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.
A few weeks ago, someone suggested that I watch the video, This Is America, from Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover)
A better recommendations would have been to watch it twice.
My first viewing left me mesmerized, but also wondering, “What the hell was that about?”
My inclination was to google that very question. The results were revealing. Countless articles broke down the multiple layers of the video, pointing out important things I had clearly missed in my initial viewing. So I watched it again. This time, instead of watching the action taking place in the foreground, I focused exclusively on what was going on in the background.
Like the peeling of an onion, each layer was stronger than the one before.
Demands on our time and distractions to our attention make for superficial viewing. And as supply follows demand, eventually superficial content.
Yet beneath the surface of every story, including our own, should be depth worth examining.
Find the time to watch something twice. First follow the action right in front of you, then watch again to see what’s happening in the background.
It could be this video. Or try it with a sporting event (watch a portion of the game following the ball, then spend 10 minutes focused on one player without the ball.) Re-read a great book or listen closely to the verses of a song multiple times to get past the hook.
Finally, try to view your own story differently. Take your eyes off of yourself and look to see everything that is happening all around you – what meaning and depth do the people, places and events in your background add to your story?
When you take the time to look twice at something, you won’t have to worry about what you’re missing.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
On April 3rd, the evening before his death, he gave his last public talk in Memphis. The speech is largely known for his prescient “mountaintop” passage below:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Given that the very next day, he would be taken by an assassin’s bullet, it is hard to understate the tragedy of his closing remarks. Yet to only remember that portion of his speech is to miss what is essentially a blueprint for advancing social change.
He opens by reminding us of the incredible progress we have made in human rights throughout history – while saying there is no other time in which he would want to live.
Calling people to join the Memphis march for sanitation workers, he outlines why marches work, how non-violence is effective and the importance of carrying oneself with dignity throughout.
For those engaged in the myriad of movements today, he also discusses other tools for activism, chief among them economic withdrawal (reminding people, that at the time, the African American economy at $31 billion was larger than many developed countries – including Canada.)
Mobilization, economic leverage, media savvy, patience, determination, and dignity – these were among the tools of his trade. And they were all on display in this Memphis speech.
Right before his mountaintop reference, he discussed his mortality in even more vivid terms. Years earlier in 1960 – prior to most of his signature achievements – he was stabbed by a mentally ill black woman in New York during a book signing event. The tip of the blade was at the edge of his aorta. He observed that had he even sneezed he would have died then and there. History robbed and no telling its impact on the civil rights movement.
Which is all to say for all the planning and strategy we put into our life, there is no accounting for the fickleness of fate.
Whether out of honor for Dr. King or interest in learning more about how social change happens, please take a few minutes and read the fullness of his remarks here.
Perhaps, the sadness from the loss he himself foreshadows will be replaced by a renewed optimism for what is possible.
It has also been an effective instrument in getting people to open up on issues like race as evidenced by The Race Card Project. This initiative was started by Michele Norris of NPR and is now affiliated with The Bridge at Aspen Institute.
Several hundred thousand people have shared their six-word reflections on race. Just spending a few minutes on the site will show you the power of the format.
In reflecting recently on why I do this work in general and more specifically my interest in a better conversation around the American Dream, I distilled it down to this:
“I die. Daughters live. Now what?”
Part of the discipline of this exercise is to allow these few words to stand on their own – and, in doing so, give us pause so they may soak in.
So if you have a few minutes today, try distilling your story down to six words. As is the case in so many things, much of the value lies in the process not the end product. Still, I think you’ll be surprised by how a few words can say so much.
We all like to believe that our self-worth is something we determine on our own. It is after all called self-worth.
Then why do we so often feel compelled to compare ourselves to others? We do it with our looks, our grades, our performance, our income and raises. And we do it between neighbors or friends (e.g. keeping up with the Joneses) and within our families (e.g. will we do better than our parents?)
The sociological term for this is social comparison theory. Initially it was believed that the primary reason people do this is to gain an accurate self-evaluation. The more we compare ourselves to others, the more sure we can be about our own sense of self.
More recently, there has been focus on the types of social comparison; upward vs. downward. The idea being that we compare ourselves downward to feel better about our selves and we compare upward to motivate us to do better.
The power and implications of social comparison are significant. Some have theorized that the recent election was swayed by a large percentage of the population whose frustration is not just because their own situation hasn’t improved but that compared to their parents or others they once considered beneath them it now feels worse.
Recently, I had my own lesson is social comparison at work.
Last week we launched, Your American Dream Score, a simple quiz to assess what you had working for or against you in life. As part of our online efforts to spread the word, several messages were tested. Most were about self-exploration – “find your score”, “see what was working for you”, etc. But one utilized social comparison. It said, “Abraham Lincoln’s score was 81 and George Washington’s was 54. Find yours.”
The result was the Social Comparison message outperformed all others by more than 300%, regardless of the audience being targeted. People were interested in learning about themselves but significantly more interested in how they compared to George and Abe.
If you’d like to conduct a little experiment of your own, try this:
Today, I’m excited to announce the release of Your American Dream Score, a simple online tool to find out what factors were working for and against your efforts to achieve the American Dream.
The tool was made possible with generous support from the Ford Foundation and is being launched in conjunction with WNET, America’s flagship PBS station, and its’ Chasing the Dream Initiative.
It takes less than five minutes to discover Your American Dream Score. You’ll be asked several questions about your life, each representing a factor that research shows correlates to social mobility and/or happiness in life.
Once completed, you receive a score and a list of what you had working for and against you. The higher your score, the more you had to overcome. The lower the score, the more you had working in your favor.
You are also given a link to a song that symbolizes your journey and are encouraged to take some action. This includes sharing your score on social media if you’re proud of what you’ve had to overcome, or grateful for the people and factors that helped you.
We’d like to thank our friends at WNET and the Ford Foundation for making this new extension of Moving Up possible and providing such a wonderful platform for launching it.
Importantly, I’d also like to thank each of you. Without your early support for Moving Up, this latest venture would not be happening.
My score is 67, showing that while I had many things I had to overcome, I had almost as many things working for me – including great friends. My song? Appropriately enough was Somewhere Over the Rainbow – a symbol of this hopeful journey I’ve been on.
Last week, my five-year old daughter suffered a small fracture in her tibia just below the knee. Ultimately, she will be fine. As they say, we grow stronger in all the broken places. For now, she is laid up with a removable knee brace, unable to walk, go to school, or move freely about on her own.
She has warmed to this new situation. Reminiscent of Hodor and Bram from Game of Thrones, she must be carried everywhere and has an innate power over all of us as we cater to her every desire. The result is more TV, more unhealthy snacks, more UNO, more slack and more sympathy.
Eventually, the doctors tell us she will grow restless and begin to try to walk on her own. Before then, she will need to overcome the complacency born from both the fear of movement and reluctance to give up this new comfortable arrangement of care.
This relationship between restlessness and complacency is examined in Tyler Cowen’s book, The Complacent Class: The Self Defeating Quest for the American Dream. In it, he posits that America’s greatness, both as individuals and as a society, is tethered to our restlessness – our desire to try and do new things (like putting a man on the moon or moving to a new city).
According to Cowan, that restlessness has given way to complacency. The privileged like what they have, those in the middle dig in – afraid to risk what’s left and those who are stuck at the bottom feel hopeless.
Diverse phenomena such as NIMBYism (not in my back yard), political indifference, grown children living with their parents, opioid abuse and Spotify are all used as evidence of this new complacency.
Modern life has brought many creature comforts that serve as a salve for our boredom and restlessness. A short-term fix lulls us into a false sense of security for our current condition.
In my daughter’s case, what’s the harm with being carried everywhere, watching TV, eating snacks, and sending emojis to us from our babysitter’s phone? None, if it’s for a week or two. But after a month, it becomes quite the slippery slope.
Our current political anxiety has created one type of restlessness leading millions of Americans to become more civically engaged.
Another, perhaps more positive impetus for restlessness, is confidence. If people feel secure enough to take a risk, knowing the upside outweighs the potential downside.
This often requires a simplification of what we need to be happy. In that spirit, I leave you with the words of Thoreau:
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.”
On the lead up to St. Patrick’s Day, I wondered about the phrase, “luck of the Irish.”
I had just watched a PBS documentary on Irish history and they didn’t seem very lucky at all. Considering:
The great potato famine took over one million lives and drove another million to emigrate – decreasing the population of Ireland by almost 25%.
Their war for independence from England caused a lasting divide between Unionists in Northern Ireland and Nationalists in Southern Ireland. The solution to which caused such bitterness, that unlike in America, they don’t celebrate their Independence Day.
The period from 1970-2000 was called “The Troubles”! (Thirty years marked by escalating violence and domestic terrorism)
Ironically, the phrase “luck of the Irish” was originally one of derision. It’s origin dates back to the gold and silver rush in the 19th century. Many of the most successful miners were of Irish descent. Their success was attributed to “luck” rather than intelligence or hard work. This reflects a very unhealthy relationship between success and luck.
When reflecting on the role of luck in achieving our own dreams, only 27% of Americans see it as essential.
However, when we think about luck’s role in other people’s success – especially those who we may not feel are as deserving – then we see it playing a more significant role.
Or in sports parlance — your opponents make lucky plays, you make great ones.
Our relationship with luck is critical to how we view the world and support each other.
Music is seminal to our lives. From our first lullaby to our wedding dance to whatever dirge they may play at our funeral, songs mark both our most important moments and hum in the background of our daily lives.
(As I write this now, music ripples through my ear buds playing Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia – which perhaps subconsciously led to the inclusion of the funeral reference above).
Where music came from and why is a long contested subject among musicologists (yes that’s a field – how cool, right?)
Several theories captured in this fascinating paper, trace its beginnings as a necessary aspect of evolution. Suggesting that someone who made music had a biological edge in mating (guess that cliché about being in a band to attract others goes way back). Another evolutionary idea links the need to soothe babies via music as being critical to allow mothers to move on to other important survival activities.
A different line of thinking points to the use of music for bringing people together, consider this quote:
Recognizably musical activities appear to have been present in every known culture on earth, with ancient roots extending back 250,000 years or more…
Work and war songs, lullabies, and national anthems have bound together families, groups, or whole nations. Relatedly, music may provide a means to reduce social stress and temper aggression in others.
In an extensive review of the literature, the authors bring together over 129 different reasons why we listen to music — derived from past research.
In thinking about the role music plays in helping us move up, a few top factors struck me:
Because it reminds me of certain periods of my life and past experiences. Because it makes me believe I am better able to cope with my worries. Because it can make me dream.
All three of those statements are critical in having a better understanding and appreciation for all that it takes to move up in life.
We need to look back to appreciate from where we came. We need help so things can get better today. We need to have hope for a better future.
Think about your own life. What songs make you appreciate your past, overcome a current challenge or dream of a better future?
If it’s not too much to ask, I’d like you to email me back either a song that does one of the above or your three-song playlist answering all the above questions.
We’re putting together a music compilation for an upcoming Moving Up project and would love any inspiration you’d like to share.
To kick things off, Here is my eclectic list:
Past Appreciation: Brooklyn Roads by Neil Diamond Overcoming: Lose Yourself by Eminem Dream: Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Judy Garland