same happens in any community. You feel connected for belonging to a community, even if you are not ever acquainted with everyone in the community.

Besides, as several people have noted, friendship is not always about intimacy. Rumor has it that friendship among women involves sharing confidences, while friendship among men involves doing things together.

And we all know that there are different levels of friendship. Some people are close friends; some are acquaintances. You confide in some of your friends; you would trust some with your life.

Others you know more superficially; you exchange niceties with them, you smile when you see them on the street, you know their names and not much more about them.

For many people it is more difficult to engage in superficial small talk with people they barely know than to pour out their souls to their intimates.

I will confess that I have an inordinate fondness for the wise words of one Rodney King. In the midst of the Los Angeles riots nearly two decades ago, King said: "Why can't we all just get along?"

Note that King did not say that we all have to like each other; he did not recommend that we all becomes intimates. He aspired to a world where we knew how to get along, where we could be cordial, courteous, and civil with each other. He knew that getting along, not over-sharing, is the basis for community.

To my mind, just getting along represents a more advanced social skill than over-sharing. I think that people should generally place more value on the ability to exchange a few kind words with the dry cleaner than to confess to their best friends.

Among the more salient characteristics of friendship is that it is voluntary. You get to choose your friends; you do not get to choose your parents.

And since friends are not kin, you are more likely to be on good behavior around your friends than around your family. It was for this reason that Aristotle privileged friendship as the most important social relationship in his Nichomachean Ethics.

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, friendship is something of an outlier to classical psychological theorizing.

Psychology has traditionally tracked human development from birth onwards. It has granted pride of place to the infant's first relationships with his or her parents, and has assumed-- based on what, I am not so sure-- that whatever happens in one's early years will become the basis for everything that happens for the rest of one's life.

If all of your formative experiences happen before you are 5, as Freud imagined, then friendship is not very important. It might replicate sibling relationships but it has no moral weight of its own.

And this is unfortunate. Because children under the age of five do not really have friends. They require the protection their nuclear family because they are not sufficiently developed emotionally to distinguish friend from foe.

So when therapy tries to teach people to understand all human interactions as a function of a family romance or of an Oedipus complex or of the mother-infant dyad it does us all a disservice.

It does a gross injustice to friendship, and thus, to the basis for community and connection.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Persistence of Bad Habits

It's not because no one knows. As Roni Caryn Rabin reports in The New York Times, everyone knows that bad habits contribute to ill health. Link here.

Yet, the better we know it the worse we become at putting it into practice. Over the past 20 years Americans have defiantly held on to their bad habits: insufficient exercise, improper nutrition, smoking, and too much alcohol.

Of course, we do not really need to know why we do it. We do need to find a policy that will reverse the trend, that will encourage good habits.

Nonetheless, Rabin includes some speculation about why we have held on to our bad habits, so why not amuse ourselves with the issue.

One physician offered that people have so much faith in medicine that they believe that they can do as they please and that modern medicine will save them.

Others have suggested that the people handing out the advice sound like dour scolds, and no one likes to feel that he is sacrificing his autonomous judgment to that of a scold.

Another reason is that we have also been told that we should only act on our true desires, that we should express our true feelings, and that we should follow our bliss.

The fact is, if you follow your bliss it is not going to lead you to the gym.

Anyway, the problem of bad habits lies at the center of our health care debate. It is one of the least discussed aspects of the debate.

Take the following facts reported by Steven Burd, CEO of Safeway in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "...70% of all health care costs are the direct result of behavior.... 74% of all costs are confined to four chronic conditions (cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.) Furthermore, 80% of cardiovascular disease and diabetes is preventable, 60% of cancers is preventable, and more than 90% of obesity is preventable." Link here.

Safeway looked at this information and decided to establish corporate policies that would encourage better habits.

It did so by introducing the profit motive. It paid people to get healthy.

Employees who maintained good habits, as measured by medical tests, were rewarded with lower health insurance premiums.

Safeway reasoned that since drivers were paying different premiums depending on their safe driving records, why shouldn't people pay different health insurance premiums based on their good health habits.

The policy worked. Over a four year period Safeway kept its per capita health care costs stable. During the same time the health care for the rest of the country increased by 38%.

Does it matter that people are motivated by financial incentives? Surely, it does not. The important part is whether or not the policy pushes people to improve their health habits.

The same applies to experiments where underachieving children have been paid money for better grades. Apparently, the love of learning is a less powerful motivating force than the wish to buy a new ipod.

Of course, some people will only accept changes of behavior when these are motivated by deep insight into what made them have the bad habits in the first place. Unfortunately, if you wait for insight to cure your bad habits, you are going to have a very long wait. At times, it will feel interminable.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

What Is This Thing Called Optimism?

This month's Redbook brings us Marguerite Lamb's excellent article about optimism. Link here.

While happiness is a feeling, optimism is a belief about the future. Lamb cites extensive research showing that our expectations about the future determine whether, for example, we will persevere with a difficult task or give up.

People who work hard, who keep at it, are optimists. Pessimists expect bad outcomes, so they are more likely to quit.

How do you become more optimistic? Lamb's sources recommend that you learn to act as though you are optimistic. In other words, do not give in to your pessimistic sentiments. Pretend that you are an optimist. Ask yourself what an optimist would do, and then do it.

If you think that nothing you do will make any difference, do something. Assume that eventually something will work out. If your first course of action does not solve the problem, pretend you are optimistic and confident and try a second one.

Of course, this basic principle differentiates coaching from therapy. When therapy assumes that you need to resolve your basic issues, come to terms with your traumas, and rewrite your personal history before you can tackle your everyday problems... it is telling you to act as though you are a pessimist.

And the more you act like a pessimist, the more pessimistic you will become.

After all, Freud invented this form of therapy, and Freud was a chronic pessimist.

Coaching, if it is done right, will assume that you are NOW competent to deal with your problems. Not surprisingly, when a coach shows confidence in your ability to solve problems you will also start feeling that you can solve them.

A good coach should always assume that you haven't been solving your problems because you didn't know how... not because the problems are insoluble or because you have been rendered incompetent by the aftershocks of trauma.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Is Life a Journey of Self-Discovery?

The first time you hear it, it sounds like a good idea. According to the therapy culture life is a voyage of self-discovery leading to self-actualization.

But then, if you start asking what would motivate you to make your life into a search for the real You, things become a bit murky.

We become most inquisitive about who we really are when things go wrong. When we make mistakes, when our routines are disrupted, when we experience traumas... those are the times when we cease to recognize our old familiar selves and start asking whether we really know who we are.

We ask: How could I have done such a thing? How could such a thing have happened to me?

At that point, we are propelled into a voyage of self-discovery.

To put it another way, we search for the meaning of defeat, not of victory.

Beyond that, when we perform our everyday rituals and routines we do not wonder what it all means. When things happen as they always happen, we do not ask why.

When things go awry, however, we always ask why, and we usually come up with a story, with a drama.

Everyday courtesy is never worth a story. Rudeness always lends itself to drama.

If you believe that life is a journey of self-discovery you will find something redeeming about things going wrong and will turn away in disdain when things go right.

The therapy culture has no real use for simple gestures of kindness, congeniality, or conviviality.

When Gretchen Rubin recommends that you say "Good Morning" to everyone in your office when you arrive in the morning, the therapy culture will have trained you to ignore, disparage, and disdain the advice. You are likely to think that it is meaningless, mindless, and superficial. Link to Rubin's post here.

However much your "Good Morning" contributes to good feeling and cooperation in the office, it teaches you nothing about your deepest unconscious stirrings.

If you are curt and rude, you are likely to provoke meaningful dramatic exchanges and waves of stress that will send you scurrying to discover who you really are.

Take another piece of advice that Rubin offered on her blog: "Each week walk around the office and talk to a few people you don't know well. You'll feel more comfortable, plus knowing more people facilitates work flow. Remember the exposure effect as well: repeated exposure makes people like music, faces, even nonsense syllables, better. That means that the more often you see someone the more intelligent and attractive that person will seem."

This might seem like a prescription for repeated meaningless encounters. In fact, it promotes social harmony and connection; thus it produces team cohesion.

Familiarity breeds comfort, not contempt. The same applies to everyday rituals and routines. Surprise and disruption are strange. They feel threatening. They make us want to unpack their meaning.

People feel at home with the familiar; they invent stories to make sense of the strange.

They open up when faced with the familiar; they close down when confronting the strange.

If your goal is to have a happy and productive work day, you would do well to take Rubin's advice. If, however, you want to pursue a voyage of personal self-discovery and self-actualization you would do better to be rude, disruptive, and bizarre.

Yours to choose.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Is Consumerism a Sin?

Amitai Etzioni is right when he asserts in The New Republic that we are not going to restore confidence in the markets by increasing regulation. Link here.

As he argues, how can regulators regulate the billions of transactions that occur every day in the global marketplace? And once you set up a vast regulatory apparatus, what makes you think that it will function effectively and honestly?

Thus, Etzioni concludes that the lesson of the current financial crisis is that we have to behave better, to do the right thing.

So far; so good.

Not so good is his identification of the problem and his prescriptions for a solution. Etzioni believes that the crisis is a punishment for our sins. Especially, the sin of consumerism.

In his words: "As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs-- safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education-- it is not consumerism. But when the acquisition of goods and services is used to satisfying the higher needs, consumption turns into consumerism-- and consumerism becomes a social disease."

In Etzioni's minimalist world we would make do with less attractive clothing, less tasty food, less work ... and would be able to indulge more self-actualizing behavior.

Would his argument imply that a parent who wanted the best education for his or her child would be indulging the social disease of consumerism?

I am tempted to say that the mania for actualizing Self instead of working for the common good is what really got us into this mess in the first place.

Be that as it may, Etzioni's argument is based on faulty reasoning. No human being will ever accept a life where only his basic needs are satisfied.

Also, his formula omits two basic human needs: freedom and competition.

If we merely need nourishment, it does not matter which pasta we choose. If we merely need raiment why not have everyone walk around in the Mao suits that were in vogue during the Chinese Cultural Revolution?

Human freedom is not limited to the ballot box and the blogosphere. Individuals exercise freedom every time they choose between Tide and All, between Ronzoni and Barilla, between Adidas and Nike. Are we now to judge the will to exercise economic freedom as a sin or a disease?

If you hop on Etzioni's line of thought you will eventually find yourself supporting government control of the marketplace. His is simply a stealth attack on capitalism.

Ezioni writes eloquently, and has done so for some time, about the virtue of social activity. Yet, precious little in his definition of basic human needs sees humans as fundamentally social beings.

Take clothing. In part, clothing has a utilitarian function. And yet, there is nothing especially utilitarian about the universal tendency to cover the genitals. The gesture identifies the person as a human, social being.

Ezioni imagines that we can do with shabbier clothing. He ignores that fact that dressing in a certain way identifies us as members of this or that social group.

You can denounce it all as superficial, but in a world where social mobility is the order of the day, where people are increasingly disconnected from their native communities, adopting a new style defines them as members of a new community.

Would it be better if everyone felt like a pariah, like an indefinite human unit.

Etzioni believes that if we all consumed less we would all work less and that this will be all to the better. He seems to want us to adopt the French model where the government dictates how many hours you can work and punishes anyone who exceeds his quota.

Here is yet another restriction on human freedom. Etzioni does not bother to mention that the policy has contributed to the chronically high unemployment that has bedeviled France for over a decade.

Finally, Etzioni does not seem to recognize that people do not merely work hard in order to acquire more goods-- that is a demeaning caricature-- but they work hard to succeed, and they want to succeed because true self-esteem can only by acquired through competition.

Once upon a time there was less competition. In a world where social boundaries were rigid and inviolate no one was working very hard to move up the status hierarchy.

In the old aristocratic order and in the Indian caste system, biology was your social destiny.
Do we really want to return to such a world?

I think that most of would prefer to strive mightily, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, to make our own way in the world.

Within society people who do nothing more than satisfy their basic needs belong to the lowest social class. Don'w we all believe that those who inhabit the lowest social class should be given the chance to gain a higher status... to say nothing of superior goods and services.

Surely, this is better and more just than attempting to reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"I Don't Know Anything About Cars"

Thus spake Edward Whitacre, the newly named CEO of General Motors. As the tone of the remark suggests, Whitacre does not think it is very important for the CEO of GM to know about cars: "A business is a business and I think I can learn about cars." Link here.

Let's say you were on a hiring committee interviewing prospective candidates for an important executive position. How would you respond to someone who was touting his complete ignorance of the nuts and bolts of your business?

Of course, Whitacre has extensive experience in telecommunications. He was a successful CEO at ATT. How exactly does this qualify him to be CEO of General Motors?

This raises an important question, one that informs hiring decisions: Does experience count? Or better, is experience fungible?

Take Alan Mulally, widely praised CEO of Ford. Mulally did not grow up in the automobile industry. He came to Ford from Boeing. But Boeing is involved in transportation and manufacturing.

Clearly,the skills Mulally acquired at Boeing were fungible to his job at Ford.

Of course, some people believe fervently that experience is less important than ideas. They believe that if you are smart enough you can pick up the experience on the fly.

We just elected a president who had nothing that resembled executive experience. We have a Secretary of State who had only the most limited experience with foreign policy.

Apparently, the American people decided that being intelligent and/or eloquent were sufficient requirements for high public office.

Welcome to the world of philosopher-kings. (Nowadays they are called Czars.) In that world the person who put in the time and effort to acquire practical knowledge is considered to be inferior to those who spend their time thinking.

Philosopher-kings used to be known as "the best and the brightest." They are academics, journalists, itinerant intellectuals, and government officials.

They usually have stellar academic credentials coupled with limited real-world experience. And they naturally want high IQ to count for more than the everyday grind-it-out work where people get their hands dirty.

Nowadays the nation is debating the question of whether or not government officials and other very intelligent people should be running private businesses, like banks and automobile companies.

Traditionally, people have argued that bureaucrats do not have a vested interest in the success or failure of the businesses they are managing. Thus, they have a lesser interest in their success.

We should add that government officials who lack practical experience are more likely to impose impractical solutions on unreal problems.

When great thinkers get involved in something other than thinking, they often lose focus and concentration. Not because their heads remain in the clouds, but because they tend to micromanage and become mired in detail.

After all, people who believe in the superiority of their own minds tend to look down on everyone else's minds. Unfortunately, the condescension breeds distrust, and distrust engenders low morale.

All of which to say that Edward Whitacre is facing a daunting challenge.

Addendum: See also this post.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sex, Narcissistically

What is narcissistic sex? Is it what Woody Allen called: sex with someone you love? Or is it what Elizabeth Gilbert famously labelled: having your way with yourself.

The question arises from the title of Hannah Seligson's latest article on The Daily Beast: "Do Narcissists Have Better Sex?" Link here.

Actually, the title is a ploy, or, in this context, a tease. The article addresses a more important issue: is the therapy culture responsible for the epidemic of narcissism?

Seligson reports that therapists are increasingly answering this question in the affirmative. They are becoming aware of how they have contributed to producing a culture of narcissism.

One therapist explains: "There is a national obsession with feeling good about yourself.... We have done a good job of teaching people to come up from shame, but we have ignored the issue of having people come down from grandiosity."

Seligson summarizes: "The most recent research on narcissism runs contrary to what the legions of self-help experts have proselytized when it comes to finding love-- that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else."

She adds: "Now that people think more highly of themselves, expectations of what a relationship should be like have skyrocketed into the realm of superlatives."

So, the self-help experts and the therapists... people who have a great influence on cultural values... have gotten it wrong.

They have, as Seligson implies, forgotten that humans are social beings, and that constructing values for autonomous, human units distorts reality and thus induces bad judgments.

A culture that fosters narcissism must deny the value of compromise. When individuals are told that they are paragons of human perfection, they will refuse to settle for anything but the best.

For my own most recent comments on these issues, see my post about the lessons of arranged marriage. Link here.

The therapy culture went wrong in two fundamental ways.

First, it made shame the enemy. It decided that shame was an emotional poison that had to be defeated at any cost. By doing so, it encouraged an epidemic of shamelessness.

The therapy culture made shamelessness into a stepping stone on the path to good mental health.

Yet, shame is the emotional glue that forms the basis for social connection. If you do not feel shame, you do not feel like you belong to a community. Then you will compensate by finding a relationship that affirms that you are too good to belong, too good to conform, and too good to be like everyone else.

If you sacrifice your social being, you will demand a very large compensation.

The therapy culture notwithstanding, a relationship does not involve two self-absorbed, self-gratifying human units. It involves two people who belong to families and communities, who have responsibilities, duties, and obligations to other people.

I have suggested that the root of these problems lies in the social dislocations caused by modern life. Young people especially feel that they have lost their social moorings. They are faced with too many possible mates, and do not know how to make a commitment that feels like settling for something less than perfection.

Psychotherapy could have dedicated itself to helping young people to adjust to cosmopolitan life and to adapt to new communities, even to the point helping them to develop the skills that would make them competent at relationships.

It did not. It chose instead to exploit people's vulnerability.

It has told those suffering from anomie that they are really self-contained individuals who need to fulfill their potential. And it has prescribed romantic love as the cure to all that ails modern youth.

It has told young people that if they find true love they will feel a connection that is beyond anything that a community can offer, a connection that will allow them to express themselves fully, a connection that will cure their anomie for all time.

Find the One, find your soulmate, and you will not have to compromise, negotiate, or work on making the other person happy.

The culture could have promoted the values that make you a good citizen, a good member of a community. It could have promoted good character, modesty, humility, trustworthiness, reliability, and responsibility. It could have told people that building character would help them to adapt to new communities and to develop durable relationships.

If you do not know how to work with others, how to conduct friendships, how to show respect to many people in many different situations, you will be at a loss when the One comes ambling by.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Lessons from an Arranged Marriage

Yesterday's "Modern Love" column in the New York Times addressed the least modern form of love, arranged marriage.

It's timing was fortuitous. Many young people today are tiring of the turmoil of the dating scene. Others are beginning to see that dating is an unnecessarily expensive indulgence during a time of financial crisis. Link here.

After all, as Farahad Zama writes, the current practice of trying out many different partners and getting to know everything about them does not seem to have led to a rash of happy marriages. It is surely ironic that he hears people who have dated for years before marrying say that they woke up one morning and proclaimed that they had been sleeping with a stranger.

Dare I add, serial relationships often cause serial traumas, to the point where young people have begun to doubt their own judgment.

That may be one reason why Fox Television has found people willing to participate in a reality show where family members arrange a marriage for their children. In "I Married a Stranger" the betrothed couple will meet each other for the first time at the altar.

I do not know whether this will make for good television or even good marriages. I would mention that Fox has distorted the custom of arranged marriage, at least as it is practiced in Zama's modern India.

When family members recommended a young woman as a prospective bride for Zama, he had the opportunity to meet with her for a short period of time. And they both could have rejected the arrangement.

This is largely more humane, and less dramatic, than the Fox formula.

We should remind ourselves that the great majority of marriages in human history were arranged. At the least, they involved considerable family input.

Today, we no longer see marriage as a social alliance between two families. We tend to follow the plot of a fiction where two independent, autonomous individuals meet, date, court, fall in love, and then get married.

Their marriage is an expression of their love. And there love is purer if society and their parents disapprove. As the fiction plays itself out disapproval becomes the cause for continuing marital drama and discord.

Arranged marriage involves custom and social ritual. The individuals represent their families more than their romantic yearnings. Their primary responsibility is to their communities, not themselves.

In principle, as Zama notes, this situation can lead to love. It certainly does not make love impossible. And yet, it does not make love the be-all and end-all of marriage.

The first lesson is that young people today who make their own judgments about whom they want to date and marry should consider that marriage is much more than an expression of love. They should see themselves as social beings with a responsibility to something larger than themselves.

Thus, if everyone around you thinks that you have fallen in love with the wrong person, the chances are very good that you have.

Next, Zama offers two pieces of advice that we should all heed.

First, he says: "I think that in arranged marriages one starts with lower expectations and realizes the need for compromise that is essential in a successful bond...."

Marriage requires work; it requires active management. It is good to be in love with your spouse, but it is bad to imagine that love will solve all of your problems.

Second, Zama highlights one of the pitfalls of the dating scene in today's large cities: "Would we have gotten married if we had met in the conventional Western manner and dated each other? Or would we have given up on each other and moved on, searching for the perfect 'one?'"

I have written about this before, and it bears repeating. Young people today have so many choices available that they have little incentive to compromise or to work out problems in their relationships. When the dating pool is so deep and wide, you are more likely to tell yourself that you can do better, and even that you can hold out until you find the perfect One.

If no one is willing to settle for less than the best, young people get involved an a futile effort to attain an inhuman form of perfection. Surely, this is not a formula that is going to produce too many happy marriages.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Obama Offers Some Bad Advice

Perhaps he was fatigued from having expended so much energy ingratiating himself with the world's tyrants and autocrats, but President Obama did not have enough good feeling left to accept a dinner invitation offered by the president of France.

In diplomatic talk, that is considered a snub. It downgrades a relationship. Much in the same way that Obama has assuredly downgraded the American relationship with Israel. And much in the same way that he insulted the Prime Minister of England with his clumsy attempt at gift-giving.

When the press asked the president to explain the snub, he responded with these words: "I think it's very important to understand that good friends don't worry about the symbols and the conventions and the protocol."

This is wrong in fundamental ways.

First, Obama and Sarkozy are not good friends; they barely know each other. Theirs is a developing relationship.

Second, friends do not remain friends if they do not respect the conventions and the symbols and the protocol. When you publicly insult a friend by snubbing him, you are seriously undermining that friendship.

In fact, friendship can only thrive on constant shows of formal and ritual respect.

Third, when a head of state snubs another head of state it damages the relationship between the nations. Obama and Sarkozy are not just two guys developing a friendship.

Worse yet, a snub normally elicits a diplomatic counterattack. It launches a cycle of recrimination and payback. The minimum we should expect of our president is that he does not travel around the world insulting heads of state.

When you are dealing with your own friends, or when you are trying to cultivate a new friendship, pay close and special attention to the conventions, the symbols, and the protocol. Otherwise, you will very quickly find yourself friendless.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


D-Day seems as good a time as any to recall a quotation by Winston Churchill. In 1940, at a time when it appeared that Great Britain would fall to Nazi Germany, the nation seemed to be facing an impossible choice: to fight and lose or to surrender.

To explain his decision never to give up the fight, Churchill declared: "nations that go down fighting rise up again; those that surrender tamely are finished."

The Higher Education Bubble

This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that the economic model that founds the American university system is unsustainable.

Going to college costs too much and does not deliver value for the money. Besides, if it becomes increasingly difficult for students to access the credit market, they will attend schools that they can more easily afford. Thus, higher education is a bubble waiting to burst. Link here.

The article suggests that Humanities departments, the pride of liberal arts education, and also the home of political correctness, will be most threatened.

In time of economic crisis, with university education representing a major investment, students will be less likely to enroll in courses that do not have a practical application.

The financial crisis has shown people the value of courses in economics and finance. You are not going to be able to understand what happened to the markets by using what you learned in French literature class.

We might hope that students also come to reject the kind of indoctrination practiced in so many humanities departments. If they do, those departments will become economically less viable. Would it not be interesting to see political correctness undermined by a marketplace it has strenuously rejected.

Whither the Dollar?

Here is some further reading relevant to yesterday's post. In today's "Barrons" Randall Forsyte discusses what might happen to the American dollar. Link here.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Laugh Out Loud

As we all know, human beings tend to make rational decisions based on their self-interest. Using this assumption, professional economists have been able to calculate aspects of human behavior that had previously been considered mysterious.

While no one is going to question the calculations, some thinkers have been questioning the basic assumption. As Prof. Lawrence Mead puts it in a recent review, if human beings are not making decisions based on a rational calculation of self-interest, that would imply that economists have made a fundamental mistake. Is that the reason, Mead states, why, in the current crisis, economists seem to have failed us? Link here.

Is there more to human motivation than individual self-interest? Is the figure of the self-interested rational calculator more mythic than real? If so, then what is the alternative?

According to Mead, among others, people are not merely motivated by self-interest. Beyond our self-interest each of us has a vested interest in the orderly functioning of the markets and of society. The economists' mythic being distorts humanity because it lacks an ethical dimension.

The current crisis has been produced by people seeking to craft their lives according to the this theory. Too many people were lulled into believing that if they each followed their self-interest, while ignoring the larger consequences, then the markets would take care of themselves.

In one sense the markets always do take care of themselves. They correct. Sometimes they correct violently. If this costs you your savings or your house, the markets really do not care. Markets are not in the business of taking care of us.

The current crisis has revealed a seriously frayed social fabric, an absence of meaningful human connections, and a group of seriously self-absorbed individuals.

Our financial system was undermined by a culture that taught us all to value Me over We.

As Mead put it: "Morals, not just calculation, have broken down in today's crisis. Borrowers and lenders no longer trust each other enough to do business. To establish or restore trust requires civic virtue, something that today's economics, based as it is on egoistic calculation, cannot explain or produce."

And Mead warns that a breakdown of the social ethos is moving us closer to the underdeveloped world. "A lack of trust and civility is one reason markets fail to make people rich in the less developed world."

Do you believe that human beings are rational calculators, and that they will always act in a way that serves their self-interest? Here is a way to test yourself.

We have all heard sage economists say that the Chinese government will never do anything to sink the bond market because it owns so many American bonds. We would never expect a rationally self-interested party like a government to cause itself to lose money, would we?

But consider this. It may not be a good idea for China to devalue its holdings of American bonds or to crash the bond market or to cause a run on the American dollar. Fair enough. But why would it sit idly by and allow the U. S. government to inflate the dollar to the point where its investments will inevitably lose value?

This week's most important speech was not Obama's oration in Egypt. It was Treasury Secretary Geithner speech to college students at the University of Beijing.

When Geithner asserted that he still supports a strong American dollar and that Chinese assets invested in U.S. government debt were safe, the students in Beijing laughed out loud.

Anyone who is looking for the next black swan, the next improbable event that will cause a calamity, would do well to pay heed to those laughing Chinese students.