The new american dream

Once upon a time, young men and women in America sought better lives for their families. There were a lot of things to overcome, from racism to sexism, which while terrible were also catalysts for action.  People worked hard, worked together, and raised kids with values and character.   The response of our country during WWII showed this, and that group has been called our greatest generation.

My father is part of that group, and his stories from the Korean War sync with a sense of sacrifice for the common good. Given his rank he had the choice of which weapon to carry. A pistol is the easiest – lightweight and compact. A machine gun may have been the coolest thing going at the time. But he chose the M1 Carbine rifle. Heavy and big – not the obvious choice.

He carried that rifle all over the country while working with the engineers to build airfields and then rebuild them after night-time mortar attacks destroyed the runways.  While their group was moving heavy equipment by rail, my dad and some others noticed puffs of dirt toward the front of the train – snipers on a hill beginning to shoot at the train. The first few cars were all equipment but the last few were just unprotected troops on flat cars. My dad grabbed his M1, gave a buddy an ammo box and they went forward, crawling under a large bulldozer. Using that heavy, awkward M1 carbine, my father fired on the enemy while his partner kept feeding him ammunition. They were able to eliminate the threat and all the men on those last few cars had a better day because of it. With a pistol or a small machine gun they couldn’t even have reached the snipers out 200-300 yards from a moving train. So carrying that extra load paid off.  I just heard that story for the first time last year when my dad celebrated his 80th birthday.

It seems like we’re losing the built-in spirit of carrying a heavy load for the good of everyone – hoping we wouldn’t have to use it but doing it anyway. Our kids are looking more for shallow indulgence through material gain rather than the quiet confidence of strong character and a sense of purpose. For this, our generation may have let down our forefathers.  I’ve watched the amazing courage of the Japanese community facing one of the world’s worst disasters and wonder how America would have handled the same crisis.   While we had people stealing, raping and killing in the New Orleans football stadium, the Japanese won’t even break into a soft drink dispense to get something to drink after water has run out.    Talk about character.

We are capable of creating the next greatest generation – one that helps to reduce the impact we make on the planet, build a deeper joy of life in our lives – working together to get it done.

So maybe the new american dream should be about community building vs. building net worth, personal fulfillment through helping others rather than personal gain, and spiritual contentment rather than frantically busy schedules to take our minds of those big questions.

Just maybe the new american dream is alive and well, and is just waiting for us to nurture it and show others how satisfying life can be.  I hope so.


Free at last

Off for a week of vacation – floating quietly along on a pontoon boat with family. It starts to sink in how fortunate my family has been. From first generation immigrants, my grand parents worked hard and long to make it in America.   Children of the depression, my parents participated in actually creating things like good education, safe streets, and neighborhood communities.

As a structure for governing, a democracy is a hard thing to maintain.   In a democracy, everyone has a vote, with representation designed to balance different points of view, different geographic and philosophies.   Often, we have a tendency to accept that what is good today has always been – or was easily created.  The 15th amendment of the United States, ratified on February 3, 1870, made it illegal to deny a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “racecolor, or previous condition of servitude”.

We could still discriminate based upon sex, with women somehow excluded from voting or running for office in the USA until 1920.    Amazingly, Finland was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote and run for office – in 1907.   One can only imagine the fundamental belief system in place that made it a long uphill battle to earn the right to vote….in a democracy.

Freedom is an elusive thing, which quickly gets refined and reduced for the good of all.   Basic laws that help make things work like traffic rules, ownership of land (and the related rules about how free someone else is to just go ahead and use your land), and intellectual property rights.    We can’t have complete and total freedom without also giving up some level of order, stability and productivity as a society.

We have a country filled with patriots, willing to die to support our beliefs and our way of life.   We’re often willing to die for those same beliefs in other countries.   Traveling throughout Western Europe, the graveyards with hundreds of thousands of U.S. military men and women is a sobering and very recent reminder of the strength of our belief in freedom.

A great team puts their team goal ahead of those of each individual player, and a great country is much the same.   They keep working to get better, communicate well, and everyone participates.   And there lies the one thing I’d change in America.  Participation.

Some days it feels that people have an infinite amount of time and energy to complain and critique, and frankly whine about things they feel aren’t good about our country.    And yet if you ask minorities and women, things are better than 1869, or 1919.  Better because a lot of people stepped up and took part in effecting peaceful change.   So how do we increase the 50-60% turnout in major federal elections and the disappointing <30% in most local elections?   Make a law.

Australia enjoys a 95% voter turnout.  They simply made it a law with a $15 fine if you don’t show up.  A citizen doesn’t actually have to vote, but just register to vote and show up to the polls.

Can we increase participation in a democracy based on a philosophy of basic rights and aspire to freedom by taking away the freedom to not participate?   It works in Australia and Belgium, and there are a string of examples where we already give up some freedom for a lot less.

Participate to earn freedom.   Compel people to engage.   Keep improving.   That’s what I hope for on Independence Day 2010.

Rising above today

Fire in the sky that keeps us alive

The free fall is starting to slow, and in some areas the economy is showing signs of life. We often seem to raise whatever stress that immediately envelopes us to the level we are able to handle. Rather than thinking of big ideas and pondering really big thoughts, we instead let the tug of day to day currents pull us to the small and trivial.
Within communities where people are suffering, we have road rage because someone who didn’t manage their time and might be a few minutes late for a relatively unimportant meeting.
Family bonds stretch and decay while parent work harder and harder to provide or hold onto lifestyles light in nourishment and heavy in gratification. Style is increasingly given preference over substance. We buy beauty and worry little about character. Moral relativism becomes an untethered kite justified situationally – just add a ‘sleep aid’ to soften what your subconscious is screaming.
What if we could focus energy on important things – those we all know are the critical few but let ourselves become distracted. What if we could double our energy, halve our waste and end each day exhausted and content?
Dan Pink recently published Drive, a book on motivation. He proposes that people really need a few things – autonomy to do what they do, continued learning to master the work they do, and some sense of higher purpose.
This purpose is what I believe is missing, and is the most important.
Meditation, prayer, contemplation, thoughtful discussion – these all help uncover the purpose that is already inside each of us.
Maybe if we could take time each morning – watching the sun rise into the sky and summon the courage to step outside of life as prescribed to us by popular culture, we could change.
Forget what you are supposed to look like, act like or do and remember what you love, your talents, and the way you wish to live.
Then take one small step in that direction. Celebrate that step, and begin to look for others who will celebrate that step with you.
Change will happen, faster than we can imagine. The light will become more beautiful, and small things come into focus.
Joy will come from unexpected places, and almost never from things.
Just from taking some time to sit quietly and look at a sunrise.

Destin Nation

This week I’ve had the pleasure of being with family and friend in beautiful Santa Rosa Beach (near Destin) Florida.
Everything from the 18 hour drive from Michigan to the mornings on the beach finding various items washed up at sunrise ( a hard-hat one day, kayak paddles the next) to hearing the raccoons frolicking outside at night have been fantastic.
We enjoyed dinner last night and while waiting for our table it struck me what a great crowd was there from all over the midwest and southern states. People were enjoying time together – many having decided to drive and share a rental vs. fly to perhaps a fancier place or a guaranteed warm spring break. Families were everywhere – and in that environment I was struck with how hopeful we should be as a country.
I do believe we need to move forward – maturing as a culture. I’ve felt for some time the American evolution has us somewhere in the late potty training phase – we’ve realized it’s not cool to sit in our own waste and once that realization occurs we can move forward. I’m not sure everyone is there yet, but I’m hopeful….always hopeful!
How do we keep it going?
Pay it forward – but at a higher level than small gestures of kindness. Let’s grab this country and give so many examples of people and families helping other people and families that it becomes an expectation vs. a nice occasional sight.
Nothing stops us from redesigning our lives to have a positive impact – from using less energy and creating better sources of it to less trash. How about less stuff in the first place and shifting value back to the person, the family, the community and the environment. Some shared goals that we put at a premium to our own selfish ambitions could be a great start.

It’s simple. Not easy, but simple.

êthikai aretai

Recently I read that Tiger Woods was returning to golf.   I’m glad, as he is an amazing talented golfer and he makes golf interesting.  But Tiger apparently made some really bad choices – the kind that reveal much of the character of the person making them.   His reputation, and the respect people have for him will likely never recover.

I remember a recent President, stoically staring into the camera, speaking to his country and saying “I did not have sex with that woman”.    I once had a colleague tell me they would support a decision 100% and later learned they walked out of the room and broke their promise.    It sometimes feels like character rarely survives success.

Character was defined to me as the ability of a person to continue forward to overcome a challenge even after the initial enthusiasm wears off.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

Sadly, across America many people place a higher importance on the value of a person’s assets than they do on the value of their character.     Making money is seen as success rather than making and keeping promises.    Athletes who can commit a foul and not get caught are seen as ‘playing the game’ vs. cheating.  

Building character is about telling the truth.  It’s about making smart promises and keeping them simply because you made that promise.  Character means not worrying who might know – because you know yourself what is right.

What we need now is for people to have the courage to expect more of each other, to exhibit some character, and to place value on people and their character.    And maybe, celebrate those who are quietly setting great examples for us – the ones with real character.

expect action

We have a lot of things in motion – some of which seem to be so big it’s hard to imagine really improving them.  Global warming, the financial crisis, declining home values, escalating healthcare costs, and the rapid devaluation of college education as seen in unemployment rates – above 21% in Michigan including those who have just given up looking.

My grandmother used to say that many hands make light work, and for these types of huge scale problems, we need that same simple approach.   Most of us are doing ok, but many are struggling.   Most of our communities are hanging on, but some aren’t.  

To fix our problems we just need to first accept that there is a problem.     Next look to what we want and identify the gap between where we are and where we want to be.   Finally, take one small step yourself and enlist on person to help with that simple, smallest step.    Then just keep doing it.

Whether it was television, demographics, or just being too well off, many Americans have become complainers.   They always have something negative to say about the government, big business, the local public officials – whatever is wrong, they know why and are willing to share their opinions with anyone ready to listen.   This pervasive sense that it’s somehow someone else’s fault and even worse – their problem – is killing us.

We need to expect action – from ourselves first and most of all.   When we see something that isn’t working, then we need to take ownership and fix it.  When we don’t like someone in public office we need to get involved and either change their view or vote someone better into office.     Objects in motion tend to stay in motion – so set an example.  Get in motion.

We need to expect action.

Unique, Essential, Individual

Today a friend received a note with a tone of condemnation.    She had been interviewed by a newspaper, and while her story was interesting and she was quoted a number of times – but her race didn’t come through.   Rather than a pat on the back, she was accused for somehow not making her racial heritage a central theme of her story.

All we are is the combination of our heritage, our preferences, our beliefs and our character as reflected in how we live our lives.   Hopefully tough times bring out more of the best than the worst in us.  And the best is when we celebrate what makes us unique, essential and individual.

Sports vs. Judging

The Olympics provide real excitement and drama matched by few events.   The passion, pain and sacrifice people make to reach the Olympics, the pressure of representing your Country and the intensity of the overall event makes this the premier event for many of the events.     Competitors in the luge or biathalon usually are off somewhere with a few spectators – but in the Olympics they are being seen by the world.

Watching the various events, it strikes me that a pure sport doesn’t need judges.  While figure skating or the mogul skiing are clearly difficult and require amazing levels of talent, for me they simply don’t stand up against cross country skiing or speed skating as sports.   If you get a score for style, or have judges rather then referees, then we need a new description for the activity.   The first person across the line in speed skating wins – no worries about how it looked.   Downhill ski racers must ski the course successfully but their form in the air really makes no difference if they are the fastest.

I love the half pipe snowboard events, but while they require incredible skill, they also require very subjective scoring by a panel of judges to decide the winner.   For me, that isn’t sport, it’s a judged activity and should be in a separate category.    Having watched figure skating for years, the consistent scoring of skaters by the judges from their home countries is evidence that somehow it just doesn’t work as a clear win or lose sport.

Consider a football game where a touchdown counted 3 points for the score, and 3 points for style by a panel of judges.    How about a marathon where the person who crossed the finish line first didn’t win because they ran with a limp the last mile?   If you have judges, then it’s not a sport.   It’s a judged activity.

Why TED?

Today is the last full day of TED 2010.  A speaker just raised the issue of how to describe TED to people in various situations who had different levels of interest.
My participation in TED 2009 Palm Springs, and TED India left me feeling a strangely personal connection to the conference unlike any other I’ve attended.  
Perhaps it is the genius, talent, and amazing intellect on display.   Or maybe the artistic prowess shared with us in music, dance, and other displays of creativity.
But what I’ve come to believe is that TED brings out our hope, reminds us of our dreams, our mortality and how much joy there can be in taking on very big challenges.   For me TED is a reboot of my motivation, a first meeting of people who have become my friends, and a reminder that anything is possible. 
If you ever get the chance to join a TED conference….take it.

Windows = Frustration

I’m all for positive thinking, keeping things upbeat and making lemons out of lemonade.   But for just this moment I feel the need to rant…just a bit.

The lowlight of every day for me is starting my company provided pc, which is a tablet pc running windows.  It takes anywhere from 3-15 minutes to completely start up, and has (based on the past 20 times) about a 50% failure rate where it needs to be restarted.

I have to admit, I’m unfaithful to the pc world.  For years I’m using all apple at home.  My family is not a high performance computing family – but we do the normal email, searches, spreadsheets, presentations and some very light gaming.   For us, the apple system just works.   Prior to apple, my evenings were often filled with viruses, driver problems, the blue screen of death and random errors announced in code no one could understand – often even the help desk of the pc makers or MS themselves.

I waste about 20 minutes a day – time it takes pc’s to start up and shut down which is longer than my mac.   100 minutes per week or 5000 minutes per year.   I hate those 5000 minutes.

What’s the good news?   I can do most of my work at home on my mac, leaving the pc either at the office or in my backpack.   Sigh…now back to my pc.

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