The Difference Between a System and an Ideal

Recently, New York City announced the results of their Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). This aptitude test is taken by eighth grade students and serves as the sole factor for admission to the most selective high schools in the city.

While black and Latino students make up 66% of all NYC students, they received only 10% of these coveted slots.

Hold that thought.

Meritocracy is defined as “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.”

Are we to believe that any one group of thirteen-year-old children is that disproportionately less talented than another to justify such as discrepancy as described above?

The term meritocracy was originally coined in the 1958 satirical essay by the sociologist, Michael Young. You read that right, satire.

The essay was a dystopian tale set in 2033, where a historian now living in a so called meritocracy looked back in time to review how they got there

Young’s historian proved also to be a wise futurist, when he recognized the limits of meritocracy. His forecast included a future full of simplistic judgment, saying for example — “the eminent know that success is a just reward for their own capacity, their own efforts and in which the lower orders know that they have failed every chance they were given.” 

He also envisioned a day where merit based systems would ironically lead to the hoarding of advantages amongst those who had worked their way to the top, writing that “nearly all parents are going to try to gain unfair advantages for their offspring.”

We conflate systems with ideals. It is the difference between “this is how things work” and ‘this is how things should work.” We no more live in a true meritocratic system than we live in a true democracy.  As Young foretold, rules get re-written by those at the top who, perhaps naturally, wish to remain there. 

It is the ideal of a meritocracy that we should constantly be striving to live by. 

Ultimately this means ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules and where the playing field is created level for all. 

But it must first start by being honest enough to admit when we’ve gained favor through other means AND recognizing when certain meritocratic practices (such as the test mentioned above) are not as much about merit as we would like to think they are. 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

Just a Little More?

Fifteen miles from my home is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Its primary claim is the setting for the infamous ride of the Headless Horsemen – the author of which ironically was eventually buried there.

Perhaps less well-known is its status as the resting place of perhaps the richest collection of wealthy individuals this country has known. The names are a who’s who of American wealth — Astor, Dodge, Chrysler, Rockefeller, Watson and Carnegie.  

Most their graves are lavish mausoleums or memorials. Carnegie’s, however, is a little different. It is adorned with a modest Celtic cross — the graves of he and his wife marked by simple grave plates.

And as a symbol of the paradox of wealth, Carnegie’s plot also includes the graves of three others – all long time servants to he and his wife.

Some may see this gesture as an act of kindness and friendship, while others could view it as a sign of inequality and privilege.

In his lifetime, Carnegie could be ruthless. He pressed his advantages, leveraged his power, to skyrocketing levels of wealth.

He believed that a person’s life was to be divided into two halves; the first involved making money and the second giving it away. To that end, Carnegie gave 90% of his fortune away during his lifetime, and the balance when he died (a total of $4.8 billion in today’s dollars). To his only daughter and wife, he left a small trust.  As a result, none of his present day heirs claim his riches, or for that fact his name.

Rockefeller was, if anything, more ruthless in his business practice. His approach to philanthropy was slightly different, as his fortune was both passed down from generation to generation and given away over time. The Rockefeller name and fortune continue – with family assets estimated at $16 billion today.

As a youth, Rockefeller said his goal was to make a $100,000 and live to be a hundred (he made it to 97). 

As an adult, when his wealth had already tacked on three more zeros beyond his goal, a reporter asked him, “How much money is enough?” His reply, “Just a little bit more.”

Rockefeller’s sentiment may seem cold but does it ,  veer far away from the prevailing thoughts of today? Maximize wealth and advantage while you can, and pass it on to your children. Give what you don’t need away to good causes.

But how much do we need?  “Just a little more”

Recent news underscores the issue with this approach: growing class tensions, parents using bribes to get their children into college, politicians calling for wealth taxes, populist uprisings on both sides of the political spectrum.

Which brings us back to the answer given by Rockefeller a hundred years ago.

What if instead of answering the question, “How much money is enough?”, those same four words were the response to each of these questions?
 

– How much could we be taxed?
– How much should we give away?
– How much should we share the wealth with those we work with?
– How much confidence should we have in our children to succeed without our help?
– How much should we question how our wealth is acquired?
– How much should we think of others before ourselves?

Just a little more.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

Learning from the Boss

I’m sitting here paying my bills and just kicking myself.  Not over money spent but on money not.

Before sitting down, I went to Spotify and stumbled on Springsteen Live on Broadway. When it came out, the reviews were stupendous as were the first hand accounts from friends who had shelled out significant money to see it. 

Within five minutes of listening, I could tell that this would have been money well spent.
 

Most would say Springsteen’s music speaks for itself.  It is storytelling at its finest. But his introductions to each song, stripped of musical accompaniment, are a special gift.

He shares his life story with raw intimacy, bravery, nuance, humor, strength, vulnerability, affection and love. This list of adjectives could go on and on. 

Of particular note is his introduction to “My Hometown.” Here he paints a picture familiar to anyone whose connection to his or her hometown is conflicted. It is a messy mixture of fond memories and familiar struggles told through the prism of a thousand eyes.  They belong to the boy he was, the man he is and the many characters that shared his life – chief among them his father. 

Through his songs and stories, Springsteen accomplishes something that is critical for anyone who has ever had a childhood marked by struggle. He finds meaning.

It is hard to listen to Springsteen on Broadway and not reflect on your own life – regardless of your circumstances.

So with that said, whether you have 10 minutes now to just sample this experience or two hours and twenty eight minutes later to listen to it in its entirety, I hope you listen to Springsteen on Broadway

He’ll show you why he is the best Boss one can imagine. One who inspires and teaches without you even realizing it.  

Plus with Spotify, it will not be money you’ll be spending well – it will be time.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

Do You Suffer from ERI?

If you’re like me, until recently you never even heard of ERI, let alone know if you suffer from it.

The term, coined by Johannes Siegrist, senior professor at the University of Dusseldorf, stands for Effort/Reward Imbalance.

The idea is that we all make a mental calculation when it comes to work. How does what I’m putting in compare to what I’m getting out of it?

In this insightful article on the topic from the Guardian, the author quotes Siegrist, saying there are two types of imbalance. “You can either do too little and receive too much or do too much and receive too little.”

In both cases, these imbalances can prove to be unhealthy. For those whose effort is great and reward small, it has been linked to heart problems and depression. 

Surprisingly and perhaps less sympathetically, those on the other end who may feel their reward is unearned may also experience mental health issues. 

So what is our response? 

Well because no one likes to feel off balance, we recalculate our Effort/Reward for ourselves and dangerously for others.

We overstate our effort while understating those of others. And we minimize our own reward while overstating the reward of others. 

In the process we throw shade on others in the form of guilt or shame. 

The problem is both effort and reward are hard to quantify in our own lives let alone try to judge in others. 

Both effort and reward are relative. They vary from day to day. They are both a point in time and a reflection of a lifetime of activity

So what is one to do?

If you’re reward is in excess of your effort — work harder… for others.

If you’re doing too much and receiving too little — demand more… with and from others.

You see the solution to ERI is not something we will find in our own heads but something we must seek in the company of others. 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

The Best Book I’ve Read in Years

sThe best books forever change the way you see something – and that is what The Overstory has done for me and my connection to nature – and specifically trees.

It is hard to describe, so I will start with these three  passages from different parts of the book:

That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen…A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.

As the lady officer in the station takes her fingerprints, she feels, for the first time since her father’s death, like she’s given the day everything it wanted.
 

The essay flickers under his fingers. He can’t follow it, can’t decide whether it’s brilliant or rubbish. His whole self is dissolving. All his rights and privileges, everything he owns. A great gift that has been his since birth is being taken away. It’s a grand luxurious act of self-deceit, an outright lie, that claim of Kant’s: “As far as nonhumans are concerned, we have no direct duties. All exists merely as means to an end. That end is man.”

The book is chiefly about connections – with each other, with previous and future generations and with nature and the living world. Trees play a prominent role, some might consider them characters or catalysts of the plot itself.

In reading the book (full disclosure, I’m not even finished yet), it has been an act of pure discovery and humility.  

It does not overtly advocate for us to change how we see the world or to become better stewards of our environment. Yet by allowing me to reflect on what it had to say, it has done just that.

It is embarrassing that I can’t name but a few trees I come across in nature or have such little appreciation for the life one has lived and given.  

To think that we pass trees that have been in our backyards since before the revolutionary war and don’t bat an eyelash or pause to marvel at it’s journey north to the sky, south into the soil and across one generation to the next.

We cut them down without hesitation. Waste their by products, like paper, without a second thought to its source.  Blind to how truly connected we are, we cut their noses and spite our own faces. 

Knowing the name of a thing is the first step to seeing its value and protecting it. Stopping to reflect on its journey the second. Sharing that journey with others, the third.

Consider this shared. Here is a link to buy a copy (it’s printed on recycled paper), or better yet, download it or reserve it at your local library.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

What Do You Do When You’re Wrong?

In response to last week’s post, several readers wrote me to point out an error. I incorrectly wrote, “Mr. Rogers invited the postman, Mr. McFeely, to come soak his feet in his pool.”  

In reality, he invited Officer Clemmons. Mr. McFeely is white while Officer Clemmons is African-American – not a minor point considering Mr. Rogers was trying to make a statement about integrating public pools.

My initial instinct was to hope no one else noticed and ignore it.  

Ultimately, guilt made me own up to my mistake, email the readers who pointed out the error and send this mea culpa. The net result was not only a personal relief but also some excellent exchanges with readers – even netting a book recommendation. What originally felt threatening instead felt liberating.
 
A few weeks earlier, my middle daughter had given me a master class in apologies.  Around bedtime, she had completely lost her cool about something that seemed trivial at the time. She said some hurtful and hateful things, including that I was “the worst Dad ever” and she “never wanted to read with me again.”  Both of which stung, especially since we’ve been having an absolutely awesome time reading a book series called The Unwanteds every night for months. She ran into her room crying, slamming the door.

Several minutes later, a notebook came sliding out from under said slammed door. In her two-page note, she walked me through every nook and cranny of what she was feeling and why she acted the way she did. I went into her room, her apologetic words in my proud hand, to tell her how brave it was to share her feelings so directly and purely. I asked if we could read theUnwanteds and so we did.
 
In the spirit of President’s Day, both examples, reflect these words from Lincoln:

My old Father used to have a saying that ‘If you make a bad bargain, hug it all the tighter.’
 
Owning our mistakes has always been hard, but it seems even harder today. We don’t allow much space for forgiveness. 
 
Saying sorry, admitting when you’re wrong. These are really, really hard things.  Yet we put every potential apology through the lens of judgment instead of understanding.  A world that seems more about gotcha, than “I get you.”
 
The problem is that when we don’t feel safe to own our mistakes, both parties suffer.  Apologies come either half-baked or not at all. And no one is able to move on.
 
There is something poetic about the imagery of hugging our mistakes all the tighter.  Just imagine, if we could all hug ours as tightly as a nine-year-old.
 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

What Kind of Neighbor are You?

Consider these three stories:
 
A couple in Newton Massachusetts give birth to a daughter who is deaf.  In response, twenty of their neighbors learn sign language and have been speaking to that child regularly for the last two years.  Rather than having to travel hours away to learn how to sign at a school for the deaf, the little girl is able to stay in her community and learn by signing with her family and friends.
 
In my town, Hastings-on-Hudson, the high school wanted to put on a production of Hairspray. The play is homage to diversity, acceptance and integration.  Because the student body isn’t itself diverse racially, they invited students from nearby towns Yonkers, Stamford and the Bronx to join their cast.  The show is a hit – on every imaginable level.
 
In the recent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighborthere is a scene recounting when Mr. Rogers invited the postman, Mr. McFeely, to come soak his feet in his pool.  This is a response to the resistance at the time to allowing African Americans to swim in the same public pools as their white neighbors.  This decent man in a small public television studio in Pittsburgh transmitted a powerful signal to the country.
 
The origin of the word neighbor comes from combining an old English word “neah” meaning “near” and the Germanic word “bheue” meaning “to be, exist, grow.”
 
Together they suggest something so elemental to our existence – the importance of connecting with those around us in order to grow or add meaning to our lives.
 
There is an oft-cited phrase that fences make good neighbors.  Some today might extend that to include walls.
 
These three stories demonstrate how short-sited that aphorism is – as these barriers limit our ability to truly see other people.
 
Whether the neighbor is next door in Newton, the next town over from Hastings or spanning across the airwaves and state lines as in Mr. Rogers.  It is the lack of fences, walls, and boundaries – both literal and psychological – that allow us to fulfill this most fundamental part of being alive and growing.

Being a good neighbor asks us to see everyone – not just those next door or in our town – but across all borders – as someone with whom we share our planet and humanity.  Someone with whom if we gave the time to be welcoming, we might both grow from that experience.

What kind of neighbor are you?
 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

You Can Do Hard Things

This is a phrase my wife has recently used several times with our children. When I first heard it, it immediately struck a chord.
 
As a child, most things seem a little hard at first – tying your shoes, getting your own breakfast, reading a book, riding a bike.
 
It is by only by doing these things ourselves, that we eventually master them and what at first seemed hard eventually becomes second nature.
 
It is to easy to forget this simple lesson. In the name of expediency, we answer the call to “tie my shoe”, “get me breakfast”, or “read to me?” 

Our lack of patience denies them the opportunity to overcome a struggle and independently solve their own problems.
 
Ironically, we at the same time, serve them empty pabulum that “nothing is impossible” and “they can do anything.”  This is while we simultaneously deny them the skills necessary to achieve even the most mundane goals.
 
“You can do hard things” is a realistic invitation to meet life where it is – right in front of you.  

Life, after all, is hard and as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “nothing worth having comes easy.”  So day-by-day, we work to do hard things. When we master each, we feel rewarded and energized to take on the next hard thing. This is a fundamental part of learning, living and growing.
 
Conversely, well-intentioned calls like “nothing is impossible” and “you can do anything” can ring hollow. For those of means, it seems like an entitlement (since we may have shown them that things will come to you regardless of your effort).
 
It is also a little tone deaf to those who face constant adversity.  Their lives are filled with hard things and  everything seems impossible and overwhelming considering their circumstances.
 
For different reasons, it creates unrealistic distant expectations when what is needed are smaller invitations for mastery.
 
My youngest daughter loves baking shows and occasionally helps us in the kitchen. But until recently, she treated breakfast as if she were in a diner – ordering what she would like as her parental waiters obliged. 
 
On Wednesday, she poured her own cereal, spilling just a little drop of milk in the process. Smiling she looked up and said,  “see, I can do hard things.”
 
One day a bowl of cereal, tomorrow maybe it’s tying her shoes. Whatever the next hard thing is, she will be just a little more prepared to tackle it.  And that I suppose is all we should ask.
 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

Small Invisible Acts

A man wrote a short story that he could not get published. So he included it in 200 Christmas cards he sent out to friends and family.
 
One of the cards ended up in the hands of a film director. He made a film based on that story.
 
It lost a fortune and the director never made a successful film again. He ultimately had to sell his production company and with it the rights to the film.
 
The company and the rights were sold several more times. The eventual owner forgot to renew the copyright of the film.
 
Which meant that it was now free to anyone who wanted to air the film.
 
So PBS did.
 
And then other networks followed suit.
 
They aired it around Christmas because they needed cheap programming to compete with newer holiday specials.
 
The film was It’s a Wonderful Life.
 
The story behind how this classic came to be epitomizes its name and central message every bit as much as the better known plot of the film itself.
 
Small invisible acts by people known and unknown shape our lives.  It reminds us to send more such acts into the world – without thought or expectation of any grand outcome.

Although, as this story shows, this doesn’t mean that something grand won’t eventually happen.  And when it does and others learn the story behind the story, they too will feel all the more grateful and enriched.  Perhaps inspiring more simple invisible acts to made.
 
Thank you to Phillip Van Doren Stern for sending his story, “The Greatest Gift” out into the world and into our hearts.
 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

What Do You Do in Line?

I recently heard the writer and sociologist, Arlie Russell Hochschild describe the discontent many feel in the country today.  It was from her acclaimed book,Strangers in Their Own Land, and was captured in the following metaphor:
 
“You’re waiting in line for the American dream that you feel you very much deserve. It’s like waiting in a pilgrimage, and the line isn’t moving. Your feet are tired. You feel you are properly deserving of this reward that’s ahead. And the idea is, you don’t begrudge anyone in this right deep story. You’re not a hateful person. But then you see… somebody cutting ahead of you. Why are they getting special treatment?
 
Then, in another moment, the president of the country, Barack Obama, who should be tending fairly to all waiters-in-line, seems to be waving to the line cutters. In fact, “Is he a line cutter?” — the idea is. How did his mother — she was a single mother, not a rich woman — afford a Harvard education, a Columbia education? Something fishy happened. That was the thought there.”
 
In a final moment, someone from the coasts, someone highly educated, someone from that so-called elite, turns around, and they’re really close to the prize, or they have the prize. But they turn around and look at the others who are waiting in line and say, “Oh, you backward, Southern, ill-educated, racist, sexist, homophobic redneck.”  That is the estranging thing, that insult.”
 
The power of metaphors is their ability to reveal deeper insights into our thinking about a particular topic.  

And in hearing hers, it illuminates the following truths about how we see mobility in this country:
 
We generally don’t understand how we end up in our place in line.

We have even less knowledge about how other people get their place in line

We don’t know why the line moves for some and not for others.

And finally, we spend too much time judging others in the line and too little figuring out how to make the line move faster for all of us.

What do you do when you’re in line?
 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.