Massive Audience

Open Letter: Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG

Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG

Dear Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG,

You are red and shiny and diabolically fast. When I start you up, your exhaust note sounds like an orchestra made up entirely of tubas. When I press down on the throttle, you return the favour by pressing me into my seat. Your g-force feels like a father’s bear hug: part affection, part aggression.

I love being seen with you. You are a beautiful woman in scarlet. The men are all looking at you, and so are the women.

You never let me down. Even your insatiable thirst for high-octane fuel – which you so charmingly gulp right from the pump – somehow adds to your appeal.

You are a beauty and a beast wrapped up in one tight package on four smoking wheels.

As Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson says, “You’re an ax murder with headlights. And I absolutely adore you.”

Although I push it from my mind, someday we will part. You will begin to rust, and as more time goes by you will break down. We all break down at some point. I can hardly hold that against you.

Even when you’re gone, compacted into a lifeless block of metal, I will remember you and the times we had together. I too will get old. Then someday, in the twilight years of my life, when they finally take my license away, I will think back with fondness of our travels together.

Until that day, let’s burn rubber. If we go fast enough, maybe, just maybe, we can outrun time.

Personal Reflections: Buddhism

reflections-of-buddhism

Personal liberation and self-discovery are powerful, driving forces in many people’s lives, including my own. As a boy, I was raised in a protestant family that believed strongly in the existence of God, and the truth of the Bible. My mother was particularly focused on the evils of the world, and spent much time warning my younger sister and I to beware the many tricks Satan might play on us. Devotion to God, following his commandments, and not being caught up in the worldliness of others were paramount to our immortal future. Getting into heaven was the ultimate goal. To be distracted from God were seen as detrimental – even fatal. Going to hell was a very real consequence of disobeying God’s laws.

In my late teens, I began questioning my beliefs and the stories that I had been told by my parents. Though I did not know it at the time, I had set out on a path of personal liberation and self-discovery. That path would ultimately lead me away from my faith as a Christian, but ironically it deepened my curiosity about the nature of faith and religion. Many years later that curiosity is still burning strong.

I was recently privileged with the opportunity to tour two Buddhist temples as part of an Eastern religions class I enrolled in. Although I had a long-standing interest in Buddhism – even reading a few books on the subject – my knowledge of the customs and traditions was limited.  In-class lectures provided some much needed insight on Buddhist practices, but visiting actual temples and hearing from faithful practitioners is what brought those insights to life.

It was a chilly, November morning when I visited the temples. Arriving early, I exlored the first temple of the Indo-Chinese Buddhist Association, in quiet solitude. My instructor had also arrived early; she offered me some jasmine tea, which I gladly accepted.

The Indo-Chinese Buddhist Association is a Mahayana temple. Mahayana Buddhists refer to their faith as a great vehicle. Until recently, Mahayana Buddhists thought of other branches of Buddhism as lesser vehicles.

The architecture of the temple, which was modeled upon Chinese style temples, was striking, as were the many religious objects and images. A large open area with red pillars dominated the main floor; from the ceiling hung a variety of oriental, rice paper lamps. The temple also housed a number of impressive effigies, including the Kuan Yin Bodhisattva – which is the primary deity of the temple – as well as Di Zang Bodhisattva, Amitabha Buddha and Wei Tuo Bodhisattva, to name a few. A table before the Earth God, Tu Di Gong, in the Ancestral Hall displayed offerings such as apples, oranges and rice. Beautiful bouquets of flowers were also on display.

Red donation boxes were also placed around the temple. I found a small donation box in a corner and made a donation. My classmates and I were encouraged to take a small statuette of a Buddha in return for our donation, so I selected a small bronze-coloured one.

Once the entire class was present, an elderly woman named Shun Yee, introduced herself and told us a few facts about the temple. She was a very likeable and friendly woman, quick to smile. She wore a jacket with a mandarin collar and a lovely jade bracelet. Standing before the group, she pointed out the goddess of mercy and compassion, longevity lanterns, rhythm fish, and Joss divination sticks, which are selected and then matched to a pink sheet. The sheets, written in Chinese, offer suggestions on what action a person should undertake.

After a time, some Buddhist practitioners arrived. One woman came in holding a bundle of incense sticks. She bowed, knelt, and left shortly thereafter.

Following our short tour, the class was invited to partake in a vegetarian meal in the downstairs kitchen area. We were treated to some delicious Vietnamese subs, soup and pink-coloured dumplings. A small shrine to the Kitchen God, Zao Jun, reminded us that food is a blessing, and it is something to be grateful for.

Following the meal, we proceeded to the next stop on our field trip: The True Buddha Pai Yuin temple. The Pai Yuin temple is a Vajrayana Buddhist temple. Vajrayana Buddhism is the newest form of Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhists are unique in their use of tantras, which are instructions on how to achieve enlightenment.

In stark contrast with the Indo-Chinese temple, which was open, airy and somewhat minimalist, the Pai Yuin was enclosed and filled to the rafters with colourful Buddhas and guardians of all shapes and sizes. The sheer number of statues on display — ranging in size from 10ft tall to a few inches tall – captured my imagination and left me with a feeling of awe. It was a feast for the eyes and senses.

A table near the front of the temple was piled up with food offerings including chips, cookies, instant noodles, cereals and candy.

A number of nuns with shaved heads and traditional maroon robes were moving about and at one point they carried out a ritual while chanting mantras. After the small ceremony, my classmates and I were free to explore the steps of the temple and to take pictures.

The colours, smells and sounds of the Pai Yuin temple altered my mental state, inducing wonderment and curiosity. Also, I was struck by an immediate desire to return to the temple at a later date in the hopes of tapping into the peace and tranquility it alluded to.  I was not alone in this. Other students also expressed a desire to return; maybe they had glimpsed the same possibility of new knowledge. I cannot be sure.

Many questions swirled through my mind, but what I can be sure of is this: experiencing other cultures and religions first-hand makes opens windows to new exciting new perceptions. Seeing Buddhists pray and chant reminded me of my early childhood experiences in Christian churches. Although the rituals and theologies are different, there are some striking commonalities. For instance, the reverence one feels during a ceremony or prayer is the same, no matter what god is being honoured. Although I do not subscribe to superstition, I nonetheless understand the goals and objectives of religion. Finding inner peace, doing good deeds, seeking meaning in life, and respecting the powers of nature are all noble pursuits. However, despite the commonalities of religions, Buddhists also offer unique insights into the natural state of humanity. The Eightfold Path and the removal of kleshas – ignorance, greed and hatred – are wonderful examples of the wisdom of Buddhist thinking. Most importantly, Buddhism recognizes that the goal is not to gain something, but to remove something. It is possible to see through anatman, the illusion of self, and to be enlightened. In that sense Buddhism, like other religions, offers hope — hope for the possibility of peace, compassion, joy, equanimity and loving kindness. Importantly, these results are absolutely attainable without belief in the supernatural. It is results we should be focusing on, adopting the best ideas, and discarding the rest.

Customer Service Hero

Customer Service Hero

Many aspects of business are difficult — if not impossible — to control. Influencing, or even predicting, the multiplicity of factors that impact the success or failure of a business keeps many entrepreneurs up at night. Business owners struggle to reach new markets, develop sound supply chains and keep up with changing social and technological trends, many of which they have no control over. That’s why more and more savvy business owners are looking to optimize areas of the business that they do control. Customer service, for example, is one aspect of a business that can be controlled to a high degree. Unfortunately, many businesses overlook this critical area of opportunity; however, my recent experience with an online t-shirt retailer Dodge & Burn reinforced my belief in the power of customer service.

As an avid photographer and collector of camera equipment and paraphernalia, I happened upon a website selling photography-inspired graphic t-shirts. There were a range of colours and styles to choose from, each with a different camera model printed on the front. After perusing through the website and checking out the shipping options, I decided to purchase four shirts. Within minutes of checking out, I received a confirmation email of my purchase and a notice indicating shipping time.  Excellent.

A few days later, I was the happy recipient of four t-shirts. After unpacking them, I washed them so they’d be ready to wear the next day. I decided to wear the black one first, but as I was putting it on, the shirt ripped. Disappointed, I showed my girlfriend and exclaimed, “I just bought this! And now look at it!”

A few days later, I was reading an article on the photography blog PetaPixel when I noticed an article about Dodge & Burn. A few other readers had left comments below the article so I decided to share my experience about my t-shirt ripping. To be fair, I also pointed out the excellent communication and fast shipping of the seller.

The day after posting my comment I received an email from the owner of Dodge & Burn, Ted Rybakowski:

I heard through the grapevine that one of your shirts ripped.  We’ll be more than happy to send you a replacement (provided we have it in stock).  Let me know which shirt was faulty and I’ll have a new one out to you ASAP.

 I was blown away by Ted’s dedication to customer service. Ted was obviously aware of the press he was receiving on PetaPixel, and had read the comments section under the article. He could have easily overlooked my comment, chalking it up to a whiny customer. Instead he took it as an opportunity to service his customer and stand behind his product. I replied to Ted, by complimenting him on his service and thanking him for his offer. To that he replied:

Actually, I saw your comment on PetaPixel this morning and was sorry to read that your shirt tore before you even wore it.  Part of the fun I have in running this business is that I get to run it exactly how I want to, and that includes making sure my customers are happy (it’s right there in the FAQ where we describe our customer satisfaction policy)!  Your replacement shirt is going out in tomorrow morning’s post.  Don’t hesitate to get back in touch for any reason.

Ted certainly made his point: I was one happy customer — happy enough to write an article about it and happy enough to share the experience with my friends and other photography enthusiasts.

When customers are treated fairly it stands out. Sadly, it stands out because so few businesses focus on it. If every business treated customers as fairly as Dodge & Burn did, I wouldn’t be writing this article. It would be par for the course.

The opportunity is clear: when others are ignoring their customers, focusing on customer service will increase all-important brand loyalty. Ted heard that his customer’s shirt had ripped its stitches; however, by standing behind his product, by setting things right, Ted will reap what he has sewn. His act of recompense has turned what would otherwise be a one-time sale, into a word-of-mouth bonanza. As a business owner, you can’t control everything, but you certainly can control your dedication to your customers.

Badge of Dishonour: Boy Scouts Ban Gays

Boy Scouts Ban Gays: Have They Lost Their Moral Compass?

When I think about the Boy Scouts, I think about an organization that teaches boys and young men important values such as kindness, fairness, and ethical behaviour. Boys learning to tie knots, whittle sticks and light campfires under the careful supervision of trustworthy role models paints a picture of continuity and time-honoured traditions.  In fact, the Boy Scout tradition dates back as far as 1910, when General Robert Baden-Powell founded the organization in Great Britain. Since that time, the Boy Scouts have developed into worldwide organization. According to the World Organization of the Scouting Movement, there are over 30 million scouts in 161 countries. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) by itself has over 2.7 million youth members, making it one of the most influential youth-focused groups in America. However, Boy Scouts of American have come under heavy fire because of their controversial decision to ban gay men and boys from their organization – a move that undermines the very values they claim to uphold. This leads me to wonder: have the Boy Scouts lost their moral compass?

The decision to exclude gays came after a two-year evaluation conducted by a committee of “volunteers and professional leaders.” Bob Mazzuca, Boy Scouts of America’s chief scout executive defended the decision by pointing to strong internal support from the parents: “The vast majority of the parents of youth we serve value their right to address issues of same-sex orientation within their family, with spiritual advisers, and at the appropriate time and in the right setting.”

A campaign to lift the ban on gays has been going on for years, ever since the US Supreme Court upheld the organization’s right to exclude gays from membership on the grounds that gay conduct “violated the organization’s values and beliefs.”

Although the Boy Scout’s of America’s decision to ban gays has been upheld by the Supreme Court, the decision has not faired as well in the court of public opinion. Much criticism was stirred up when Eric Jones, a 19-year-old Missouri Eagle Scout, was dismissed after admitting to the camp director that he was gay.

Eric Jones, who has been a member of the Boy Scouts for nearly 10 years, said he felt discriminated against, but did not regret his decision to be open about his sexuality. Jones credited the organization for instilling values that aided his decision to come out, saying: “I have to thank BSA for making [me] the person I am … [a] person who stands up for what I believe in.”

Eric Jones is right when he says he is being discriminated against. The Boy Scouts of America are sending a message loud and clear: if you are gay, you are not welcome. This form of bigotry and close-mindedness has no place in modern society and flies in the face of the organization’s own mission, which aims to “…prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes…” If anything, BSA is teaching children how to discriminate, exclude and treat people unfairly based on prejudicial attitudes. There’s nothing moral or ethical about that.

Thankfully, there is hope for change. Two high-profile BSA board members — Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T and James Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young — have stated their intention to end BSA’s ban on gays. In addition, Jennifer Tyrrell, a gay mom from Ohio started a petition calling for an end to the Boy Scouts’ ban on gays. The petition has already attracted more than 300,000 signatures.

If you’d like to lend your support, tell the Boy Scouts of America what they are doing is wrong. Sign the online petition to end the ban on gay scouts and leaders.

A Bucket List Worth Bragging About

Rethink the Bucket List

Creating a so-called bucket list has become de rigueur ever since Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson’s 2007 Hollywood movie popularized the concept. With the ubiquity of the bucket list phenomenon you’ve probably already heard your friends or family talking excitedly about their own list and all the unique and exhilarating activities they plan on doing before they kick the bucket. Maybe you’re thinking about creating your own bucket list. Maybe you already have one. Either way, it’s time to rethink what goes on it.

Unfortunately, a typical North American’s bucket list is about as predictable as a Russian election: travel to Europe, go bungee jumping, go white-water rafting, go sky diving, run a marathon.

If an alien species ever visited our planet and subsequently reviewed thousands of bucket lists in an attempt to understand human beings, they might surmise that a good life is a relatively simple affair. Just travel around, jump from high places, and test your physical endurance. The epitome of a perfect life is an Amazing Race contestant.

Obviously there’s more to life than a series of climatic experiences. Although bucket lists are not inherently bad, they are often comprised of trivial and superficial objectives — many of which are underpinned by blatant consumerist mentality. In the first-world consumer culture, experiences are everything. You don’t buy a car; you buy a driving experience. You don’t buy a steak dinner; you buy a dining experience. When self-indulgent experiences become the measure of one’s life, it’s easy to forget about our duty towards others. When we publicize our bucket lists, we are also making a statement to others about how to live. If our bucket lists are only filled with hedonistic pursuits we are, in effect, teaching others how to act. A bucket list is a representation of what society deems valuable.

Certainly, goal setting and following through on one’s initiatives is commendable — assuming they are noble and worthwhile. A common bucket list goal is “to be a contestant on Survivor”. Not exactly uplifting for humanity. For many of the world’s population the goal is simple: feed the family and keep a roof over their heads. To a mother living in Somalia, there is no time to think about skydiving. For a father living in Cuba, a trip to Europe is out of the question. While many of the privileged are busy boasting about their latest life-changing escapades others are struggling to put food on the table.

You might be thinking, that I’ve missed the point. Bucket lists aren’t supposed to be about others, you might say; they are all about the individual. However, individualism is the problem. All too often, a bucket list is nothing more than a vehicle for egocentric self-aggrandizement. It’s a way to boast about your experiences. It’s a way to brag. Surely, some people keep their bucket lists private, but the vast majority shouts it out to the world whenever they succeed in striking a goal from their list.

It’s time to rethink what goes on a bucket list. A bucket list that includes charitable, altruistic goals and activities has the potential to improve our lives and the lives of those around us. Imagine if the bucket list phenomenon could be refocused from a primarily self-centred affair, to one that included doing good deeds for others. Imagine if your friend on Facebook bragged about volunteering at a soup kitchen instead of riding in a limo.

Bucket lists can provide powerful motivation and help people enjoy and even improve their own lives. Learning new skills, paying off debts, reuniting with friends and improving one’s health are certainly worthwhile ways to spend time. Although a bucket list is always going to have a personal focus, it need not be exclusively self-centred. Start a non-profit organization; take a homeless person out for dinner; buy a musical instrument for a child who can’t afford one; help someone learn to read, bring a sick person flowers, give blood, clean up litter in a city park, adopt an abused animal. Now that’s a bucket list worth bragging about.

Hey Managers: Listen Up

I’ve been lucky. Over the years much of my time has been spent talking to managers and business owners, secure in the knowledge that my voice was being heard. Admittedly, I’ve encountered managers who didn’t listen to a word I said; they were too busy trying to impress me with their own business acumen or, worse yet, just loved the sound of their own voice. However, seven times out of ten, the managers I’ve worked with have been eager to hear my suggestions; they genuinely want to improve their business and they’re willing to consider new ways of doing so, even if it means pushing themselves outside of their comfort zone.

The years I spent consulting were rewarding, but after 15 years, I decided to make a change. I began working on a communications degree — majoring in journalism — while continuing to consult during the summer months.

No sooner had my spring classes ended, then I was invited by a friend of mine to meet with him and his two managers. They wanted to discuss a new business venture they were working on. I agreed and we set up a meeting. A few days later I found myself sitting in the president’s corner office, taking in the impressive view the city’s river pathways and the mountains beyond. After exchanging pleasantries and lamenting the cloudy, rainy weather, the four of us – my colleague, the president and the vice-president – sat down around a small circular table to discuss the situation. My colleague sat silently beside me while management outlined their goals for the new venture.

After taking some notes and asking some questions, I felt the time was right to start making suggestions and outlining a course of action. The president had suggested a number of great ideas; however, there was one particular idea that could potentially cause serious problems in the future it was implemented. As tactfully as possible, I pointed out the potential pitfalls of the president’s idea and suggested an alternative course of action. Next, I referenced other well-known organizations that had successfully used a similar approach. Finally, I outlined the benefits of my approach and the risks of ignoring it. Having made my case, it was now up to management to make a decision. They made it quickly. The president said, “You’ve made some good points. I think your ideas fit with the direction we want to go”. Awesome. They would implement my suggestion.

We wrapped up a few minor details, discussed next steps and then concluded the meeting. My colleague walked me out of the office and accompanied me down to the lobby on the main floor where we said goodbye.

As I walked back to my car, which was parked a few blocks away, I thought about how well the meeting had gone. When they spoke, I listened, and when I spoke they reciprocated. It was an exchange of ideas amongst equals with the purpose of solving problems. I found myself motivated. These managers had respected my opinions and now I wanted to prove my worth. I wanted to prove that their trust was well placed.

Unfortunately, not all managers take the time to listen and truly consider the ideas proposed by their employees.  In other cases, managers pay lip service to employees by asking for suggestions but then ignoring their replies. Because of this, many employees simply stop sharing their opinions. A recent study conducted in 2011 and published by the Journal of Business Ethics, suggests not listening to employees also tends to increase conflict in the workplace. According to the study, “disgruntled employees took out their frustrations on co-workers because they feared losing their jobs or experiencing other reprisals if they challenged their managers.”

The disadvantages of shutting out employees, and ignoring their suggestions can damage, and even destroy morale in the workplace. In a competitive economy, businesses cannot afford to have unhappy, unproductive employees.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Employees whose managers paid attention were more likely to offer input and got along better with one another, thereby improving the organization’s morale and functioning as a whole.

Employee engagement consultants Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton have gathered empirical evidence supporting the concept that happy workers are more productive. In their new book All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results, Gostick and Elton make a convincing case. They looked at data from over 700 companies and found the ones that were most successful had employees that were “engaged, enabled and energized” – something the authors refer to as E+E+E.

Engaged, enabled and energized was exactly how I felt after my meeting. Knowing that my ideas are heard and considered — and occasionally implemented – keeps me motivated and enthusiastic about my job.  As the research indicates, happy employees are more productive. Admittedly, listening to employees is just one of the many factors involved in keeping employees happy, but it might just be the cheapest, easiest and most effective way to do so. That’s advice worth listening to.

I Might Be Wrong

I’m opinionated. It’s an admission, and it’s one that I don’t shy away from. It might be seen as negative in some circles to hold strong opinions, but I feel can also be a strength, with one important caveat: one must be willing to admit they are wrong, if and when the facts contradict their opinions.

I’ve encountered people who, when asked their opinion about a given subject, reply, “Hmm, I’m not sure. I’ve never considered that before.” It’s difficult to be opinionated, if you have no opinions. A person who maintains a strong opinion can only do so if they have previously considered an issue, made a judgment as to their position on that issue, and subsequently formed an opinion. The more considered the issue, the stronger the opinion. As a rule then, the more opinionated you are about an issue, the more informed you are about it. However, there is an important exception to this rule.

Some opinions are based in ideology. Ideological thinking is problematic because ideologies have built in firewalls that enable the formation of very strong opinions – and even beliefs – without sufficient consideration of the totality of facts surrounding an issue. Take politics for example. There are those that believe that the best way to grow an economy is to reduce taxes. In some circles the reduction of taxes, at all times and in all circumstances, is akin to religious dogma. They hold the opinion that tax increases can never be justified. Taxes are always bad; it is incontrovertibly true. So these ideologues may hold strong opinions on taxes, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that their opinions are well informed. Quite the contrary; the ideology they adhere to actually prevents the consideration of alternative views. As such, the ideology has a built in immunity to contrarian views.

So we’ve seen how some strong opinions can be based on careful consideration of factual evidence, while others are held in strict accordance to an ideology. But can it be determined if a strong opinion, or belief, is well informed or simply the product of ideology? Certainly.

Those holding fast to ideological opinions can be identified by a number of distinguishing characteristics. For starters, they are certain their opinions are correct. They give no ground; they are utterly resistant to any evidence that may disprove their notions. They may actively avoid debate, taking offence if their opinions are openly challenged. When asked to justify their opinions they may answer by saying, “I just know it to be true.” If you encounter someone who admits of no possibility that they are wrong and outright dismisses any facts of figures that may rebut their argument they’re probably an ideologue.

In contrast, those with informed opinions rely on verifiable information. If the information available to them changes, the opinions must change. It is not a failing to be wrong. Indeed, being wrong leads to adaption, new concepts and theories. This is how progress is made. Without mistakes, nothing can be learned. That is why those who hold strong, informed opinions are often more likely to revise their thinking in light of new actualities, while those that cling to unfounded ideology stagnate. It is possible to be opinionated, why reserving the right to be wrong. Those with informed opinions are not likely to be perfectly certain; instead they my make reference to plausibility and probability. For example, I believe that god probably doesn’t exist; however I’m not perfectly certain, I just find it highly improbable.

My personal opinions are based on information. I admit that the information available to me isn’t perfect, nor is it unchanging. I might be wrong to incorporate the latest findings of string theorists or paleobotanists into my held opinions; however, the likelihood of my informed opinions being preferable to strictly ideological opinions is high. I might be wrong, but no matter, an opinion worth having is an opinion worth defending.

A Son’s Reflection

It’s a week before mother’s day. Once again I find myself in the greeting card aisle at the drug store gazing listlessly at the huge selection of mother’s day cards on offer by our friends at Hallmark. There are elegant cards with floral patterns; there are cards that play music when you open them; there are cards that virtually drip with sappy sentiments. The choices are numerous, and yet I can’t find a single card that says something real. I need a card that speaks truthfully. I need a card that says ‘I love you and appreciate you’ without making depicting my mother as a saint.

I don’t know what your mother was like, but my mother was a real person. She was fallible; she made mistakes, and plenty of them. Sending a card that says, “You’re the best mom ever and you were always there for me,” is bullshit. It’s not going to fly. I’m left wondering why I do this every year. After all, it’s not like I don’t talk to my mom all the time. She knows how I feel, right?

As I leaf through the cards one by one, I begin wondering who actually grew up with a mother who could honestly live up to all this drivel. Are there really people out there with Hallmark mothers? If so, mother’s day must be easy for them. They probably don’t even bother opening the cards to read the messages inside. They simply walk down the aisle, pick the first card that catches their eye without breaking stride, assured that no matter the praise being doled out their mother would be deserving of it. Oh how I envy those people. I imagine how they must look: handsome young men, strong and cultivated, and beautiful young women with manicured nails and perfect hair. Flawless in every way, due to their superior genes and ascribed status. Already on their way to becoming perfect progenitors themselves, their children ride in luxury in the back of shiny black Range Rovers.

Maybe I can find a humorous card. Those are usually pretty safe. Something about scratch and sniff underwear maybe. Is that too crass? Probably. Maybe a blank card instead. Yes, that’ll work. I’ll write my own message this year.

I decide a on card with a cute puppy on the outside and a blank interior. When I get home I find a pen and scribble out a message:

Dear Mom, Happy Mother’s Day! I hope you have a great one! Here’s a gift card for the bookstore. I know you can never have too many books, right? I look forward to seeing you this summer. Until then, lot’s of love, Jesse.

Happy with my safe little message, I place the card in an envelope, attach a stamp and then walk to the mailbox down at the end of the block. When I get there I double check the address and pop the envelope into the box. To be safe I open the slot again to ensure that my letter has dropped down into the bin. As I turn to walk back home I think about how silly it is that I do this every time I mail a letter. I ask myself,  “Where did I ever learn to do that?” Suddenly I remember why I send a card in the first place. Maybe next year my card will say something more meaningful.

The Influence of Books

The Influence of Books

I’m influenced by books, and if you read, so are you. One cannot help but be shaped and even transformed by the books they read. Books are formidable tools in maintaining cultural ideologies, and on occasion they challenge the very culture they spring from. Books are entertaining and informative. At their best they challenge our imaginations. At their worst they aggravate and anger us. Books are revered. They are an avatar of free speech and they embody our natural right to share and communicate with each other. No wonder then that when a book is banned, it conjures up a deep sense of moral outrage. As lovers of books, we must stand up to protect them, even if we disagree with the contents within them. Books are precious. Books have value. They reflect the totality of the human experience, some more eloquently than others. Books change us. Books guide us. Some are considered holy. Some are considered evil; they are burned. No matter what you think of books, you can’t help but be influenced by them — and so am I.
Read my readings page to see how.

Mandatory Optimism

You can fake a smile. You can fake a laugh. You can even fake an orgasm; just ask Meg Ryan. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally in which she faked an orgasm with such gusto it virtually cemented her place in popular culture.

Western culture has a love-hate relationship with faking it. On one hand we are told to “fake it until we make it.” On the other hand we are told, “be real; be true to yourself.” Despite the contradiction, it is generally agreed that happiness and optimism are desirable traits. If you’re not positive, if you’re not an optimist, there must be something wrong with you.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the workplace. To lack enthusiasm is to risk being ostracized by your co-workers. Worse, a soporific demeanor can seriously limit your opportunities for career advancement. If you want to move up the ladder, you had better learn how to turn that frown upside down. The rewards of a cheery, optimistic attitude are clear. Researchers Ron Kaniel, Cade Massey and David T. Robinson studied the effect of an optimistic disposition on MBA students’ job searches and then promotions. They found that optimistic people were more likely to have higher starting salaries and were more likely to be promoted within their first two years on the job. Even those people who were less naturally optimistic could benefit by pretending to be. Walking around the office with a smile on your face and a skip in your step might be the best way to get a raise, or even that corner office everyone is vying for.

The media reinforces excitement as the penultimate human emotion. Public figures feigning – or at the very least exaggerating – excitement are front and centre in the popular press. A professional athlete touts his excitement at being traded to a small-market team; a CEO in a black turtleneck talks about how thrilled he is to announce a new, smaller MP3 player; a Hollywood actress declares her pleasure working with “such a talented cast.” Everyone is smiling. Everyone is thinking positively.

Is there no place in this world for pessimism? Does being excited and enthusiastic make us better workers, better spouses, and better human beings? Science might have the answer. Psychologists are beginning to challenge the idea that optimism is the ideal state of mind; however suggesting that pessimism might serve an important function is almost heresy in a culture obsessed by optimism. “In America, optimism has become almost like a cult,” says Aaron Sackett, a psychologist at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. To be labeled a pessimist is to risk being alienated and marginalized by co-workers. However, new research suggests that a balance between optimistic and pessimistic thinking may offer a more effective means of making smart decisions.  In her article The Uses and Abuses of Optimism and Pessimism, author Annie Murphy Paul says:

Successful people often employ pessimism in a strategic way to motivate and prepare themselves for the future. It’s simply not the case that optimism is “good” and pessimism is “bad”—although that’s how we’ve been encouraged to think about them. Rather, both are functional. And both have value.

Pessimism is an important counterbalance to optimism. The drawback of suppressing it is well exampled by the great recession of 2008. In a culture that celebrates the excitement of optimism, and all things delightful, who in their right mind would dare risk dissention? Anyone brave enough to question the wisdom of sub-prime mortgages, faced the prospect of being labeled a pessimist, a worrywart or even a fear monger.

Despite the proven benefits of balanced thinking, public perception is hard to change. Excitement and positive thinking are virtually mandatory in modern society. It’s no wonder that people try so hard to appear positive; they are motivated by the attainment of happiness, but as William Bennett noted: “Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.”

Society propagates an illusion that is both unhealthy and dangerous when it limits peoples’ ability to speak truthfully. Allowing for the possibility that bad things really do happen, and that life isn’t a perpetual amusement park ride, we need to allow people the freedom to acknowledge it. Sometimes your job sucks. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes life is tedious. Life is made up of highs and lows, but if we whitewash the world with unrealistic optimism and feigned enthusiasm, we risk losing touch with what makes life worth living: genuine happiness.

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