In Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes, “Unemployment, underemployment, and substandard wages are system failures only when viewed from the bottom. Looking from the top down, they are seen as natural processes essential to the healthy functioning of a self-correcting market system. From that perspective, it is as if the market system requires human sacrifice for its good health.” Liebow argues that markets can and should function without such failures. He argues that we have deliberately crafted a system that allows and accepts these market failures at the expense of greater marginal profits and returns on investments. The costs of the failures become spread over society, while the marginal gains are concentrated in the few market leaders.
Liebow encourages us to see homelessness as a system failure. He encourages us to see the support of the homeless as a responsibility of everyone within society and as a responsibility of the system as a whole. His book argues that we cannot rely on the few shelters, the minimal government assistance, and family members of those in need if we want to reduce homelessness. We all have to recognize the costs of homelessness, the way that social and market forces can drive people to homelessness, and the actors who are not helping to solve the problem. In particular, Liebow argues that businesses are not doing enough to solve homelessness:
“As if by magic, the onus of welfare and dependency is lifted from the system of work and the employers and placed on the workers and the unemployed right in front of our very eyes, and no one is any the wiser.”
I don’t think markets need to operate in a way that sacrifices the poorest people. There are statistics about the numbers of employees at companies like Walmart who receive food stamps or Medicaid benefits. Companies are able to pay minimum wage to their employees, and Liebow argues the companies themselves are subsidized for their low wages by our system that provides free healthcare and food to those individuals who cannot earn enough through their job. This shifts the burden of supporting the workforce from the companies that require the workforce in order to be profitable to the workers themselves. This accepts that we will have human sacrifices in order for profits to stay high and for the price of cheap goods to remain low. Liebow thought this was a problem and believed that it was possible for effective markets to exist without such human sacrifices.
I would also argue that there are many jobs that are not being done because we focus so highly on private markets. Companies want to be as efficient as possible, meaning they focus on where they can generate the highest profit. As a result, we don’t build enough affordable housing, our parks and greenspaces are littered with trash that no one is incentivized to clean, and lots of recycling goes to landfills instead of being sorted and reused. These are not all wonderful jobs and it would be hard to get homeless people to do these types of jobs, but the point is that our system which sacrifices the poor also sacrifices those jobs that don’t make the marginal cost benefit analysis worthwhile for corporations. There is work that can be done if we can find a way to allow public institutions to do it. Shifting from a sense of sacrificing the poor may encourage them to actually participate in society by doing these jobs, especially if we can make them suck a little less. Such a system would be a big departure from our current approach to markets, but it is probably necessary if we want greater social cohesion and less poverty and homelessness.
In the book Act Accordingly, author Colin Wright provides his thoughts on our hyperconnected and hardworking society. Wright comments on the pride we have in hard work, and how that has translated into praise for those who work 100 hour weeks and toil through difficult paths to reach their journey. Rather than advocate for the traditional path of ever increasing responsibility and hard work, he encourages a different path, which runs in contrast to our thoughts about always being connected and always working. I have come across the idea through multiple podcasts that I listen to with Debbie Millman in a podcast called Design Matters where she called hard work, long hours, and responding to emails at 3 a.m. “a badge of honor”. What Wright begins to argue is that this work is not the most useful work, because it is often not the most productive. He writes, “for some reason we treat ‘hard work’ as if it’s an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end,” showing how focused we are on the hard work we do, and not where that hard work takes us or the outcome of that hard work. He also writes, “Is it noble to work 100 hours a week to accomplish what could be done in 40? Is it virtuous to spend 40 hours hours on a project that could be delivered in 10?”
I think that once we get into the working world and start to build our careers many of us become super focused on reaching a better position and a better salary and in the end we make sacrifices in our personal life so that our work can be the best. This is certainly not a bad thing, and making sacrifices to help grow in your professional life is important, but Wright is arguing that the sacrifices you make should be temporary. Once you adopt the idea that you must always work hard you will have prepared yourself for success, however, hard work in isolation and hard work that does not provide results is not the best use of your time. It is not worth making personal sacrifices to work hard on something that does not reward nor advance your life in a fully rounded way. As Debbie Millman put it, having a hard work ‘badge of honor’ does not help you if it means that you are getting less sleep, becoming less productive, and losing the ability to be connected to health, family, and spirituality.
The second part of the quote from Wright shows the better alternative to our ideas of hard work. When we value quantity over quality we look at people with incredibly high work loads and praise them. We look at our colleagues who work super long hours with praise. Unfortunately, quantity does not always correlate with success. If long hours of work diminish the overall value of the final product and if large workloads delay the final product or fill it with errors, then what did the completion of the large workload accomplish? Wright is encouraging us to not work in a way that places a high value on the quantity of what we do. His quotes show that productivity versus activity should be our main goal, and that we should value those who are able to complete work with high quality in shorter time frames, rather than focus on dragging things out and appearing to constantly be working in a frenzy.
In my previous post I wrote about keeping a luck journal and the many ways in which a process for gratefulness can assist an individual with building happiness. In his book, 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman explains a very simple luck diary that is designed to provide different reflective ideas for each day of the week. Monday starts off by having the reader think about things they are thankful for, and Wiseman gives examples of the kinds of things many people have to be thankful for, but often overlook. One of the examples Wiseman gives really made me stop and think about my own life,
“There are many things in your life for which to be grateful. These might include having close friends, being in a wonderful relationship, benefiting from the sacrifices that others have made for you …”
He continues on with his list, but I was instantly struck by the idea of reflecting on and writing about our thankfulness in having others make sacrifices for us. After highlighting the section when reading I left myself a note, “seeing the sacrifices others have made for us is so difficult” and I believe that I was correct, and that my sentiment at the time of reading Wiseman’s quote is exactly why reflecting on and writing about the sacrifices of others is so important. I have 145 entries in my personal luck journal at the time I write this, and I am willing to bet that a much higher percentage of my entries focus on things, experiences, and my own accomplishments than things that others did to benefit me.
Moving forwards I will leave myself a note so that I remember to focus on the sacrifices that others have made for me. I believe that a new focus on the actions of others will help me to build my awareness in a way that is more inclusive of those around me. Rather than focusing in on my self, this awareness will broaden my horizon and help me see that my successes are truly the successes of those who are around me. 145 days of being grateful for things that I have done on my own shuts out the most important piece of my happiness, the relationships I have with others. Focusing on these sacrifices of others will allow me to see the ways in which I can build relationships and serve others.
I recently read the book, Insight Out, and then listened to a presentation by the book’s author Dr. Tina Seelig. At the end of her presentation Dr. Seelig was asked about luck, and she responded by explaining some of Dr. Wiseman’s research on the subject. In her mind luck is a product of engagement in the world combined with deep awareness of the world around you. The type of awareness one can receive by focusing on others will help you to engage with those around you in new ways. Seeing their sacrifices allows you to make sacrifices to help them, and positive experiences from those relationships become the luck that propels you in life.
Scott Russell Sanders writes about having a true sense of appreciation for Earth in his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two. The advice he gives is what he constantly tells his children, and how he tries to live his life. The passage from his letter that I love about the planet is, “Remember that the Earth, with its manifold life, is primary, and we are secondary. The Earth precedes us and will out last us.” In this quote Sanders is talking about how devastating we can be towards the planet when we live self-centered lifestyles and forget about life outside of ourselves. Sanders continues, “The Earth has made us possible, and moment by moment it sustains us.”
What I take from this quote is the importance of having a true appreciation for everything on the planet. Earth has provided us with nature, beautiful mountains, life sustaining rivers, and majestic coasts, but Earth has also given us places to build cities, the materials needed to surround ourselves in sheltered homes, and more. For Sanders the important idea when we reflect on the Earth is the ability to make considerations about what is good for the planet. When we only think of ourselves and are unwilling to make sacrifices to that will in the long run benefit the planet, we begin to damage the world we live in.
I don’t think that Sanders is asking us to abandon our well lit homes or get rid of our cars, but he is simply reminding us that we do not control the Earth as much as we like to believe we do. His quote is more of a call to awareness than a call to action. What Sanders is hoping we understand is that taking care of the planet, or at least making more decisions with the longterm health of the planet in mind, will help it sustain us for much longer. The more we begin to appreciate Earth and understand how it provides what we need for life, the more likely we are to begin taking part in actions to clean and protect our planet.
At the end of his letter for James Harmon’s published collection of letters, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two, Joe Dallesandro leaves the reader with one final piece of advice, “If you have to be beautiful, then do beautiful things for someone other than yourself.” This quote shows an idea of personal sacrifice, a way of looking deep within ourselves, and thoughtfulness for others.
In this quote I really enjoy the idea of being beautiful in the ways in which you help other people. It becomes very easy in life to constantly think about yourself, and how each action you take is going to be beneficial for yourself. It is not too often that we think of how we can do something meaningful for others, and even rarer still that we think of how we can do something for another person without thinking of how it will come back to benefit us in the future. I know that one of my struggles involves the desire to do positive things like volunteer or donate to worthy causes without my motivation for those things being my own personal gain. When I donate to charity I know that I will have a personal feeling of satisfaction from being a good person and helping out. Times when I have sacrificed time to volunteer and assist with things have also had an underlying motivating factor of knowing that my volunteering could be a resume booster, or possibly help me network.
By trying to think of making personal sacrifices for the good of others in the frame that Dallesandro provides us, I think we can avoid having so many of the hangups I described earlier. When we focus on our own outward beauty and appearance we become more self absorbed, but if we try to be beautiful on the inside, and try to be beautiful through actions that are geared towards other people, then we create an attitude that is as much about serving others as ourselves.