A Close Look at Individuals

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander finds a common ground between Republicans and Democrats when looking at who we consider change agents in our system. Both groups look at the power of the individual as the driving force of America and see the individual as the mechanism through which change and a better future are possible. The two camps may see the actions of the individual a bit differently, but nevertheless both focus on the individual.

 

Throughout her book however, Alexander is critical of the idea that the individual is capable of creating and instigating the changes in America that are necessary to overcome enormous challenges. There are too many structural barriers for individuals to overcome, and even if the individual does rise to the top, the idea that they can lift an entire group is unrealistic. The individual may play an incredible role, and in America the strength of the individual may be fantasized by popular culture, but the individual exists in a complex society that can only truly change and advance through the mobilization of entire social groups. I agree with Alexander that the structural barriers are too great for us to address on our own, and I want to look at how we think about the individual versus the collective, and examine the ways that Alexander believes this plays out in our criminal justice system.

 

Since our founding, the idea of the individual has been a palpable force in shaping our democracy. Protestant settlers tended to believe that their hard work would be rewarded with great riches from above, and success was (and still is) viewed as an individual’s divine blessing, given by a greater power to those who are hard working, virtuous, and special. If one was successful it was because a divine being had recognized and rewarded them, and through this same view, those who were not successful were in their position due to individual moral failures. On this foundation we built a nation and a constitution that centered around the strength and responsibility of the individual for personal gain. Our primary responsibility was to be a good Christian so that God would bestow great bounty upon us, and if we all focused on this goal as individuals, collectively we would all find an everlasting success. Failure was a result of individuals not living up to the contract from above, and within this lens we developed the idea of the deserving and undeserving.

 

From this foundation our nation has developed to where we are today. Describing the role of the individual in The New Jim Crow, Alexander writes, “Here we see both liberals and conservatives endorsing the same meta-narrative of American individualism: When individuals get ahead, the group triumphs. When individuals succeed, American democracy prevails.” Alexander is critical of this theory and I think she is right to criticize the focus on individualism. I do not believe there is a liberal and a conservative America, because when we use those terms we mean different things in different contexts, so I will drop her terms and simply use Republican and Democrat because party identification is more consistent and to me seems to be more causal than liberal or conservative ideology.

 

Alexander describes the Republican Party as being focused on individuals changing the system through entrepreneurship and insight. The individual can create great innovations if they are not constrained and limited by the system within which they operate. The Democratic party sees the individual as the flagship leader, raising up and pulling the status of the group and the fortunes of others up with them. Both of these views see power as resting with great individuals and leaders, and see exceptional leaders as the key to growth, progress, development, and a better future. Alexander finds this narrative lacking and dangerous, and I agree with her that it is an incomplete view.

 

To me, this focus on individuals is misplaced. What we get from our focus on individualism is instability, delays, and stagnation as often than we get flashes of brilliance, advancement, and progress. An incredible leader and voice may come along to lift up an entire group, as Dr. King Jr. did during the Civil Rights movement, but expecting a great leader to instigate meaningful change causes delays in achieving justice, making scientific advances, and solving substantial problems that impact people’s every day lives. This focus also creates instability since people change and die, and pinning all of our hopes on an individual leaves movements of change and advancement  vulnerable, as the assassination of Dr. King Jr. demonstrated.

 

The real power of the individual is not in change and progress as both Democrats and Republicans would hope. The true power of the individual is in the status quo. It is the power to defend the injustices that exist, the power to delay advancement and equality, and the power to be a barrier that limits other individuals. The reason why an individual has greater power to be a pest and not a hero is because we live in a society that requires collective action. The Republican Party has demonstrated that a few high minded individuals with great influence can derail the ideas of societal responsiveness and democratic representation. As an example, Grover Norquest’s anti-tax pledge is a commitment to abandon the collective more than it is a commitment to improve society. The Koch brother’s campaign against moderate candidates (candidates who more accurately reflect the majority of the country) is a demonstration that a few individuals can block progress and block the strength of our social groups while upholding structural barriers. President Donald Trump clearly shows us that a single individual can reverse and hold up equality and group advancement, while President Barack Obama showed us that even the best among us can only make so much of a dent without the support of broader communities.

 

In America we love our superheroes that pull the world back from the brink of destruction and manage to triumph in the face of adversity. We focus on what the individual can achieve and use material and financial success to demonstrate our value as individuals. What hides below the surface of our love for the individual is the fact that no one can be a superhero without some form of support from a larger group. What we hide in our past is that those who became incredibly wealthy in the early days of our society did so by exploiting the black body, justifying their actions as divinely ordained and rightful by biology and manifest white destiny. This attitude continued and the white individual was able to achieve their own success while holding the entirety of black society back. If we focus on individualism we allow such evils to persist. We must find a new way to be individuals and be successful on our own, but with the understanding that our individual success in terms of wealth, possessions, jobs, and family has as much  to do with with us as individuals as it has to do with the stability and protection offered by the larger society in which we live.

Thinking About Meaning

A challenge for me over the last few months is thinking about building a meaningful life and a career within that life. I am at a stage in life where it feels that a lot of doors are open for me in terms of a career trajectory, and choosing one direction is scary because I don’t want to close out better opportunities than where I decide to point myself, and I don’t know exactly which direction is indeed going to feel the most meaningful and fulfilling.

 

I have come to understand that in many ways what we choose as our ultimate goal is less important than the effort we put into achieving that goal. Colin Wright puts it this way in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “The journey itself is meaningful. The goal is important, but the act of working toward it, even when painful or disheartening, is meaningful by association.” I want to have a solid and inspirational goal to work toward, but I also recognize that the effort toward the goal will teach me unexpected lessons, will create new avenues for opportunity, and can be what helps my life be fulfilling.

 

As I move forward, I am trying hard to identify problems that I have a skill set that I can apply to those problems. My hope is that I will identify a goal where my abilities can help contribute something positive to mitigate a serious problem to at least a marginal extent. With a solid trajectory, I believe I can find satisfaction by continuously  engaging in habits and processes that help me work toward that goal. I am frustrated that I cannot see my path forward as clearly as I can see where I have come from, but I am confident that meaningful action will open the right doors for me.

 

I think that my thoughts on fulfillment are something that should be shared more broadly in society. We seem to find meaning in things that don’t really exist and we don’t really seem to know what we mean when we say we want to have meaning in our lives. Finding meaning in a spiritual sense is not something that resonates with me, and is not something we should expect to resonate with everyone on the planet. Finding meaning in material goods is problematic for a whole host of reasons, and ultimately seems to leave a void in our lives. Identifying goals that in one way or another make the world a better place and trying to work daily to improve the world by pursuing our goal appears to be a robust way of at the very least creating fulfillment in our lives. Finding absolute meaning in our goal may still be difficult or impossible, but hopefully the actions that take us toward that goal will make us feel valuable and useful, and hopefully that will create a sense of fulfillment.

Instant Problem Solver

We all have a part of ourselves that thinks it knows the answer to every problem out there. Not just our own problems, or the problems with the work we do, or the problems with our own families and relationships, but everyone’s problems. The truth is, however, we really don’t know nearly as much as this part of our brain believes and when we try to solve everyone’s problems, we really just create bigger traffic jams. In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier names this part of our brain “The Advice Monster” and he explains what happens when we let the Advice Monster run our brains.

 

“When people start talking to you about the challenge at hand, what’s essential to remember is that what they’re laying out for you is rarely the actual problem. And when you start jumping in to fix things, things go off the rails in three ways: you work on the wrong problem; you do the work your team should be doing; and the work doesn’t get done.”

 

The bottom line is that when we jump into instant problem solver mode, we usually are not being as helpful as we imagine we are. Because we are approaching the other person’s issue with our limited knowledge of what we think their problem is, we focus in the wrong direction. Instant problem solver mode solves the problem we want to solve, and not the actual problem that the other person is facing.

 

The alternative that Bungay Stanier suggests is to spend more time listening to others and see what solutions they come up with before we decide that we know what their problems are and before we decide that we know how to fix them. The instant problem solver manages to find solutions that create more work for themselves and make their day to day life a little bit more difficult. When we resist the instant problem solver urge, we let the person or team we work with identify solutions they can implement for the problems they face. The individual grows and has an opportunity to adapt a new solution, and our time remains clear for additional problem solving.

Intentional Relationships

When we think about friendships and romantic relationships, we tend to believe that relationships just happen all on their own. We don’t necessarily consider how we build those friendships ourselves and we don’t think of the effort that we need to put forward to maintain friendships. Author Colin Wright in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, encourages us to change the ways we think about relationships and to strengthen and maintain our connections with other people. He writes, “A rational mindset helps us remember that relationships should be considered and intentional, not dependent on luck.”

 

By putting conscious thought into our relationships and stepping back to evaluate, analyze, and synthesize information our behaviors, wants, needs, and desires, we can be more intentional with our actions. When problems arise, an irrational response is to act on emotion alone from a single point of view. A rational approach, however, would involve stepping back from emotions and understanding what is lying below the surface of the relationship and affecting the ways we feel and wish to act. Being able to step back, problem solve, and openly describe emotions is key to strengthening a relationship that we want to last.

 

Deciding that relationships are something we want to strengthen, maintain, and actively pursue requires that we adopt new perspectives and learn to reflect on how we interact, behave, and live with those in our lives. By failing to adopt other peoples’ perspectives and points of view, we fail to see areas where our relationships can grow together. Successful relationships require effort and work to plan and build a path that is suitable for you and the person you wish to be close with.

Crisis

In his book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, author Joel Achenbach explores the 2010 disaster of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  He examines the decisions that were made leading up to the night the well broke open, and how a solution to the worst oil spill in history was reached.  What he discovers in writing the book is importance of keeping our world’s experts engaged and connected when moments of disaster or crisis emerge. In regards to crisis management he wrote, “A good rule in a crisis is , at the point of attack, keep the professionals in charge. This is the battle cry of competency. Don’t let a crisis put you off your game. Don’t rush, don’t panic, don’t deviate from best practices.”

 

In the section I pulled this quote from, Achenbach is explaining the way that engineers with BP and scientists brought in by our government approached the broken well.  The experts for deepwater drilling continued their work in a practical and pragmatic way, with extra brain power and assistance piling on to try to find, research, and understand novel solutions to the problem.  From the outside, the world was going mad in a desperate frenzy to see the well shut off, but for those who must think about, manage, and design solutions for the problem, the top people were kept in charge and provided the resources necessary for a solution.

 

This approach to a crisis reminds me of stoic philosophy which calls for tranquility and clear thought in times that are challenging.  Reactionary behavior and frenzied emotions will pull us in many directions and encourage us to make hasty decisions based on half formed thoughts.  During a time of crisis and during our most challenging moments a clear and consistent thought process may seem maddeningly slow and tedious, but it will serve us better in the long run as we keep ourselves from making rash decisions with unknown consequences.