The Heroic Decision Maker

One of the more annoying types of writing these days concerns “productivity secrets“. These are “tips” that “make it easy” to transcend the self. To go beyond one’s “limitations”. To get slimmer, smarter, faster, richer and on and on and on. So you might, for example, take out the garbage … just like a ninja! Or you can lose 50 pounds while you watch late night TV, slurping a weight reduction shake. Dream on!

To be clear, I am not annoyed by people wanting to become better than they are. That is entirely understandable. I feel the same way. It is annoying, however, to see people duped into believing that this can be achieved easily. That some get rich by duping others into buying sports cars or gadgets or pants or wigs or trips to Monte Carlo, so that folks can suddenly become Cary Grant or James Bond or Grace Kelly. Take your pick.

The result is usually rather sad. Not just  because the wig doesn’t really look right or that the pants might be a bit snug in the crotch, though that might be troublesome enough. And not just because the adventure might end badly. I am thinking of the last chapter in “The Great Gatsby”. It is sad because we gradually weaken our connection to what is around us in favor of things that are not really there. We start demanding fantasy, thinking that it is better than reality. Reality becomes what we tolerate until we get the next theatrical jolt. The next “big thing”, whether it is the Super Bowl, or a blockbuster film, or the Olympics. Whatever works.

I am reacting here, I think, to a rather strong cultural influence that one finds in 20th century media. In the 20th century, technology changed the way one could sell things. Radio brought the voice of celebrities into your living room and you could relate to that person as if he or she were there. Of course, they told you what kinds of products they loved. And you bought them. TV went much further, bringing not just the voice, but the person along with his or her fake life style. Watching from the couch, you could see how beautiful and clever people lived. The cars they drove. The clothes they wore. And of course, what brand of cigarette they smoked (the link takes to you a cigarette ad with a funny voice over). BTW, this form of advertising proved to be very powerful indeed. So powerful that in the early 1970’s a republican president (Nixon) signed into law a ban on TV cigarette advertising. It was just too powerful. And why? The celebrities in your living room were giving you phony signals on how to live better —  better than you ever could. I call this the 20th century fantasy binge.

There is an antidote. And it is not to try ever harder to become something different than you are. Rich, famous, smart, etc. Sure you can day dream about this. But leave these desires in fantasy land. The starting point is instead to look at what the people around you actually do and ask yourself how can you connect to those activities. How can you make them better? What value can you add? If this is enhanced productivity, it is productive giving rather than taking. And it is a heroic choice at a time when media messaging is primarily about taking rather than giving.  But it is not a choice that leads to a poorer life. To the contrary, when you invest in adding value for others, you get a side benefit. You get richer. Funny how that works.

Is this just me ranting? Perhaps. But I have the sense that times are changing. Sir Kenneth Clark argued back in 1969 that we are still the children of the romantic rebellion of the 19th century. Certainly, the 20th century infatuation with the self is one of our inheritances from that rebellion. But in the 21st century, we may finally begin moving beyond it. Not that the self is a bad thing. To the contrary, It is the anchor of our experience and memory. It is just that life offers a bit more than a prolonged dreamlike gaze into the mirror.

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