Erin Schaff’s photo published in The New York Times online edition on February 11, 2021, captured the reaction of House Speaker Pelosi’s staff as they watched video evidence of the January 6 insurrection.
Nine months later, the image still haunts me.
I don’t know their names or their titles, so I cannot tell their personal stories. But I’ve known their predecessors, who like them, turned down post-grad offers on Wall Street and in prestigious law firms to serve their country with little recognition and minimal compensation.
These folks were at their desks, doing their best to serve the American people on January 6, 2021.
What would a close-up of Speaker Pelosi’s staff record today? I’m guessing intense focus on the work of passing two historic pieces of legislation.
I wonder what they think of the journalists who continue to search for truth. Was Sunday a difficult day as they awoke to the headline reporting of ‘The Attack’ in the Washington Post?
Violence in the workplace is a continuum. You may choose not to let it define you. But it’s always there.
At the end of the day, it’s not the politicians and the pundits who maintain our democracy, but the courage of interns and staffers in Washington D.C. whose problem-solving commitment to constituents keep this country on track.
Today, election day, step away from the analysts and consider the world of the young idealists of Capitol Hill with gratitude.
The Friday Poem selection for this week is Julia Alvarez’s ‘How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry?’ As we reimagine our priorities ‘after’, framed by our experience in the ‘before times’ and pandemic isolation, where will art reside?
A year ago I traveled to NYC for the last time, keeping a lunch appointment with a colleague. It was a beautiful day, spring was in the air and the forsythia was in bloom – bright yellow against a monochromatic backdrop. I snapped a few photos of the city that day. I selected one as my smart phone screen-saver, where it remained, for months, a relic of the ‘before times’.
On the upper west side, children still bounded out of school buses on the way to museum tours. On the surface, life was normal; but it wasn’t. The school children were wearing masks. I was wearing a mask. The streets were quieter. Central Park was empty. A security guard outside the restaurant offered hand sanitizer and then returned to a repetitious cleaning of surfaces.
I walked 38 blocks instead of riding the subway. Being above ground seemed safer. I used stairwells instead of elevators. I stepped into one shop, but immediately left. There were mysteries in the air and social distancing was about to enter our vocabulary. I had read my share of apocalyptic novels.
I watched a segment on the evening news where a doctor offered tips to stay safe. Following his directions, I had a supply of Kleenex in my pocket to use as my magic barrier when I opened a door. Those were the early days. But they’re not hard to recall. The fear has stamped a permanent record on my brain, totally accessible even after a full year has passed. Information was scarce and contradictory. Life was changing before my eyes, but the leadership narrative ran counter to reality.
A year later, the security guard, waiter, diners, school children, docent, parking attendant, toll collector, news agent, retail store staff weave a vivid human GPS thread of that day. All part of a pre-pandemic collage of ‘New York moments’ on the edge. There was joy and laughter on March 4, 2020, a touchstone.
Today, March 4, 2021, more than 80 million doses of vaccine have been administered, reaching 15.9% of the total U.S. population. By May, there will be a sufficient supply for every American adult. What will work and workplace look like as we emerge?
“Are we there yet?” could be the quote of the pandemic. The answer is no. The problem hasn’t been solved, although we continue to pretend it has. Just take a detour past your local food bank and you’ll experience an instant reality check on expectations. A visit to your local post office might offer a clue to what your workplace might look like if you ever return.
We stayed inside… for a time. And that eased the crisis in many ‘hot spots’ for hospitals and health care professionals. But then we got tired of ‘stay at home’. We saw folks venturing out and government leaders relaxing rules. But the problem hadn’t been solved. We’re still in the middle. Research into a vaccine is progressing, but testing still lags, and nothing has really changed from those early weeks in March. The virus is still out there seeking every opportunity to sink its ‘hooks’ into our various critical organs. What has changed is our belief that “we can handle it” – the reward far outweighs the risk – FOMO on career and life.
We’re not an ‘in limbo’ culture of humans. Uncertainty is not our strong suit. We avoid commitments that might exceed 200 pages or two weeks. We’re more at home at the movies where all is resolved in 90 – 120 minutes.
But, COVID. Our momentum slowed. It took a bit of time to adjust – to the quiet, the change in energy, the middle.
Here we are in a place with time to observe and reflect – an unscheduled leave of absence from our previous life – in the home of innovation and creativity. Yes, the middle is where imagination carves out our path to ‘THE END’.
A simple ‘construct as creative catalyst’ was provided by former Irish president and High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2019. Speaking on the topic of climate change (insert your idea) she suggested three steps:
‘Make climate change (or your idea) personal in your life.
Get angry and get active.
Imagine this world we want to hurry towards.”
Imagine the world we want to hurry towards – that’s what we do when we’re in the middle.
That’s why we’re here at the nexus of past and future – not to consider a ‘new normal’, but to invent the unimaginable. And that takes time – the time we have now, in the middle.
It’s August, an intermission before the commotion of fall. Except this has been an August, a summer, like no other. There is no certainty, other than the world at a distance of six feet.
In this time, ‘The Friday Poem’ returns after a few ‘fits and starts’, with ‘August’ by Mary Oliver.
We have lost spring, snug in our ‘stay at home’ place or serving on the front lines as essential workers. Summer is passing, offering the gift of a journey outside – breathing fresh air, splashing in a brook, climbing a tree, standing in the rain – away from our workplace for a moment.
Poetry and art will sustain us.
When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend
all day among the high
my ripped arms, thinking
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
the thick paw of my life darting among
the black bells, the leaves; there is
the happy tongue.
So, the virus went viral, and nothing may ever be the same – job offers on hold, online classes the new norm, home the new workplace.
You may hear comparisons to 2008 or the dot com bubble of 2001 – 2002. There’s no comparison. We’re all pioneers in this new reality of social/physical distancing.
What to do?
First, reach out to the resources available to you through your network. There are a lot of unknowns. But you can only plan around the things you can control.
Second, go for a walk. We can still do that – at a six-foot distance.
Third, add something new to your day that connects you to others (with six-foot spacing). For me, that means joining a virtual book discussion of War and Peace: #TolstoyTogether. Writer Yiyun Li in partnership with @APublicSpace is reading 12 pages a day. (Just started – anyone can join). Robert Macfarlane (Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge) is also leading a global Twitter Reading Group, #CoReadingVirus, discussing ‘The Living Mountain’.
Fourth, contingency plan. #1 plan – the ideal job, #2 plan – other ways to gain experience in the same field, from a different angle, #3 plan – ways to have income, while seeking a permanent position.
It’s ok to be a bit scared. But to quote Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, “The demons hate it when you get out of bed. Demons hate fresh air.”
What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks flew in circles around your head? What if the mockingbird came into the house with you and became your advisor? What if the bees filled your walls with honey and all you needed to do was ask them and they would fill the bowl? What if the brook slid downhill just past your bedroom window so you could listen to its slow prayers as you fell asleep? What if the stars began to shout their names, or to run this way and that way above the clouds? What if you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves began to rustle, and a bird cheerfully sang from its painted branches? What if you suddenly saw that the silver of water was brighter than the silver of money? What if you finally saw that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day and every day – who knows how, but they do it – were more precious, more meaningful than gold?
While you were away, the U.S. commemorated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and the effort to rebuild Notre Dame began in Paris. In New York, members of the Business Roundtable considered a new definition of the purpose of a corporation and Ava Duvernay continued to challenge conventional wisdom. It was a summer of cathedral thinking, blue oceans and questioning expertise.
These are the stories of folks who went to work every day, extending the definition of work and workplace beyond traditional boundaries to solve problems and create a vision of the future.
Here’s a sampling of articles from the Summer of 2019:
“In this moment when government is viewed by so many Americans as being unable to dream as big as it did in the 1960s, whether the dream is traveling the solar system or forestalling the calamitous effects of climate change, understanding how NASA got us to the Moon the first time is both important and inspirational. The Apollo Moon landings were an extraordinary undertaking, but they were the work of ordinary people back on Earth. We need exactly that kind of effort to tackle some of the problems we face today, from economic inequality to climate change. The Moon can show us the way.“
“The two key pieces that were the astronauts’ home during their lunar trips were built on opposite sides of the country. The Apollo capsules rolled off the assembly line in Downey, Calif., a small city 15 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Fifty years ago, NASA owned a 160-acre swath of Downey — the size of two Disneylands — that was home to factories, offices and test facilities.
The story was almost the same in Bethpage, N.Y., on Long Island. That was the headquarters of Grumman Aircraft, which won the contract to build the spindly spacecraft that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon.“
In April, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris came close to being destroyed by fire. This summer The New York Times created an interactive site to document the event and the story of those who saved the cathedral.
“That Notre-Dame still stands is due solely to the enormous risks taken by firefighters in those third and fourth hours. Disadvantaged by their late start, firefighters would rush up the 300 steps to the burning attic and then be forced to retreat. Finally, a small group of firefighters was sent directly into the flames, as a last, desperate effort to save the cathedral. “There was a feeling that there was something bigger than life at stake,” said Ariel Weil, the mayor of the city’s Fourth Arrondissement, home to the cathedral, “and that Notre-Dame could be lost.”
On August 19, the Business Roundtable issued a new statement on the purpose of the corporation.
“While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders. We commit to: – Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations. – Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect. – Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions. – Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses. – Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.“
We learn from the wisdom of others and this summer, writer, producer and director Ava DuVernay leads on innovation.
“Conventional thinking in red oceans is why blue oceans go undiscovered.
New markets are found when someone stands in a spot that gives them a point of view distinctly their own.
DuVernay has shown us what the work of discovering blue oceans looks like: It is claiming that spot in the world where only you stand, even if that means leaving rooms where you’re being dismissed and marginalized. It is gathering your crew, those who share your commitment and purpose and will work to create new truths. It is finding the communities that can share your vision and scale it. These are unconventional ways to lead. Leaving. Social. Sharing. They seem counterintuitive and even wrong to those who lead red oceans. But they are how growth and progress and innovation happen. It’s what explorers do to chart new territory.”
The last article from the summer continues the conversation on expertise and how we are all being asked to ‘do more with less.”
“By 2020, a 2016 World Economic Forum report predicted, “more than one-third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations” will not have been seen as crucial to the job when the report was published. If that’s the case, I asked John Sullivan, a prominent Silicon Valley talent adviser, why should anyone take the time to master anything at all? “You shouldn’t!” he replied. As a rule of thumb, statements out of Silicon Valley should be deflated by half to control for hyperbole. Still, the ramifications of Sullivan’s comment unfurl quickly. Minimal manning—and the evolution of the economy more generally—requires a different kind of worker, with not only different acquired skills but different inherent abilities. It has implications for the nature and utility of a college education, for the path of careers, for inequality and employability—even for the generational divide. And that’s to say nothing of its potential impact on product quality and worker safety, or on the nature of the satisfactions one might derive from work. Or, for that matter, on the relevance of the question What do you want to be when you grow up?“
Summing up the summer recap: ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things. You just need to find your unique scenic view of the world, an employer who values your contribution, and an ability to adapt.
Photo credits: Moon Landing – NASA, Notre Dame worker – Patrick Zachmann for Magnum Arts
Three years ago I suggested that we use the Labor Day holiday as a catalyst to begin a national conversation about work.
A lot has happened in those three years, but for the most part, the American worker is in about the same place they were then when USA TODAY led with this headline: “Labor Day by the Numbers: Americans Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Working”. The updated numbers from CNN: “768 million days went unused in 2018, a 9% increase from 2017. Of those, 236 million were completely forfeited, which comes out to $65.5 billion in lost benefits.Fifty-five percent of workers reported that they did not use all of their vacation days.”
We are spending more time @work and less time considering why.
Out of necessity we maintain a laser focus on our own career goals, spending most of the 365 days a year securing our future as best we can in an ever changing workplace. What if we just took one of those days to consider the workplace issues we face as part of a larger context?
The Labor Day holiday was originally conceived as “…a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” *
What better way to offer a tribute to the American worker than to engage in a national discussion that restores respect and considers the reality of today’s workplace?
This is not a political issue. It’s a human dignity issue. Rather than divide, this conversation should unite us.
Access to education and a right to work are fundamental American values. It’s how we define ourselves when asked ‘what do you do?’. Imagine the despair for those with no answer.
It’s time to reestablish the voice of the American worker and address both the barriers to workplace entry, and the challenges @work once you arrive.
Share your ideas @workthoughts.com #LetsTalkAboutWork!
(*original quote from the U.S. Department of Labor site which no longer seems to be working.)
For the first ‘Friday Poem’ of 2019, I’ve gone back into the Workthoughts archives to reprise Miller Williams‘ poem ‘Of History and Hope’ delivered at the Inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton in 1997.
The Washington Post obituary for professor Williams, who died on New Years Day in 2015, included an excerpt of an interview with the Oxford American magazine. In the interview the poet shared the intent behind the words.
“…he wanted the poem to be a “consideration of how a look at a nation’s past might help determine where it could be led in the future.
“I knew that the poem would be listened to by a great many people, reprinted around the country, and discussed in a lot of classrooms, so I wanted it to be true, understandable, and agreeable…”
The words of the poet, recited from the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, 22 years ago, speak to us in this current place that is American, 2019.
“We mean to be the people we meant to be, to keep on going where we meant to go.”
Of History and Hope
We have memorized America, how it was born and who we have been and where. In ceremonies and silence we say the words, telling the stories, singing the old songs. We like the places they take us. Mostly we do. The great and all the anonymous dead are there. We know the sound of all the sounds we brought. The rich taste of it is on our tongues. But where are we going to be, and why, and who? The disenfranchised dead want to know. We mean to be the people we meant to be, to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how except in the minds of those who will call it Now? The children. The children. And how does our garden grow? With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row— and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together cannot become one people falling apart. Who dreamed for every child an even chance cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not. Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head cannot let chaos make its way to the heart. Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot. We know what we have done and what we have said, and how we have grown, degree by slow degree, believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become— just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet— but looking through their eyes, we can see what our long gift to them may come to be. If we can truly remember, they will not forget.