Friday, January 28, 2011

10 Common Online Assessments Applied Offline

What if the metrics used online to determine the value of a person were applied to our offline interactions and relationships? The following assessments would not be uncommon:

-A natural brunette who opts to dye her hair blond, and feels comfortable walking along the beach in a bikini will not fit into our corporate culture, because she is clearly a slut.

-The man we see writing things into a notebook in the public library will not allow me to read over his shoulder. He must have something to hide, or else why wouldn't he be showing me what he has written? What is he hiding? He should have no expectation of personal privacy if he is going to sit down in a public library and write.

-After scouring every local newspaper, watching every local television news broadcast, and listening to every local radio station for over a week, I have not heard this applicant's name come up a single time, anywhere. I won't investigate him further, because if he had any talent, motivation, or value to offer, his name would be all over the place. Why would we want a nobody like that working in our company? 

-No doctor that drives a 1991 Ford Taurus is going to be allowed to treat me. If he doesn't care enough about how he looks when he pulls into the parking lot of the hospital, how could he possibly care about his patients, or be intelligent enough to heal them?

-Even though she expressed an interest in what we are trying to accomplish, I refuse to listen to or acknowledge the opinion of the girl who sits by herself in the college lunch room at meal times and never comes to any of the dances or the parties. How could someone with no social life have anything worthwhile to contribute to the conversation?

-That gentleman has obvious talent as a painter, but he is barely making ends meet at his gas station job. Given that he hasn't parleyed his artistic traits into a career that would allow him and his family to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, he is either lazy, or a coward. The only reason he is struggling is that he hasn't done his homework.

-After a cost-benefit analysis I determined I really have no particular use for a botanist in my network at this time, nor do I think I have anything to offer the world of botany. So I opted not to shake his offered hand at the party last night. I prefer to preserve that energy for connections from which I can gain something while simultaneously contributing something in return.

-I came very close to hiring that electrician for my house. But she wasn't smiling when I first saw her. How professional could she be? 

-Don't hire any consultant who goes to a library to read magazines. If they cannot commit their time and money into subscribing to all of them personally, they won't put the proper time or energy into your project.

-Over the weekend, four people left voice-mails on his office phone. But 14 people left voice-mails on her office phone. Clearly she is leadership material, and should be promoted over him as soon as possible. 

Sound ridiculous? That's because they are. Until of course people sign onto the internet.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Screw Cartography

"When we get this project going, it's gonna put this place on the map!"

"It's a problem now, but it's going to put us on the map."

"We need to get this place on the map."

I've heard it all before. Sometimes from people or institutions that end up in some way, on the map. Other times from people who couldn't even read a map, let alone get themselves on one.

My response? What the hell is so important about being on this proverbial map? You always hear people wanting to get there, but a small percentage of such people ever seem worried about producing a quality product, providing a valuable service, or just being a decent presence. Those things are viewed, if at all, as means to the map.

It has been my odd and unfortunate lot to stumble into organizations just as they are deciding to place themselves on the map. Or, as I like to think, just at the very moment they decide that the community they have been serving just isn't good enough. (Which is really, when you think about it, what "getting on the map" is all about. Escaping from a community that has been the heart and soul of what you do, but can no longer keep up with the greed, or thirst for power, or influence sought by the institution in question.)

My high school was a rather elite but small private high school in Maryland. For decades, it had established itself as one of the premiere private high schools in all of Maryland. Some out of state people attended as well, of course. Word of mouth being what it is. Not to mention the draw of the place's history. Yet once you got out of say the Maryland/Virginia/West Virginia tri-state area, my tiny high school, (population of less than 200 students at the time) was little known.

Until the year I, having been impressed by their pedigree, chose to enroll there after much thought. For it was that very year that somebody in the power structure decided that it was time to put this already highly regarded, rather elite, and solidly established private high school "on the map." They hired one of the nation's most famous and successful varsity basketball coaches. Hoping to increase the school profile.

Increase it, it did. By the end of my first year, the school was winning all kinds of tournaments. It was regularly featured on ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other such places. Indeed, more people became aware of our little high school by the end of that year, than in the previous 50, I dare say. And the term, "putting us on the map" was almost a rallying cry. Surely, this could only be beneficial to the alumni. The staff. The students, as well as impressive to prospectives.

That depends on how you look at it. Because while the school's name was becoming well known, things within the school itself suffered. Suddenly everything was channeled in one direction. Given the cartography of the basketball program, the sport, previously just one extra curricular activity offered within this academic mecca, became the pervasive theme of everything we did. Instead of academically minded students with an athletic interest, athletic powerhouse players from literally all around the world were now recruited to attend our high school, simply for the basketball program. (The means of which were always of questionable ethics to some.)

Pep rallies took place only for that team. The other teams received little to no official school recognition, and as a result, little to no attendance. Whether you played or not, basketball was part of your identity. Class pictures always included someone holding a basketball. Seniors, upon graduating, regardless of their reasons for being in the school, were asked to sign basketballs for the trophy room. An effort, at times rather forced, was made to equate being proud of attending that school with being proud of the team. And people who are proud of the team attend games.

For newer people, or people that were into this whole "map" thing, it worked. Enrollment increased. Portables went up like weeds, and more money poured in. But for a good portion of the last remnant of the "old guard", it meant that the mission of the school, its very founding principles which had served it, and students very well during their 100 years of semi-obscurity, were being abandoned. The very reasons I chose to go there were being pushed aside in order to gain fame. And resentment against athletes, who through no fault of their own were participants in a destructive program, built up over they years. But hey, as the waterboy wanna-be player in my class would always remind me when I complained, "Coach is putting this school on the map."

Thanks a lot, coach.

"Coach" is long gone, and the school now has 4 times as many portables, and has a population at last check of about 500 students now. Still small, but huge compared to what it was. Their plans to build a new facility have been put on hold three times since I left. There's your map.

The same thing happened when I went to college. When I arrived as a transfer student, it was a small, little known but locally renowned private college of about 1,100 students. Charming in its own way. Gorgeous old brick buildings. Wonderful mall area in the middle of campus. You could feel the history.

The second semester I was there, the announcement went out that that "Revitalization Plan" had been approved, and would be completed hopefully over ten years, starting right away. By the next year, ground was being dug up for a new ten million dollar sporting facility. (Not a sports school at all before then.) Half of the mall and walking area would be torn up a few years later for a huge, hulking 20 million dollar biology lab. Two new dorms as well, to house the proposed increase in the student population to about 2,500 when all was said and done. And with these mostly non-academic expenditures came of course, increases in student bills. The music program was cut, in part, in order to help save some money for all of this.

"A school is no more than the amount of students that come to it," a professor told me once. "And I want more resources for myself and you." She said that can only happen if we (say it with me) "put this school on the map".

Mind you, this school had been around in some form on that spot since the 1840's. That's the 1840's.

With this came the predictable results over time, not unlike what I mentioned for my high school. Getting on the map became a priority instead of being content to serve an academic mission that had remained in tact for generations. (Including two previous generations within my own family, whom I never met.)

Even the theatre department, one of the few things about this quaint, smaller, but changing college that I loved, underwent a bit of this change. The theatre, unchanged for many years, started to focus more on community relevance and spectacle, than on intimate and personal in-house instruction in the theatre arts.

Not that this was the only theatre program to suffer this fate in my presence. A local community theatre around here, with an excellent facility had been under the stewardship of a much beloved and still praised man for years. My first show there, however, happened to be during the first year after this man left. The new guy was quiet for a while. But soon everything became about expanding the brand, or getting corporate sponsorship, or raising thus and so amount of money by the end of the year. All in an effort to convert it into a professional, for-profit theatre one day. (This leaving those of us who for years had volunteered our time and energy to the place feeling as though our days were numbered.) Many regulars have over the years been driven away. Including myself. And of course the overall goal of this terrible, artless and talentless new manager was simple. "Put this place on the map." (Casting his own wife in every show being a major part of the strategy it would seem.)

You get the idea.

So my luck in showing up at places just as they are trying to "put themselves on the map" has not been good. I will concede it may have just been the manner in which these places went about putting themselves on the map that I found distasteful. But speaking from my personal experience I have yet to encounter a single example of "putting something on the map" resulting in something better.

Just once, I would like to find an institution, an organization, a company, or a group which is small, effective, special, steeped in tradition, not particularly well known, but content to be so. I long to be part of a community that doesn't fall into the first grade mindset of "whoever has the most toys wins". That making something bigger, by default, makes it better. (A lesson small towns with urban sprawl could, but have never learned.) That contributions to society are directly proportional to the number of people who have heard of you.

Not that I am against making money. (Though non-profits of course should not make a profit, though many act like they should.) Money is needed to keep things running. I am however against the idea of expanding just for the sake of making more of it. It's lazy thinking, and only partially effective. I'm against not opting to find a way to improve the budget in-house. I'm against selling off the earned reputation in order to purchase a flashier, emptier one. Why is everyone more worried about "getting on the map" than they are preserving what made them great in the first place?

Greed. Keeping up with the Joneses. A mistaken notion of keeping up with modern times. Lack of internal vision. (As opposed to external.) Who knows why? But if I were a school or a theatre company, I would much rather have my reputation proceed me, than have my reputation thrown in the faces of anyone who happens to pass by. I'd rather establish a mission that doesn't include expansion as a primary goal. Lighthouses, after all, don't move. They stay right where they are. And thank god they do. How many people would be lost without them? I'd much rather be a part of a light house, than have my name in bold print on a map.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The King's Speech and Our Problems.

Unless you have been locked away for the last few months you have heard of the critically acclaimed movie starring Colin Firth called The King's Speech. The film,a bona fide hit at the box office, tells the story of King George VI of the United Kingdom's speech impediment; from the age of about five onward the man was a stutterer. The condition at times was quite severe, which we see as the movie opens with a scene of the future King (who is merely the Duke of York for most of the film) failing miserably to give a coherent public speech to an assembled crowd.

It is a time wherein the Monarch has become a very public figure in the sense of having to appear and speak publicly. And with World War II approaching the symbolic stability of a Sovereign who can ease the nation with his words becomes all the more vital to the war effort. With the abdication of his older brother, this staggering responsibility falls on "Bertie". (The name by which King George VI was known within his family.)

Believe me, I am not giving away anything that is not deduced in the trailer when I say that the Duke's wife (Helena Bonham Carter) eventually enlists the assistance of one Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush), a man with extensive experience in helping those with speech defects. Logue's methods are, shall we say, unorthodox from the first moment. Indeed so much so that "Bertie" abandons them totally for a while.

I loved the film. It would seem millions loved the film, and it is gathering serious hardware at various awards ceremonies. As with any film, The King's Speech is without a doubt different things to different people. Or several things to any one person. Most of the very best movies have this quality. I count myself in this latter category, for I found the movie brilliant for a number of reasons.

There is the historical angle. The humor. The fact that it deals with the British Monarchy. Not to mention excellent acting and writing all around.

Yet there is an added element to this true story which I think contributed not only to my own admiration of the film, but may also be why it has such wide appeal. It is, in the end, the story of a great man that overcomes a great handicap. A handicap for which he is mocked and ridiculed even by members of his own family. A handicap which many back then, and even now dismissed as illegitimate. A handicap that the man himself eventually concluded (falsely) that he could not overcome.

And how did he overcome it? No doubt in the end it was something within himself that won out. A determination, a belief and confidence in himself that was lacking in his early life, but showed up just in time when it was needed the most. Yet it would not have shown up if he had not encountered and worked with the eccentric Logue. A man who had the audacity to speak to the Duke/King in familiar terms. He too called him "Bertie", ignoring what Shakespeare's Henry V referred to as "idle ceremony". Logue opted to address the man as a man. As an equal.

This doesn't sit well at first with "Bertie", but there would be no movie if he never learned to accept it, of course. Yet it was perhaps Logue's strange exercises and questions and conversations, all seemingly without purpose, that shook the protagonist the most.

What am I getting at here? That "Bertie" was brought up from the day he was born with certain and at times unrealistic expectations that go along with being a member of a royal family. Expectations that were dictated by tradition and precedent, with no concern for the individual tastes and difficulties of any given person. Expectations which, one could argue, exacerbated Bertie's condition, the more he tried to conform to same.

The result was that a great man, a brave man, a witty, intelligent and conscientious man remained unseen by the world. And because this younger Prince, who unexpectedly became King was judged up until that point by what he was incapable of doing as opposed to what he could do, little faith in him existed. Especially when all of the traditional methods of "curing" a stutter had already been tried without success.

Enter Logue, who in the most casual of ways wipes all of that aside. He forgets social expectations, steps over tradition, lays aside judgment, and take a personal interest. He even calls the Duke "Bertie", and has him singing his way through practice speeches, among other wild actions for a Prince of the Realm,  in order to prove the stutter could be controlled. More accurately perhaps to prove to Bertie that a great man resided beneath the stutter. Logue, in other words, addressed the man with a problem, instead of addressing the problem itself.

That is perhaps what appealed to me the most about the film. That in spite of all the strict expectations, the accepted science of the day, the knighted doctors and the protocol, it was a man with a funny hat and no tendency to genuflect that was able to help "Bertie" become the King George VI that the nation needed.

I am not royalty. And I doubt that any of my readers are. However I certainly identify with this royal character in this movie. I struggle with the reality of the better parts of me sometimes being obscured by expectations. Traditions. Conventions. As well as my own unique problems and difficulties. I know what it feels like to be assessed not by that of which I am capable, but by things such as a bad resume, being single, a small network, a blog without bells and whistles. Little to no money. No life coach. On and on.

In other words the things that are trappings that come quite naturally to most, but not to me.

There is, as of yet, no Lionel Logue in my life. But throughout my life it has been the rare times when I have been approached or assisted in a unique manner ignoring social expectations that have had the greatest impact on me. I have come to realize, (as I have often said) that I have control over my own status quo. It is I who can, and will, refuse to accept the social expectations of someone in my position. I will not cower behind what tradition and convention expected of me. I'll approach my problems, as Bertie eventually did, in ways that nobody finds acceptable, but will one day lead me to where I need to be. And I hope that you will do the same thing, if the conventional isn't working for you.

And if a Lionel Logue type shows up with unconventional methods and an interest in my success? Well, unlike Bertie I don't think I will hesitate to welcome his/her advice from Day One. Heaven knows I have absorbed as much of the conventional advice as possible for right now.

Any Lionel Logues in your life?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Doubting What's Nameless

Happy New Year. I realize I am ten days into the New Year now, long passed the point where most people even consider the greeting to be applicable. But part of my New Year has in fact been a sort of reorganization of my daily life into a new (non) plan, as I mentioned in my last entry. To that end my timing has been a bit off for a week or so. I am getting into of a groove now.

One of the reasons behind my approach to 2011 was my lack of progress in certain areas. Areas which, as I wrote before, I pursued in ways more suited to the "common" person with a common mind set as opposed to being suited towards me. I spent a great deal of time in 2010 accepting the fact that for whatever reason, my mindset is not that of the average person. In fact it may be quite rare in its own right, for all I know. It probably is.

The reason I cannot quantify how many people think, succeed or fail in the same ways that I do, is that I have no name for the particular personal collection of personal obstacles that I face. Of course there are plenty of external factors that have prevented me from getting what I deserve and achieving my potential, and those have been and will continue to be well documented on this blog. But as for the internal circumstances within my own consciousness and brain, there remains no single way to define it. Hence the very name of this blog; Too XYZ.

It is that very nameless quality I wish to discuss here.

There are many named handicaps and disabilities out there. Many that, when properly identified can be lived with, or in some cases eliminated, provided the right resources, knowledge and personnel. Such obstacles have names because they have been studied. And they have been studied because they have a consistent pattern of appearance and of repercussions for those that suffer the impairment.

Take as an example someone who finds they wash their hands more than others. And as they get older, they wash their hands raw to the point of being unable to handle objects. In the extreme this behavior begins to make a person late for appointments, and unable to attend social functions, because so preoccupied are they with washing their hands they can barely conentrate on anything else. Though this may be indicative of any number of things, and a professional evaluation is necessary to determine an individual cause, the literature indicates that such a situation is often the result of something called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. (Known as OCD for short.)

There is much we do not know about OCD. But we learn more all the time. Common symptoms like the ones I have described. We have discovered several things that seem to cause it. We have discovered therapies and medications which depending on the patient can lesson and in some cases eliminate the disorder.

While naysayers persist, abundant studies have been conducted at this point in history to convince fair minded people that OCD is an actual condition. And therefore when we know that someone officially suffers from it, we can make certain accommodations in our mind pertaining to the particular struggles and set backs such people experience.

Of course my point applies to far more than OCD. There are whole volumes of mental or intellectual disorders which have been named and successfully treated. Each of them opens a door in the minds of fair people. Not a door which will excuse any and all actions on the part of those with a disorder, but a door which will take into account the particular struggles associated with any given condition. The same with certain physical deficiencies.

There was of course a time, not very long ago, when none of these conditions had names. Or perhaps everything out of the ordinary might be labeled as simple "madness". At those times those with depression were told to merely, "cheer up." Those with Attention Deficit Disorder were told to "just calm down and pay attention." Those with OCD were ordered to just "stop doing that. Just stop."

These approaches did not work, of course. It was more than simply choosing to be different. And while the causes of any given disorder or illness continue to be debated in scholarly circles, (is it brain chemistry? emotional imbalance? Deep seated damage to the psyche?), these behaviors do have names and are at least seen as things which must be understood and treated in some specific way. In other words it is understood today that people are not going to simply talk themselves out of such conditions.

However despite how much we as a society appear to have learned about human behavior, it seems as though we have in reality learned very little. For in the absence of a named condition that appears in very specific journals and records most people still insist that those who have not succeeded according to the conventional definition must simply be lazy, stubborn, or just plain nuts. And it is not only the general, faceless public that fails to give much leeway in this regard. One of the cruelest ironies of them all is that it is often people with a defined, documented, clinical setback of their own who are most vocal in damning those who have fallen behind without the "benefit" of a specific diagnosis. As though struggling people without a diagnosis somehow take away from struggling people with one. I have been the brunt of such hypocrisy many times over in my unusual life. Most recently in the last few months, and in a very public manner online, as some of you may have noticed at the time.

I am willing to opine, at risk of major backlash from the online community that the self proclaimed most "Tolerant, open-minded, egalitarian, creative" generation of all time, the so called Generation-Y (Gen-Y) is in fact just as much, if not even more prone to this sort of out of hand dismissal.

As a demographic, the current, as well as the upcoming generation is in love with the idea of breaking down boundaries so that everybody can succeed. They don't need permission, they don't need approval, and they don't even need help. They are determined to tear down the status quo once and for all, flip off the naysayers and insist on success their way. On their terms.

That sounds great. Even noble and liberating. Until you consider that one major side effect of this approach is the assumption that "if Seth Godin can do it, so can I. And if I can do it, by God so can you and so can everybody." Under this life view, there are literally no excuses for anybody to fall behind. Those that run the online world right now cannot as a whole conceive of any reason why anybody should not have exactly what they want, or be well on their way to same all of the time. And if anybody isn't, they are not trying hard enough. Because, "you make your own luck, and you define what does and doesn't happen to you."

Unless of course you have been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Or dyslexia. Or fibromyalgia. Then you get to say you are going as far as you can given your circumstances. But to those, (like yours truly) who have great strengths but obvious weaknesses and consistent, sometimes problematic personality traits without a name? Well, you need to get off of you ass, suck it up, accept that life isn't fair, subscribe to 1,400 blogs, read the last 25 books on self-marketing, (never mind they are all exactly the same) hire a life coach, get out there and network, and (my favorite) insist on success. Said as though my whole life has gone the way it has simply because I have failed to "insist".

I believe in accountability and responsibility. Nobody gets to use their condition, named or unnamed as an excuse to do nothing. And indeed I know plenty of people with any number of certifiable conditions that do not in any way use them as a tool or an excuse. But in our success oriented culture we have got to start considering the myriad diversity of not just our success, but our problems. Our obstacles. We cannot ever know with 100% certainty what is happening inside somebody's head or heart. That means that there are times when we are going to be bullshitted by those who just don't want to put any effort into life at all. Yet we still need to stop and put some effort into learning wise discernment. Getting to the root of what makes someone do what they do, (or fail to do.) And certainly to create ways to help those who need unconventional help  as often as we help those who can be helped in the conventional manner. If we can take the time and energy to read up and master WordPress, SEO, marketing, and all of those sort of "necessities", we sure as hell can stop and take the time to master the human component.

Not all of our handicaps have names. We must accept that perfectly decent, brilliant, valuable people with a lot to offer the world may be getting held back by something that is deeply ingrained into them but is not mentioned in the DSM-IV. They may not, and often don't understand themselves what their setback is. They too deserve help. And attention. And yes by God, a little bit of leeway as they make their way on their own terms according to their own timing. You don't have to help them, (us) but if you won't, for the love of heaven, don't stand in our way with your sanctimonious self-help platitudes either.

Named or not, we each struggle with something. It's high time we dedicate ourselves to helping people get around those obstacles when all else fails them, as opposed to labeling, doubting, or dismissing them when they are unable to destroy them.