The Pioneers of Courage

Independence Day is my favorite holiday of the year. The day we declared ourselves a free people. Our efforts were imperfect then, our freedom parsimoniously shared, our efforts remained imperfect through the decades, and they are imperfect now. We have much progress to make. But I relish this day, as I meditate on the courage — born of frustration and injustice — that our forebears showed in collectively saying “enough.” It was treason. Its success was unlikely. I imagine some felt as if they were signing their own death warrants, should the effort have failed.

When I am alone and fearful, in the dark mornings, contemplating some challenge, some task, some call to action that I must answer yet before which I feel cowardly — I think about them, and other pioneers of courage. If they could act, under much harsher conditions than I will ever face, then so must I be able.

Photo by A. Jarrell

And this courage is and has been on display not just on national matters of consequence. My neighbors display it. I see it all around. People quietly, courageously solving the local problems we encounter every day. I believe we are living in times upon which we will look back and say, “there began the rebirth of communities.” And the rebirth will have emerged as a result of national dysfunction. Here, where we live together, we face challenges. No force from on high will intervene. The mechanisms have ground to a halt.

So here we are.

Our nation is not some institution, some complicated mechanism established and set in motion. It grew. It emerged from villages, towns, cities — communities. It remains a land of communities, knit together by a mixture of geography and of ideas.

I am not blind to injustice nor infamy. I am not blind, either, to the precarious place the globe has become. But I feel I cannot afford to be overcome by despair nor by rage.

Today, the anniversary of our declaration of independence, I will spend time with neighbors and with family. And I will reflect on how best to improve my immediate surroundings. From a thousand, nameless, similar small acts, this land of communities might start to heal itself.

That is what I am thinking about today.

Complementary Production and the Village of Hawk Creek

The story of Tom Newman and the Village of Hawk Creek gives a good example of “complementary production” (the kind I was trying to describe here).

There is a man, Tom Newman, in Cleveland, Tennessee who has spent years slowly gathering five frontier log cabins to his property and turning it into a kind of museum:

Over a period of more than 40 years, Newman purchased five log cabins, carefully taking each one apart, moving them to his property and meticulously putting them back together again.

Not only is he interested in capturing and preserving the life of colonists on the frontier of Tennessee, Newman said he wants to share a message with today’s youth.

“I want to show young people the skills and the hard work that it took the early settlers to build their house, to build their home,” Newman said. “I took those logs down, moved them in here and put them back up. That’s hard work! But that’s nothing compared to what those pioneers had to live with. I think young people need to know a little bit about that, if they can. This land was built on hard work.”

The default is to think of “schools” as being in charge of schooling students. (In fact we even call them “learners.”) If instead we think of “education of youth,” and not “schooling,” as a multifaceted and community-wide challenge, that will necessarily involve a wide array of actors, then possibilities open up. You will then look for solutions that involve more than just institutions (“schools”) and professionals (“educators” and administrators) and that are likely to involve complementary actions. Hawk Creek is one such part of a community response to the challenge.

Note that Newman is doing this thing because he is interested, but he is importantly connecting with others in the community and he sees it as an educational resource. The people of Cleveland, TN have an educational resource now that they did not have. Institutions called “schools” can now imagine new ways to, potentially, “teach” history.

It Is 'You People Day'

In my household, November 18 is referred to as “You People Day.” We celebrate it.

Here is how it came about. My stepfather is an attorney. A long time ago, he was working at a mid-size firm. He and a few of the partners and associates decided they wanted to strike off on their own and start their own firm. The day came when they had to announce their intentions to the founder. He exploded and went on a diatribe that my stepfather describes in epic terms.

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You People Day

“I don’t know what you people are thinking. You people are betraying me. You people are going to fail utterly and you people will come crawling back.” The exact words are lost in the mists of time, but two things remain: The sentiment, which was clear, and the repeated use of that phrase, “you people.”

I know that today the phrase has a negative set of connotations that invoke race and ethnicity. It was not meant that way, but it was meant derisively and critically.

My stepfather’s new firm thrived and prospered. They came to know the day they decided to set up shop as “You People Day” as an ironic point of pride.

Knowing this background made it possible for me, many years later in 2003, to take action on a dream I have had since my youth. I quit my job and struck out on my own. November 18 was the day my arrangements were finalized.

I did not have a detailed plan and it was risky. But my little enterprise thrived well enough that I held up my end when it came to supporting our family. And with some pride I came to think of November 18 as “You People Day.”

Almost ten years after my own You People Day, I went back into the organizational world and took a traditional job. I love my position and it affords me the opportunity to do important work on a platform that I did not have otherwise.

But I admit I miss the sense of self-satisfaction I got from being an independent worker, foraging for my own sustenance and thriving in my own way.

And so, even though I am no longer an independent worker, I celebrate You People Day.

Fail: Back to Square One With Facebook

Yesterday I posted a brief message on Facebook. “Strongly considering deleting all social media apps in order to limit distracting use. Thoughts?” This generated some conversation and I thought I would update my friends. As I began to write a new post, it became lengthy so I thought I would put it here.

Firstly, I realize that my original note was a little unclear. I am not considering deleting my Facebook account entirely. I tried that once. It lasted a week. The connections I have and can maintain through Facebook are too important to me to abandon — and I found that they do not simply continue through other means. There is something that Facebook adds to my life that does not come from other things. Something important: wide-ranging social connection.

Secondly, the above paragraph makes something else clear that I had not meant to be vague about. I am talking about Facebook here. I don’t really struggle with other social media platforms. Twitter, Instagram, and  LinkedIn are not the same kinds of sirens that Facebook is. I know others differ but for me that’s the case.

But I do struggle with not letting Facebook use overtake other productive pursuits and push them out. Note that I am counting Facebook as a productive thing for me to be doing. Yes I waste time on it, but overall it is a value-add. I just need to find a good way to keep it in perspective.

So, to be clear, my thought was that if I delete the app from my phone, and only use Facebook on a computer, then this might help me keep my online work in balance. However, there was something about that solution that seemed unsatisfactory to me, which was why I was merely “considering” it and didn’t just do it.

In the first place, if my worry is that I may be pushing out productive pursuits, for instance writing, research, and other business correspondence — why would I require that the machine I use for Facebook be the same one I use for those other things? It’s kind of bonkers when you look at it like that. In the second place, using Facebook on my phone is precisely the use case that makes the most sense if what I value in the network is easy, friction-free and wide-ranging light connections with people. I can dip in and out in odd moments, when I have some spare attention, wherever that happens to be. That’s actually one would imagine one should use Facebook.

downloadIn the conversation that followed my note, a potential halfway-measure arose: turning off all notifications for the Facebook app. (I use iOS so this would be in Settings=>Notifications and I would just disable all notifications.) This way, the app would be available to me on my phone, but every time I look at the screen I would not be greeted by some little red number (a “badge”) inviting me to open the app and mess around with it. I would have to make a decision to open the app and check it to see what had happened since I last had looked.

I tried this yesterday. For about a third of the day, this seemed to be working well. I checked the app occasionally, but not incessantly. And then I got distracted by other activities and I forgot about Facebook entirely for most of the rest of the day. And then, later at night, I opened up the app.

And that was when the problem became apparent. I had something like 20 notifications of people interacting with various things I had posted. I do not feel that I need to see, read, or even know about every post that every friend of mine makes, but I do feel it is inconsiderate not to read what they comment when it is on something that I myself originally posted. So I feel duty bound to look at all of these notifications, at least enough to feel I know what they are. Even when the notification is as innocuous as “Joe liked your post,” I feel like I ought to know which post. That’s what friends do, right? Pay attention to one another when interacting?

Some time ago I became an Inbox Zero person. I keep nothing in my email Inbox. Everything has been processed and either archived, noted for later action, or dealt with. What I learned about that is that the very best way to stay on top of your email inbox is to deal with it constantly and immediately. This is contrary to some productivity hackers who say just check email once per day or whatever. I find that when I do that, I am greeted with 100+ emails at once that I have to slog through. But, if I constantly handle email throughout the day, the energy expenditure is minimal. Random emails from random people? Scan enough to know it’s unimportant, and delete. Informational cc: lines? Scan and archive. Notes from my boss? Look at what is needed, figure out what I need to do, dash off a “got it” response, write down the to-do, archive. I find that it is easy and beneficial to handle all these tasks in the moment, rather than batched. In fact, doing all that in a batched way is a nightmare and results in Inbox 100+ instead of Inbox Zero — at least, that is my experience.

The same with Facebook. Yesterday’s experiment made me realize that it is useful and actually easier for me to just deal with Facebook a bit at a time, as and when notifications come in. I make them unobtrusive (so I do not have any alerts or banners, and certainly no sounds, on my app — just little badges) and they serve as reminders.

So I am back to Square One with my Facebook app. I’ve turned on my notifications again.

Which means I still have my original problem: balance among my online pusuits. But at least I now know of two potential solutions that don’t work, at least not for me.