Saturday, July 14, 2012

Great Expectations

There comes a time in everyone's life where they have to take charge and live their own life based on their own expectations, dreams, and goals.  Sadly, for many people, this time never occurs, or if it does, occurs only when they are steps away from the grave.

Be your own man - it is a phrase I use a lot here.  Or be your own woman.  The net effect is the same.   What do I mean by this?

What I mean is that people who are successful in life are self-actualizing and also set out to achieve their own goals and desires, not hemmed in by the wants and desires of others, including family, friends, co-workers, culture, or whatever.

If you look through the history of the world, you never read about people who were successful who did what their parents thought they should do, or what society thinks is best.   And you see this thought expressed on a bumper sticker:  "Uppity Women make History".

Yes, even in times when women and African-Americans were basically chattel, or their options were limited in life, there were a few people who succeeded in spite of these cultural restrictions, by simply ignoring them.

And thanks to them, today opportunities for women and minorities are greater than ever before.  And yet, today, people of all genders and races fail to even try for their dreams - or fail to try very hard, convinced that they have to do what someone else says, or follow a path that has been chosen for them.

And some, of course, find comfort in this pre-chosen path.  They don't have to think very hard, and if it doesn't work out, well, they can argue that it wasn't what they wanted in life.  And usually, it doesn't work out for them, either.  When you don't desire something, chances are, you won't get it.

For example, I wrote before about the brilliant chemist, finishing her Masters Degree in the United States, who was a legal resident who could have stayed and gotten a job here - which she professed to want to do.  "But," she said tearfully, "I have to go back home, because my parents chose a husband for me when I was seven years old, and I have to marry him."

So, six years of college down the drain, and she is now married to some guy she hardly knows and is a stay-at-home Mom with a Masters in Chemistry, and is doing what she thinks is expected of her - by her parents and by her culture.  And if you talk to her, she will mournfully go on about her shattered dreams and lost life.  But it was a choice of hers to marry this man - she lived in a Western Country and was not obligated to marry him.  And she could have stayed in the United States and worked for Dupont.

But in her mind, she had no choice.

Or another friend of mine who became an Engineer because his Father said he should.  He didn't want to be an Engineer, and needless to say, he was not happy with the work, nor was he particularly good at it.  He was not motivated to do the job, and at every turn he would moan about his lost dream of running a corner grocery store.

I told him, "Well, save your money, and start a store then."  He looked ashen.  Even though he was 35 years old, he could not go against his 70-year-old Father.   It is sad.

It is hard to grow up, particularly in this Country.  The average white male in the USA lives like a child until age 30 at least, depending on his parents for handouts, a place to live, and guidance and even discipline.  Part of this problem, as I have noted before, is the infantalization of America.  We treat adults as children.  Kids who, in WWII would be making up a B-17 bomber crew, today are not even allowed to drink.  And they act as silly as grade-schoolers, giggling and telling fart jokes.  Growing up - really growing up - is put off until age 30, if ever.

Perhaps I was lucky, in that at age 18, I went to work for GM, had to get my hair cut and put on a tie, and was given real jobs with real responsibilities.   It was hard work, and scary, in some respects.  But I also realized that as an adult, I was expected to do things, and moreover, I could do them.

But to a great extent, I was still a kid, living my life through the prism of parental and societal expectations.  And of course, most people these days do this.  But at age 25, I had an epiphany.  I realized that the expectations of my parents were not my goals in life.  And moreover, their expectations were hardly a road map for my life, but rather a vague collection of expectations and things that were, well, just arbitrary and and incomplete.  Trying to live my life according to that plan would be a disaster.

So I started taking my education a lot more seriously.  I wanted to earn more money so that I would be self-reliant and self-supporting throughout the rest of my life.  I did not want to have to rely on an inheritance, based on the whims of my elders.  Which is a good thing, too, as it turned out, they were broke.

But it didn't end there.  Freed of one set of expectations in life, I found myself being drawn into yet another.  Life in the cubicle was a nightmare of new (and poor) normative cues.  Striking out on my own, the first thing I did was look for new expectations to fulfill.  And we all do this, of course, it is hard-wired in our brains.  When a human being enters a new situation where they are unsure what to do, they imitate and emulate what others are doing in that situation, in order to blend in, and also for lack of knowing what else to do.

So, freed of parental expectations, we conform to the norms of the office cubicle or the neighborhood cul-de-sac.   I know that I looked to my seniors at work for the expected norms of behavior.  If I wanted to get ahead like them, I should be like them, act like them, and of course, spend like them.

And the television, of course, was an enormous source of normative cues.  I would wake up in the morning and watch the Today show, and catch up on the latest things happening in our culture.  I would buy the CD of a guest musician on the show, convinced it was my own idea.  And I would wear the clothes touted on television, in the Washington Post or what was worn by others on the Metro every day.

Back in 1988, it was a fad to wear a trench coat from Britches of Georgetown.  So I went out and bought one, thinking I was being an individual, when in fact, I looked like every other government drone wearing their "power tie" in a Windsor knot, on the way to work.

And so on, and so on.  One set of expectations is replaced by another.   And while I had made great strides toward economic independence, I was also squandering what I had achieved by trying to adapt to a new normative cue - a new expectation - that was against my own self-interests.

A pattern starts to emerge here.  Nearly every time I would try to "conform" to societal, cultural, or familial norms, my own interests were subjugated.   It was only the few times I was able to see through the fog and think clearly for myself that I was able to get ahead.  Breaking free from the mold, doing what my internal compass thought was right - those were the actions that had the greatest payback in the long haul.

And I should pause here to note that breaking free of societal norms and expectations does not mean just doing the first stupid thing that comes to mind.  Back in the 1960's, there was a lot of talk - and all it was, was talk - among young people about renouncing materialism and the values of their parents.  Similar talk goes on today.   And while this is a healthy sign of rejecting the expectations and normative cues of the previous generation, as well as breaking free of parental expectations, the alternative was just more silly-talk and conforming to the expectations of your own social group.

The hippie movement of the 1960's and 1970's was not all about free thought, but rather strict conformism to a thought code, a dress code, and a behavior code.   It is frightening, but in retrospect, the "individual" hippies of the 1960's were not individuals at all, but a marching army dressed nearly alike, thinking alike, and getting their normative cues from one another.  Look out into the crowd at Woodstock and what do you see?  A sea of uniformity - mostly the white children of affluent middle-class families, playing at anarchy for a weekend.

And of course, the hippie movement largely died down, once people realized that while it was a fun party, there was no "there" there, and that renouncing materialism, while fine in theory, often sucked in practice.

Today, we see a similar pattern among young people - a lookalike army of tattooe'd and pierced "individuals" renouncing the 1%'ers and claiming to be expressing themselves, when in fact they are just mirroring each other in an orgy of narcissism.

Normative Cues it seems, are not just a trap - but a successive series of traps, starting with your parents, your school years, your young adult years, your working life, your neighbors, and so on, all the way to the retirement community and then the rest home, where everyone tries to think and act alike.

And as I alluded to earlier, a lot of people try to break free of these normative cues, only to make horrifically bad choices in life.  For example, a young person renounces the norms of their family and peers and strikes out to be an "individual" by joining a cult religion.   They are not thinking for themselves, but rather just trading one set of normative cues for a very restrictive set of others.

Or, for example, a young woman I met, who came from an affluent family and went to all the right schools and got a good education.   Her parents pressured her to marry a young executive on his way up, and thus fulfill the pattern of their own lives.  She rebelled, but her choice was merely to do the opposite.  To "prove" a point to her parents, she married an uneducated alcoholic going nowhere.  She clearly did not think this through very well.  And she confessed to me later that she stayed married to her abusive husband for a decade longer that she wanted to, because she wanted to "prove my Father wrong!"

This form of reactive expectations is arguably more damaging than the regular kind.  Driving your car off a cliff just to make a point is not the answer.  And deep down in your gut, you realize that it is not right, either.

Parental and societal expectations are often wrong - but that does not mean they are always wrong.  Even a stopped clock is right, twice a day.  And to not do something because someone "told you" to do it, is idiotic.  And yet, this is a common refrain we hear today in America.

For example, a whole chorus of people are decrying the "Nanny State" because the First Lady has championed eating right.  "Don't tell me what to do!" they cry, while wolfing down a plate of nachos.  But good nutrition advice is still good advice, even if you don't happen to like who is giving it.

Similarly, societal cues about getting an education, staying out of jail, and the like, are often good advice - even if the advice is often vague and not a road map to life.  And here again, we see this today with our college graduates who can't find a job, and have staggering loan debt.

Yes, in general, it is good advice to get a college education.  But the specifics of it are something you have to work out on your own.  Just getting any college education is not necessarily a good thing.  And borrowing staggering sums of money to do it is also poor advice.  But many young people today are "outraged" by the outcome.  They feel they were implicitly promised high-paying jobs if they just checked off these boxes on the form and did what they were told.

And maybe implied promises were made by their teachers, guidance counselors, and parents.  But the people making those promises were in no position to fulfill them.  Parents, teachers, and guidance counselors can't offer you a job. 

And maybe right there,  in a nutshell, is the problem with these normative cues and expectations.  The people who set these cues and expectations are in no position to fulfill their implied promises.  Your peers ridicule you for having last years' smart phone.  So you go out and buy a new one.  But those same peers are not paying for the phone, are they?    Similarly, if your parents pick out a husband for you at age seven, and you feel obligated to marry him, your parents can't guarantee a happy marriage, can they?

And so on, down the line.  Mimicking behavior of others, or trying to live up to others' expectations will rarely make you happy or help you to your long-term goals.  Because while others promise implicitly that all these great things will happen, if only you conform to their societal norms or expectations, these same others will not guarantee or warrant the outcome.

Getting back to my life's story, I ended up working in the legal profession, one that is based on expectations, unwritten promises, and cultural norms.  Few law firms have a written "partnership path" at all.  But all of them have these unwritten rules and expectations that are dangled out in front of you.  If you work 60 hours a week and bill a lot of money, maybe some day, you too will "make partner" and be fabulously rich and happy and maybe even famous.

It is fascinating to me that in the legal profession, where everything is written down, at great length and detail, and even the meaning of individual words is argued and parsed, that the basic employment contract used by nearly every lawyer in the country is verbal - or even unstated.  Think about how ironic this is, for a second.  And if you work for a law firm, think about what promises have actually been made to you, or whether they are just implied.

I did the math on this and realized that maybe 1 in 10 people at a law firm make Partner.  And many who do - perhaps most - are miserable human beings.  They are trapped in these money-making machines, screwing clients all day long (financially, not literally) so they can keep this whole contraption running.  And their personal overhead has expanded to the point where they cannot stop swimming for even a second, or sink to the bottom and die.   It ends up being a trap, and they got into the trap, like most traps, baited by cultural expectations and normative cues.

So I started my own practice, which was a going against the grain.   My boss at one firm, when I announced I was leaving, told me about all the great opportunities I was missing out on - how I might some day make Partner and all that.  They were remarkably vague promises, to be sure.  And when I looked at his sad excuse for a life, I realized that the vaunted goal that was being offered, was not such a great thing.

But, once I started my own practice, I fell right back into the trap of cultural expectations.  Rather than re-think how I wanted to practice law, I imitated how things were done by the firms I had worked for.  And every time I tried to mimic their behaviors, it was a mistake.  Costly docketing systems, photocopier leases, hiring associates and secretaries - all of these things did little than create the same money treadmill that made my bosses so unhappy at the old firm.  It took some time and effort to realize that I needed to re-think these things and re-think how I wanted to practice.

In the mid 1990's, I started getting into Real Estate in a modest way.  I was successful at it, and as I reported before, my peers ridiculed me for getting into it.  After all, it was a dead-end, marginal business, and as the bubble of 1989 proved, volatile as well.  Dot-com stocks, they told me (in a loud Greek chorus) was the wave of the future and "everyone" was making money on them.

By this time, I was starting to realize that rejecting normative cues and cultural expectations was the right thing to do - when my gut instincts told me they were wrong or misapplied.  And a decade later, when those same friends who had embraced "dot com stocks" (which they were now mysteriously silent about) told me about how great Real Estate was, I decided to get out.

A pattern started to emerge in my head.  I realized that watching television or even reading the paper, was often just a waste of time.  Whatever they were hyping and selling was often a bad bargain, or just a product being shilled for advertisers.  Having the "latest and greatest" technical gadget or buying the latest trendy stock was not only a dead-end, but usually just a waste of money.

I went to Radio Shack the other day (yes, they defy logic and are still in business) to get a watch battery.  The tatooo'ed and pierced fellow with the mohawk who waited on me was very nice.  But all the time, he and the girl behind the counter (similarly attired and scarred) were bantering about which smart phone was the best one to get - as they "needed" all these features on their "next phone".

It struck me as odd that these two kids, working what were no doubt low-wage retail jobs, felt that they "needed" all this technology in their lives.   I guess they needed to interact in real-time for all those important meetings they had to go to, or use the smart phone to advance their careers.  But of course, I am being sarcastic.  Slackers don't have important meetings to go to, other than perhaps drug buys.  The phone is just a toy, and since all their friends have them, they feel they have them too.

And it is a booming business - and one reason perhaps why Radio Shack has defied the expectations of market watchers and remains in business today - the store is full of smart phones, just it was once full of radio control cars, or computers, or surround-sound entertainment systems, or stereos, or home electronics hobby gear, or whatever trend is popular at the moment.

And it never ends.  In every situation involving other humans, you are bombarded with these cultural expectations and normative cues.

Breaking free of normative cues and cultural expectations is not easy to do.  And again, as I noted in the header of this piece, many people never do.  Their lives are little more than following the herd from one stampede to another.  And if you asked them, they will tell you, with a straight face, how their choices in life were their own, made of their own free will.

Which, to some extent, is true.  They chose to follow the herd, or to cow-tow to cultural expectations.  And often, as a result, they end up broke and unhappy.  The OWS protester with a worthless college degree and $50,000 in student loan debts followed the vague advice of his elders, and now feels cheated.  But these were choices they made of their own free will.

In  a way, it is akin to these situations you read about - throughout history, where mobs or groups of people do horrific things - or people do horrific things while mobs or groups of people look on in silence.  A group of teens beats a homeless man to death.  Individually, maybe only one or two of the group would do such a horrific thing on their own.  But as a group, all participate - or those who do not, say nothing to prevent it from happening.  And oftentimes, it only takes that one voice to persuade the others - to provide a cultural expectation or normative cue that gives the fence-sitters a life-ring to do what they really, deep down, feel is right.

For example, one might say, "Gee, maybe beating defenseless people to death is not a sign of strength, but of weakness.  And moreover, not only is it morally wrong, it is a good way to end up spending the rest of our lives in jail, which would be a pity, as we haven't even started to live it."

Of course the ringleader will reply with something pithy, like, "Pussy!"

But this might get one of the others to think, "You know, I am going to college next year, and maybe I should study for the SATs instead.  And I don't need nightmares for the rest of my life, come to think of it"

And so on. Once you reach a critical mass, the cultural expectation and normative cue shifts, often 180 degrees.

But this doesn't happen, if everyone just "goes along" with what they know to be a bad idea - just to avoid being seen as "different".

And we see this in all walks of life and at all ages, whether it is a Union Carbide Engineer in Bhopal, India, or an accountant at Enron, or someone on the coaching staff an Penn State.  Don't make waves, don't make trouble, go along with the group think, even if you don't think it is what is right.

The Japanese are well-known for their group-thinking, and for the most part, it has worked for them, but in other instances, has gotten them into trouble.  I was able to witness this group-thinking and consensus building during some meetings with a large semiconductor manufacturer in Osaka.

What is interesting about their meetings, as compared to American companies, is that while the goal of every meeting is to establish a group consensus, everyone is allowed to state their point of view, without ridicule or trivialization.  And even when a consensus seems to be reached, if someone raises a new point, it was carefully considered.  When this system was followed, it worked, and worked pretty well.

In America, on the other hand (and in Japan, as of late), many meetings are called with an agenda and a proposed solution already in hand - with the purpose of the meeting only to rubber-stamp the proposed solution.  Those critiquing the ideas are viewed as "not being team players" and individual ideas are seen as being "owned" by those present, who take any critique as a personal attack.

Worse yet, is when "consensus" is watered-down by trying to appease everyone present by including all ideas - even contradictory ones - into the ultimate decision.  Products like the Pontiac Aztec or some of the newer, blander, Japanese cars, result.

So what is the point of this meandering posting?  Perhaps there is none, perhaps I just needed to practice my touch-typing.

But I think it is this: To think independently is probably the hardest thing you can possibly do in life.  To base your ideas on internal logic and reasoning, uninfluenced by the fads and moods of society, is damn near impossible to do - for most people.   But if you can achieve this - at least some of the time, you will do much and go far in life, provided your reasoning is truly logical and consistent, and not just wishful or emotional thinking.

Looking back on my life, I realize that the one common denominator in every mistake I made was this:  I did what others thought was right, not what I thought was right.  I worried more about what others thought of me, rather than what I thought of myself.  I went along with the normative cues and expectations of others, even if they went against my internal compass.

It is a clear and consistent pattern, and I only wished it was a pattern I had spotted earlier in life.  And what is interesting to me is that the people who are really successful in life are the ones who figure this out early on, chucking normative cues and societal pressures, doing what they think is right, not what others expect of them.

If you can nail that, at an early age, you've got it made.