Archive for February, 2010
Wednesday, February 24th, 2010
Last November marked the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Coincidentally, it was also the 20th anniversary of the first Hero’s Quest (aka Quest for Glory 1) release. One was a world-changing event, and one was “just a game”, but both had personal significance to me.
You see, I was in Germany when the Wall still stood. And I cried with joy when it came down.
There are walls around cities, and the walls we build around ourselves. We spend a lot of time hiding behind walls because we think they will protect us. But we forget that the walls that keep others out also trap us inside.
Taking a Chance
Back in 1971, I had a rare opportunity. My high school (Abington High near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) had an exchange student program affiliated with AFS. Each year one or two students from Abington went to school in a foreign country. I applied and became one of the finalists, but I felt I was outclassed by some of the other candidates.
Then a funny thing happened. Abington broke off its affiliation with AFS and decided to run their own program. Abington had a “sister school” in Berlin, Germany, so chose that for their exchange program. But a wall stood in the way, and that wall was the memory of the Holocaust. Every other top candidate was from a Jewish family. They didn’t trust that their children would be safe in Germany without a major program like AFS behind the exchange. One by one, the parents of each of the other finalists withdrew their children’s applications until I was the last one standing.
I felt as though I had “won by default”, but the selection committee assured me that I was fully qualified and would be a great representative of the school. By the way, my father was also Jewish, but believed that his children should have the chance to follow their dreams. He did not let fear get in the way. Many of the opportunities in my life have worked out that way – A door opens briefly, and you either step through it quickly or watch it shut in front of you. This time I went through the door.
A City Alone
Berlin in the 1970′s was a unique city. By the armistice that ended World War II, Germany was divided among the Soviet and other Allied forces. Berlin, the former capitol, was also divided, but it was in the middle of East Germany. All trade with the West had to pass through Soviet-controlled territory. By 1961, an estimated 3.5 million people took advantage of the open border in Berlin to leave Communist East Germany.
East Germany came up with a unique solution – They began to build barriers, and eventually the actual Wall – all around the Western sectors of Berlin. We’re talking a literal wall, several yards high, with a 100-yard “killing zone” on the East Berlin side. It was like the “Escape from New York” film – a major city completely separated from the rest of its own country and all of its allies.
King Solomon supposedly solved a dispute between two women, both of whom claimed to be the mother of a baby, by proposing that the baby be cut in half, with each woman getting half a baby. In the case of Berlin, the Allies literally did “cut it up”. Fortunately, cities are more resilient than babies, and Berlin survived the surgery. I think this is unprecedented in history. West Berlin became a unique place, cosmopolitan, thriving, yet always isolated and under the shadow of The Wall.
Which Side Are You On?
The building of the Berlin Wall was not the first act to divide the German people. One of my instructors at Kant Gymnasium had been a Lieutenant in the German army during World War II. One day he stopped to talk with me on a stairwell, and he said that he sincerely regretted having supported Hitler’s government, and that many of the soldiers and officers had felt the same way.
I asked him – naively, I suppose – why they hadn’t found some way to protest or resist. He told me that they had no choice. He knew that if he did not follow orders, and ensure that his men followed orders in turn, his family in Berlin would have been hurt or killed. He could see no way to break through the wall of rules and laws that constrained him.
It is never easy to break from the norm, be different, or work to bring about change in a hostile society. Most people, most of the time, go along with the rules we are given. We live our lives according to a pattern and rarely stop to examine whether we could do better by breaking down the walls of habit.
We also create our own mental walls. Once we make up our minds, we have a lot of inertia towards continuing to do what we have been doing. We like to be “right”, and the easiest way to do that is to ignore anything that might force us to change our opinions. It’s ok to be wrong sometimes. We learn far more from our mistakes than when we get things right the first time. Minds are like parachutes; they only function when open.
Walls Between People
The destruction of the Berlin Wall was a life and world changing event. It had stood for almost 30 years, dividing friend from friend and family from family. When I visited Berlin in the early 1970′s, the Wall seemed a permanent, unalterable fact of nature. As an American, I could cross over with some slight risk, but to a Berliner, East and West Berlin were two different worlds. One was Democratic, one Communist; one Capitalist and commercial, the other Socialist and relatively impoverished. Germans could not move freely back and forth, and there seemed little common ground beyond the language.
November 1989 changed all that. The Wall began to come down, piece by piece. Families were reunited. Friends old and new found they had much more in common than they could have realized. Less than one year later, the two Germanies became one. And now it’s hard to imagine they were ever separated.
We build walls all the time. Whether the construction materials are political affiliations, gender, social or religious differences, educational background, or standards of hygiene, we make quick decisions about other people and then base our relationships on those first assumptions. Those instincts are often “right”, in that our subconscious minds use a lot of hidden details to make choices. But they aren’t flexible. When evidence comes in that contradicts our initial assumptions, we are usually poor at adapting and adjusting our beliefs. And that builds walls.
If you want to have more friends, or to be more effective in life, you need to learn to tear down some of those walls, or at least find a way to climb them. Learn to role-play, empathize, and understand what drives the people around you. Don’t assume you know what they’re thinking; start a real dialogue and ask them. You can find things in common with almost anyone if you open yourself up and work at it. And if there’s nothing in common, that just means you have an opportunity to learn and perhaps to teach.
Take Down the Walls
We can all benefit from the lessons of the Berlin Wall. Our lives are made poorer by the separation we create between ourselves and others. Our rote day-to-day patterns keep us from seeing the richness that life has to offer. Our “party line” political decisions lock us into an “Us vs. Them” mentality that benefits none of us.
The walls that keep others out also lock us in. Make some new friends, try some new things, and tear down the walls that separate you from other people. You will find a new sense of freedom and joy beyond those walls.
The Fall of the Wall
Wikipedia Creative Commons
Thursday, February 11th, 2010
Circa 1980, I found myself working in the Big Apple, New York City, on a programming contract with the Bank of New York. While there, I managed to take in two musical plays – Evita and A Chorus Line. I was fascinated with the music and story of Evita, and saw it twice more with Lori – the stage version in San Jose, and the Madonna film version.
While Eva Perón was a unique individual, I think her story resonates with all of us in many ways. She grew up in total poverty, made herself into a success, and eventually became the recognized “Spiritual Leader of the Nation of Argentina.” We each must invent and develop ourselves to grow from our roots and become… that which we each become. We aspire to greatness, or at least success, in our adult lives.
In this article, I will use a few quotes from the original version of Evita to write, and hopefully make you think, about what we can all learn from Evita’s story.
“Now Eva Perón had every disadvantage you need if you’re going to succeed. No money, no class, no father, no bright lights. There was nowhere she’d been at the age of fifteen…”
Eva grew up as the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Argentinean farmer. Juan Duarte supported Evita’s family, but returned to his own when Eva was just one year old. She grew up in the poorest section of a small town, but managed to get a decent public education. She started acting in school plays at 13, and decided she wanted to become a film actress. At the age of 15, she moved to Buenos Aires, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in South America at the time.
Evita’s story about growing up in poverty and becoming wealthy and famous was echoed in a story in Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Some of the most powerful and successful lawyers in New York City grew up in poor immigrant Jewish families. From this background they learned a strong work ethic, the importance of a good education, and to take any jobs they could find. These jobs included doing the paperwork for corporate takeovers and proxy fights, something the established “gentleman” law firms would not touch, but which became the most profitable legal field in the 1970′s and 80′s. Their impoverished, “second class citizen” backgrounds became the core of their success. They had “every disadvantage they needed to succeed.”
Eva Duarte became Evita – Champion of women and the working class – because of her poverty. If she had been raised in a middle class family, she would have lost the drive that made her powerful and famous.
“Eva, beware of the city. It’s hungry and cold, can’t be controlled, it is mad. Those who are fools are swallowed up whole, and those who are not, become what they should not – become changed; in short, they go bad.”
Hope is a start and an inspiration, but it is not enough by itself. Eva had to embrace her hope of a better life, visualize a way to make it happen, then take a tremendous risk to leave her old life behind and try to create a new one. You could say, “It wasn’t much of a life,” but we all have an attachment to the known and familiar, no matter how poor it might seem to others. Any real change involves real risk. Many poor people who moved to Buenos Aires in the 1930′s could not find work, and lived in tenements that were probably even worse than Eva’s humble origins.
Eva accepts that risk wholeheartedly. She sings, “What’s new, Buenos Aires? I’m new; I wanna say I’m just a little stuck on you… Fill me up with your heat, with your noise, with your dirt, overdo me. Let me dance to your beat, make it loud, let it hurt, run it through me.” You can’t go into a new environment fearfully. You must accept it, embrace it, make it yours, and make yourself part of it. That’s how you turn risk into opportunity.
Adapt and Communicate
“It seems crazy, but you must believe, there’s nothing calculated, nothing planned. Please forgive me if I seem naïve, I would never try to force your hand; but please understand, I’d be surprisingly good for you.”
After Eva has established herself in the big city – she became one of the best-paid and most successful radio performers – she is invited to a charity event to raise funds for victims of an earthquake in San Juan, Argentina. It is there that she meets Colonel Juan Perón, an ambitious military officer who is starting to become known in political circles. Eva has this one chance to break through and move up to a higher level in her life’s ambitions, and she seizes it.
Her introduction to Perón is a seduction, but it is also a negotiation. She makes it clear that she can help Perón with his political ambitions as well as in the bedroom. Perón leaves the party with her, dumps his mistress, and moves Evita into his house. This was considered a scandal; while public figures often had mistresses, they visited them in their own apartments. They didn’t treat them as wives.
Evita knew what Juan Perón desired, adapted to it, and communicated her ability to help him with his political ambitions. That, as much as sex, led to their enduring relationship.
Pursue Your Passion
“Now I am a worker; I’ve suffered the way that you do. I’ve been unemployed and I’ve starved and I’ve hated it too.”
Evita’s critics believed that she was entirely out for herself. She used and discarded men. She spent lavishly on clothing, jewelry, and perfume. No doubt she was a selfish person in many ways. But she was also driven by a higher purpose.
Growing up in poverty, and seeing the very real struggle for survival that people like her own family faced, Evita resolved to do something about it. Throughout her short life, she supported labor unions, created Argentina’s first real social services and welfare system, and worked to improve the lives of her country’s poor. As a woman who saw herself and other women treated as second-class citizens, she worked tirelessly to help other women through universal suffrage, education, and equal job opportunities.
At the end of her life, Eva Perón reportedly worked 20 and 22 hour days at her government-supported charity. This does not sound to me like the portrait of a self-centered prima donna who cared about nothing but her own success. This was a woman driven to help others and to make real change in her country. And that drive is what made Evita immortal. She could have continued on as a rich and moderately famous radio actress. But because she cared about her people, she became much more.
“I came from the people, they need to adore me, so Christian Dior me from my head to my toes. I need to be dazzling, I want to be Rainbow High! They must have excitement, and so must I… I’m their product, It’s vital you sell me, so Machiavell-me; make an Argentine rose!”
You’ve heard the phrase, “Dress for success.” In my generation, many people considered that a sell-out. Many successful young programmers and entrepreneurs – especially in Silicon Valley – prided themselves on being so secure that they could wear jeans and sandals into any restaurant or business meeting. In contrast, my brother worked for IBM in New York in the mid-70′s, and they had a strict dress code – black or navy blue suit, white shirt, narrow tie. To the Californians, these people were slaves to obsolete fashion rules.
But the most successful knew how to adapt to changing environments. Bill Gates did not see any reason to wear a coat and tie while he wrote software and started up Microsoft. But when he made the famous deal to develop computer operating systems for the IBM PC, he adapted to the IBM environment. On his way to the first meeting in Florida, Gates realized he had forgotten to pack a tie. Rather than “violate the dress code,” he stopped at a department store and bought a cheap tie. He knew that the IBM executives would not take him seriously if he insisted on following the West Coast un-dress code.
Evita took this principle completely to heart. She knew that she represented the idea of the poor country girl becoming a star, so she made sure she dressed the part. When she first became Argentina’s First Lady, she wore wild, dramatic outfits to “put on a show.” Later in her career, she adopted Paris designer fashion and wore more practical, but still very elegant, outfits. She was one of the first women in Argentina to sometimes wear pants instead of a skirt. By doing so, she promoted the message that women are equal to men and can do whatever men did. This was a very radical concept in the 1930′s!
Cut Like a Diamond
“She’s a diamond in their dull grey lives – and that’s the hardest kind of stone – It usually survives.”
“She’s not a bauble you can brush aside. She’s been out doing what we just talked about – Example: Gave us back our business, got the English out. And when you think about it, well why not do one or two of the things we promised to?”
Evita didn’t just talk the talk; she walked the walk. She knew that appearances are important, but so are accomplishments. While she was dazzling the aristocracy and the proletariat alike, she used her beauty and her passion to transform Argentinean society. In her 33 years of life, Eva Perón managed to create enduring changes far greater than most of us accomplish in much longer careers.
So think about it. Why not do… a few of the things that you could do? If Evita Perón could start with so little, yet accomplish so much… maybe each of us can find time to do something worthwhile for our communities, our nations, and the world.
To read more about the real Evita, check out this detailed Wikipedia article on Eva Perón.
Thursday, February 4th, 2010
“Gentlemen,” Sloan said, “I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here… Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement.” – Alfred P. Sloan, former Chairman of General Motors
If there’s one thing about which I’m absolutely certain, it’s that it doesn’t pay to be too certain. If I knew all the answers before taking on a task, it probably wouldn’t be a very interesting one. Early in my programming career, I made the decision that I would only stay with a job as long as I was learning new things. Any time I knew everything, it was time to move on.
Twisty Passages, All Different
“You can never step into the same river, for new waters are always flowing past you.” – Heraclitus of Ephesus
Life has a lot of repetition. Sometimes it feels as though you’re dropping a red vase in a “maze of twisty passages, all alike”, exploring the maze for several hours, and ending up back at the red vase. At first, it seems as though no progress has been made at all.
But there is progress. Before returning to that spot, you probably also dropped a few other objects in different sections of the maze. You may be revisiting a location, but the state of the maze – like that of Heraclitus’s river – has changed. You have more information and can make more refined decisions.
It’s All Right to Be Wrong
“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” – Elbert Hubbard
The key to making a tough choice is being willing to change your mind. If you reach a dead end, back up and try another path. This isn’t true only in adventure games; real life has many opportunities to rethink decisions and make better choices. Some choices – taking a particular job or having a baby, for example – of course commit you for a time. And that’s a good thing – You really need to give either of those time to do well; then decide whether your original decision was the right one.
Remember, there are no bad decisions. If it’s a meaningful choice, it’s also a difficult one. And that means that there are reasons for making a particular choice and reasons for doing something else. Don’t beat yourself up over small “mistakes”; learn from them instead. And when it’s time to make a similar decision, you’ll have more information and the chance to make a better choice.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
To me, oversimplification of a complex issue is a capital mistake… and one we see all the time in news reporting, political analysis, and the corporate boardroom. It’s very understandable – When confronted with a really complex issue, we feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Simplifying the decision – usually by focusing on a single aspect of it – makes us feel more in control.
Politicians are often tarred with labels such as “fence-straddler” or “flip-flopper.” We want our representatives to have definite opinions and stick with them. But that isn’t a good reflection of reality. The issues debated in Congress, Parliament, and other political institutions don’t have nice simple answers. That’s because the simple questions get handled all the time by individual workers. Only the hard ones come up for voting.
Currently, the United States suffers from an excess of certainty. There is a line drawn in the sand between the Republican and Democratic representatives, and very few are willing to cross over it. Instead of carefully considering each issue, representatives blindly vote on party lines. Issues such as the bank bail-out, universal health insurance, and others are not at all straightforward. And yet, on many of them, all of the Democrats vote one way, and all of the Republicans against them. That degree of consensus tells me that our representatives are not thinking about the issues. They’re voting the way they’re told to vote. There is no individual judgment, and to me, that means there is no real intelligence being applied to our laws.
That’s an oversimplification in its own right, of course. I’m sure our representatives and their staffs do a tremendous amount of work writing bills and amending them to reflect their constituencies. That’s where the intelligence comes into the process. But the final decision is a vote, and most of the time, that vote doesn’t seem to reflect anything more than a rubber stamp of political party positions.
We can suffer from too much information. Our brains are designed for simple survival decisions – “If I sleep on the ground, predators may kill me, so I’d better either sleep in the trees or make myself a strong shelter.” We can cope with decisions like these. But modern life is much more complicated. We can spend hours – or hundreds of hours – researching questions on the Web and other resources. It’s very easy to get so much information on a subject that a meaningful decision is too hard to make.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this conflict in several of his New Yorker Magazine articles reprinted in his book, “What the Dog Saw.” For example, he talks about intelligence failures in attacks such as 9/11/2001, the 1973 Syrian and Egyptian attacks on Israel, and the 1998 terrorist attack on the US embassy in Nairobi. Each time, there were – at least in hindsight – clear indications that an attack was imminent.
The problem is that there is just too much information. Yes, there were leads suggesting each of these attacks. But in the case of the 1998 attack, for example, “the FBI’s counterterrorism division had sixty-eight thousand outstanding and unassigned leads dating back to 1995.” It isn’t in the least bit surprising that one letter – from an informant who was considered not credible – was ignored. There was just too much information, much of it contradictory, and most of it useless.
Trust Your Instincts
How do we make intelligent decisions when we have too much information, or too little? “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer, studies this question. While people can’t make millions of calculations per second as does a computer, we make surprisingly accurate decisions all the time. That’s because we have a built-in memory and feedback mechanism that recognizes patterns and gives us positive feedback when the patterns look “right”.
A chess grandmaster can glance at the board and immediately pick out four or five moves that have the most potential. Then he’ll work through those possibilities and choose the move that seems most promising. This sort of decision is based on knowledge and experience, but the immediate decision is made by “feel”.
Are your palms sweating as you contemplate a decision? Ears ringing? Arms shaking? Your body and mind are trying to give you feedback that – based on your previous experience – something is wrong. Pay attention to those instincts and you’ll make much better decisions than if you try to exhaustively analyze every question. Then learn from the results so your instincts will improve each time.
The Simple Answer Is…
… that there are no simple answers. We live in a complex world full of difficult and complicated decisions. The best we can do is to try to make reasonable choices, pay attention to our instincts, and learn from our inevitable mistakes.
Life isn’t just an adventure game; you have a lot more freedom of choice. Sometimes you need to break out of the maze and make your own twisty passages. And sometimes you seem to end up right back where you started. But you never step in the same river twice; the experience from your previous decisions helps you to make better ones as you go along. In the end, it all comes down to this simple guide:
- 1. Make a decision that feels right.
- 2. Live with it, but also learn from it.
- 3. Rinse and repeat.
Don’t be afraid of uncertainty. Being uncertain just means you have meaningful choices. And that’s what makes the game (of life) fun… even when you don’t know what your next move should be.