I recently made a little chart distinguishing a few common perceptions from contrasting facts on the ground. It occurred to me that these are related somehow, that something lies in them to be learned:
|Portland, Oregon is widely considered to be one of the hardest cities in the US on small businesses, due to taxes, fees, and regulations.||It’s true that businesses face lots of fees and regulations. It’s also true that Portland is rated as having one of the highest numbers of small and independent businesses in the US, per capita.|
|New York City has among the highest rents in the U.S, and consequently is widely considered a very difficult place to afford to live.||It’s true the rents are relatively very high. New York City also has among the highest population densities in the U.S.|
|New York City traffic congestion is portrayed as being exceeded only by Los Angeles.||It’s true that one of the biggest mistake tourists make is renting a car – you don’t need one, and you’ll never find parking anyway, without paying a premium. It’s also true that something like 60% of New York City dwellers don’t own a car, and some 30% don’t bother with a drivers license.|
What does this contrast mean? To start with the obvious, when it comes to how people really live, the perception from the outside often does not represent what’s it’s really like. What may look like a hostile environment, actually seems to draw large numbers of people to embrace it, rather than run from it – in other words, what can seem hostile on the surface may often hide some really desirable situations.
Here are the more specific observations I’ve made, and the ones I think are the most interesting:
- People are resilient. They find a way to survive in nearly any situation. Indeed, a lot of people find a way to thrive in nearly any situation. Ordinary people. The majority, even, of people. Minnesota is notoriously cold, right? The truth is, it’s a dry cold, most Winter days are sunny and 40-degrees, and the clothing and dressing habits there are different. Minnesotans say, for instance, “if your hands or feet are cold, put on a hat” – they know that 90% of body heat is lost through the head. They also dress in several thin layers, instead of one thick one. Someone from Oklahoma who brings the heaviest coat he can buy, will be cold. A Minnesotan can dress in relatively light clothing, and be toasty all day long.
- Priorities determine perception. People often have different priorities than their observers. In fact, if the observers were to immerse themselves in the environment being observed, their priorities might change too, and they might find this reversal particularly attractive. Just an example, people who live without cars tend to live longer and live healthier (i.e. less painful and less sickly) lives while they’re alive. Those who in places with excellent mass transit, and use those services, like in Chicago, walk more, are more active, and have generally a better quality of life.
- The community context is everything. People are not the same everywhere. The communal attitude is often different enough that what seems, in one context, to be a handicap, may actually be a great advantage. For instance, Portlanders on the whole tend to support local business, overwhelmingly. Want to be a success in Portland? Don’t try opening a Dennys. Open Bart’s Egg Shack. Buy local eggs from farms who sell primarily locally (e.g. free range), and you’re liable to need to hire extra shifts to stay open late into the night.
In the context of work, what I take from this is that:
- There’s no reason to fear change if you can adapt. We hear that stuff all the time as corporate mantra. That’s not what I mean. I mean that the death of an industry, the evolution of a technology, shifts in the market – these aren’t the thing to be afraid of. Being the kind of person who is not constantly learning, growing, asking questions, thinking, observing, inquiring – the loss of curiosity – something generally associated with getting old (sad isn’t it? it’s certainly not required that we lose that) – that’s a legitimate cause for fear, because that will ensure you can’t adapt when change comes. In other words, fear of change is really fear of one’s own inadequacy. And adequacy is rooted in an abiding interest in things – a deep devotion to that interest, without knowing in advance where it’s going to go – much like an aficionado listens to a new piece of classical music. Boredom and stagnancy comes from the illusory comfort of knowing the end of all your stories. In a counterintuitive way: Adequacy comes not from being sure of outcomes, but by embracing the thrill of not knowing exactly how everything will go, and of course the determination to see things through anyway.
- You have to know what you want, in the sense of trade-offs. Everything is a trade off. Everywhere my wife wants to go in terms of world-class urban environments for her business, has grey skies. I love grey skies, but she’s a sun child – it’ll require adapting. If she wants what she’s after badly enough, the skies are a fair trade. I know we hear from all kinds of motivational sources that “you can have it all”. The fundamental thing you should be suspicious of when they talk like that (same as “God wants you to have prosperity”) is that it’s too easy. There seem to be no trade-offs. But that mythology is missing the point. Meaning doesn’t come from being comfortable in every conceivable way. Meaning comes from the thing you want so much, so exceedingly, that obstacles, hurdles, and limitations can be borne in stride. In other words: Meaning comes from priorities, not from having it all.
- Not every market is your market, and not every client is your client. Sometimes, you just have to find your audience. This only works if you’re doing the other stuff. If you’re dead set on a poem you’ve written getting a standing ovation, and you’ve lost the openness and interest to rewrite it, mercilessly if need be, then the audience is not the issue – you are. Your boredom and indifference with your work, visible in how you’ve left it to stagnate. But if you’re constantly working, coming up with new stuff, thinking and adapting, and willing to pay the price for success, to quit expecting it to be easy, and you’re still not successful, you might be operating in the wrong context. The easiest way to start to address this is to cultivate relationships with brilliant, inspired, creative people. Not so they can read your poems, but so as they work on their desires and you work on yours, that culture of the pursuit of meaning, that constant energy and enthusiasm and sense of movement, and that environment of inspiration can work on you. If you do it right, your audience may find you, instead of you having to hunt them down and stand on their necks. Or it might require a move, or both, when you reach the zenith of your potential in a given area. In short: Context is as important as content in the engine of creation.
Anyway, that’s what I get from the table of juxtapositions. You might think it’s a stretch, but I think the world is rife and rumbling with meaning, waiting to be seen and heard. This is one of the ways, personally, I’m always looking and learning. I know the meaning of things is out there and, simultaneously, it’s in everything. The world oozes with meaning. Sure, it’s subjective – we bring something to it, but that’s why it’s so useful to us. That’s how we ask it questions, in the first place – by bringing our subjectivity and asking that it be accounted for, or affirmed, or corrected, or turned completely on its head.