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. 

This Is Me vs. This Is Us

This devastating article details the lengths to which a private school went to drive their students into college. It included allegations of abuse, falsifying transcripts and encouraging students to exaggerate the challenges in their life in their admissions essays. 

The idea was to “manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity.”

In the fictional world of the TV show “This is Us”, a recent episode also focused on a character’s inspirational admissions essay.  Here young Randall resists the temptation to answer the question of naming “one” person who has made the greatest impact in his life.  Instead suggesting that it was a small army of people who made his journey possible. Watch him read his essay here. 

Both of these stories put a spotlight on the increasingly high stakes game of college applications and their signature component, the admissions essay. 

The first exposes the system’s bias toward “pull yourself up from your bootstraps stories.”  The higher the climb the more worthy the student appears to be. 

The second also funnels the student down a narrow narrative that tries to pin success, if not on your own effort, then that of a single other person.

We all love a good success story.  We root for the underdog and are moved – even to tears – when they make it. 

But our attraction to these stories can inadvertently drive young people to only see their journeys through this narrow lens at a time when we should be teaching them to see their lives more completely.  

We are telling them that we value stories that scream “This is Me” instead of asking them to make the connection that says “This is Us.”

Thanks to all of those who donated to our #givingTuesday campaign. Your generosity will go directly young designers/interns who have struggled to move up in life. They in turn will help us create moving content that helps more people reflect on their lives. 

What Our Dogs Can Teach Us About Moving Up

As I write this, my two-year old Cairn terrier mix, Scout, is sitting on my lap. Occasionally, he rests his head on my right forearm, making the act of typing a more delicate matter.

The benefits of dog ownership are well documented. They improve both our physical and mental health, reduce stress, increase our sociability, confidence and sense of responsibility and generally just make us happier.  But what can teach us about moving up in life?

Let’s first state the obvious. Like any species, dogs also experience inequality. 

Some are born stronger, faster, healthier and smarter than others. Environments vary greatly as some are raised in warm, loving and well resourced homes – meaning dogs eat only the best food, go to doggy day care and camp, have lavish toys and of course, those questionable sweaters.

Other less fortunate dogs may live in homes where they are abused or find themselves homeless – at risk of being picked up and euthanized – if they don’t find new homes (approximately 57% of dogs who enter shelters are killed, a total of 1.2 million annually).

Outside of being adopted into a “better home”, dog’s social mobility is non-existent outside of the relative mobility of their owners. They are essentially stuck on whatever rung of the ladder they are born into and their movement is directly tied to the family that owns them.

Yet to watch a dog each day is to be exposed to multiple lessons in adaptation and good living. 

Dogs always wake up on the right side of the bed, enthusiastic to start the day. Their morning walks ensure that their day gets off to a happy start. Their enjoyment of nature elevates their mood.  They take the time to stop and smell the roses (and for that matter everything else). Someone once wrote that in every sniff lies the entire world – so rich is their sense of smell. 

Dogs also make time for their friends – always seeking to stop and say/smell hello. They are honest with their feelings and not afraid to let you know what they need. Each dog has an innate need to play each day for at least 10 minutes. If they don’t their mood suffers. They love to be in the company of others but also sometimes just want to be left alone. 

They eat three meals a day and, after a long day, understand the importance of a good night’s sleep (the average dog sleeps between 12-14 hours a day).  When they are loved, they love right back, and of course their sense of loyalty is astounding.

It is easy to take our dogs for granted, I know that I do and often feel guilty for losing my patience or not taking Scout to dog parks or longer walks. But we should be grateful for the many ways they make us happier and perhaps even look more closely to see what they can teach us about being better people.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

Check Your Shoes

When you are born on the bottom rung and now stand near the top, you ask,“How did I end up here?”

When you grow up in trailer parks and now live in a beautiful home, you wonder, “How did I end up here?”

When no one in your family went to college and you now teach at one, “How did I end up here?”
 
The typical answer to these questions is “Hard work.” And while true, it is also grossly incomplete.
 
The science behind how we see our own paths is fascinating. We remember our obstacles more than the help we receive. The stories we tell ourselves about our lives are more important to us than the facts of them. We have a bias towards the influence of our own actions over the environment in which we were raised and live.
 
But the most important research shows what can happen when we take the time to reflect upon where we truly came from.
 
A guard becomes more humane to the prisoners he oversees.
 
A CEO takes a pay cut to provide fairer wages to her employees.
 
A politician promotes better policy at the expense of his own political future.
 
People say the key to solving our problems is to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
 
But a more powerful exercise is to realize how we came to walk in our shoes first.

Don’t Follow This Recipe

“It begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War miscalculations.”

There is a lot to unpack from this statement in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new documentary, The Vietnam War.  

While it was written to summarize the origins of one of the most divisive periods in our country’s history, it could just as easily be applied to other past and future conflicts.

Most people begin something with good intentions. They are trying to do right by someone – even if that may lead to harm for others.

Most people are decent – meaning that the are conforming with the generally accepted standards of respectable behavior.  They are doing what most people at their time and their place would do – even if in hindsight that behavior may seem unjust or even deplorable.

Most people are prone to misunderstanding what is beyond their immediate personal experience.  We have limited information based on a relatively narrow worldview so we don’t even know what we don’t know.

Many people who ascend to a level of success can naturally become overconfident based on that very success. This extends to the individual level but also organizationally and even as a country. If you are part of something successful it breeds more confidence, recklessness and less humility.

Most of us make miscalculations born out of our limited knowledge. We don’t see the whole picture so our plans and predictions are incomplete and inaccurate the moment they are born from our minds.

In their review of the series, the New York Times writes of the film, “The Vietnam War” is less an indictment than a lament.  It is from lamentation and regret important lessons are forged.

Yet when we reflect on history or our current conflicts we rush to indict instead of understand. 

In doing so, we follow the well worn path – a person acting in good faith who is decent but overconfident in their belief and whose misunderstanding will only lead to more miscalculations. 

The next time we look to engage in any conflict – personal or societal, I hope we can try a new recipe – one that will serve us all better.

One Woman’s March

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards, where white clouds of bloom drifted above the green land. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines.”

These are the opening lines of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. A book often credited with starting the modern environmental movement, as it called into question not just the unchecked mass use of pesticides but man’s increasingly fractured relationship to nature.

Upon publication over 50 years ago, it sparked a public uprising, a well-orchestrated industry response replete with “alternative facts”, congressional hearings and eventually regulations that not only curbed the use of pesticides, but also laid the framework for all the environmental battles and progress that would follow.

Before Silent SpringCarson was already a best selling author whose simple and beautiful prose created a sense of wonder about nature – specifically the ocean. Much like the opening lines of Silent Spring, she painted pictures of a world in which we wanted to live in harmony with all that was around us – thinking that we would protect that which we appreciated, understood and loved.

She chose her words carefully and while her message was alarming – she was by no means an alarmist. In fact, the passion and anger that burned deep within her was channeled into a warm illuminating light that added credibility and converts.

In her lifetime, her march was a slow and sometimes lonely one. Her legacy is the millions who have since picked up her baton.

The lessons of Carson’s life were unknown to me until I stumbled upon a PBS documentary last week.

Just days later, I found myself in my daughter’s classroom dissecting an owl’s pellet – essentially a giant fur ball they regurgitate after eating their prey.

We all went into this exercise with trepidation, children saying, “This is gross”, we parents thinking the exact same thing.

But as I watched these 9 year-olds delicately extract the bones from matted fur and proudly catalogue their discoveries, it was hard not to notice the look of awe and wonder in their faces and the unbridled amazement in their voices. 

This was education – a moment that connects them to the world around them. Perhaps for one or two, this would be their first step in a long march. One that started with fear and unease, but now grows with respect and love.

We are all marching in our own way. Every step measured by what we buy, how we spend our time, or how we talk to each other. Is this march for something or against someone?  Are we burning things down or shining light for others to see? And will our children or those that follow pick up our baton because we have marched well?

What Is A Real Rags To Riches Story?

This Friday is the birthday of the person whose name is so synonymous with rags to riches tales, they actually refer to them as “Horacio Alger stories.”

However, there are many fallacies associated with both the man and the over 100 stories he wrote about boys rising out of poverty. 

  • Generally speaking, the boy never ascends to riches.  It’s a middle class life they aspire and rise to. 
  • It is less about poor boy becomes rich and more about poor boy makes good.  It is not rags to riches but more accurately, “rags to respectability.”
  • While the protagonist does work hard and takes initiative, his rise is typically tied to a big break when someone (typically a wealthy person) notices a good deed he has done and rewards him for it. 


Alger’s own life was full of conflict and contradictions. He was born into a young American aristocratic family but his minister father later faced severe financial troubles that shamed him. He suffered from heath ailments that often isolated him from his peers but later exempted him from serving during the Civil War. During the course of his lifetime, he made over a $100,000 (almost $2,000,000 in todays dollars) but died with almost nothing.  And most significantly while all his own stories featured boys who were rewarded for acts of bravery or courage, he himself was fired from his job as youth pastor for improper conduct and relations with the youth in his charge.

Whenever I hear the term “Horacio Alger tale” ascribed to someone, I wonder if the person using it has ever read a Horacio Alger story or if they know anything of his life.  I suspect not on either count. 

Instead it is ironically the perfect example of how when we oversimplify a person’s life we do disservice to both them and us. 

So next time you hear a person refer to someone else as having lived a “Horacio Alger story” perhaps you can continue to feel a sense of inspiration for their rise.  But I also offer a word of caution. There is always a lot more than meets the eye beneath the surface of any life.

This Is How Real Change Starts

Our problems seem intractable. Opposing sides become so entrenched in their world view that any prospect of progress seems bleak.

So we spend our energy either demonizing the “other side” or trying to persuade them to “see the light” and come over to our side. 

New research out of Stanford that examined one of the most intractable of all issues offers us hope that real change starts at a more basic level – showing people that ANY change is possible.

Researchers found that teaching Israeli and Palestinian teenagers that groups are generally capable of change—without ever mentioning a specific adversary—can significantly improve their ability to cooperate.

In fact in one experiment, two mixed groups were asked to build a tower out of spaghetti, marshmallows and tape (sounds like fun, right?). One was taught about people’s ability to change while the other was taught about ways to cope with stress. The “people are capable of change” students built towers 59% higher and had more positive feelings towards each other than the control group.

The simple idea that people are capable of change makes us more cooperative and increases our likelihood to compromise to make progress. 

Yet in our lives and certainly in our politics we rarely start with this basic belief. Our nation’s history IS the story of change – of millions of individuals who have changed their minds and beliefs so progress could be made.
We often tell tales from those leading the struggle but rarely from the perspective of the converted. We write volumes on conflicts but not on compromises.

While the turning of the calendar typically brings hope and resolve for a better year. Some may be feeling a bit more pessimistic this time around. I encourage us all to take the long view of how far we have come as people and as a country. To think of how many minds have been changed so we could live in a world all the better for it.

Then let us all go out and tell those stories. You never know who is listening.

Which of These Children Will Make It?

Picture two 15-year-old children. One has a strong family, but lacks ambition. The other has a strong work ethic, but an abusive family. Which of these two do you think would be more likely to achieve the American Dream?

We asked this question as part of our research project looking at the American Dream. Almost 70% of respondents believed that the child in the abusive family is more likely to achieve the American Dream. This defies all social science, which suggests the opposite.

Sometimes we conflate the possible with the probable. After all, thinking about what is possible makes us feel good. Thinking about what is probable, not so much.

For our children, do we work so their happiness is just possible? Or probable?

Right, now shouldn’t we do that for everyone?
Read more about our state of MOBILITY.

Look Up…

Researchers project that 50% of the world’s population will be short-sighted by the end of 2050. The result of spending so much time focused on little screens in our hands and on our laps, and not enough time outside. As disturbing as that may sound, it is just the latest example of our growing short-sightedness.

Increasingly, we seem to focus most of our energy thinking about how our actions will affect us in the short term versus how they may affect others over the long haul. Perhaps there is a Darwinian element to this.

We are wired to be on the lookout for threats and opportunities that will impact our immediate ability to eat, stay safe and survive. But shouldn’t we have evolved to better weigh short-term gains versus long-term opportunities — for ourselves, our family, our community and country?

Instead…

  • Business leaders look to maximize quarterly earnings instead of realizing when their workers earn a decent living, it’s good for long-term business.
  • Politicians are in perpetual election cycles focusing on who will vote for them next instead of how their vote will affect others down the road.
  • And we treat our water, air and our environment like it is an unlimited resource with little consideration for future generations.

Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a provocative piece about how we have evolved to “systematically misjudge risks.”

As we think about climbing the ladder, it is natural to focus on making sure our hands and feet grasp the next rung. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pause to enjoy the view and make sure we haven’t been stepping on anyone else’s fingers or toes along the way.

So many great things are achieved when we look beyond ourselves and see how things are achieved together — whether that’s traveling across the universe or just climbing over a common obstacle.

Imagine how far we could all go if we approached more challenges in our life like this: