Published in the Foresight journal, Volume 8, Issue 6, November 2006
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the trends toward work being more suitable for machines than people which promotes more addictive lifecycles. This paper suggests ways we can reverse this trend to cut us off from our humanity and create ways of working that are more natural, uplifting, life-affirming and healthier for people.
The approach is to cite evidence of growing dysfunction, including facts and studies that support the trends; to explain how this has occurred; to describe how systems behave and misbehave; and to call for transformation.
This paper finds that people are suffering more stress, experiencing a reduced quality of life, getting sick more often and are less happy. And most of them don’t realize why they are less happy because they seem to have so much (material wealth) to be grateful for. The findings include a way to reverse these trends and return to a life more suitable to human beings.
The practical implications are that people will start working in ways that are consistent with these new values and consciousness, finding newfound excitement and enthusiasm for their work, and reawakening their passions for living and working. This will produce happier people, more effective organizations and a healthier society.
The value of this paper is to provide a “wake-up call” to those who find themselves entranced by convention and numbed by pressures from the systems they live and work in, so they start thinking less obsessively, working less mechanically and demanding more people-friendly work and ways of living.
Humanizing Work: Surviving in the Culture of Technology
One of the biggest complaints people have about working these days is they are expected to constantly increase their productivity and, when they are successful, they are expected to take on even more. This ever-increasing spiral leads to deeper levels of burnout and work that’s becoming more and more suitable for electro-mechanical devices than human beings. So people say things like “I can’t find any real meaning in what I do” or “I feel I’m losing my soul.”
One aspect of this phenomenon is described by London School of Economics professor John Gray as the “deformed image” of a free market. This ideology is as far removed from any human reality as Marxism had been and “just as certain to end in tears,” according to Gray. This deformed Western modernity has been gradually de-humanizing capitalism. People in the West work under much greater stress than they used to, engaged in what New York author-consultant Sally Helgesen calls “Frankenwork” – work that is more befitting mechanical or electronic technologies than human beings.
This is the type of work that kills people! The attitudes we are applying to the work we do is a “deformity” of the rationale we learned working with machines, an unexpected byproduct of the Industrial Age. We are constantly asking ourselves to do more and more with less and less. After all, it works with machines. Why not human beings?
Human productivity is seen through a reductionistic lens in today’s pressurized business-work system. Often, workers are seen as objects. Even the label “human resources” infers people are “things” – like capital assets, inventory, and tangible property belonging to the organization.
This “deforming” has come about through slow and steady but subtle influences in the whole economic system in which we work and live. Billions of us contribute to it and billions of us are responsible for this devolution. There are no identifiable “bad guys” who are the ring leaders. This is not a conspiracy of evil people but rather a system dysfunction enabled by inaction and complacency. Sure, there are people who take advantage of the system, manipulating it to their selfish interests. But all of us have been complicit in our own ways of treating each other more like things than people.
Whether we actively collaborate in this deforming, or stand by quietly as part of a “conspiracy of silence,” we nonetheless allow Frankenwork to spread. We are the ones adding legitimacy to this dehumanization of work. We are the ones giving away our personal power to the system we all make dominant and then complain about. That’s right. We complain about the very system we enable and empower!
WORKING IN AMERICA: KILLING OURSELVES AT WORK
Why are so many people living in the United States, the richest country in the world, working at jobs that are killing them? Why is it that a society which enjoys so much abundance sacrifices its health in the process?
This is not a diatribe about working hard. There is nothing unhealthy or wrong with hard work. It is the nature of the relationship between people and their work, and the resultant stress it produces, that is killing people. Humans are trying to keep up with the inhuman pace of machines.
Here are some sobering statistics courtesy of Power, Passion & Purpose, by Ann Roulac, who reports the findings of one survey of American workers:
o 65 percent of workers said that stress at work has caused them difficulties
o 10 percent say they work in an atmosphere where physical violence has occurred due to job stress
o 42 percent report that verbal abuse and yelling is common
o More than 50 percent say they spend 12-hour days on work-related duties and skip lunch due to job demands
o 34 percent are so stressed they have difficulty sleeping
o 19 percent have quit a previous position due to job stress
o On Monday morning, the risk of heart attack soars 33 percent!
Most heart attacks occur when people are just thinking about going to work! Even if our minds are unaware of the stress we are under at work our bodies know! They get our attention by breaking down with illness or injury.
According to Lawrence Huntoon, M.D., former president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, “America has become a nation of workaholics.” People work an average of 142 hours more each year than they did 27 years earlier. He reports the U.S. is at the bottom of the list of industrialized nations averaging only 13 days of vacation time each year as compared to the other countries which average two to three times as much. Huntoon refers to this uniquely American phenomenon as “Vacation Deficit Disorder” and is puzzled why an industrialized country as wealthy as ours is in the throes of a health crisis.
Monster senior writer and employment trends researcher John Rossheim writes in “The Vacation Situation” that the U.S. was tied for world leadership in un-used vacation days in 2005, and led the entire world in offering employees the least time for vacations. He writes, “American workers will fail to use more than 421 million vacation days in 2005, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive for online travel agent Expedia. Worse still, this figure belies the fact that Americans don’t get much vacation time to start with, comparatively speaking. Granting an average of 12 days of vacation, U.S. employers are much stingier than their counterparts in Canada (21 days) and Western Europe (Germany, 27 days), the survey says.”
Juliet Schor, a Senior Lecturer in economics at Harvard University, describes “Karoshi,” which means death by overwork in Japan. She says workers “will develop serious medical problems and die…Often a stroke or heart attack which comes suddenly will be the proximate cause of death, but it is now official medical diagnosis that overwork has been the cause.”
Working long hours alone may not cause ill health or premature death but stress and emotional suppression add to the toxicity. One of the key elements of our humanness, our ability to feel emotion, is routinely suppressed in most work environments.
BODY, MIND, HEART & SOUL
Unless someone has been living in a cave the past few decades, they know good health relies on team play among the body, mind and emotions. There is growing evidence the spiritual dimension is also essential to our overall well-being. Hundreds of recent books about meaning, purpose and social contribution are feeding a yearning for these values. The Hungry Spirit by the renowned UK management guru Charles Handy is but one of books on this subject.
Most people feel they need to compromise some aspect of their values at work, turning the other way when certain practices are undertaken, pretending they didn’t hear something that offends their consciences, or even partaking in some form of underhandedness. This behavior co-opts people’s consciences and adds more stress.
Fear is another stress producer. Many people are afraid of losing their jobs or clients, no matter how unpleasant, often because of the financial debt they are carrying. The uncertainty about how they will make payments without a regular paycheck scares them. People are afraid for their family’s welfare and meeting their children’s education needs. Aging U.S. wage-earners are nervous about Social Security. And as if this isn’t sufficient, we have a formally-declared War on Terror fueling our jittery nerves 24/7.
University of Kent professor of sociology Frank Furedi writes, “Throughout history human beings have had to deal with the emotion of fear. But the way we fear and what we fear changes all the time. During the past 2,000 years we mainly feared supernatural forces. In medieval times volcanic eruptions and solar eclipses were a special focus of fear since they were interpreted as symptoms of divine retribution. In Victorian times many people’s fears were focused on unemployment. Today, however, we appear to fear just about everything.”
The evidence is overwhelming: many Americans are slowly and methodically killing themselves by overstressing their bodies, compromising their emotions, deluding themselves mentally and starving their spirits. This four-way attack on our essential human-being-ness will eventually kill us. A coroner might attribute the cause of death to something physical because that’s what coroners do. But we know all these parts of ourselves interrelate and are interdependent.
Emotional and spiritual dimensions are uniquely human. Denying either or both of these aspects is denying who and what we are, our essential beingness. Why are Americans committing this form of “spiritual suicide” when they live in “the land of plenty” – a nation where they enjoy the greatest freedom, the most material wealth, and the highest standard of living? How free do they feel, really? At what cost are they wealthy and how do they define wealth? Whose standard is being used to evaluate the quality of their lives? And what about people in other so-called “developed” countries?
During a recent speech I asked the audience how many people felt more freedom than they did five years ago. Only four or five hands went up! While America might be called the “land of the free” there are more and more people reporting a growing sense of restriction in their lives, largely around huge debt loads and pressure to keep up with their costs of living in such a seemingly free society. The stress caused by increasing personal and national indebtedness prevents them from feeling the liberty they take such pride in defending around the world.
While they may show up in the statistics as having the highest gross national product, many Americans are feeling “wealth-weary,” exhausted from their efforts to pursue big earnings and accumulate assets. I recall a young MBA student telling me that once he landed a well-paying job after graduation he would endure the inner-conflicts for ten or so years until he could quit and do what he really wanted to do. He was looking at work as a thing to be endured, a means to an end, not a source of satisfaction in itself.
I once asked a mentoring client making a transition from being a corporate executive to starting his own consulting practice what kind of clients would bring him the most joy. He found the idea of having his work and joy in the same sentence nearly unfathomable! He had never experienced work as anything but something to be endured for the money, not anything to be really enjoyed. The best he ever hoped for was his work would be “interesting.”
PARABLE OF THE BOILED FROG
I’m reminded of the parable of the boiled frog: Drop a frog into a pan of hot water and it will almost certainly leap from the pan sensing the danger immediately. However, place the fog in a pan of tepid water and raise the temperature slowly and the frog gradually grows groggy and finally is boiled to death. In many ways, this is what is happening to the “industrialized human.” Over the decades we have become acclimated to working like the mechanical and electronic technologies we use.
Many of those who sense something amiss are bailing out, leaving the corporate world and becoming self-employed. Others bail out in less conscious ways, such as over-stressing themselves, developing heart disease or other malady due to an immune system breakdown, or dying. The vast majority, however, remain in the “pan,” fearing for their jobs, trying to endure the heat a little longer hoping for some kind of miracle before they succomb.
There’s a big difference in reality, however: people aren’t frogs! People are capable of conscious choosing, telling ourselves the truth about the conditions they are enduring. Without realizing it, many people have become numbed to their conditions much like the frog or an addict whose sensibilities are distorted. They suffer from denial, just like someone using drugs to numb themselves from the truth. The proven cure for addiction begins with telling the truth, facing the reality one has avoided or anesthetized for so long.
Frankenwork is unnatural. It is a monster of our own creation. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it is time for the creature to die and for people to liberate themselves and stop working like machines. It is time to reclaim life-affirming work and stop treating ourselves and each other as objects.
How do we do this? Where do we start?
Conscious change begins with personal awareness. To start, we can examine the dynamics of what we are doing and take responsibility for our choices. This requires new learning, overcoming old habits and getting smarter and wiser about the unintended consequences of our actions and attitudes. Like it or not, the “old dogs” need to learn “new tricks.”
One new trick is to become more knowledgeable and skilled interacting with human or social systems. Relating directly to each other interpersonally is very different from interacting with video games, television, telecommunications or other technologies with which we are so familiar, even if we eventually are communicating with people through technology. Meaningful conversations are much more than blogging and text messaging each other. They are more than debates or discussions of opinions. They involve dialogue, inquiry, listening and openness. One walks away from one of these conversations feeling as if they connected to another soul, not merely that they won an argument or “made their point.”
UNAPPRECIATED INFLUENCE OF SYSTEMS ON OUR CHOICES
Throughout our culture these days you hear people speak poorly of the business community. It’s as if “business people” will screw you whenever they get the chance, all in the name of greedy self-interest. I recall going into a bookstore some years back and asking about a book called Business Ethics. As the clerk moved to the computer to check his inventory, he muttered sarcastically, “Now there’s an oxymoron.”
I have even heard wisecracks made about “business people” in the presence of men and women who are part of this much maligned community. I have heard them laugh at the jokes and cutting comments as if these judgments are about the other “business people”- not them
We see this negative connotation about business people in the media when newscasters and writers refer to “the suits” who are only interested in the bottom line. Artists refer to the influence of business people who have made economics the only priority. We’ve heard business people referred to pejoratively in professional sports, as people start seeing their heroes as mere pawns in big business dealings. How often do we hear, “Well, what can you expect? It is a business after all.”
Several years ago when Nations Bank acquired California’s own Bank of America, Nations’ CEO Hugh McColl blatantly ignored promises he made beforehand and laid off thousands. The San Francisco Examiner – while critical of the morality of McColl’s actions – summarized their story with an implied endorsement of the man “who you’d definitely want in your corner when it comes to business.” This characterization of McColl made my skin crawl – not so much for the affirmation of his actions but because the newspaper was so ready to accept the practice of un-kept promises and betrayed trust as the business norm.
If we take a few minutes to see who these “business people” are we will find most of us belong to this community; after all, anyone who works in our economic system is one. Surprised? Well, if you work for a company or own a business, you are part of an economic system that traditionally honors economic gain above all else. As a player in that system, you contribute in a very direct way to business being the way it is. Therefore, you ARE one of those “business people” who you’ve probably criticized. If you are a manager or an investor you are one of us. If you work for a government agency or a non-profit organization, and work within limitations of budgets, funding or follow manager’s procedures, you are one of us.
Near as I can tell, the only people who aren’t part of this dominant economic system are people who grow their own food, live without public utilities and are completely self-reliant. How many of these folks do you know?
In other words, anyone who deals with, is persuaded by or receives gain from the exchange of goods and services is a “business person.” Most of us are part of this economic-business system. So why do “we” have this reputation for being so greedy, unethical, ruthless and uncaring, and myopic when it comes to people, life balance, and the environment?
One answer lies in the system we all comprise – the business system – the culture of economic dominance in which we all play various roles. Often, good people will behave in ways they would never consider when they are immersed in certain social systems. Systems frequently bring out the worst in people because many systems are dysfunctional. This is obvious in some cases like religious cults, teenage gangs, militia groups, revolutionary terrorists and other groups who usually appeal to niche groups of the population. It is less obvious in some socially accepted systems such as business, education, government, industry and professional services.
I’m using the term “system” to describe a set of expectations and relational dynamics – like “rules” to which people subscribe. Systems in business are what corporate consultants call “company cultures.” However, there can also be industry-wide cultures. A fable about how corporate cultures can be perpetuated is the story of the five apes* which I included in my last book – Getting to the Better Future. Here it is:
Put five apes in a room. Hang a banana from the ceiling and place a ladder underneath the banana. The banana is only reachable by climbing the ladder.
Have it set up so any time an ape starts to climb the ladder, the whole room is sprayed with ice cold water. In a short time, all the apes will earn not to climb the ladder.
Now… take one ape out and replace him with another one (Ape Number Six). Then disable the sprayer. The new ape will start to climb the ladder and will be attacked unmercifully by the other four apes. He will have no idea why he was attacked. Replace another of the original apes with a new one and the same thing will happen, with Ape Number Six doing the most hitting.
Continue this pattern until all the original apes have been replaced. Now all of the apes will stay off the ladder, attacking any ape that attempts to, and have absolutely no idea why they are doing it.
This is how company policy and culture is formed.
*This story came to me over the Internet without any attribution; I am grateful to whomever wrote it and would gladly acknowledge them if I knew their name.
Corporations are merely systems created by people for the purpose of carrying out certain tasks like manufacturing, distribution, banking, broadcasting or any other services for society. These systems usually sprouted traditions and cultures that often seem in conflict with human beings, but human beings created them, perpetuate them, and human beings can change them. We often forget that we have this power and resort to blaming the systems we created for crimes we have, in fact, perpetuated against ourselves.
We constantly underestimate the power and influence of the systems to which we belong, particularly those systems we strongly identify with in some way. Each of us is a member – formally or informally – of many systems. And most of these systems include an emotional component, like a loyalty, some personal identification or source of pride, something that represents meaning or significance to us. Each of us has a nationality, race, religious background, family heritage, education background, childhood experiences, and other historic influences which still affect us in subtle ways. Each of us belongs to some community, in some city or town, in some state or province, in some country. Many of us belong to one political party or another, work within some industry or profession and are a member of a group of co-workers or friends with whom we share many values. We may be a sports fan and admire certain superstars or musicians or other people who influence us. We may have favorite authors or actors. In so many ways, we identify with many of these influential systems.
Like elastic chords tied by Lilliputians, the influences these systems exert on us can be easily underestimated. We “Gullivers” are pulled in many directions – most of which we are unaware. We can rectify this by becoming more conscious, familiarizing ourselves with the systems to which we belong and getting to know ourselves so well we no longer maker unconscious choices.
Can this level of consciousness really be achieved? It certainly is an ideal to strive for even if it is never reached. Personally, I’m a long way from being this conscious although I constantly aim for it in my own personal growth. The more my consciousness expands, the more aware I become about the choices I am making. Then I am able to exercise more discernment about what I am or am not doing.
Good people do bad things in business because they do not appreciate the power of the systems that influence them while they are “asleep.” Like people who are hypnotized, unconsciousness allows forces to permeate us in ways we hardly understand. These forces find their ways into our psyches and search out each and every shadow or bit of darkness within us. These unconscious insecurities and fears make us vulnerable and susceptible to anything which panders to these hidden parts of ourselves. We become entranced, preoccupied with immediate responsibilities as well as feel-good consolations, gossip and distractions that serve to maintain our state of unconsciousness.
Darkness resides within us when we are either unaware of it or we are aware of it and repress it. This psychic cover-up makes us susceptible to the ghosts which can come to haunt us later when the oh-so-subtle but oh-so-very-powerful forces of the systems in which we hang out have their way with us.
The world’s most dominant social system is the economics. It drives almost every other human system around the globe. Economics is the “800 pound gorilla” and most of us do what it wants! Business is wedded to this monster gorilla, making it one of the most intimidating forces in the world. When such dominating systems do something even a “little bad” the effects can be disastrous. Likewise, when systems this powerful do anything the least bit “good” the effects can be amazingly beneficial. Think about it. All the other systems are prepared to interact with business in a certain way – a way they have come to expect over the years. Any departure from the common perception of business people being “bad” could have an incredibly beneficial result in the world.
Waking from our trances, looking at how we relate to one another and taking stands is part of making our work more suitable for people and less like “machine work.”
CREATING JOYFUL WORK
When a group of people take a stand together and start demanding work that is enlivening instead of “deadening,” nourishing instead of draining, our workplaces will start to become life-affirming. Organizations are nothing more than people and the rules they have made up. People made the rules and people can change them.
The Swedish word for business is “narings liv” which translates to “nourishment” and “life.” Many other countries see work this way. Other cultures see Americans as ridiculously overworked and myopically focused on material success – even at the cost of their health.
Some of us know what it means to find joyful work, meaningful endeavors that feed our souls and bring us an enormous sense of contribution and purposefulness. Many people deny they could be doing something more meaningful because they might have to do something about it if they told themselves the truth.
Once a person “fesses up” and admits they do have a choice, they face the menu of possibilities. Some choose to step out of the system, treating it somewhat like a “toxic dump.” Some choose to stay in the system but, acknowledging the toxicity, they protect themselves through various means so they are supported and nurtured in bringing about change from the inside. Some choose to leave their immediate environment (their employer) but remain in the wings as consultants working to bring about change from that position.
There are choices. There are alternatives.
TELLING OURSELVES THE TRUTH
The lesson in the boiled frog parable is we humans are conditioned to respond to immediate threats to our survival, the “fight or flight” response. But slow, gradual change is both subtle, and insidious. The parable shows us how gradual change – even if it is unhealthy, contrary to survival and life-threatening – can nevertheless be tolerated over time and thus take life from the unsuspecting or complacent.
The gradual evolution of work in the Technology Age has been as insidious as the slowly heated pan. Like the frog, we hardly notice the effects of the change because it is so gradual. However, we possess a consciousness that allows us to recognize we are moving in a direction away from our nature as human beings and closer to the kind of work we expect of our machines.
When we choose to ignore this conflict, fail to feed our souls at work and eliminate true meaning for ourselves we kill our spirit. The purpose of our technologies is to serve us and not the other way around!
To avoid this form of self-destruction we need to tell the truth about our experience, admit to our addictions and change our reality to suit us, not adapt ourselves to suit the conditions to which we’ve grown accustomed. This means major change in how we think and how we do things. It will take both, not just changing what we do but the underlying thinking behind our actions. This latter part is the larger challenge for those of us in the West whose mindsets are so acclimated to “doing” and so attached to the way we think.
LESSON FROM EINSTEIN
The ways we’ve thought and done things in the past are over-simplistic and remarkably outmoded. We have created extremely complex systems and stubbornly insisted on dealing with them with 19th Century rational. Our own science tell us reality simply isn’t what our ancestors thought it was a hundred years ago.
Einstein told us we can’t solve today’s problems with the same consciousness with which we created them. And this was more than a half century ago! Yet we insist on maintaining our outmoded consciousness.
The way reality is created is very different from what most of us were taught in school. As our science tells us, energy fields play a much bigger role than matter. Yet we insist on believing matter or the material is more “real” than energy or fields. Science also tells us the observer affects the outcome or reality. Yet we still assume what we observe is absolute truth. If you discovered you were pushing the wrong button on your phone, wouldn’t you stop? Then why do we insist on thinking with outmoded assumptions and acting on those assumptions?
Most big change occurs when the stimulation comes from outside the system, from some source not yet compromised or entranced by the status quo. Closed systems which resist outside input tend to rot. They decay from within or eventually implode. New ideas and exposure to new disciplines, in contrast, expand our consciousness and provide stimulation that can lead to major changes, even transformations, which keep the system vital. Learning about systems dynamics, quantum physics, addictions and recovery, psychology and biology can provide these fresh perspectives. Other disciplines hold wisdom for how to think and what to do about the problems we are facing.
Society, particularly our Western, industrialized society, has become largely addicted to materialism as well as workaholism and a wide variety of other things that serve as palliatives which numb us from our complete humanity.
We are in the midst of a love affair with technology. Many of us find it easier and more preferable to relate to machines than people. Children spend so much time relating to television and video games, CD players, then computers and cell phones. Adults add cars and other machines to their primary relationships.
Years ago someone with expertise in large video projection pointed out that people prefer to watch the video screen even when the person talking or performing is right there on stage! It was explained to me that, as a result of watching so much television, people have become conditioned to watch video images instead of the real people.
Is it any wonder then we tend to relate to other people like they were objects? After all, this is how we’ve been trained!
In humanizing our work, what about emotions, a natural human characteristic? At work, most of us think more like machines than we do as people. We attempt to “regulate” our feelings, avoiding ones we think are “bad” while sacrificing the ones we think of as “positive” in the process. After all, machines don’t have feelings do they?
And what about this soul stuff? Where does meaning come from and why do we care? Machines don’t seek meaning or have souls so why should we care? But people do care! The human spirit seeks meaning and purpose.
DO WE REALLY WANT TO BECOME DIGITIZED?
As our culture shifts from analogue to digital technology, our thinking is shifting as well. While there is much to be said about the positive attributes of digital technology, there is a downside to “digital thinking.”
In sound recording, digital technology allows for greater efficiency. It “sanitizes sound” with every note or word scrubbed clean of anything less than totally perfect fidelity. But this sanitation also scrubs the music clean of nuance. Some musicians are now refusing to make recordings using digital technology because they miss the subtleties that are a natural part of the creative process. They feel their music becomes too clinical using the digital technology and prefer the less “perfect” analogue to retain the music’s humanness.
The price for clinical perfection is meaning, nuance and textures are eliminated. When we begin relating to one another through digital technologies, such as email, we loose these uniquely human aspects of interaction. These essential human qualities are sacrificed for the sake of sanitized efficiencies, pluses and minuses. The digital world is great at transmitting data but fails to convey qualities associated with relationship, like communications with emotional content or nuance. Usefulness overrides relationship when we choose to engage one another through technology exclusively. Relationships with co-workers easily become digitalized for the sake of convenience.
In digital cultures, discourse, debate and discussion replace dialogue; absolutes replace subtlety or nuance. Simulation, especially when it is very good, can be easily confused with the real thing! Meaning is replaced by results, productivity and efficiency. In relationships, people are objectified and judged for their usefulness.
Some of the new architecture showing up in buildings in my city that are designed to be very efficient in their use of space, energy and traffic flow. But for all their efficiencies they lack real personality or what I’d call “character.” Despite their efficiencies, they seem cold, even soulless!
There is no room for soul in a digital culture. The digital culture is designed for machines and is toxic to human beings. And who is enamored with all this digital technology? Who is fascinated with this technologically sanitized way of relating to our work and to each other? Who not only invented it but welcomes its widespread application in work and in life? As the cartoon character Pogo stated years ago, “I have met the enemy and he is us.”
I am not condemning digital technology. But we need to remember, however, machines and technology have been invented to serve us and not the other way around. Technology is the servant, not the master.
Next time you hear someone complaining about how empty they feel about their work, or otherwise take a victim’s perspective about their situation at work, remind them they are at least partially culpable in their situation. They made the choices to be in their situation, to be engaging their work the way they do, and, as a result, they are feeling the consequences.
I suggest the rise in fundamentalism is an aspect of our increasingly digital culture. After all, what is fundamentalism other than strict adherence to a dogma whether in religion, education, law or business? Politically, both the left and the right succumb to a fundamentalist way of engaging their ideologies. Opting for dogmatic beliefs over personal experience or natural knowing is forsaking the highly individual relationship with the subject for a formulistic belief, be it God, justice, markets, medicine or any subject. Like digital zeros and ones, fundamentalism deals with artificially codified good and evil, right and wrong, with little space for shades of grey or in-between.
See how much there is for us to learn, or un-learn, and give up?
RETURNING TO OUR HUMANNESS
There was a memorable scene in the 1950s version of the U.S. movie “Spartacus,” with Kirk Douglas in the title role of a Roman slave. When asked to slay his fellow gladiator whom he had rendered disarmed and helpless, Spartacus screams to the coliseum crowd, “I am not an animal. I am a human being!” Perhaps it is time for more of us to make a similar declaration: I am not a machine. I am a human being!
If our true nature is to be fully human and not machine-like, what does it take to fully evolve and fulfill our destiny as human beings? Is our destiny to be only busy consumers and frantic workers? Is this the end game for our species?
When I ask this question in keynote presentations, most people quickly respond by shaking their heads. All around the world people seem to know that being good consumers is not the endgame for humanity. When asked about the relative maturity of humanity, almost all people point to adolescence.
Growing up and becoming adult can’t be much different between the global community of human beings and our personal experience. Of course, there’s a big difference between seeming “grown up” and really becoming an adult. Being “grown up” can merely be a false persona, a simulation that might have been quickly adapted in order to accommodate biological maturing. Being a true adult involves a wiser and mature worldview.
With few exceptions, the industrialized world is much like the adolescent with the fast car. Americans are the equivalent of the “big man on campus” – high achievers but still immature. As U.S. Senator John McCain has written, “We are an unfinished nation.” Power can be used immaturely to do great harm. Adolescence is raging in our world today, perhaps metaphorically symbolizing the absurd extreme one sometimes goes through before the final shift into mature adulthood, like one’s “last fling” with immaturity. And, it would heed us to recall that some adolescents don’t survive their last fling and their lives sadly end in premature death.
Work is such a large part of our lives in these days of record productivity and consumption. How we relate to our work sets the tone for how we relate to our personal lives as well. This then sets the standard for how we relate to one another whether going to the movies, having coffee, visiting relatives on the holidays or taking vacations.
Our destiny is not yet fulfilled. We are indeed “unfinished” as a nation and as a species. We are not yet fully evolved. And we may never be! That just could be one of the great gifts of being human. But most would agree we still have a ways to go to discover what it means to be fully human, to feel everything humans can feel completely and with all the intensity we were meant to experience.
In summary, we can begin to humanize our work by becoming more aware and conscious, relating to one another like people, learning to appreciate how our systems behave and misbehave, telling ourselves the truth about everything, including our role in the dysfunction around us, becoming more mature and emotionally authentic, and demanding to be treated like human beings and not “human doings.” As easy as this may seem, it will likely involve breaking many old patterns, some of which could qualify as addictions. But, like the alcoholic who finds sobriety, the quality of life will most certainly be transformed. This kind of consciousness and maturity, this kind of stand for a new way of working, will positively impact the way work is done in the future. It will restore the joy, personal meaning and purposefulness that have been missing for so many people.
For the first time in history, we humans can choose to evolve on purpose, consciously! Conscious evolution begins with taking a stand for this unfolding of the full human experience. Each of us possesses the ability to take our own stand for becoming fully human, our own becoming. As we open ourselves to this possibility and let go of what we thought we knew, we find a transcendent place where we can relate to others more authentically, more powerfully and with greater dominion. It can begin in our workplaces, insisting upon life-affirming cultures and choosing authentic relationships with one another. Then someone else does the same. And then, someone else. And so it goes.
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[Editor note: I cannot locate the exact date or header of the The San Francisco Examiner article but it was published immediately after Nations Bank acquired Bank of America in the 1998.]