Tag Archives: business

These amazing times and their cost

I fought my way through Friday night traffic to see my friend Shiva’s daughter perform in their Christmas play, “A Play in a Manger.”  I expected Mary, Joseph and a few shepherds.  What I saw was an hour-long rock-and-roll production built around a plot line of “bigger is not better.”  Mary and Joseph were supplanted by a production manager and a worried production crew and cast, some 20 kids in all.

Everybody got a speaking part, reaching up to the standing microphones like little gold fish getting their supper.).  Shaylee, whose family is from Iran, added what I learned later was an improvised dance number for her part.  The epilogue was this:  “Christmas is not about Walmart or Saks. ipads or iphones.”  That is, it’s not about stuff, because stuff costs a lot of money.

I thought about this when I stopped into my local Wal-Mart for socks and was astounded to find all of the cashiers were gone, erased.  In their place were scanners, waiting for a credit (or debit) card. When I asked the attendant where those workers — mostly women, mostly African-American, mostly over 40 — I got a shrug.

According Fortune, citing a McKinsey Global Institute report released in November, “between 400 million and 800 million workers around the world could be displaced by automation by 2030.”  By comparison, the 2016 population of Texas was 27.36 million.  Think about that — that’s 15 Texas’.

Most affected will be jobs that involve collecting and processing data – everything from accounting to fast food.  The report predicts the pace of displacement will be unprecedented, concluding  “There are few precedents in which societies have successfully retrained such large numbers of people.”

In a recent column, David Brooks had some suggestions for lawmakers to consider, a list that targets practical but oftentimes insurmountable barriers like making it easier for people to:

  • Get to work
  • Get a license
  • Enter fast-growing professions like health care
  • As ex-offenders, navigate the application process

It’s painful to experience the season as one of “haves” and “have nots,”  and easy to turn away we dash through the holiday fully armed.  But here’s hoping each of us has an opportunity to pause and reflect, not just on how very lucky we are, but how we can help those who are less so, navigate these times.

Don’t Let Fear Be Your Excuse

I had lunch recently with my friends Jane and Larry Graham. Their granddaughter Caroline Richards died in January from osteocarcenoma, a rare form of bone cancer.  She was 12 years old. Caroline was a sunny day kind of child: She favored dancing over walking and singing over whispering.  She had over 30,000 followers on Twitter. She embraced her disease by giving people presents, making them laugh, and celebrating her favorite pop band One Direction. Caroline refused to forfeit her time to fear, self-pity or regret.

Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.

Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.

I’ve thought of Caroline many times since the Saturday afternoon I squeezed into her funeral, a standing-room only affair packed with people of all ages and walks of life, many of whom had big bows in their hair like the kind Caroline wore – when she had hair. There was dancing in the aisles and a great deal of singing to honor Caroline’s philosophy: If life throws you a bum rap, put a bow on it and throw a party.

Easier said than done, we say. Some of us are tragedians; we tend to look at the quieter, sad aspect of life. But the lesson Caroline leaves us is to not be undone by mere predisposition. No indeed. Do not let fear be the excuse.

Most of us are blessed. We don’t face major life-and-death situations.  But fear is an insidious life-stealer.  Ever since I can remember I’ve suffered from paralyzing stage fright. I have a vivid memory of standing in front of my eighth grade speech class and leaning on a chair because my knees were shaking so hard. Stints in community theater and Toastmasters have alleviated it, but I’m still terrified when I face an audience. My task is to prepare, open my mouth and say my piece. Telephone calls have always had the same effect on me, an odd twist for someone in my profession.

Caroline's Brave Bunny Foundation awards a children who show exceptional courage with this bunny.

Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation recognizes children who show courage.

Caroline’s mother, Lauren, gets it. Caroline didn’t live to do what she’d wanted to do, help raise money as an ambassador for research to help save other children from the cancer that caused her so much suffering.  So her mom has taken the bull by the horns in Caroline’s honor. Lauren is starting the Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation that, among other things, awards a (stuffed) bunny to children who show their own particular brand of courage.

The award — a bunny with “Brave” embroidered on one ear and the child’s name on the other — recognizes courage, not winning. The victory lies in moving through the fear, be it finishing school, or mastering a particular skill. Whatever it may be. Fear is a very personal crippler.

So remember Caroline and the Brave Bunny next time you pick up the phone to make that cold call. Or take a job you don’t think you can do. Scale your guts, and think about the time you have on this planet. Let’s not let fear be our excuse.

Small Successes

I’ve been thinking a lot about small successes.  The ones that encourage us to take the next step. It all started when a group of friends and I took in a dog whose owner, also a friend, died. A trainer recommended rotating the dog, Indie, through four foster homes over a month’s time. The goal was to make her more confident.  I’m not sure if she went into shock or truly became more adaptable, but by the end of the month, she seemed ready for anything.

Or maybe she just figured out that whatever it was she feared losing wasn’t worth it.

It’s become very popular to tout innovation and risk taking, but Indie’s experience seems to be the case more frequently than not. We take one step, a project, a cold call, a blog post. It doesn’t kill us, so we try another.  As time passes, we get bigger, hopefully in our hearts as well as our ambitions. Somehow it all works out, though maybe not as we planned. But hey, that can be good. Remember the Post It?

Orphan cattle dog Indie's experience showed me that small successes change us for the better.

Orphan cattle dog Indie’s experience showed me that small successes change us for the better.

Most useful was the push back I received from people who thought we were doing the wrong thing.  After all, it’s very possible she would have arrived at the same point had she been in one, much less confusing, spot.

But the passionate people brought to their protest drove me nuts. I had to go back to Eisenhower’s famous back-up note he crafted as a statement should the D-Day landing have failed (yes, a bit dramatic but whenever you can call on greatness, do it!)

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Back to Indie. She’s still an orphan. Cattle dogs aren’t trendy these days.  Loyal, attentive, protective, they have their faults. But also their strengths: absolute devotion to their owners, the ability to break away from a momentum (eating, growling at another dog) to attend to their person. In other words, they’re imperfect, just like us.  So I know she’ll keep trying.

Mercury Retrograde and Other Uncontrollable Mysteries

Somehow in the hurry-scurry of the new year, I missed Kristin Dombek’s beautiful piece in last Sunday’s NYT, “Retrograde Beliefs, In defense of magical thinking.”  Read it if you haven’t because Mercury takes it first 2015 trip backward starting next week.  I know this because one of my A-priority New Year tasks is to block out on my calendar the four times a year it happens. I draw a thick yellow line through those 16 (give or take a couple of) weeks so I’ll know not to get frustrated, to finish incomplete projects and not start new ones. To neither sign contracts nor make big commitments.

The stars' secret influence is only one thing we try to control. Illustration by Javier Jaen, courtesy of The New York Times.

The stars’ secret influence is only one thing we try to control. Illustration by Javier Jaen, courtesy of The New York Times.

Dombek nudged me with her graceful, faintly scientific reminder: Jousting with Mercury is a mortal stab at codifying mystery. Forget it. Alas, for us planners and plotters, Mercury is just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2008, on the brink of the Great Recession, I buried a St. Joseph statue in the front yard of a house I wanted to sell. I bought the statue under false pretenses, telling the cashier at the religious supply store that it was for my mother, who collected Nativity sets. That was true, but I had a distinct feeling I would be punished for fudging on the larger truth.

There were specific instructions for burying the saint. I researched the procedure and measured the distances carefully – so many steps to the east of the front door, so many steps from the street. Even so, when the house sold and it was time to dig St. Joseph up, I couldn’t find him.

This worried my mother, the collector, who’d put Mary and baby Jesus on the shelf beside her chair, awaiting the carpenter’s arrival.

“Where’s Joseph,” she asked.

“He’s on a business trip,” I answered. “He’ll be back.”

But he never returned, and Mary remained a single mother, much to my mother’s distress.

I’ve wondered about the unintended consequences. The house I sold is still occupied by the family that bought it, but I’ve moved every couple of years since then.

Then there’s the blog I started following a series of family deaths. It was an exercise in catharsis, and when it was over, I’d had I enough. I deleted my connection to the content, but I couldn’t delete the content itself. It’s out there, like a piece of floating debris or an orphan planet. Sometimes I want to reclaim it, but I can’t. The posts dangle in the ether, that great celestial dumpster.

There’s a scary freedom in this lack of control, like releasing a captive wild thing, and a reminder that I’ve never been, nor will I ever be in control. Which is the point. It is a mystery.