Rediscovering the Obvious

…stumbling in the footsteps of greatness

American Deceptionalism

without comments

I’ve spent the morning reflecting on the latest of the horrible mass shootings happening across America, the state of a world where Donald Trump is seen as a viable candidate, a world where football supporters are clashing in the streets (England & Russia, if it matters), where isolationist and nationalist parties are gaining steadily in elections across Europe, and I weep silently to myself, wondering “Where the fuck did we go so wrong?”

Reading the tweet these days, I see statements blaming the problems on guns, on the economy, on video games, on music, on Trump, on people just being idiots, on racism, on religious terrorists, on just about anything that could be construed as an “us vs. them” statement, I found myself wanting a deeper view on the world, on the problems we face. At the same time, I’ve been reading Amy Cuddy’s book on Presence [1], and reflecting deeply on my own behaviors of personal power and powerlessness, and I’ve been working closely with my amazing wife Marian in her work on inspiring a growth mindset as part of how an education system -should- work… and it’s all pulling together.

When I was growing up, the “american ideal” was instilled into me as the combination of the Old West “Manifest destiny” mindset and the inevitable economic superiority of the American people. Stories about “Go West, young man” were commonplace, and the ethos is filled with stories of the exceptional individuals that change the world by being different, by being willing to step beyond the current reality and achieve something different. This is (in our popular view of history, and how I at least was taught in school) the expectation… if you don’t like who you are and where you are, go do something hard and change the world. I can only imagine the purpose and focus that must have brought to people who would otherwise be marginalized by society. In that era, when other nations would periodically threaten us, we were (personal judgement aside) pushing into territory where others already held as brave settlers, we needed weapons, or we could not have been successful. Guns were a requirement and a tool. Yes, they were misused then too, and looking back we can judge how horribly wrong it may have been to pursue that goal, but within the context and culture of the time they were required.

Now look at what we have today. Schools aren’t there to inspire children with dreams, they’re there to pour a minimum education into kids, to maintain order, and make sure kids “don’t get in trouble”. Any deviation from norms is punished, and even excelling is somehow frowned upon in the public schools, as I found out firsthand with my own daughter, because it brings along with it boredom. When people of any age try and express their differentness, they are mocked, detained, and generally told either subtly or blatantly that they are fundamentally wrong for being different. While I recognize exceptions, in general we’ve built our educational systems, our policing systems, our government systems, any many of our support structures around the assumption that everybody is the same. Rather than encouraging people to discover and activate their individual strengths and capabilities, we force conformity on our children.

I’ve also been reading Reinventing Organizations [2], and this strikes me as a fundamentally “Amber” mindset. Today’s technology gives us all the access and information flow that enables higher altitudes, and provides the visibility into “what could be” for many people, while inflicting a policy framework that anchors people to a lower level of behavior. I’ve felt my own stress and disconnect as a highly successful professional when working within organizations that operate at a different altitude, and despite my general self-awareness, I’ve certainly experienced periods of personal powerlessness as I’ve struggled to self-identify and connect in those companies. Small wonder that there are masses of people that feel trapped and powerless in the face of “the system”.

So, to summarize: We disempower our children by how we teach them, our adults by how we treat them, and we reward any attempt to break out of that trap of powerlessness by mocking and punishing people who are different in belief, behavior, appearance, or worst, by mocking those who “don’t get it” [3]. Small wonder that this stress, this complete disconnect between expectation and behavior is bubbling over into so many violent and broken behaviors. That’s what the title’s about… we have an aspirational ethos and a mechanized implementation of our society. It’s a systemic problem, and it’s one that has to be fixed holistically.

Now what? How do we fix this? Conceptually, if I’ve seen the connections right, it’s easy: We just create the systems and behaviors and policy structures that prevent people from being disempowered, and give them the tools needed to actively improve their personal power. In practice, this is a hell of a lot of work. I suspect part of the solution will look like what Rev. Jeffery Brown did in Boston [4]. Some will look like the work done at ESBZ for children [ref in 2] or Favi for adults [also in 2]. Also ahead is the work that needs to be done to bring not just education to people, but also help with affective behaviors and mindsets for success… things like bringing Cuddy’s work and Dweck’s [5] work to the masses, delivered in ways appropriate to the people consuming. It’s about the people that can see a better way actively engaging with people, showing empathy, feeling without judging, and reconnecting people with purpose and society.

Edit: Those of you in the agile community looking for an initial opportunity to start making a difference and start making a difference in people’s ability to move from powerlessness to a state of personal power: check out the #WomenInAgile event coming up at Agile 2016. For more information check out some background on the purpose at Natalie Warnert’s blog and the official Agile Alliance event page.

[2] Also, see for a summary of the book with one-liners of case studies at bottom.
[3] #mansplaining is an example of this. I love seeing the many movements for awareness and growth in the world, and yet I fear many of them risk quickly turning into the “agile” model of coming in and telling people how they’re wrong, rather than seeking to connect and understand and inspire. I’ve seen enough “I’m better because I get how important this is, and you don’t” behaviors that I’m treating this as just another “us vs. them” situation. This is not meant in the SLIGHTEST to disrepect the people working hard to make a difference and solve the very problems I address above.

Written by erwilleke

June 12th, 2016 at 11:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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