Thursday, March 29, 2012

Screw Ups and Growth

Being a middle-aged man, I suppose I should be advising my young readers. That, and maybe reminiscing about soldiers I have known. ...OK... Here’s what I think: We all mistakes, but some make more than others. A lot more. Hence the noun “screw-ups.”

You will enter a room, hear the news of a big disgusting error, and ask, “Was it by (name of screw-up)?” People grimace, nod, and no one says you are being unfair in your speculation. I suppose the innocents among us might think mistakes are evenly distributed through the population, but worldly folks know better. Looking back, I don’t remember people being perceived as “mistake-makers” in high school, perhaps because I can’t remember that far back, or perhaps because life then was more routine. Meanwhile, from my late teens and early twenties, I clearly remember how “stuff happened” perhaps because, at work and in college, we were undertaking demanding group projects, being challenged by a multitude of little factors and decisions.

I’m not thinking of merely watching TV together at the university tavern as part of The Simpsons  Fan Club, but of, say, undertaking the complex business of putting on a venue, or producing the student newspaper. I used to scrutinize the error-prone people and wonder, “Why?” That, and “Do they realize they are perceived by the rest of us as being short on candlepower?” Here’s a diagnostic they could have used for themselves: In every instance, every screw-up would indulge in outraged gossip, loudly and excessively, behind another screw–up’s back.

I wonder: In later years, do they get their act together enough to blend in nicely? I think so. Once, and only once, I worked with an unfortunate error-prone middle-aged woman. I, unfortunately, was her manager. One day, with bitter humor, I even tallied up the many hundreds of dollars she had cost us, through various crazy incidents. Sigh! The perfect metaphor, for her and certain young people I’ve known, is “loose cannon.” The image comes from pirate ships. At sea, where waves have a random factor added to their regular motion, thick ropes and pulleys must bind a heavy cast iron cannon. If it ever gets loose… it rolls, pauses, rolls about, unpredictable, massive and almost unstoppable, breaking through rails, smashing limbs, and requiring everyone’s attention… The infuriating thing about “screw-ups” is their unpredictability: You can’t simply warn such fools in advance not to do certain things, because it never occurs to you that any sane person would ever—… Well, they say nothing can be made fool proof because fools are so creative.

In the case of my employee, I never had to ask “why,” for it was obvious: skin of rhinoceros, skull of lead. No feedback, emotional or factual, could ever get through…. I suppose she could well have used some therapy. Perhaps, if she couldn’t learn from the details of her specific mistakes, then she would be unable to form those overarching concepts that help the rest of us navigate through life. I realize that self-help books and business books will teach many good concepts, but I don’t suppose a book can ever teach life. One must therefore be open to on-going feedback.

Certainly we all learn from our specific mistakes, especially our naïve ones. I am thinking of a young lady who immigrated to Holland, made terrible mistakes with buying on credit, but in the end, after being willing to learn, she was OK. In fact, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, today a best-selling author, became a right honorable member of parliament. I suppose another word for naïve is unexposed. All of us, even Albert Einstein, will start out unexposed at our first job and school and community. That’s OK. Many young people will find out the hard way how long it takes food in the refrigerator to become a science experiment, and why Hamlet’s Uncle Polonius advises not to lend money to other youths. That’s OK too.

I would like to think the young dorks I knew, however brash and cocky, were open enough, and vulnerable enough, to have long since become fine upstanding citizens. Youth’s a time for learning.

I remember a young soldier in the reserves, Private Alexander. A bright lad, his father had been a physician in South Africa who gave up his practice there to bring his family over here to freedom. A willing lad, Alexander didn’t mind being barracked with a bunch of corporals. One day in barracks I couldn’t find a certain shiny precision milled part, my breechblock, essential to the workings of the Belgian self-loading rifle we were using at the time. Bypassing other corporals, I strode straight up to Alexander to demand it back. “I don’t have it!” he said, offended that I had singled him out… Later he sheepishly handed it to me. “It was in my combat jacket,” he admitted.

Another soldier in the barracks was older than the rest of us, so we called him “Uncle Burton.” An enthusiastic man, he later hyphenated his name to Patterson-Burton, to sound more traditional. A romantic man, he had undergone recruit training three times: with us, of course, with the Air Force back in college as part of ROTC, and then later with the Hong Kong police force where one day he earned a medal for gallantry. (Long story) At the time I knew him, as part of his unspoken service ethic, he had taken Alexander under his wing. Soon after the breechblock incident I took Burton aside to ask, “What’s with this guy?” Uncle Burton laughed gently and said, “One day at last something will click, and then he’ll be all right.” I took his word for it. This story has a happy ending. A year later I was enjoying some time alone in a nice sunny meadow at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, on the pacific coast. A tight group of serious young men came past doing some sort of leadership-initiative-thing. They were obviously doing naval officer training. And one of them was Alexander… I’m sure he became a fine commander.

Back when I was young, all the old alumni, of the same age I am now, would advise us to “get involved” during our campus years. While of course for students in general there is more than one reason for this advice, I think for error-prone students in particular, getting involved would be vital to growth. Needless to say, lounging on a bar stool watching The Simpsons has it’s place, but in order for something at last to click, a young person needs to be testing himself, or herself, against the complex realities of the world. You learn from friction. I would add to what the alumni said: Go beyond getting involved; try to be of service on an executive committee. Not to “learn leadership,” but simply to “learn.”

Come to think of it, for our various little groups and clubs and communities in everyday life, given how less involved most citizens are, you would likely end up, down the years, in a succession of leadership positions. As feminist Carla Krahn put it to me, “Once you start accepting responsibility, there’s no turning back.” Here in North America, well, call us filthy rich, but there are many, many groups crying out for volunteers.

Actually, it’s not our North American affluence that permits us to have groups; it’s something in our DNA that impels us to form groups. It’s a citizen thing. It was the French observer, Alexis de Tocquiville, who wrote, in 1835, in Democracy in America, how striking the prevalence of voluntary groups was. His classic, by the way, is still in print. Meanwhile, it was from a translated French sociology textbook, the title of which I’ve long forgotten, that I learned how in France they still aren’t into local citizenship as we are. An example from the text: If you try to lead people into creating a group for sandbagging the river, then they won’t follow you, because they will accuse you of “trying to be important.” Such a pity. No wonder the French are on their fifth republic. And maybe that helps explain why they were so pathetic at preparing French Indochina (Vietnam) for independence. (Quite unlike the US in the Philippine Islands)

...In large areas, when the French administrators left, nobody was there to take over. The French had never trained the Vietnamese to be administrators.
I'd come from the Philippines, where we trained local people to set up schools and colleges. But in Vietnam there were only one hundred doctors in the whole dam country, And they only had about a dozen lawyers. It was a very poorly trained country to take over and run their own affairs.
(Gen. Edward Lansdale, speaking to Al Santoli, in To Bear Any Burden)
When the South Vietnamese were trying to expand and develop their army to be big enough to resist communist invasion, they found the limiting factor, or bottleneck, to be the development of leaders. This is according to General Westmoreland, in command of US forces  giving assistance over there. He  found the problem was the lack of civilian organizations: This in turn meant a serious lack of leaders in the Vietnamese population as a whole. Hence the bottleneck. He explained this in A Soldier Reports.

Part of the problem in Vietnam, and back in France, is people wanting to be leaders solely for their own private purposes. (Instead of a healthy balance of motivations) This sort of selfishness corrupts individuals and businesses and nations. Here in America, well before the 2008 meltdown, business guru Peter Drucker was convinced that executives should not be overpaid. He himself lived in a modest home.

The historical record is clear: Humans weren’t designed to be overly self-centered… it’s not healthy. In my view, just as the cart follows the horse, you could first get involved to be of service, and then, as appropriate, your leadership actions will follow. As I see it, if a group wants to accomplish something, then the leaders will naturally emerge and grow. These conscientious leaders will then naturally seek out advice and formal training. Here in Calgary, free weekend training is offered in the volunteer world to Scoutmasters, athletic coaches, officers in Toastmasters, and others, while expensive weekend training is offered in the business world.

In this spirit of horse-and-cart, I advise young students to get onto a club executive in order to “learn,” and to “serve,” not merely to “be a leader.” I suspect there is a tad too much emphasis on being a leader these days. If Ayaan Hirsi Ali became a Member of Parliament, it is partly because, being a Muslim girl, her clan put no expectations on her, even though her father was an absent leader-in-exile.

In contrast, her poor brother was always being pressured. His relatives, and other folks who were not leaders themselves, kept insisting he was going to be a leader… As far as I can tell, the boy was never being given any moral grounding. In what context was he to lead? Chivalry? Democracy? Universal Human Rights? He was never told why or wherefore he was to lead his people. The insistent strain broke the boy, leaving him a wreck, unable to even lead himself.

Never was the boy gently advised, with due humility, “Before you can be a good leader, you need to be a good follower.”

When I advise, “get involved,” and “learn,” I have an agenda: I mostly mean that by getting involved in the friction of life you learn all the self-leadership skills found under the umbrella term “executive function.” For this term I’m indebted to the blog of a farm wife, Penelope Trunk, who has Asperger’s syndrome. It seems that while executive function is something people could naturally learn, it’s not easy: In fact, for some children with certain medically diagnosed challenges, like Asperger’s, it must be explicitly taught. See link.

Here’s what I conclude: If a screwed-up young man wants to get off the “screw-up list” then he needs to get off the couch and learn to have a functional life. Then he won’t find himself frustrating other people.

As it happens, some of my relatives still frustrate me. Then I try to calm down by being patronizing, by telling myself, “Hey, they never had to pass college or work at a job that demanded any great functioning.” I try, only to feel my frustration well up again: “Arrg! Don’t talk to me about relatives!”

My friends all tell me they have crazy relatives, too. … If I want to laugh, I can watch folks going by on the sidewalk and reflect, “Oh-my-God, all those people have relatives!”

Sean Crawford,
March 30, 2012
~Stevey has a nice long essay (blog-rant) on achieving common sense, and testing for common sense in a job interview.

~This morning on my car radio I heard the news that a boy I once slept with, Bill Sampson, has died. He died probably from injuries received while being tortured in one of the terror-exporting nations, Saudi Arabia. We slept under snapped-together shelter-half's while training in the reserves, "in the Seaforths."

At 16, Bill made a mistake about his age and joined the Seaforth Highlanders militia in Vancouver, whose minimum age was 17. He stayed on for 18 months, wearing a kilt and participating in summer exercises.
"He was very proud," said his father. "It meant a lot to him because he felt he belonged in the regiment. It was dam good for him." See link.

Such a rebel: I remember Bill passing French class only because his school principle overheard him reading Paris Match, and comprehending it.

~The textbook mentioned above cleared up the mystery of why Paris police are so irritated when tourists ask for directions. It seems the police are not a service but a force, with loyalty to the central government--they are, after all, on their fifth republic.
For the French, central control trumps encouraging local citizenship. The text illustrates this by noting that an atlantic coast school district cannot so much as try to teach the industry of fishing to the students without first applying to Paris for  permission.
I suppose then a sort of pre-censorship would kick in, with French people stopping themselves in advance from thinking, getting away from creatively considering how to take initiative to make things better.

Oh well, I suppose the French can at least feel glorious in comparison to the Muslim terror-exporting nations, nations where the people torture and have even more self-censorship, even less initiative.

~I listen to anything Pete Drucker says, such as when he says executives should not be overpaid. I have written essays on this site about “anime.” Today there is a popular Japanese animated weekly TV show, based on a best selling novel, Moshidora, known as Management from Drucker (Not sure of the future English title, I don’t think it’s been translated yet) A high school girl has to replace her sick friend as manager for a baseball team. She goes to the bookstore to learn to be a better sports managER and by mistake picks up Drucker’s book on manageMENT. Then she applies the knowledge to the team during the baseball season.  Drucker is honored in Japan.

No comments:

Post a Comment