Thursday, July 31, 2014

Human Needs

Question: What makes you happy, what makes you tick?

Two posts back I encouraged comments giving me topic ideas, because I may stop writing essays after an August convention. One of the suggestions was the one above.

Of Human Needs

In ancient Greece there was an important inscription in stone at the temple of the oracle of Delphi: Know Thyself was all it said. Such knowing is a lifetime project for everyone, especially for folks like me.

I confess I have needed to learn a great deal about myself, and everyone else’s human needs, as I started so far behind. I grew up on an emotional iceberg, grim and grey. Later, out in the big world, I used to half-joke to myself, “I am suppressed, repressed and depressed…” I say “half-joke” because my sense of humor was less than half developed. Luckily I germinated a little humor as I matured. I’m still chuckling warmly at the young confident man in the elite American Airborne Rangers. I heard him reply to a Canadian major, when asked what he was doing in the rangers, “Growing up, sir.” I too grew in the forces. One day I was released from the service, walked past the chain link fence out the gate, across the airstrip, and over to a futuristic community college, a college that earned North American design awards the year it was built. Now it’s Mount Royal University.

During my first month there I had one of those typical student-growth experiences: I had to consult a nursing student textbook as part of my coursework. In chapter one was a list of human needs. Talk about know thyself—I suddenly realized that I had been oblivious all my life, and too hard on myself in denying my needs. I had never seen such a list; I had no idea such needs existed; and I thought I had better take responsibility to check myself against that list.

Consider the need for human relations. Popping into the civilian world meant I had (almost) no local friends, but that didn’t mean I should be oblivious to my social needs.

Earlier this month, in my essay Speaking Up in Classrooms and Business Meetings I noted that a coffee buddy handed me the best selling book about introverts, Quiet by Susan Cain. A friend of Cain, who said he talks to her, even though she’s “one of my best friends,” only when she initiates it, said (p. 211) “I could go for literally years without any friends except for my wife and kids.” He said he would love to live with just his family on a thousand acres. In this he sounds merely like a common computer nerd—or a little like me. So far, so good. But what if, unmarried, he tried to be a “real” hermit? It wouldn’t work. According to my college social work teacher, hermits find themselves, when they come into town for supplies, spending more and more time hanging around the trading post.

Human relations, even for self-avowed hermits, are a need. In other words, in order to keep my engine ticking over happily, I would need to join a computer club, a bowling league, a square dance association— whatever. Just as residents in hospitals and senior citizen homes need to congregate to sing or exercise or appreciate music together—something, anything—it doesn’t matter what.

You’ve heard of early retirement? I have a relative, a delivery driver, taking a late retirement: Work is the only way he gets out of the house and sees people… I guess if only he could get a hobby, he could retire!

I don’t suppose I could ever find that list again: As I recall, that set of tattered orange nursing textbooks were old even then, and have surely been replaced. I suppose such lists (link) would be harder to read, today, in this age of “skim the Internet” to find things written in sound-bite and (power) point form. Easier to gape at web pictures of fluffy cats. Well. I will leave finding and studying such “lists of needs” as an exercise for my keenest readers.

Anyone who reads, I believe, should have in his vocabulary the concept of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “list,” known as “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” usually depicted as a step ladder or pyramid. If you aren’t familiar with it then I suggest you try out this link to Maslow … Welcome back.

I’m sure most college students who come across Maslow first start to hope, then dare to believe, they will some day be at the top step of Maslow’s ladder. As my days tick by I would be happy to think I’m nearly there myself. I found a reference to Maslow in a list from a Brazil nursing website where there are five paragraphs covering five needs. The last paragraph, for self-accomplishment needs,” ends with this:
 “Besides the above five needs, Maslow found cognitive needs, such as desire to know, understand, systemize, analyze and seek relations and meaning… Furthermore, the need is highlighted to help other people to self-develop and accomplish their potential, transcendent needs, which follow self accomplishment.” (Boldface in the original)

As an essayist and a citizen, I’m happy to think that I am true to my cognitive needs, happy that I transcend by helping others.

Of course, “being true to my needs” is never easy or automatic. In my own case, I’ve felt haunted down the years… ever since childhood when I held a tinker toy in one hand, pretending it held a secret radio hidden from the Japanese, and a book in my other hand. The book was King Rat, by James Clavel, about a P.O. W. camp run by the Japanese. Clavel describes ordinary people, from a cross section of society, being prisoners. To counter the feeling of wasting time, wasting their lives, the men could consider “getting some education” by taking in lectures given by fellow servicemen with degrees and Ph.D’s. Imagine a young man from the slums of London coming out of the war smarter than he went in! But no. Clavel vividly describes an all too human “one day at a time” procrastination—just like me, dammit! The lectures are very sparsely attended. Nobody looks ahead to think: One day the prisoners will be released, and then they will face forward into their new exciting lives, rather than looking backwards and admitting they did not step up to the challenge of self-accomplishment, that they wasted years… As I suppose we all do, with all our years, to a greater or lesser extent.

I was in college when I saw an art film version of the Russian novel about Oblomov. The poor fellow stays at home in a disordered brown room with no stamp collection, no writing desk, no musical instruments, no textbooks, no supplies for making arts, crafts or models—nothing requiring any effort. In a time before computers or television, Oblomov was the original couch potato. (At least he stood up to make tea in his samovar) I wondered: What if I graduated, became unemployed, and then turned into Oblomov? My outdoor pursuits teacher confessed he gets a little “Oblomovish” when he goes off to attend a long conference. I was relieved to hear him say so. I resolved to try to have goals that impelled action, and to try to stay on top of my procrastination. I remembered the ancient Greek saying, “Not life, but a good life, is expected of every citizen.”

I’m sure the Greeks had the same human struggles as we do, I’m sure they struggled with “procrastination” too—the very word is from classical times. The difference between them and us is the Greeks were far less Oblomovish in their citizenship than we are today. At least we moderns, even if our slogan is not in the context of a healthy citizenry, know to “get a life.”

The story of my life, down the years, is seeing patterns: learning more and more about my needs, and more and more about how I escape meeting my needs. For example, I am becoming ever more aware of how my procrastination is always sneaking up on me: Just last week I suddenly discovered myself sneaking more time on the Internet, never even turning my head five degrees to see the clock. “Sigh!”—At least I do less sneaking the more I know myself.

The folks at Delphi would understand what I mean.

Sean Crawford
Not spending enough time at the forum

~My favorite line from King Rat is near the end when a hero, Keating, is painfully baffled, trying to make sense of the horrible “real” morality of British society he uncovered in the camp. He learns his father has died in a convoy in the Atlantic: (from memory) “And Keating knew, tormented, that the only man who could, perhaps, have told him, had died beneath the freezing Murmansk run.”

~I cribbed the Delphic “know thyself was all it said” from Calgary-raised, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Peggy Ward from her song, “Canticle for Kindred Spirits,” which starts: “Angels and companions, sacred hearts and kindred spirits, I am calling out to you…” It’s on her album Songs to Clean Your House By. And it really is for cleaning house; Peggy told me some of the songs are intended for rest periods.

~If you combine this essay with last week’s piece, then you might assume I believe everyone “should” keep active by having a work ethic. No. “There are many roads to Rome,” many ways to fill your needs. From the best selling series by John D. McDonald I respect the private investigator Travis McGee: He spends most of his life lounging on his boat at slip F-14 in Fort Lauderdale. I’m still chuckling at how my professor for my class on “health and aging” replied in formal tones, “Travis McGee is a god.” This was right after I said, regarding mental health, McGee advised against moving to a Florida retirement community: It’s hard to feel a sense of friendly community as neighbors keep dying and homes keep having “for sale” signs.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Live to Work

Question: Work to live, or live to work?

In my last post I allowed folks to give essay topics, because I may stop writing essays after the August book lover’s convention. A commenter asked the question above.

The Question of Work and Life
The answer depends on the era: Back in the days of buckled shoes in old England, according to George Orwell, in one day a squire could ride around his property a little, walk in his fields a little, and mostly lounge in his mansion; and then keep this up, day after day, enjoying it. Orwell points out that no modern person could be satisfied with such idleness. And when Orwell wrote this, in the 1940’s, he was living in a land where they don’t have what we have: Puritan ancestors with a work ethic.

The answer depends on the age group: Many older folks must be like Andy Rooney, the essayist from the 60 Minutes news show, who wrote that even on vacation he got up early because of feeling he might be missing out on something. Teenagers sleep in because, although they would deny it, their biology makes them crave sleep. People in their twenties, although they wouldn’t admit it, sometimes make a habit of sleeping in for a different reason: As a confident sailor walking through the naval base in Esquimalt noted, “People sleep in as an escape.” That sounded right to me at the time, and still does.

The answer is a function of society: As I noted in Dysfunctional, (July 2014) our society has grown to be as complex as we can handle. It’s no surprise, then, if younger folks sleep in, while by the time you are Rooney’s age you have adjusted: You’ve found some coping skills, some self acceptance, and “you’ve got your act together” regardless of what your life might look like to someone on the outside. Of course, if you get into substance addiction then, as my addict friends tell me, your emotional growth stops at whatever year you had that first drink, even as your body keeps aging. I guess we prevent minors from taking substances because we’re trying to give them a decent chance to develop a few coping skills first, before they stand at the edge of the rabbit hole. God help the juveniles who try drugs early and slide down the tubes for life. How indecent.

I suppose we all have our little escapes or addictions; in my own life I’ve managed to get by without turning alcoholic. Last month five of us were at Moxies restaurant for a birthday celebration—and drinking coffee. Drew is my age, and much richer (long story) than I. He asked me something, probably about whether I would keep working. I remember my answer: “I have my home paid for, my car paid for, and I have enough cash to live on ramen noodles for the rest of my life. Call it “ramen profitable.” But then I’d want fancy meals once in a while, which would mean working part time, and if I’m working at all, I might as well work full time... so sure, I’ll keep working until retirement age.” As for Drew, he has since retired!

At work, about once a year I get asked if I would stay there if I had lots of money. It would be nice to think I’m being asked because I’m a philosophical fellow, and not because I’m an old geezer on my countdown to retirement. Actually, I’m asked because I would give a friendly answer. I reply, “Hey, I’m a middle-aged man, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I retired.” There’s a lot of truth to that: When I read of lottery winners who say they’ll keep working, or that guy recently who carefully gave most of his lotto money away, the winners are always older folks like me, not folks who sleep in.

As it happens, I’m privileged to have a meaningful low-paying occupation where I feel I am using my talents and striving for excellence, even if nobody else notices. If I had one of those well-paid occupations where I don’t “lean in,” where I complain and sneak drugs on the job, then my feelings might be different. It seems to me that when people feel some of their needs are being met on the job, regardless of whether they are rich, like executives and big entertainers, or humble like Andy Rooney, then they will keep going until they are too old—even as they get executive sized ulcers. It feels right to be “paying my way on the human scene.” We point our finger at a rich “playboy” because nobody wants to be a “playman.”

In this lifetime I could have made more money by staying in the armed forces. But on base it was common knowledge that most of us would die “young” if we stayed in right up until retirement. Since earlier death was most pronounced in the “combat arms” it was suggested in a 1950’s army journal (for officers) that this could be from we combat-types missing more sleep from sentry duty. But no one really knew, then or now. I figured it was from decompression, or maybe because life has less meaning after a soldier retires: any civilian job must at first seem frivolous and empty.

Which brings me to “meaning.” My retired father, a war veteran who worked in an institution, and thought I should stick with the army, told me something: It was by volunteering with cubs and scouts that he saved his sanity. The lesson to me is we all need “a life” and “meaning” somehow, in whatever way we can find, if not on the job then elsewhere. But as for volunteering in your golden years, be warned: If you don’t volunteer during your working years, you probably won’t volunteer in retirement either. That is according to business guru Peter Drucker. He noted, incidentally, in his Managing the Nonprofit Organization, that some volunteer positions could be quite rigorous, with high expectations and training.

My retired mother is now in “assisted living.” She told me she avoids reading upstairs in her room, alone, instead going downstairs to “work on” a jigsaw puzzle in the common room, where she can engage others in helping her. Accordingly, she recommends I keep up with my writing, as it will be more meaningful for me than doing puzzles. This makes sense: The Greeks believed a balanced life would include the arts. When Robert A. Heinlein, one evening, among his fellow science fiction writers, spoke of “retiring some day” the others chuckled, “Robert, you know retired carpenters, but you don’t know any retired writers....”

I think the best way to have a good balanced retirement is to have a good balanced working life first. I am saying, in conclusion, don’t just work to live, or “work to pay the bills,” but work as part of your total balanced life. Lean in. Live to work.

In the novel Friday by Robert Heinlein, an old relative of Friday is a rich, sensible Chief Executive Officer. He dies. Friday, whose job, just then, is being made obsolete, is given a letter: The CEO has written that, while bequeathing Friday a hefty chunk of change, he is purposely not supplying enough to retire on. How sensible.

Sean Crawford
(Maybe I better keep on writing essays)

~Since I have nonworking brothers, I should say: Of course, if you have the luxury of time to hem and haw then the most accurate answer to this question, as in so many old human questions, probably lies smack dab in the middle—but where’s the fun in that? Better for an essayist like me to pick one side, and give us all something to think over. 

~And what about Drew? Firstly: I don’t know. Secondly: They say the final stage of a man’s life-education is learning to use leisure time wisely. Drew has earned a university degree, so I would hope he has reached that final stage. Thirdly: What I forgot to say is he owns a small business.

~Maybe Drew was wondering if I was thinking of retiring to be a writer: Sometimes that’s wise, but H.L. Mencken discouraged giving up your day job, because writing is too hard to be done keeping banker’s hours. I think Rita Mae Brown said she would only write for four hours a day because after that her quality starts falling off. I might as well stay in contact with my material, the real world, in a real job.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Weary of Blogging

Being weary of life and blogging, I wrote no essay this week.
I’m weary of how I had forgotten that a Muslim grown adult could be so captivated by a children’s television show where kids are allowed to be curious, and investigate things, such as why do British drive on the left and where does a firefly get it’s glow?

Captivated because in her submissive Muslim family, village and clan they weren’t allowed to ask questions. How in the world had I forgotten? And do western Muslims know about the emphasis, overseas, on submission?

This weekend, glancing through an old May issue of Maclean’s magazine (With the Toronto Mayor on the cover) just before I threw it away… I discovered that very name of the African group in the news for kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls, Boko Haram, translates to mean, “Western education is a sin.” Wow. These evil men want more than just “no questioning:” they want no learning at all. Why do none of the daily newspapers report what their name means? Do my western Muslim neighbors know the translation? And if I reported such simple facts to them, of sin and submission, would my neighbors refuse to talk with me, claiming the facts are “insulting to Islam?”

So yes, I’m weary. If people easily forget, don't care to know, and refuse to talk, then what’s the point…?

…Now I am really looking forward to a convention in early August, for fans of prose, When Words Collide. It’s already sold out. After all the excitement I may turn away from writing essays to instead do fiction and poetry, like everybody else. So if you can suggest any essay topics for me to cover, or any past essays you liked, now is the time to let me know, as I may be dropping essays soon.

Sean Crawford
July 2014

~The TV show was in the book Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The book is not too intellectual, being told in autobiographical story form. Here is a link to a seven minute Youtube where she summarizes some of what she believes.

~Yes, you can be a Muslim and still believe in equal rights. Besides (former Muslim) Ali's book The Caged Virgin I easily found a link to a book by a Muslim who writes columns in the Calgary Sun.

You may be wondering: Are those two authors scientists who survey all the various subcategories of Islam? I doubt they are any more scientific than a veteran reporter writing a Sunday feature about global warming who does not conduct any interviews with skeptics—no balance. I have noted that the first union leaders, certain protestant church founders and the first women's liberationists end up being humourless and strident.

After they break trail, the rest of us have a path to examining the evidence, and therefore the luxury of being less strident. And the luxury of humour from believing two different things at the same time.
Of course, freedom means the freedom to not examine data; responsibility means something else.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014


I was chatting with my CEO and she spoke of someone we had known many years ago who had, er, “burnt out.”

I said, “So many of us have a past.”

“Yes. And a future!” How typical of my CEO: a future! I think she’s right.

Meanwhile, it’s too bad some judgmental folks, harsh and innocent, think that other folks, whom they don’t know personally, have no future. Now, I can’t remember meeting any such ignorant judgmental people myself, so maybe I’m just imagining them, but apparently they think all dysfunctional folks are “losers,” who never try to become functional, losers who escape ever trying to act sane because they forever “blame it all” on their parents/family/society etc., etc.  I suppose there are such people, but I've never known them.

I remember a girlfriend, spinning her wheels in life, rocking her car back and forth, who told me glumly, “At least I haven’t quit.” I can’t say whatever became of her, but I have hope. Back when she was in Alateen she referred to those oblivious kids who never had to worry about the horror of drugs and alcohol as “normies.” No doubt she and her pals felt bitter, while working towards better days.

In my experience, all the “less functional” folks I knew, however horrible their past, had hope. They tried so hard, like jungle guerrillas starving in caves for years never knowing when they would see the revolution, heroes who needed to keep not-losing until one blessed day they would wake to find the imperialists had folded their tents and left. They tried, they tried, and sometimes they realized they were trying too much. I remember a housewife, determined for years to get functional, telling me how happy she was, one day, to go to yoga class and be able, afterwards, to patiently talk with other wives merely about trivial things.

She was like the undergraduate at the student newspaper who told us one Monday how pleased she was that on Saturday she had been able to lie on the floor and just listen to entire songs. I think she was pleased not because she could take time away from studying—no one studied mid-Saturday—but because she could finally take time away from her responsibility to be always trying hard. I didn’t ask the “normies” at the newspaper whether they “got it.”

One day on the bus she told me the Women’s hospital had a sliding scale for counseling for women, and also for men too… but I was not ready yet to follow her example. At least I managed to get into a self-help group. I remember two ladies excited at getting help from a guy who did therapeutic body work. He must have released something, for they both went around angry for a week or two without knowing why. Or maybe they were angry that getting cured/recovered/normal took so bloody long. No quick fixes. At least they were managing their jobs and marriages and families, even as they felt different from society.

As for our total society, in the bigger picture of things I sometimes compare us all to people on highways with no traffic cops, people who might drive their cars moderately the first day, but then next day they go a little fast, and the next day a little faster still… they won’t hold back on increasing their speed until one day they scare themselves or crash. (By this theory, in our Brave New World there would never be a flood of people away from the reservations, not to this silly society) We now have ourselves a complex, stressful society, and we just won’t hold back to a moderate level for life or jobs. As for jobs, I once read a scenario (by Jane Jacobs) that Personnel Departments mainly value a college degree not for the book learning but as a screening device, to filter out less functional people who haven’t sustained complex demands. (This theory predicts that people from reservations would need extra help on campus) A rather cynical scenario, but not one I can dismiss out of hand.

My advice for innocent people is that dysfunction does exist, it doesn’t go away in a day, and it doesn’t just impact a tiny irrelevant fraction of the population. There is a reason personnel departments ask for references.

I work in Canada, where the field of human service has some prestige—unlike the U.S. (Go figure) As a serious professional, I don’t need to be a bleeding heart liberal, or be innocent about the world; I prefer to be realistic, like my good-hearted CEO. I think she would never set any “life-challenged persons” up for failure by hiring them for the complex demands of our agency, but neither would she advise them to give up and never seek for any jobs anywhere at all.

An advice columnist on the Internet, Sugar, was realistic when she worked with troubled middle school (junior high) teenage girls. For the girls, “Succeeding in this context meant getting neither pregnant nor locked up before graduating high school. It meant eventually holding down a job at Taco Bell or Walmart. It was only that! It was such a small thing and yet it was enormous.” (See Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed)

I remember a friend on a work program out of the vocational college having trouble getting out of bed to be on time for work: This was when she was staying in a dormitory very close to her work at Banff Springs Hotel. Eventually though, yes, she succeeded in obtaining her skills.

In an earlier part of the same column Sugar said, “The healing power of even the most microscopic exchange with someone who knows in a flash precisely what you’re talking about because she experienced that thing too cannot be overestimated.”

I agree. I liked my self-help group for the sharing, partly because we believed each other when we told things society just couldn’t handle.

I don’t know if I picked up any special wisdom from my seasons with my group, except—I can predict whether Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, back from his rehab, or Lindsey Lohan, back from her rehab, are going to make it. To me, a key detail for Ford is that upon his his return he restricted the media guest list, and didn’t want questions. For Lohan, the key detail is that although she’s had one starring part since rehab she hasn’t accepted any supporting roles, let alone bit parts or walk-on parts. Too bad. The Greeks had a word: hubris. The medical word I don’t know, the word the AA “drunks” use—and “drunks” is their own humble word—the word drunks use is “grandiosity.” I think going straight, with straight thinking, is really hard, even if you’re really humble. If instead you have grandiosity then you can just forget having “a come back.”

These days I’m too humble to scorn anyone, yet still not as humble as I could be. Life is good.

Sean Crawford
~My favorite prison warden, Clinton Duffy, once replied to a cynic, “Men are not leopards, men change their spots every day.”

~One of the things I like about the Chtorr War series, even while the author, David Gerrold, is from flaky southern California, is that his characters step up to the plate. In the story a number of impossible plagues speed over the earth; the survivors are traumatized orphans—a fact that gives them a golden excuse to "wimp out." But this is just when they need to mobilize resources to fight against a life-or-death alien infestation. And so the survivors fake being normal. “Fake it ‘till you make it.” I think what they don’t know is that “normal” was a construct all along. But I would never tell them so.

~Another view of "normal being a construct" is in the movie Boyhood according to this splendid review by an heir of Roger Ebert.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Speaking Up in Classrooms and Business Meetings

Our project meeting broke up, and as we went our separate ways I overheard our young “summer hire,” Steven, apologizing to the boss for not contributing. Well of course Steven had nothing to say: The project was already being implemented before he got hired, now we were wrestling with Part Two. So I met him in the hall and told him I had partly overheard his apology.

I said, “Sometimes, at the end of a meeting, I have had people thank me for my attentiveness. Even at a meeting where I have nothing to say, people would notice that I had been bringing energy to us by being present.” I didn’t tell him these meetings were at a community center, not at work. I added if people shoot off their mouths merely “to have said something” then “that bugs me.” I think Steven appreciated hearing me. We chatted a little, and went our separate ways. Since he’s a summer hire, I wondered if he is going to school in September—where he may feel pressured and scared about speaking up in classrooms and large meetings.

Today I am thinking of individuals speaking in meetings, and of the total group.

As for individual participation, middle-aged guys like me can make it look so easy, and I suppose I could feel guilty about that. While my high school days are too far in the past for me to remember, I know what it was like in my post secondary years, and in big meetings: Butterflies, anxieties like rising sparks and embers, subsiding, then flaring up every time I got close to speaking up or raising my hand. As the sergeant always said in those 1950’s war movies, “It’s OK to be scared.”

For me, the trick has been not to stand up and then “wing it” but to plan out my words before I stood. By planning under my breath I wouldn’t have frantic pauses, and I wouldn’t be long-winded and unsure; rather, I would be concise and get to sit back down all the quicker. I suppose it takes practice: “Stand up to be heard; Speak to be understood; Sit down to be appreciated.”

Back in the days of the Pilgrims a writer in London, Samuel Johnson, commented to his young friend James Boswell that we all want to be stared at, and if we have a legitimate reason, then let people stare all they want. What Johnson meant, I dare say, was that it’s fine getting attention by having “a claim to fame,” such as juggling or reciting classic poetry, but not so fine to be hogging the light with empty boasting or loud posturing. As they said in jolly old England: Empty barrels make the most noise.

In a classroom or large meeting, before my embers flare, I check my motivations: if I sense I am about to speak solely to boast or to boost myself, or even mostly to boost myself, then I will stay silent. Furthermore, by asking myself what exactly my contribution is to accomplish for the group, a lot of not-so-good impulses to share will vanish.

As I told Steven, to the group I bring my energy, my focus and my listening. And when listening, I know any contribution meant seriously is worth serious consideration. Therefore when someone speaks I will take some “moments” to respectfully process it. If instead I am too hasty to wait even a single moment, if I “step on the heels” of the previous speaker, then I am depriving both myself and the group of that “moment”—and I’m being disrespectful. As a Pilgrim put it, “Speak only if you are moved to speak; don’t speak if you are not moved.” To me this means: Don’t be speak on impulse, do take a moment to process, and then do take a moment to check yourself—don’t be hasty.

As a practical Zen Buddhist engineer might say: “If I don’t take a moment to “check in” as to whether I am moved—call it “getting centered” if you wish—then I am operating without data, merely guessing that my contribution is worth the group’s time. And guesses have no place in engineering.”

To think about individuals is to raise my eyes to a larger picture frame. “That’s me in the middle.”

The difference between a group of colleagues having a project meeting, and those same colleagues gathered in a tavern, is focus and self-discipline. And even in the pub a certain disciplined politeness prevails: If one guy is allowed to tell a story, then during the long course of the evening everyone else will also be allowed one story.

I suppose we adults in the tavern each retain, somewhere inside, our “inner teenager,” even as our politer adult side prevails. The difference between a social gathering of adults and a gathering of teenagers is instructive—no wonder we don’t want adolescents drinking next to us in the bar! I have long forgotten what a high school classroom meeting is like, but I still know what teen socializing is like, because I hear teens in the mall food court by the Malaysian food counter: impulsive, attention seeking, somewhat rude and impolite, rushing to speak, sometimes rushing to the point of “everyman for himself.” Call it immaturity, but call it normal for their age group.

The adolescents remind me of a few British soldiers in the Malayan jungle during the war, guerrillas against the Japanese. There was never enough food. The men would try to eat Chinese style, from big communal bowls, rather than having the food individually rationed out. And for each meal, the men would find themselves starting out polite, but then rushing faster and faster, like an arms race, for the food. Like adolescents having an arms race for the attention of their peers. When adults gather to talk, racing is too undignified, like seeing a businessman in his suit and tie running on the sidewalk.

During my young army years, when of course we had no staff meetings, I noticed that socially we acted somewhat like adolescents. I wasn’t surprised at all, as I thought soldiering was similar to athletics: Rejoicing in glory, and having an upper ceiling on character development. If one got too mature, then one might move on from sports to other things. Confucius was a highly prized military consultant, but no one expected him to be a soldier.

Learning of businessmen being “meeting challenged” was something that truly surprised me. Judging by the Internet, many people, departments and corporations never seem to learn, not even after many years. Right up until retirement employees will blog how they still hate meetings, experiencing their meetings as ineffective, dysfunctional, unnecessary, and a dreary waste of time. I would have hoped that in the business world good business-like meetings would be as common as common sense; I would hope that no one with any experience would lack “meeting skills.” But they do. Too many people will speak up too quickly, too forcibly, quite confidently, not giving appropriate time to the slower, quieter and just-as-effective thinkers. In some companies Confucius, although the smartest man in the room, wouldn’t be allowed an equal hearing… this because certain individuals would lack self-discipline.

Of course the payoff would be these extroverts individually get what they want, but then this wouldn’t always be the wisest thing for the company, so why? I know, as a writer/creator, how the first ideas I spout off are seldom the ones I go with. Are these confident individuals too stupid to know that a meeting of minds, in order to be optimal, requires that all minds be included? Or are they too selfish, thinking that attention and respect is a finite resource like a communal bowl of food, like working under the “law of the jungle,” somehow forgetting there is no “I” in “team?”

More charitable than seeing them as rude is thinking, “Water reaches its level.” These individuals are acting at whatever level the rest of the group, and the group leader in particular, allows. Well then, is the leader stupid, lazy? To be charitable, perhaps many managers have not thought through the demands of their position. I wonder: What would business guru Peter Drucker, the inventor of “business management,” say? Although I think of Drucker as being an academic, I am convinced that if Drucker had to lead a workplace meeting then he would first think through the group purpose, and the leadership skills required, and then make sure he was ready. For example, he might prepare to say, “We haven’t heard from Jade for a while. Jade, what are you thinking?”

As a good manager prepares his meeting skills he is also, in some Zen fashion, “setting his intention” for how to manage and role model. With his intention in place, I think a manager would instinctively keep the meeting pace from getting out of hand, listen well, think before he speaks, and respect everyone’s wish to contribute.

At my own workplace our meetings feel so natural. To prepare poor Steven for what he may find at future jobs, I wonder if I should tell him how lucky he is to be here?

Sean Crawford
In the Calgary sunshine,
July 2014    
~Is anything coincidental? On Friday, just after I had started this essay, Marie at our weekly writer’s group put some free books on the table for anyone to pick up, and then handed one book to me. It was the best seller Quiet by Susan Cain, subtitled The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. No, Marie wasn’t telling me to be quiet, although I was speaking up like an extrovert to chair the meeting that day, and doing a good democratic job of it too, if I do say so myself.

Marie said she’s eager to know what I think, after I read it. I’m only half finished—but I heartily recommend it.

~One of the guerillas, Spencer Chapman, a colonel in the Seaforth Highlanders, wrote The Jungle is Neutral.

~Last week I saw The Railway Man. Part of the reason the Japanese soldiers were so cruel was because under fascism they were being treated cruelly themselves. I feel sure their armed forces are normal today, as are their civilians. Thank God for citizenship and democracy.

~Drucker is as well known in Japan as here. I sure wish Moshidora, about using Drucker’s book to manage a baseball team, were in English—if they can subtitle Sailor Moon, why not Moshidora? It started as a novel, then became an animated series and a live action movie. The hero is supposed to buy a book on managing a sports team, but accidently comes back with Drucker’s book on management.  

~Former Microsoft manager Scott Berkun did an essay on his blog which, especially in his comment section, applies to meetings called The Fallacy of Quick Answers, July 14, 2010

~I told him I was inspired to do my own related essay, Too Fast, Too Wrong, archived July 2010.