Sunday, May 31, 2009

Racetracks and Shared Cognition

A friend of mine agreed to teach her 16-year-old niece to drive. She began with a brief lecture on attentive driving – keep your eyes on the road ahead at all times, but also monitor your instrument panel, glance regularly at all three rear-view mirrors, know what is going on to your left and right… A look of panic came into her niece’s eyes. “Nobody can do all that at the same time!” But we do, of course, and most of the time we are barely aware that we are doing it (although it is not wise to add things like talking on the phone or applying make-up).

I was reminded of this story recently when I had the opportunity to drive on a racetrack. It was a privately-hosted “track day” at Road America in Elkhart Lake, one of the world’s great road courses, and I jumped at the opportunity. I wisely took my son, who has had some racing experience, as my passenger and coach. I drove my little Volvo hatchback. Other participants were driving Porsches, Corvettes, Cobras and Ferraris and actually knew what they were doing, which was a bit intimidating. Oh, and it rained all day, making the track greasy and treacherous. It is a bit disconcerting to glance in the rear-view mirror and see a Corvette sliding sideways. I was also keenly aware that my insurance would not cover any mishap that occurred on the track. What made me think this would be fun?

Take all the things we normally monitor while driving and multiply them by a factor of five on a racetrack. Then add the 14 turns on the Road America course, each of which must be approached in a different manner (when and how hard to brake; where to hit the apex and in what gear, etc.) I quickly discovered I simply could not process all this information at the same time, and turned the corners over to Colin, who calmly and clearly guided me (“Move left. Don’t brake yet. Now! Second gear. Turn! Accelerate!”) I could focus on the yellow Ferrari coming up behind me and the puddle to my right and leave the corners to him. Still I needed to pit after every three or four laps because I could only maintain mental focus that long (I claimed that it was to allow the brakes to cool when it was actually my brain that needed to cool down).

Later that evening I described the experience to my wife, the psychologist, who nodded wisely. “Cognitive overload,” she explained. “You are 61 years old and you can only maintain that kind of load for so long.” I wonder how long I could have maintained it if I had not had a second (and younger) brain in the seat next to me. I got by with a little help from my son.

People who are in a close relationship over a long period of time develop something called “shared cognition,” which means that they pool their mental resources without even being aware that they are doing it. One person drives, the other reads the map. One remembers to send birthday cards to family members; the other remembers to lock the doors at night. Two heads really are better than one.

On the racetrack, I went back and forth between “what in the world was I thinking?” and “I can’t wait to do this again!” I will likely return next year. But I certainly will not try to do it with just one brain.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Commencement Speech for UW - Fox Valley

For those who requested it, here is the text of the speech I gave...

Good evening. I suspect that some of you are wondering who I am and what I am doing up here. I cannot imagine that many people who received their invitation to commencement shouted “Oh Boy - we get to hear the Goodwill chaplain!” The most honest answer to the question of why I am your speaker tonight is that Michele Obama said “no.” We really thought we had a chance to get her – she was invited long before the election and her people did not say flat-out “no” – but then some upstart college in California convinced its students to send her 6,000 personal letters begging her to come and she went there instead. So I am your speaker tonight because you could not be bothered to write to Michele Obama. Pity. So my first word of advice to the graduating class of ’09 is to be sure to write thank-you notes for any graduation gifts you receive, especially for that $20 gift certificate from Aunt Gladys. Like Michele Obama, Aunt Gladys is thrilled when she receives a handwritten note from you.

Beyond that, I want to talk about change and hope, which are pretty classic commencement speech topics. I also want to talk a bit about baby boomers, because I am a baby boomer and we still find ourselves endlessly fascinating. But let’s start with change. These past two years have brought more significant change to our society than any similar period in my lifetime. You who are completing one phase of your college education and preparing for the next are already living in a world very different from the one in which you began, and by the time you receive your bachelor’s degree it will likely be different from today.

Let’s start with the obvious: the economy. In 2008 it disappeared down a rat-hole. Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, asked this important question in a column back in March:
“What if the economic crisis of 2008 was something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically… We created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more US T-bills so Americans would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese… We can’t do this anymore. When we look back, 2008 will be a momentous year in human history. Our children and grandchildren will ask us “What was it like?” Often in the middle of something momentous, we can’t see its significance. But … 2008 will be the marker – the year when ‘The Great Disruption’ began.”

Does that ring as true for you as it does for me? That the economy as it existed two years ago was a global Ponzi scheme that made Bernie Madoff look like he wasn’t even trying? We are told that the economy will begin to recover late this year, and I certainly hope that is true, but it is also true that many of the jobs that have been lost are not coming back and frankly should not come back because they were contributing nothing of real value to society. We are not waiting for the old economy to “get back to normal,” we are in the very early stages of creating a new economy that is sane and sustainable. Those of you who began your college career hoping to get filthy rich in jobs that involved moving fictitious money from one pile to another may want to rethink your career goals. In fact, anyone who views the value of a college degree solely in terms of increased earning potential would benefit from a bit of soul-searching. Which is the actual theme of this address and sooner or later I will get to it.

But first let’s talk about baby-boomers. It was very good to be a baby boomer in 1968; sorry you missed it. We had Jimi and Janis, the Doors and the Beatles, and all we left for you was American Idol. After a decade or so as hippies who claimed to reject materialism we discovered arugula and cute shoes and became Yuppies. We also briefly discovered disco, but we don’t like to talk about that. Moving further still from our youthful idealism, we discovered excessive consumption for its own sake – McMansions and Mercedes for everyone! - and since we did not have enough money to support all that spending we borrowed and leveraged in order to keep buying more stuff that we had convinced ourselves we needed and were entitled to. So deeply were we in the grip of consumerism that when our president urged us to respond to 9/11 by going shopping it made perfect sense to us. Run up your credit card debt or the terrorists win! We didn’t bother to save because the value of our houses and our pension funds just kept magically increasing. It was good; it was very good! Money for nothing! We spent like drunken sailors and thoughtfully passed the bills on to you. Now we are getting older and starting to worry about our health care needs. Poor, aging baby boomers! We have never settled for less than the best, so naturally we feel entitled to the highest quality health care for the rest of our lives. There are 78 million of us, and we plan to stick around for as long as possible while you pay for our social security and Medicare. On behalf of the entire baby boom generation, I want to express my gratitude to each one of you. You get to clean up the mess left by the old economy.

But let’s talk about another seismic shift that took place last year. We elected an African-American man president of the United States of America! Could any of us have imagined that happening just two years ago? Just as amazingly, many folks who do not agree with him on every issue appear minded to give him a chance and sincerely hope he can lead us in building a better nation and world. His vision is very different from that of the previous administration, particularly with regard to America’s role in the global community and how we respond to climate change. Already the rest of the world seems to be less afraid of us, and by the time you complete your bachelor’s degree they may even trust us and respect us again. They really seem to like that part where we don’t torture people anymore. The challenges we face are enormous, but many folks seem to believe this new president when he tells us that these challenges are also opportunities. We are broke and yet we are optimistic, which is an unusual combination.

One of the words we are hearing more often these days is the word “sustainability.” It is a good and helpful word, so I hope it does not get overused and diluted into meaninglessness along with phrases like “all natural.” The “endless growth economy” that died in 2008 was not sustainable, and neither was the arrogant notion that our nation could act unilaterally to rid the world of evil without descending into evil ourselves. We have been humbled, and in humility lies the beginning of wisdom and hope.

So here at what is for most of you the mid-point of your college career we are hammering the last nails in the coffin of an economy based upon growth and consumption without regard to the environmental cost or the huge chasm it created between the rich and the poor. We are trying to sort out how to build a healthy, sustainable economy for everyone, not just the rich, based upon goods and services of real worth and value. We are trading in our global cowboy swagger for diplomacy and international cooperation because it is finally sinking in that for all of its chaos, division, danger and conflict, it really is one world and somehow we need to figure out how to live on it together in peace. It is a scary and challenging time, but it is also an exciting and hopeful time to be preparing to enter adult life and begin a career.

I believe that the most important thing you can do right now to prepare for the future is to think about, talk about and dream about what really makes for a life that is rich and satisfying. I challenge you to think less about getting wealthy and more about what will actually make your life good. We – and I don’t just mean baby boomers, I mean all of us – had allowed ourselves to be seduced by pretty, shiny things. We got caught up in the culture of materialism and then wondered why we were not as fulfilled as we were supposed to be. Pundits are gravely predicting that yours may be the first generation to have a lower standard of living than your parents. But if a higher standard of living is attained at the cost of a lower quality of life, it is a poor trade. Allow me to list some of the things I believe will define what makes for a good life in the coming years:

1. Valuing relationships at least as much as we value material possessions. The culture of consumption taught us to compete with one another rather than to appreciate and enjoy one another. For too many people, “stuff” is what they ended up with in place of real friendships and committed relationships of mutual support and accountability. I challenge you to value people more than “stuff.”

2. Valuing the things we own in common at least as much as they things we own individually. By “things we own in common” I mean clean air, safe water, public parks, sidewalks, schools, the internet, the court system, city hall, places of worship, public transit systems and all the other things that weave us together in common community and enrich our lives. We are rich; together we are rich! In the old economy, people sought wealth in order to insulate themselves from others, with the ultimate dream of hiding away in some exclusive, gated community. What a hollow dream! You cannot gate out pollution or climate change, nor can you forever gate out poverty and injustice. In the end we cannot thrive unless we build communities in which everyone thrives. I challenge you to think less about what you can achieve for yourself, and more about what we can achieve together.

3. Valuing the work we do not in terms of how much we earn or the prestige and power it brings, but whether it makes use of our talents and abilities in ways that fulfill us while contributing to the greater good of society. There is something truly obscene about a hedge fund manager receiving 100 times the compensation of a gifted and dedicated teacher, given their relative contributions to society, and I hope and pray that era is over for good. I want you to have careers that are driven by passion rather than greed. I challenge you to think in terms of doing good rather than doing well.

That’s three points, which are enough for a commencement address. If we are going to build a new and better world, we must live by new values and priorities, and these new values begin when we shift our focus from “me” to “us.” Across lines of age, race, creed, nation and culture, we are all in this together. Each of you has abilities and passions to contribute to building this new and better world. Spend these next two years sorting out what they are, and how you will develop them. Don’t worry about getting a job – if the passion is there, the job will be there as well. It may not make you rich, but it will make you happy, because nothing brings greater happiness than doing something you do well that makes a difference in this world. It may mean that you will accumulate less “stuff,” but you will have a life worth living. Thank you very much.

Friday, May 1, 2009

What's in a Name?

In my very first job I worked with an older kid named Jughead. That’s what everyone called him – it was months before I learned his real name. He was a good-looking guy whose head in no way resembled a jug, so I finally asked him where the name came from. He explained that many years earlier he had attended a summer camp, where the boys he bunked with all gave each other nicknames ending with “head.” His was the only one that stuck. I asked him why only his had stuck and he grinned: “because none of the others could be said in front of the adults.”

Two lessons here. First, there are obviously worse things to be called than “Jughead.” And second, sometimes when a name had been conferred on someone or something it can be very hard to get rid of it.

The current flu outbreak is a case in point. The worst flu pandemic of modern times was the Spanish Flu of 1918. We now know definitively that it began not in Spain, but in Kansas, but it will forever be known as the Spanish Flu. The current flu has a number of names. Because there is a swine component to the virus (as well as avian and human components) it quickly picked up the name “Swine Flu.” This immediately led to a great deal of confusion about pigs carrying or causing the disease, along with rumors that it had first surfaced because of the practices of factory hog farming. Fear began to spread that one could contract the flu from consuming pork, which is completely untrue. Understandably, pork producers quickly howled in protest. The pigs themselves have not yet expressed an opinion on the matter.

Jews and Muslims, whose faith prohibits eating pork products, also were unhappy with the name. They suggested that it should be called The Mexican Flu, because Mexico was where it first surfaced. Mexico, which already has enough problems on its hands, bristled at the idea of having their country permanently stigmatized the way Spain was by the 1918 pandemic.

So if it is not Swine Flu and it is not Mexican Flu, what is it? According to the Center for Disease Control, it should be called by its proper name, which is H1N1. That is certainly a more accurate and scientific term, but I am guessing it is not likely to catch on. We like simple, everyday names for things. Plus when we are frightened of something, we sometimes need to joke about our fears, and pigs make for good jokes.

So everyone, wash your hands frequently and take sensible precautions to avoid catching this flu, whatever it is called. And also be careful about giving your kids or your friends nicknames – they might get stuck with them for the rest of their lives.