Monday, December 29, 2014

Mea Culpa

2014 is almost in the rear-view mirror, and I’ll miss it. My daughter and two nieces were born. We bought a house. The kids/career/upkeep combination kept me from being as engaged with my friends as I would have liked, but that’s a forgivable and rectifiable offense. My daughter even served the role as Baby Jesus during services at the local Methodist church, putting the Christ back into Christensen.

From a political and policy perspective, though, I had to eat crow in 2014. Obamacare has contained costs better than I expected. I learned that ‘stimulating’ is stunningly more effective at fixing an economy and reducing deficits than austerity, thanks to the European experiment. I wasn’t all-out against either Obamacare or the stimulus, but I certainly thought both would perform much worse than they did. We all get a few predictions wrong, but those two issues fit into the really important stuff category, and I doubt that older, wiser 2014 Kurt would have made better predictions than younger, na├»ve 2008-2010 Kurt. After all, 2014 me voted for Evan Falchuk for Massachusetts governor, which I don’t regret; but I do regret proclaiming profusely, “Martha Coakley’s going to win anyway.” Whoops.

Which brings me to my main 2015 resolution: become smarter politically. It’s a tricky resolution given that it can take a lot of time before a particular policy or electoral decision turns out well or badly; but truth be told, a lot of my policy predictions are formed by a combination of gut-level thinking and regurgitation of NY Times columns, in addition to This Week and Fox News Sunday roundtable discussions. I should have invested time to understand the Obamacare provisions better. I should have read a little more about historical responses to major recessions. I should have simply looked at a few gubernatorial polls. Despite a healthy disdain for people who prefer opinion over evidence, I listened to pundits a lot. Shame on me.

Live and learn. I wish many experts and “news outlets” would do the same, but I digress. Sorry to those of you hoping for a funnier end-of-the-year post or a more explicit lesson for living. Instead, I’ll link you to something that’s both funny and relevant (if you grew up in the '70s or '80s, anyway, and saw Schoolhouse Rock!). Enjoy, and may 2015 be a hoot!

"... and I pretty much just happen"

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Looming Parent Syndrome

About three weeks ago, my son started playing soccer on Saturday mornings. The kids don't actually play games, but Emmett gets to burn energy dribbling the ball around with his best friend, Ethan. And despite the fact that Ethan seems to have a lot more interest in flirting with the instructors than kicking balls around, the socializing is probably the most important part of the whole activity – Emmett is cavorting with other kids in a way that really has nothing to do with me or his mom. It's important to me, anyway. I'm not sure if some of the other parents would agree given how they loom over their kids the whole session.

Let me describe the typical Saturday morning. The kids run around on the turf for a while kicking balls randomly until the session officially begins at 9:05. The instructors then gather the kids together into a circle, where they talk about something. I can't tell you what the topics of discussion are because I am usually sitting in the stands with my wife and Ethan's parents talking about work problems or where to find a good corn maze or whatever. There are boards and a net around the field to keep the balls in and, in my opinion, the parents out. If you haven't seen an indoor soccer field or a high school hockey rink, think cattle pen. One species on the inside, a different species on the outside, and a few ranch hands coordinating the whole affair. The boundaries are anything but blurry...

Except a lot of parents seem to feel an obligation to serve as sentinels throughout these sessions. It's always most pronounced when the kids are sitting Indian-style in a circle listening to the instructors. Six to eight parents (always guys who looked like they played football or hockey in their youth and got soft as they aged) loom over the affair like guards standing over their prisoners. It's creepy. It reminds me of those scenes out of fantasy books where the orcs are deciding which humans to eat. Why?

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" was inspired by Saturday morning soccer

I suppose there are probably three reasons for Looming Parent Syndrome (LPS). Reason number one is to make the kids feel safe. Ceding responsibilities for your kids' wellbeing is terrifying, particularly when they're tiny. I remember the first day we dropped Emmett off at daycare, feeling like a failure because, long ago, I'd quit a job where I was making enough money for my wife to stay at home with the kids. It was shocking how quickly those feelings morphed into a different type of inferiority complex: that I couldn't provide the level of engagement daycare did on a daily basis. But I digress. I think it's safe to say that hovering over your kid like a vulture looming over a dying cow is a bad way to nurture independence, particularly if there's an area 20 yards away that's specifically designed for looming. My gut reaction is that this is 75% responsible for LPS.

Reason number two: one don't trust the instructors. This is the most common explanation offered up when I discuss LPS with others. I suppose there are probably a few parents who home school their kids and pass on the whole Halloween thing because they're afraid that teachers or peers or whoever are going to convince their kids that God doesn't exist or that heroin is a good substitute for candy. I don't buy it, though, especially when you can stand 20 yards away accomplish the same kind of micromanagement. I'm guessing this is 5% responsible for LPS.

Reason number three is to fill some void in one's own existence. I sympathize with this explanation because it urges me to hop onto the field myself. I sneak out of the house at 5am during the week, and creep back in at 7 in the evening. I don't think my kids miss me a quarter as much as I miss them. Now, imagine you're a divorced parent or have to work two jobs or whatever. You probably want your kid to play soccer not just because he/she will have a hoot, but because it's a way to publicly show the world, “Hey, I'm a good dad, too!” I think there are better ways to feel connected with your kids and to demonstrate good-dadness than awkwardly encroaching on a play area where yours is just one of many kids who deserve their own space, but maybe I'll change my tune when my kids abandon me after I go blind and incontinent. My hunch is that personal voids account for 20% of LPS.

Whatever the reason, I hate it. I haven't asked him, but I wonder what Emmett things about LPS and whether it makes him nervous. I've kept my mouth shut because there's nothing more annoying than someone interfering with your parenting style, no matter how awful it may be. If you suffer from LPS and are reading this blog, though, please seek help!

Maybe your kid feels safer when you're nearby, but I don't think mine does...

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Evolution, Middlesex, and Uncle Frank

If you’ve read my posts, you might have noticed a fixation about the ‘stickiness’ of negativity. I feel like I hold onto the bad stuff more than I hold onto the good stuff. In fact, I used to define myself as a hopelessly ‘realistic’ until I was having a few beers with a buddy at a conference.  I was talking about my mom’s funeral, and I remarked how it was hard to imagine anyone being more jaded than me. He gave me an incredulous look and responded, “What? You’re crazy! You’re the most positive person I know!”

I was so stunned at first that I didn’t even argue, but it made me rethink things. Made me get out of my own skin and really start listening to what people were saying, to see how often bitterness broiled beneath a veneer of happiness. It startled me to really see the baggage people were carrying as they aged. I just missed it all, I guess, while I was celebrating my own cynicism. The little laugh when another wedding’s announced. The awkward pause when talking about a daughter out west. But it left me with another bigger question: Is there something ‘natural’ about reverse-evolving into a curmudgeon? I can’t help but feel like the answer is “Yes.”

That may not be a bad thing. I finished reading Middlesex about a year ago, and one line from the book really stuck with me: “Everyone struggles against despair, but it always wins in the end. It has to. It’s the thing that lets us say goodbye.” On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to 0. In an evolutionary sense, it’s only natural to welcome that next big step when things start to fall apart, right?

The corollary to the "you're bitter when you're old" theorem is "you're sweet when you're young"

To be honest, thinking about the quote really made me feel better about how things were with my parents as they moved on. I feel like I spent a lot of time trying (and failing) to make them happier as their health started to deteriorate. They resisted, and seemed to embrace all the negativity in a way that left me feeling utterly hopeless; but at the ends of ends, there wasn’t regret or fear, just a readiness that maybe I wasn’t willing to accept, but they certainly were.

Now, the complication for me relates to a quote from A Game of Thrones: “Death is so terribly final, while life is full of possibilities.” If you buy that there’s something hardwired into us such that we’re more willing to move on, what are the implications of modern existence where you don’t really need to be able to kill bears to survive? Have you ever seen the “Uncle Frank Tribute” from Jimmy Kimmel Live? At some point, Uncle Frank remarks, “I’ve done more in these years, fun-wise, than I’ve ever done in my life.” He was in his 70s when he made that remark, and I’m sure it’s not exaggeration. There are possibilities in old age now that didn't exist in the past, possibilities to make the world a better place not just for our friends and relatives, but society as a whole. Will we, as a species, rewire to focus on the joys of living?

Maybe Uncle Frank went reluctantly, terrified and screaming, as he moved on to other things. I doubt it. Was he an exception to a rule? I’m at that age where my friends’ parents are all ‘being difficult’ as they break down physically. Do I tell them that it’s only natural, or do I try to convince them to fight?

Uncle Frank was pretty buff in his 70s
 Food for further thought. In the meantime, checkout my website!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Creativity > Effort + Skill

I went to the Big E with my family, which is the Massachusetts equivalent of a state fair. There were an overwhelming number of rides, beer pavilions and stands selling disappointingly non-erotic fried foods (Where’s the moose on a stick? Fried butter?), but it had more than enough random bits to keep everyone happy. I enjoyed the pig races most, but think the best memories were made while we were listening and dancing to a geriatric band’s mediocre music. The trip was a fitting coda to a weekend that included a backyard campout with my son and a fishing trip that netted four edible-sized sunnies and one bullhead (no net needed!). The cost: a weekend without doing anything work-related…

Yes, the milk jug at the Big E is leering at my wife.

And I feel guilty about that. They say nobody on their death bed wished they had worked more, but I’m guessing ‘they’ had already worked a lot. I suppose there are many ways to succeed in life that involves being born or married into the right family, or stumbling across dumb luck. For the rest of us, the only way to get ahead is to put in effort beyond the 9-5. You have to demonstrate that you can get a lot more done (usually by working more hours) or that you can do something others can’t (usually by learning new skills, which takes time). There is a third option, too: take a time out and think/plan to do something interesting. 

The thesis of this posting is that option 3 is really the only sustainable way to keep moving forward. There’s some function such that your value to any enterprise is

  Value = f1(WorkTime) + f2(Skills) + f3(Creativity)

Which could be simplified to 

   (1)    Value = f(WorkTime + Skills) + f3(Creativity)

Right? It simply says that the time you spend on your written responsibilities + the unique skills you bring to the table + your creative output is your value to the enterprise. Here’s where it gets messy, though: I’ve rarely seen a situation where value alone translated into a promotion. It’s actually your value relative to expectations. 

   (2)    Promotability = Value - Expectations

As an example, let’s equate ‘things done’ with value. In general, Bob, who gets 5 things done a day, is no more likely to get promoted than Jed, who gets 20 things done a day, if the expectation is that Bob needs to get 5 things done and Jed has to get 20 things done. What’s likely is (a) scenario 1: Bob and Jed have different tasks, and Bob’s 5 things are more valuable than Jed’s 20 things, or (b) scenario 2: Bob and Jed have the same tasks: Bob gets canned rather than Jed gets promoted.

Now, I posit that there’s some function such that expected value is 

   (3)    Expectations = g(WorkTime + Skills)

Which simply says that Boss Hogg (Bob and Jed’s boss) forms expectations about their value that’s related to how much effort they invest and what kind of skills they have. In other words, the more you work and the more skills you have, the greater the expectations about your value. Of great importance: my proposed function doesn’t include creativity. It’s just too ephemeral. Creativity is hard to predict almost by definition. Most days, there’s nothing; so as a boss, when you see it, you think, “awesome!”

Whether you like it or not, functions f and g eventually come into equilibrium. It’s just human nature – at some point, your boss knows how much effort you put in and what your skills allow you to do, and his/her expectations rise accordingly. If f=g, then; and combining (1), (2) and (3), we get 

   (4)    Promotability = f3(Creativity)

Funny enough, even though the ‘creativity’ option to getting ahead sounds easy, I’ve found it to be damn hard to execute. It’s risky, because you’re sacrificing ‘WorkTime’ and skills development for something that may only occasionally generate rewards. You run the possibility that you won’t succeed in the short term; and if you don’t succeed in the short term, you sure as #@!% won't succeed in the long term. Most of the people I'd consider to be successful leaders had to survive periods where one boss or another was trying to can them. The trick, I guess, is to do just enough of that work time and skills stuff to get by, while you're focused on being creative.
in the short term, you sure as #@% won’t succeed in the long term. Most of the people I’d consider to be successful leaders have had to survive periods where one boss or another was trying to can them. I suppose this is the reality I must face myself. in the short term, you sure as #@% won’t succeed in the long term. Most of the people I’d consider to be successful leaders have had to survive periods where one boss or another was trying to can them. I suppose this is the reality I must face myself.