Balancing Act: The Newsletter (No. 184, December 2014 )
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Maria and I with the best of the holidays to you and yours with our best wishes for a healthy, prosperous, and productive New Year!
I'm writing this on the balcony of our room at the Four Seasons in Istanbul. We're on the European side, and I'm staring across the Bosphorus at the Asian side, with the Golden Horn (and ultimately, the Mediterranean) to my south, and eventually the Black Sea to my north. Historically, the is one of the most strategic waterways in the world, connecting the old spice and silk trade routes to the sea.
Turkey straddles two continents, and also quite a few cultures. The Hagia Sophia was once a great Christian cathedral, then a Muslim mosque, and is now a museum. At bus stops we see women in tight jeans and stilettos a few yards away from women in burkas. The main restaurant here in the hotel is proud of its food—Italian!
The immigration agents were like those everywhere, surly and unsmiling. Taxis and motorbikes crowd the streets as they do in most cities. The airport looks like a hundred others. Traffic is dreadful in the middle of the afternoon, but they do have a uniquely exclusive bus lane in the middle of the road which moves rapidly, every bus stuffed like Japanese subway cars at rush hour.
The more we travel, the more we find similarities. Each place has a unique history and culture, of course, but more and more they begin to blend. If a molecular space transmitter plunked me down instantaneously in many cities around the globe, I wouldn't be able to readily identify where exactly I was, especially if there were no languages apparent. And many places serve as melting pots to vastly different origins: New York, London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, and so on.
"Globalization" is a fancy construction for a shrinking world. It's a 20-hour flight to arrive halfway around the world from wherever you may be. The odds are that no matter where you go, a great many people are speaking English (which is the case for all air traffic and even within some German firms in their home country, for example). The dollar is universally accepted, and people are wearing very recognizable jeans, tee-shirts, hats, and running shoes. Cell phones are ubiquitous, and satellite dishes seem to grow on buildings as you watch.
I'm not bragging about the spread of American culture or goods, just commenting on their role in a shrinking world. We can Skype, talk from our cars, instantly email, and utilize any number of technological innovations to stay in touch, to time shift, to sustain friendships and conduct business internationally.
We need to understand this smaller planet, and make the best of it, acknowledging differences but building on similarities.
Of course, some things I can do without: In heavy traffic, I looked out from the back seat of our limo to observe a bus driver with a packed, extended bus, texting while he drove at about ten miles an hour, his eyes pointed downwards. I think it's time we all looked up.
The human condition: Awards
There is a plethora of awards available today for just about any real or imagined accomplishment or attempt. We give trophies and certificates for just "showing up." This is, apparently, some wobbly attempt to shore-up everyone's self-esteem, but it really serves the opposite purpose: If we all get awards for merely participating, why should I try to excel?
Since many schools have abandoned valedictorian recognition and top ten lists of academic achievement, the question is far from moot. If achievement doesn't matter, then how hard should I try? As Adolph Rupp, famed Kentucky basketball coach observed, "If winning isn't important, why do we bother to keep score?"
The phenomenon extends to all sectors of society and all kinds of professions. In the acting community there has been a virtual explosion of "red carpet" events, with commentators and limos and big hair and designer gowns, which precede and succeed the Oscars. Everyone and his dog (as my friends in Australia love to say) is putting on an event judged by the press, or ballot, or directors, or random people on a subway. It's not hard for mediocre actors to collect a garage-full of awards.
We have literary awards, ethnic awards, design awards, advertising awards, hairdressing awards—well you get the picture. There's even a series of awards for directing the best awards shows!
Rhode Island Monthly Magazine publishes an annual edition with the "best of Rhode Island." This isn't merely for best coffee shop or pizza parlor, for example, but best latté or best calzone. And it's the best in Providence, and South County, and West Bay, and so on. They give you hundreds of these things ("best knitting shop in Kent County"). They also list top doctors in dozens of specialties. We are the smallest state in the union, but not in awards awarded.
We're a tiny state, yet we have thousands who have won these awards (which the magazine cleverly uses to enhance advertising and subscriptions, of course). Everyone receives a plaque to hang in their business. Yet not one school system in our state is in the academic top hundred nationally. Well, maybe we can give them awards for opening up in the morning or being "best" on their street.
Human competition is healthy and creates excellence. Capitalism is based on this fascinating phenomenon of trying to provide the best, fastest, smallest, coolest products and services. Companies don't give awards to non-performers who show up every day.
They fire them.
We need a good slap upside the head to remind us that awards to bolster self-esteem are transparent and despicable. We should encourage people to compete to gain what they deserve for excellent performance: REWARDS.
People who spend the least usually complain the most. A woman was giving me grief because a download she ordered was not immediately available. I tried to explain that this is a sideline, we're not Amazon, and we provide products within 48 hours of the order.
She was outraged, and told me what I should do, how she'd never do business with me again, and so forth. I finally told her that she was totally self-absorbed, high maintenance, and I didn't care what she thought of anything.
She said, "You know something, you remind me of my ex-husband!"
I said, "Why am I not surprised that you have an ex-husband?"
That got her off the phone.
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