Thu, 11 Nov 2004
I've been meaning to write this post for several months (I referred to it two months ago over on Livejournal, so it's older than that). It's basically an exploration of how to deal with the situation where one's personal values do not correspond to the values of an organization to which one belongs. I started thinking along those lines when I was going through a rough spot at work, but I think it's more broadly relevant, especially in light of what us liberals are going through after the election last week, where we love America but don't really like what it seems to stand for these days.
Here are my thoughts on several strategies one can use to cope with the situation (whether at work or in politics or in life):
- Suck it up. Subjugate one's personal values to those of the organization. These are the people who take the game as it's currently constructed and aim to win it under those rules, no matter how stupid the rules are. These are the people who climb the corporate ladder, kowtowing to those above them, and accumulating people below them to expand their empire. It's also the way the conservatives have decided to play electoral politics. Since the system is flawed and voters are swayed by media, they take advantage of it to cement their political standing. Obviously, I don't agree with this approach. I especially don't like it because of my tendency to question the assumptions in any system.
- Leave. Join a new organization. Quit your job, and find another company. Or, in the case of the election, move to Canada. There are some cases where this is necessary, where the organization is too far gone and there's nothing you can do to pull it back. But it's cowardly. It's walking away.
- A variant of this one is mentally checking out. This is where you're still there physically, but you don't care any more. You'll do what is asked of you grudgingly, but you'll do the minimum necessary to get by. It's not quite walking out the door, but it's close.
- Another variant is withdrawal. I see this as being a particularly tempting one in light of the election. Let's just withdraw to our enclaves in San Francisco and Boston and New York and leave the rest of the country to rot. I can't really argue with this one because it's basically what I've done. But I feel like I want to make an attempt at an outreach effort to expand the enclaves. It may be pointless. And this energy may only last a couple weeks. But for now, that's the direction I'm going.
- Cause trouble. Make a ruckus. When asked to do something that you feel is wrong, kick and scream wildly and make sure everybody knows that you hold yourself morally superior to the person that gave you the order. This is pretty satisfying in the short term, but clearly unproductive in the long term. It doesn't convince anybody to change their behavior, and, in fact, entrenches them in their ways to avoid giving you any satisfaction whatsoever. I'm speaking from personal experience, of course. I see this as what the anti-war protesters are doing. All it does is convince the other side that we have no basis for our position, because our only method of defending it is inarticulate ranting and raving.
- Defend your position. This can go a couple ways.
- The less productive way is the one where you try to pick apart your opponent's stated reasons. The appropriate analogy would be to the endless discussions on usenet where people would make line-by-line rebuttals to other posters. Tiring and annoying for anybody but the pedants. Unfortunately, this seems to be the way chosen by many Democrats after the election - an example is the trying to get religious conservatives to reconcile their "pro-life" position on abortion with their support of the death penalty. Other good examples are in the comments on this post by a Bush voter. It's missing the forest for the trees.
- The more productive way is the one where you try to understand your opponent's worldview. What are their overarching concerns? What motivates them? Only when you can put yourself in their mindset can you figure out what arguments might convince them. Lakoff's work takes this approach and I think it's the way to go. As a side note, this is also the way UI and application design should be done - start with the overall goal and work backwards rather than start with the technical details and work forward. Unfortunately, most project managers would disagree. But I digress.
- Set an example. Live your life the way you think it should be lived. This is somewhat inspired by reading about Martin Luther King and the tactics of non-violence. His vision and his unwillingness to knuckle under to how other people thought he should behave set an example that all could follow. A less glorious example is one described by Joel Spolsky, on how to make your working environment as a programmer better, by properly running things for yourself and letting others see you as being more productive. The idea is to set such a good example that others will strive to emulate you. It's hard. It's like being a saint. But it's probably the most effective method of conversion. When I was a kid the Christians that impressed me most were not the ones who were loud and active in their faith, spreading the gospel and trying to convert everybody. It was the ones who quietly lived their life in Christ. If you asked them, they would share their faith, so it wasn't as if they were hiding it. It was just part of who they were. And that sort of quiet dignity was far more persuasive than any rhetoric could ever be. This is sort of a variant of #2b, without the bitterness.
None of these strategies are original or anything, of course. But I've found that it's been helpful for me to mentally lay them out and think about which one I am using in a given situation. And just the process of enumerating them has helped me to recognize some of the more unproductive ways in which I deal with exasperating situations where I am feeling excluded and unrepresented. Admitting you have a problem is the first step and all that (speaking of which, one of the other backlogged posts is an examination of why truth is often expressed in banal aphorisms). At work, I was originally using response #3, and have since lapsed into #2a. Part of the goal of writing this up is to help inspire myself to aim for #5 in the office.
As far as the political situation in America goes, I feel like I should aim for #5 and #4b. #4b is part of what is inspiring this goal of writing more. We'll see how long that lasts. I don't have the patience of a saint unfortunately. Or the work ethic. :)
posted at: 23:11 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
In between all the craziness of AC2004 and BloggerCon and trying to meet a deadline at work and doing some consulting work for a friend, I've been thinking. Several different threads going on here:
- Going to these conferences and having to answer the question "What do you do?" and not having an interesting answer ready was demoralizing. I do my job, and I do it well, but it's not exactly change-the-world type stuff. I partly left physics because I wanted to have more of an impact, but I seem to have fallen, yet again, into the rut of just-getting-by. Which is frustrating. I'm not sure where to go from here. I can't see myself as a programmer. Or a scientist or researcher really, given my generalist tendencies. Or a manager. So, um, what's left?
- I'm also in the throes of that mid-life crisis where I don't feel really satisfied with anything that I'm doing. I feel like I should be doing more. More of what?
- In response to the election last week (was it really only last week? Feels like forever ago), I'm trying to figure out how I can make a difference next time. I don't really feel that working at the local level is a worthwhile endeavor. I love my representative, Barbara Lee, and my senators, Boxer and Feinstein, are pretty good as well. And there are loads of people in the Bay Area who are motivated to volunteer and help out with local causes. So that doesn't seem right. What I think I want to do is help figure out the message, and come up with better ways of conveying it. Something like working at the Rockridge Institute would be ideal, but I don't have the experience to get in someplace like that. So where do I start?
So all of these different threads are running around in my head. And the thing that I think ties them together is this blog. I want to write more. Writing essays on here is one of the few things that I do right now that's satisfying when I finish it. And I feel like I've become better at expressing my thoughts because I'm writing more. And I hope that if I can continue to get better, I can eventually help out with some of the issues associated with message in the liberal movement. It's all sorts of hubris, but, what the heck. As Miles Vorkosigan once quipped, "Aim high. You might not hit what you're aiming for, but at least you won't shoot your foot off."
We'll see if I can carry through on writing more. Part of the reason I'm writing this entry and declaring it publicly (publically? Neither one looks right, but Merriam-Webster says both are valid) is to help give myself the willpower to carry through. It's not like I'm suffering for a lack of ideas. In the little notebook where I've been trying to jot down ideas for this blog when I think of them, I have a backlog of about 15-20 ideas. I just need the kick-in-the-pants to sit down in front of the computer, even when I'm not feeling motivated, and pick one out and start working on it, instead of flopping down on the couch and watching TV or re-reading a favorite sci-fi novel. We'll see what happens. You can mock me lots in a month when I haven't done anything.
I also want to look into more venues for writing. Possibly submitting some of my pieces (with judicious editing) to various online sites. If people know of sites that might be appropriate for opinion pieces of the type that I do, please let me know. I don't even really know what I'm looking for. Perhaps something like PopPolitics, which I found in a random google search for something related to politics. Plus commentary fora like that would be a good place to work on expressing myself more concisely.
In a semi-related thought, I'm thinking of getting a laptop so I can finally join the wireless age, and so that I can write from anywhere. In particular, while traveling (or possibly, on my couch). We'll see if I actually pursue that. Right now, although I adore and lust after the PowerBook, I'm probably going to get a Windows laptop so that I can use it for work if I need to. Something like an IBM thinkpad or an HP zt3000. Any advice that people have is welcome.
On another semi-related note, I'm thinking of putting together a salon (intellectual, not hair) at some point. Mostly an excuse to get together with some friends and have a good conversation. Maybe the last week of November, first week of December? Heck, it could even be during Thanksgiving weekend if people were going to be around. If you'd have interest in something like that, let me know. Or maybe I'll just throw a party instead :).
And now, since there's no time like the present, I'm going to go write one of those backlogged posts that's been hanging around the back of my brain for months.
posted at: 20:38 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal