Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Quest for Real Real

It's Saturday again -- time my weekly mental calisthenics over to TED.com.

Today I listened intently as Joseph Pine talked about the challenges of the authenticity-focused modern economy (full video embedded below), an economy whose goal is to provide authentic experiences for consumers, instead of just providing one-size-fits-all goods and services mass produced from basic commodities. Pine's focus is on the business as the provider of this experience, but he draws on Polonius' advice to his son Laertes in Shakespeare's Hamlet:
This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.

This advice perhaps applies as much to us as individuals as Pine applies it to businesses. After all, we cannot achieve individual authenticity without being true to ourselves and being who we claim to be to others. Who are you to yourself, and who do you think you are to others? Do they see you that same way?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Potential or Passion?

How many times have you heard someone accused of wasting his or her talent? Of not fulfilling their god-given potential? Of shirking the responsibility that comes with being able to do this or that? In all of these questions, we imply that being adept at something brings with it the responsibility to use that gift. But we never seem to consider whether these gifted people carry the passion to match their special capacity.

I think that many of us fall into the trap of trying to live up to our talents -- doing what we think our family, our friends and the rest of society expect of us. We fall into a routine of doing what we need to do to please others, to fit into the inflexible stencil of expectations. We allow others to define our success, or lack thereof. The victim in this repeating process is our passion, our energy for doing. After enough time in this societal gerbil wheel, our ambition lays broken and worthless.

For many, the realization that we have abdicated control of our lives comes too late. But for most of my contemporaries, an opportunity exists. Certainly, we all have responsibilities in our lives. I am not suggesting we walk away from those solemn commitments we have made. Our word and our promise, in the end, is one of those things of which we retain control.

What I am suggesting is that we take a break from being cogs in the wheel and ask ourselves, What do I really want to do? What do I want to be known for? Who do I want to be? In the answers to these questions, we may find a revitalizing spark that diverts us from our predetermined vector and reignites our passion for life and for each other.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Learning with TED

With the goal of broadening my horizons, I've committed myself to learning more about topics that are outside of my professional life, my personal interests, or my general intellectual comfort zone. In just a few months, I've been enriched by lectures, books, and websites I would have previously ignored.

One resource that I return to at least once a week (usually on Saturday morning after breakfast) is TED.com -- a website that aims to be "a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other." TED invites the greatest minds in the world to give the lecture of their lives in 18 minutes. It is often the most valuable 18 minutes of my week.

Below I've embedded the lecture I watched this morning....



[For the iPhone/iPod Touch users out there, there is a free TED application to watch these lectures whenever you have time -- on your commute, waiting for a meeting to start, whenever.]

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Little Ounce of Immortality

It has been a few years now since my last remaining grandparent passed away. Both of my paternal grandparents were gone before my high school graduation, and -- although they lived into their 80s -- religion and family politics separated me from my maternal grandparents for the last decade or so of their lives. Great aunts and uncles were similarly unfamiliar to me. So, as an adult, I have barely known a member of what Tom Brokaw coined the Greatest Generation.

In the past month, I've seen my wife's family lose four members of our grandparents' generation -- three friends who had become true family, and one blood relative. And it didn't strike me until today that we are on the cusp of losing what remains of this entire generation. And I began to question whether we -- our parents as Boomers and we as Gen X'ers -- have paid enough attention, so that we might preserve the wisdom of those born before us. I fear that we've been too wrapped up in our present, failing to learn from them, committing their history to our collective memory. For them, our memories become their future.

Our grandparents were part of the last truly unplugged generation. So often, we dismiss those that remain as behind the times, unadaptive to the technologies that channel and record our lives. The grand (and not so grand) ideas of Gen X and the Millenials are being transcribed on server farms across the globe. Our posterity, our history -- our immortality -- is being preserved in minutiae for us. That of our oldest generation has no such advantage.

So I have a suggestion of sorts. Put down your iPod, step away from the Wii, turn off the TV, and find someone over the age of 80 and listen to them for a while. Buy them a cup of coffee, and just let them talk. Pay attention to their every word, commit it to your memory. In return for their time, you have the power to give them a little ounce of immortality.

Monday, February 16, 2009

In Response to a Friend

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a message in which she expressed some very personal feelings about religion -- specifically how she had started to question many of the things she had accepted for most of her life.

At first, I was afraid that I might let my cynicism and frustration about religion cloud a truly honest, heartfelt answer to her questions. She didn't need sarcasm and venom after trusting me enough to share such personal feelings.

So I proceeded to answer her....

I think I need to give you a little background before I attempt answering your questions. As you may have guessed, I was born and raised Catholic by my mother, who was a by-the-book every Sunday Catholic. My father was Lutheran by upbringing, although by all accounts he was non-practicing and I can't recall him every speaking a word to me about religion or spirituality. But we were one of the star families of our 5,000 member parish, in the front pew at 9am mass every Sunday, one or more of the four kids could always be found wearing the robes of an altar server. We were the quintessential Catholic family.

Although I don't remember being particularly aware of an overriding conservatism in my beliefs, my political baptism came at the hands of the Reagan landslide in 1980 and looking back at some of my writings in high school, I have to admit being politically and religiously conservative. Despite these inclinations, I always retained a healthy skepticism for those things in life that seemed duplicitous, hypocritical, unsupported, or unjust. And, more generally, I've always questioned my beliefs. Fortunately or not, I've spent most of my 37 years in a perpetual state of devil's advocacy regarding what I believe and what others claim to believe.

I spent four wonderful exploratory years under the Dome -- at the feet of some of the world's best theologians, political scientists and philosophers and surrounded by the hearts and minds of people who have become my lifelong friends. It was in these explorations, those endless sessions of question after unanswered question, that I became comfortable in not knowing while constantly craving more knowledge. I no longer needed a higher authority to provide the meaning for my life. It freed me to question *everything* over and over, and the hypocrisy of the church's actions and the self-contradiction of the church's teachings crystallized in my awareness to the point where I've never been able to even consider a return to any form of organized religion. I honestly and completely feel that human-created and organized religions cannot avoid the corruption that infects all institutions. It's simply inevitable. In most ways, religions are no different than our political and corporate institutions. The instant a hierarchy is instituted, the process of corruption is planted.

Once you eliminate the human institution of the church (Catholic or otherwise), you're left with the question of individual spirituality, morality and creative force in the universe. That's what occupies much of my contemplation at this point in my life. I often wonder how I would answer questions from my son about what our lives mean, or about the existence of a creator. At these times, I realize why humanity created the stories and institutions of religion in the first place -- because they provide easy-to-digest, bullet point explanations to extremely complicated questions. Religious dogma and teaching really is the kindergarten answer to "why are we here?" and "how should I act?" It provides that answer that many of us crave.

But every revolution my mind makes around this often-confusing journey, I come back to the same place. We don't really know. And that's OK. What's not OK is to abdicate our personal intellect and just accept what some other human being (who doesn't know either) says is truth. Maybe searching for "today's truth" is what life really is. That quest to know more, to share life peacefully and responsibly with our fellow human beings, to allow proven facts instead of fairy tales to illuminate our beliefs.

We don't need religion to guide us. Let your mind focus on what is real, what is known, what can be proven. And don't be afraid to let go of the comfort of faith. It's not as scary as it may seem. You will still be good. You will still be driven to serve your community and your country. And you will no longer be ill as you cringe at hate and intolerance covered by robes and a collar.

If you are truly interested in a little exploration, get yourself a copy of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. He's a little preachy, especially in the first parts of the book, but if you can break through the initial condescension of his tone, I think he has something valuable to say.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Valentine's Day Reminder

Valentine's Day. It's about to dawn. Exactly 19 minutes from now, a day dedicated to celebrating love will arrive, wrapped in all its Cupid-themed regalia.

A few hours ago, I had a conversation with a friend where I mentioned that I was going to write tonight about all I despise about Valentines Day. You know, the standard rant about the over-commercialization, the aisles upon aisles of mass-produced folded contrivance, ready to be signed and stuffed into pink and red envelopes. A poem, a verse, a heartfelt expression duplicated en masse to tell those you love exactly how you feel. You've probably heard this before.

My friend's reaction surprised me. She was able to see what my cynicism hid from my view. To her, a simple card, a small box of chocolate, perhaps some flowers all represented something larger. That her significant other cared enough to take the time, make the effort to say I care.

I wanted to write tonight about how Valentine's Day is a cop out -- a way for us to put off showing our affection until Hallmark tells us it's time. I wanted to write that we think Valentine's Day gives us a free pass -- a way to erase all the hurtful things we've done to those close to us and make up for those days where our words sting and degrade instead of comfort and uplift.

But maybe that's not what Valentine's Day is all about. Maybe we need this reminder every year to open our eyes to how we treat our loved ones -- our lovers, our friends and our families.

And so, after standing a moment in someone else's shoes, I can see Valentine's Day for what it should be -- a day where we examine who we are and how we show our love. It should be that day each year when we make sure that we are sending the right message to those we love -- not just on this day, but on every day.

In this past year, I have been overwhelmed by the number of people with whom I have grown closer, creating new bonds and memories while rediscovering emotions and experiences from the past. Each one of you has taught me how to love in your own unique way. Each one of you occupies your own special corner of my soul -- a space that is yours forever.

Happy Valentine's Day, my friends.
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