Trends & Quick Takes
Myths and Limits
The most dispiriting commentaries I’ve seen during the current recession are those suggesting that Americans’ new-found frugality—or, let’s say, sensible spending behavior—is strictly temporary. That, to put it bluntly, most Americans will start overspending again just as soon as they get a chance.
I hope that’s not true. I’ve written previously about limits—which are always there, whether we recognize them or not—and my hope that we’d learn to live within them. Public libraries, important all the time, are even more important in times of limits.
Unfortunately, there’s some evidence to back the dispiriting claim that, as soon as happy days are here again, people will go out and SPEND SPEND SPEND whether they need things or not, whether they can really afford them or not. The brief presence of sensible gasoline prices ($4 a gallon and up, still relatively modest by European standards) seemed to help convince people that hybrids and small cars with great gas mileage make more sense for most people than Dodge Dinosaurs and other mega-SUVs. (At least around much of Northern California, most people don’t seem to need much convincing—if a street isn’t half Hondas, it’s half Priuses. With, to be sure, a bunch of pickups and “luxury” cars mixed in.) And yet, and yet…once gas prices dropped to low levels again, people started heading for the monster vehicles again.
There are lots of factors behind that. Billions of dollars every year work to persuade us that bigger is always better, you should toss out the old and buy the new, you’re a better person if you overspend—and big cars and trucks are The American Way.
I’ll write about limits again in the future. Here, though, I’d like to note Po Bronson’s “What should I do with my life now?” in the April 2009 Fast Company, an update to his 2003 article and book What Should I Do With My Life? As Bronson notes, 2003 was a tough time too—after the tech bubble burst and after 9/11. Bronson offers six “myths” as an update to the earlier article. The myths in bold; my paraphrase or note in parentheses.
· People are the architects of their own change. (Most of us get pushed into change—we’re fired or can’t cope with a new boss.)
· All it takes is passion. (Not really.)
· Your dream job has no sucky parts. (Bronson calls this the “Fallacy of Intrinsic Fit.” As he says, all jobs have things you hate about them.)
· You’ll love the job for the job. (I comment on this later on.)
· There is “the one.” (Nope. Almost any of us could find worth in a fair range of jobs.)
· You don’t know what you want. (Of course you do—the problem is figuring out how to get it.)
All good stuff—but I was particularly taken with Myth 4 (You’ll love the job for the job). Bronson takes an old parable and expands on it. The parable’s about three bricklayers working together all morning. At break time, one guy asks the others why they’re doing this job. One says “I’m doing it for the wages.” The second says “I’m doing it for my wife and kids.” The person asking the question looks up at what they’re building and says “I’m helping to build a cathedral.”
Bronson says most people hear the parable and think the third guy has the right answer. But, says, Bronson, all three answers are right—all three men have a sense of purpose. But Bronson goes a little farther:
The real lesson of the parable: Notice what no man answered. Not one said, “I just love laying bricks.” Doing something for the sheer love of it is not what real people mean when they say their work provides a sense of purpose.
Part of me wants to say “Right on!”—the part that’s heard too much of the “Finding the work you’ll love to do” line. But another part recognizes that many people do love what they’re doing—that their work is fulfilling on its own merits. I suspect that’s true of some programmers; it’s probably true of many unpublished writers (although it’s rarely “work” in those cases); I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s true of some artisan bricklayers. For that matter, do some of the scientists working on weapons systems ignore the purposes of their work—but just love doing the science? (I honestly have no idea.)
You can live a long, fulfilling, worthwhile life without ever doing work that you love. Are those who love their work for its own sake better off than those who do it for some other reason—whether it’s the larger purpose of the work or pay and other rewards? I have no idea.
That’s the start of the tease for “The business guide to Congress” in the May 11, 2009 Fortune—and it certainly clarifies both Fortune’s position and the extent to which one class of business leaders plans to work with the Democratic president and Congress. The first sentence of the article proper: “Washington is a dangerous place for business leaders these days.”
I shouldn’t be surprised. The columnists in this magazine (which I’ve been getting because Time Warner basically threw it in free along with an absurdly discounted subscription to Money—I’m paying $30 for three years of both magazines—and because I do like to read some business magazines now and then) are preaching the same doctrines this year that they must have been preaching in 2006. “What’s good for General Motors is good for the USA” oversimplifies the line, but not by much.
Still, this article seemed a bit harsher than most—and reading it more closely, I recognized why. It’s at least partly based on the ideas of Eric Dezenhall, a “crisis consultant” who should be familiar to anyone who’s been following Open Access. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, I’d suggest reading Cites & Insights 7:4 (April 2007) and 7:11 (October 2007)—or at least the Library Access to Scholarship articles in those issues (citesandinsights.info/v7i4b.htm and citesandinsights.info/v7i11c.htm). Dezenhall is the author of Nail ‘Em! Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses and apparently the genius behind PRISM. He’s a great one for nuance: in this piece, he “likens today’s Congress to a colonial Salem for corporate executives.” But the article explains how the good guys (corporations) can nonetheless save America from unions, health care reform, taxes to match spending and pollution control—you know, the evil forces that will destroy America.
I clearly live in a different world than, say, Steve Fox of PC World. In the May 2009 issue, his editorial says internet TV is “almost ready for prime time.” Part of that is that “we have plentiful bandwidth, great networking, mega-HDTVs, and unlimited storage.” Really? How many people have enough bandwidth to stream Blu-ray quality HDTV? How many people even have ISPs that would allow them to stream, say, 30GB per day (one two-hour movie each day) without consequences?
As with any true believer, Fox claims inevitability: “At some point all of us will be getting our TV over the Internet.” (Emphasis added.) No ifs, ands or buts; no partial successes; no possibility that something else might replace the internet. I’m hardly surprised that he follows this absolute projection with a comment about the “withering newspaper industry which was similarly slow to embrace the Web as a delivery mechanism.” Really? SFGate’s been around since 1994, and other newspapers have had websites for quite a few years. What newspapers have not found, to date, is a way to make serious money online.
The editorial refers to an article, “12 ways to bring YouTube to the Boob Tube.” It’s an interesting piece, but one that deals with the generally poor quality of streaming video by ignoring it.
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