Cracks

Strapped to a chair in a small, grey house on the edge of a Missouri town, 52-year-old David Masters begged for his life to end by lethal injection instead of by gunshot. His three captors, angered that he was three weeks tardy with rent and that he’d made unwanted advances on one of them, obliged by injecting him repeatedly with cocaine. The next day, his body was found near an Ozark river. Another toll taken by the culture of addiction.

David Masters had been a lawyer. Hearing that, we imagine him in a small, cheap storefront office near city hall, a bottle hidden in the desk and no receptionist. Maybe an ambulance chaser. A lost soul hanging on to whatever profession he’d once had.

Here is what David Masters once had. Seven children. A wife. The best home in his Missouri town, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A reputation for hard work and scrupulous integrity. Proteges, who have since succeeded. The favor and support of the governor, who had appointed him county prosecutor in 1990 and which office he held until 1998.

David Masters had been a shining success. People marveled at how hard he worked, putting in full-time hours on a part-time job while still keeping his private practice. It appears his life unraveled shortly after he was unseated from his prosecutor’s slot in 1998. Under what seems to have been a crushing amount of personal and professional overhead, he ran out of money and options. Then, he plain ran out, moving without telling anyone, including 65 clients, where he was going. His law license was suspended. In the court documents, he at one point listed himself as “homeless.” That might well have been better than where he was, living in that small grey house with a killing drug dealer for a housemate.

He’d cracked. His ultimate end, one article says, was the result of “poor choices.” Running out on things, surrounding himself with hard characters, perhaps using drugs himself. That’s all strangely comforting to imagine — surely, we can avoid this man’s fate by instead making good choices. How else to make sense of such a bizarre and deep fall?

But, dig deeper, and there’s something else at work. Everyone who knew David Masters praised his integrity, his energy, his work ethic. Especially his work ethic. One person said he was “the hardest-working guy imaginable.” His integrity was unquestioned, but his industry was singular. His success, it seems, was built on that classic American myth of hard work and just a couple of good breaks.

How many of us imagine that same path to success, and indeed play it out at home? This is not someone else’s story. It’s our own. Hard work, that’s the ticket. And then, even harder work. David Masters began to drown under his own workload, neglecting his health, and finally broke down. Unlike the glittering profiles of success in the headlines, his story is the story of an ordinary man who follows an ordinary path. Hard work is available to us all; we need no special gifts in order to benefit from it. We can all swell with pride as we imagine ourselves out-hustling the competition and succeeding.

It’s made worse as people worry more and more about how they’ll make ends meet. Everyone, it seems, is working longer and harder hours than ever. Overall, families are working 11% more hours per year than thirty years ago. Work used to be a refuge of security. Work hard, went the deal, and things will be OK. Now, the deal has been welched on. Work hard, it now goes, and for your reward — you will work even harder.

This driven, hard-charging way to the top can turn around and bite. Staying late at the office, getting one more thing done before wearily heading home, it’s easy to congratulate ourselves on knowing when to quit. How balanced our lives are, because we only go back into the office for part of Saturday instead of the whole weekend. Why, the proof’s in David Masters himself: we don’t live in that grey house on Main Street just north of town.

Really, though, how far are we from that? How do we know where the line is? The answer is, we don’t. When we strive only for success, then success is the only positive outcome. All else is failure. And, when that success proves fleeting, the only answer is yet more desperate industry. All that anchors us and gives us balance is left by the curb.

David Masters, in his sad demise, may have told us a tale that will do us good. But we must hear it. It’s not a tale of drugs, or of bad choices, or of the need for a new economic policy. It’s a parable about hard work, and a reminder of the limits of effort. All of us must decide where we will draw the line. Desperate, David Masters crossed his.

Some of us seek diligence and more diligence. David Masters reminds us that we must seek to know when to rest, too.

Branded

The Oscars must reinvent themselves again. They knew that going into this year’s show, and made a game effort. The premier brand in entertainment awards, is adapting to a new world. In this new world, you can’t depend on massive, captive audiences. Even if you’re a pop-culture Titan, you’ve got to woo the viewer and give them something more than just another TV show.

This has been building, and not just in entertainment. The most recent Olympics were brought to us in packaged chunks just once per night, all tape-delayed and edited to create the best story. Every athlete became a “character,” and every athletic event a chapter. Around the same time, the major parties’ nominating conventions, which had in the past merited live, gavel-to-gavel coverage, were relegated to small prime-time chunks, easily avoided. Many at the time said that the networks, due to commercial and other pressures, had become derelict in their duty to provide significant coverage of major cultural events, in favor of scandal, sports, and weather.

I’m not so sure. Somehow, events that used to seem intrinsically important aren’t any more. The question is: What happened? When did the Olympics become less important than previously-scheduled programs? When did presidential political conventions become nuisances? When they started to market themselves like the Oscars.

In all of the spheres of our lives, a handful of ideas rise to the top and become keystones. One that has so risen is “branding.” Whole libraries have been written about it. Seminars exist that will tell you how to create “brands”. It’s so powerful that everyone wants it: even in areas outside of business, people speak daily of wanting to “brand” this or that idea. New-economy management gurus counsel people to remake themselves into “brands.” Nonprofit leaders with a good idea for improving the lives of others now first seek to create a “brand” for their notion.

But, for all the talk of “branding,” the idea around which it revolves has become an empty container. In part, that’s because the idea is so widespread — why, everyone knows what a brand is! There seems no need to define it. However, listen for a while and it will become clear that “brand” is a term that means many things to many people. The books and articles that treat the subject stumble when it’s time to define it. One comes upon the sentence or paragraph that promises to lay out just what a “brand” is — and there’s a linguistic empty space. Or, the definition given is too narrow, out of sync with common usage.

It’s as if the idea is too big, or too important, to be subject to mere definition. Like God, it can only be described in partial ways. Above all, “brandedness” is a mythic state that, once achieved, unlocks the potential for success. And so, in a society where we all think we can (and ought to) get whatever we want, we speak of brand and branding as if we’ve already got it. I have a brand; so do you. My ideas have brands. That new seminar on how to implement a human-resources initiative? Branded. Political candidates? Branded, too. The word no longer really carries meaning. It’s now an emblem that stands, simply, for “success.”

But there are brands and then there are brands. Some brands are so potent that according to one study their devotees would literally tattoo them onto their body: Marlboro, NASCAR, Harley-Davidson. Now that’s brand success. Meanwhile, those of us mere mortals who simply have a good idea to promote, or a good product to sell, believe that we, too, can have what Marlboro and the Oscars have. But, we can’t.

If I say that I have “branded” something, I am saying that it has luster in the marketplace (either the actual one, or in the marketplace of ideas) such that people will immediately be able to identify it when they see it. But, most of the time, for all the frantic attempts to brand everything, what the effort really amounts to is attaching a clever name for something or giving it a logo. I may go so far as to register a trademark. But, none of this adds up to a “brand” in the way I dream it will.

The Oscars telecast has a legitimate claim to being a “brand.” Millions of dollars and years of steady effort have gone into securing that status. But my own civic event? It would be hubris to say it’s a brand.

Nor should it be. Public life has been overtaken by brand-mania, as organizations try ever harder to sell their ideas. It’s a dilemma. In a world with decreasing attention spans, the tactics that seem to work in commerce can be effective in more public-spirited endeavors, too.

But, all this branding activity places everything on the same plane. Any intrinsic value that civic activities might have had gets eviscerated. With a barrage of messages saying “pay attention to my qualities,” it becomes harder and harder to discern any real difference between the Oscars, the Olympics, and the Republican convention.

The more things get branded, the more trivial they seem. Boosters of major cultural events that have the ability to bring disparate people together have relinquished any hold they may have had on a moral high ground. Instead of saying, “These events are intrinsically important,” frantic branding efforts say, “You may choose between watching this event or `Fear Factor,’ it’s up to you.” More and more, it’s all the same, competing marketing messages vying for elusive “mindshare.”

What’s worse, public leaders today have also fallen into the same trap. They drape themselves with slogans, messages-of-the-days, titles for their bus tours, speech backdrops with pithy sayings repeated in TV-friendly script. This can be effective — but at a cost. For each short-term boost, a long term toll is exacted. We become ever more numb to the formerly important spectacles served up for us.

The average citizen is to be excused for staying home, pulling the blinds, and firing up Xbox. Through the very efforts they use to try and reach him, the people who lead our nation — political, civic, and business leaders — have done all but told him to.