Posts Tagged ‘Life Lessons’
Wednesday, May 11th, 2011
What is a leader? A century ago, we might have said, “He’s the boss, the man in charge.” Back then, most people did routine jobs and needed someone in charge to tell them what to do.
We are in the 21st Century now; times and people have changed. Most of us are skillful and well educated. We know how to do our jobs, and for the most part, we enjoy doing them. We don’t need bosses – We need leaders.
There is a parallel in fantasy games. When we created Quest for Glory, the Warrior had a simple role. He was strong, good with weapons, well armored, and perhaps not too bright.
Those times are no more. In the School for Heroes, the Fighter has become the Warrior who leads others to greatness. In MMO (massively multiplayer online) games like World of Warcraft, the fighter has become the ‘tank.’ A tank has more responsibility than anyone else on the team.
Tanks have five main responsibilities: They need to lead by example, inspiring the rest of their team. They need to survive and overcome injury and other setbacks. They need to act as the first line of defense, protecting the other team members. They need to divide the opposition so that the party never faces more than it can handle. And most of all, they need to encourage and support their team so that everyone does their jobs well.
In other words, a great tank must be a leader.
Here are some lessons that every good tank – and every good leader – needs to know.
Lead by Example
The best tanks know their own role thoroughly and understand the abilities of the other players. They don’t tell another player how to play, but they provide clear direction so that everyone works together. They choose which targets should be “crowd-controlled” (stunned, put to sleep, trapped, etc.) and which should be the first “kill targets”. Then they focus on their own job and trust the rest of the team to play their roles.
The best leaders are right there in the trenches with their troops, doing their own jobs competently and effectively. They give general direction without trying to micro-manage every task. They act more like knowledgeable co-workers than bosses, and the people working with them can see that the leader is right there working hard. When someone on the team has a question, the leader answers promptly and concisely.
Take a Lickin’, But Keep On Tickin’
The tank’s main job is to stand up under fire. He might be able to withstand four or five enemies better than anyone else in the party can handle one. The other players will do their jobs better if they know they are safe. This role starts with good equipment and character abilities, but continues with skillful timing and play. Is a big attack coming? Then use a mitigation talent. Is that attack a powerful area effect? Then move out of the area! Don’t just stand there and stress your healer’s ability.
The business equivalents to stamina and mitigation are tenacity, resilience, and flexibility. Is a supplier late with a critical component? Respond by changing the production sequence so that part is needed last. Or temporarily get a substitute from an alternate supplier. Are creditors late with their payments, or are they on Net 60 payment terms? Make sure you have the tenacity of sufficient cash reserves so that you can continue to produce while waiting for payment.
Dance the Masochism Tango
MMO tanks have many ways of attracting the enemy’s attention. They can “taunt”, they can do a sweeping attack that angers everyone, they may be able to daze or stun the enemies for a few seconds, and they can move around so that the rest of the team has a safer area in which to fight. To be a great tank, you have to be a little bit of a masochist – You have to want the enemy to hate you and to hurt you. Why? Because you can handle it, and your teammates aren’t as well equipped to survive a heavy onslaught.
Above all, the tank takes responsibility for everyone’s actions, not just his own. A great leader does that too.
Never forget that your job as the leader tank is to keep everyone else in your organization safe. That means you need clear policies that allow others to take appropriate risks and occasionally fail. They need to know that their jobs are safe (as long as they are effective contributors), and that you are their shield against outside critics and job uncertainty. Let your employees and co-workers know that you trust them and that you “have their backs”. If another manager – or an outsider – criticizes your team, take personal responsibility – Don’t blame the people who work for you. You are the tank – You’re tough and you can take the heat.
An MMO tank is responsible for taking on only what the team can handle. That includes directing crowd control to split up the enemy forces, and “pulling” small groups of enemies so that wandering patrols don’t join them. If you are storming a castle, you will do better if you first take out the sentries one by one than if you charge down the middle yelling, “Leeroy Jenkins!”
A business leader knows what she and her team can handle. She tracks performance and uses the results to plan future projects. She works with the team to break complex jobs into manageable tasks. She lets her team direct the schedule for individual jobs, but she keeps track of the results. If the team is having trouble meeting a milestone, she works with them to renegotiate the schedule and to further divide the tasks so that everyone can meet their goals. When you pull together, everyone on the team wins.
Support the Team
A World of Warcraft player named Jadden from the U.S. Argent Dawn realm posted this wonderful article, “I met an Elitist Tank last night” on the WoW forums. Stop for a minute and read it. Jadden talks about two types of players – the ones who would rather put people down, and those who are willing, ready, and able to help lift them up. A great tank supports the team, encourages players to improve without cutting them down, and makes sure that individual contributions are recognized and encouraged.
I’ve worked with people who believed that all managers suck, and that you just have to keep your head down and try to survive. That isn’t how people accomplish great projects. Real leaders do not tear down their teams and leave them working in fear. The best leaders act as resources and tools to help the team do great work. They listen more than they demand, and they act decisively on what they hear. If the team needs training, the leader arranges it. If their development tools are inadequate, the leader purchases new ones or schedules time and people to create better tools. They don’t say, “If you had any talent or skill, you would get the job done with what you have.” They listen, they learn, and they support the team.
Rule #1: The Players Must Have Fun
It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing an MMO or directing a project team. When everyone is relaxed and enjoying what they’re doing, they will perform better. As the leader, you will have a lot more fun when your team is having fun. The rules of tanking go far beyond the game. You can waste your energy complaining about the idiots around you, or you can transform them into smarter, nicer, and more helpful people. Lead by example. Help them learn to improve their outlook and performance. Being a jerk is self-destructive; helpful people have more fun.
You don’t have to wear plate armor and carry a shield to be a great tank. You just have to want the team to win and work hard to help them get there. Your team members will see the difference. There is nothing quite like hearing, “Tanks for being a leader” from the people you’ve helped to do great work.
Wednesday, April 7th, 2010
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
“Magic is loose in the world!” – Waldo, Robert A. Heinlein
A hot topic in gaming these days is that of “Serious Games.” Serious games have a purpose outside the game – to teach, to build teams, or to solve problems. Games of all types can bring people together and teach useful skills. Games are loose in the world, and rapidly becoming indistinguishable from real life.
Can Gaming Save the World?
Nagath recently showed me this talk by Jane McGonigal at the TED Conference:
Jane McGonigal, “Gaming Can Make a Better World”
Ms. McGonigal’s theme is that players spend billions of hours each year playing online role-playing games. She points out that they learn valuable skills while gaming including how to work with others, economics, risk assessment, accepting challenges, and so on. Players feel out of control in their mundane lives, while games reward them and give them a sense of accomplishment and control. But Jane also thinks games could do a lot more. Her group is developing a series of “serious games” that empower the players to learn and make decisions about important issues such as energy conservation, developing businesses in poor countries, and so on.
I like the message, but am a bit wary about it. I know how much time I spend on World of Warcraft, bridge, poker, and other games, and that much of it is “wasted” other than in making me feel good. At the same time, it isn’t really the fault of the games. I’m a PRO-crastinator, an accomplished expert at putting things off. (See my article, Counter-Productivity, for some examples of how to avoid getting things done.) When I try to avoid WoW, I find that I fill those empty hours with other non-productive activities. Jane McGonigal wants to immerse people in games that will cause them to solve problems, but I worry that this will just accelerate the trend towards hiding from real life in games.
Teach Your Children Well
Can we really learn real-world skills by playing games? Orson Scott Card, in his novel Ender’s Game, described such a game. The skill learned in this case was interstellar warfare. Ender, the main character, is tricked into directing an actual battle that he thinks is a simulation. He manages to win it against seemingly impossible odds… but at an incredible cost. The U.S. military has adopted the “battle game” concept with America’s Army and other “serious games” that are designed to recruit young people and then turn them into efficient soldiers.
Many games have been developed to teach less violent lessons, including my Castle of Dr. Brain and Lori’s Mixed-Up Fairy Tales. Students who get to play games in the classroom feel more involved in school and perform better on standardized tests. But so far, educational games have not lived up to their early promise. In the 1960’s, many people believed that computer-based education would allow students to learn at their own pace. Children would learn more, and a smaller number of teachers could handle large classrooms. In the 1970’s, systems like PLATO tried to make it easier to develop educational software. Somehow, these efforts never seemed to make it past the pilot project stage.
Outside of education, there’s another area where we are starting to see game-like systems, and that’s in product marketing. People like getting rewarded for doing things they had already planned to do, and marketers know that such rewards often encourage them to spend more. “Green stamps”, airline mileage points, the McDonald’s Monopoly game, and similar systems encourage people to spend more, and sellers often consider the promotional costs well spent. I spent most of my time at Montreal’s Expo ’67 playing Skee Ball because I kept winning tickets that I eventually spent on a large stuffed poodle. The prizes kept me playing.
Jesse Schell of Schell Games and Carnegie-Mellon University recently game a talk at DICE (Design Outside the Box) suggesting that such point systems could be taken a lot farther – “points for everything!” Jesse says that marketers could take advantage of our love for prizes by turning every consumer activity into a point-winning game.
Jesse’s video was actually pretty disturbing, and reminded me of the classic novel by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants. In that story, huge corporations run the world. Their advertising is so effective that people believe their most important role is to buy things. It’s a good thing that was just science fiction; we would never fall for… mmm, Starbucks.
Gee, thanks, Jesse. Use our love for games to get us to buy products we don’t need and are bad for us.
The problem with making games that really help people instead of exploiting them is that game development costs time and money, and helpful games have no obvious revenue source. Jesse’s talk hints at some less commercial ways we could use game-like point systems, such as promoting use of public transportation. The government could fund a game like this with gasoline taxes, which would also reduce driving and pollution.
Pointing Towards the Future
We know awards, recognition, and achievements can change our behavior. But will that accomplish anything more valuable than increasing product sales? I think it can, but we will need to find incentives for creating helpful games. Maybe that could start with a meta-game in which the developers are awarded – or award themselves – points instead of dollars for designing “better life” games. Unfortunately, game developers need to eat, and starving is a powerful negative point system.
Games are loose in the world, and it’s up to all of us to decide how serious we want our fun to be. We can let the new games be ruled by greed – That worked so well for Enron and Lehman Brothers, after all. Or we can try to create, play, and live gaming lives that improve our lives and the world around us.
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, May 28th, 2009
You are a condemned criminal, convicted of heresy and treason. The judge offers you three choices:
1. You may be exiled, never to return to your home or work.
2. You may recant your teachings and promise to promote the state philosophy.
3. Or you may die.
Two great thinkers were faced with that choice. Each chose differently. How would you choose?
The Socratic Method
Most of what we know about Socrates comes from the writings of Plato, since Socrates did not record his own teachings. However, he was a famous philosopher in his own time and lectured at a school in Athens. Socrates felt that we lived in a world of absolutes, and that there were definite standards of Right and Wrong to which everyone should adhere.
Unfortunately, it seems that the authorities had some differences with his theories and manner of teaching. They accused Socrates of “corrupting the young” and of questioning the State religion. He was brought to trial and given the three choices above. Socrates was a proud man and said that he could not take back one word of what he taught because he spoke only absolute Truth. He also refused to leave Athens, because his school was there, and because he would be turning his back on what was Right by leaving.
It was during this trial that Socrates uttered his famous words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He told the jurors that all assumptions must be questioned and constantly rechecked. If he sometimes made unpopular statements, it was only because he had looked deeper into the matter and found the Truth. He could no more stop speaking it than stop eating or breathing.
While Socrates waited in jail for his execution, a group of friends bribed the guards and came to him with an escape plan. They said that he had much work left to do, and that he could not do it if he let himself be killed. They also appealed to his sense of honor by saying that, if Socrates allowed himself to die, it would reflect badly on his friends. People would say that they did not care enough to save him.
Socrates rejected both arguments. He said that, by the laws of logic, he must stay and allow the execution to take place. Here was his syllogism:
1. One must always do what is Right.
2. We have an implicit contract with the State to obey its laws. To break them (such as by escaping) is Wrong.
3. Therefore he could not escape. To do so would be to repudiate everything he believed in, and life would not be worth living.
Was he crazy? Or was he just very passionate about his beliefs? One thing is certain – Socrates showed an incredible amount of honor and courage by refusing to deny the things he believed in, even if that refusal led to his death.
Where do you draw the line? What degree of honor is important enough that you will sacrifice your life to uphold it? Are your principles enough? Or do you “barter” – Say it is worth giving up your own life if you can save a child… or a family… or a village? If that’s your standard, it may be a good one, but be aware that you’re really doing an economic transaction. You’re setting the price of your own life, and saying that you’re willing to trade it if you can get sufficient value for it, but not otherwise. According to Socrates, that price is Honor. He considered his integrity more important than his own life.
E Pur Si Muove – And Yet It Moves!
More than two millennia after Socrates made his choice, the great scientist Galileo Galilei was confronted with a similar decision. A century or so earlier, Nicolaus Copernicus had published a revolutionary book suggesting that Earth might not be the center of the Universe. In fact, a lot of his observations made more sense if the Earth revolved around the Sun. Galileo made his own observations, from which he concluded that Copernicus’s “heliocentric” theory was correct and the only sensible explanation for the apparent motion of the Sun and planets.
Scientifically, it made sense. However, Catholic Church officials had decreed that Earth must be the center of the Universe, and any contrary theory contradicted Holy scripture and must be wrong. That seems to us a bit like the state legislature that decided that Pi should equal 3, because it made for more convenient calculations. At the time, Catholics were seriously concerned that the heliocentric theory would shake people’s faith in God. They undoubtedly thought that much more important than a matter of theory concerning distant objects.
By all accounts, Galileo was unlikable and undiplomatic. He made many enemies both in the Church and among his fellow scientists. He considered his theories self-evident and proven by his observations, and could not believe that anyone would deny them without at least looking in the telescope for themselves first. This was the same sense of “I know what is True” that Socrates exhibited, and based on more evidence. However, publicly telling scientists and clergy that they are idiots is a good way to make enemies.
Some of those enemies convinced a Priest to denounce Galileo and the heliocentric theory from the pulpit, and arranged for the Inquisition to arrest Galileo. At first, he agreed to drop his “heretical” research and support the official Church stance that Earth is the center of the Universe. However, a couple of years later, Galileo published another work with additional evidence for the heliocentric theory, and he was arrested again.
Again, the choice was put to Galileo: Recant his theory, be excommunicated from the Catholic Church, or face torture at the hands of the Inquisition. To a devout Catholic, excommunication was equivalent to exile, so these were much the same choices as Socrates faced. Galileo once again recanted, and another ten years passed before he again published “heretical” work.
Galileo was obviously unhappy with this decision. He felt that he had to suppress the truth in order to continue to live and work. Despite publicly renouncing heliocentrism in favor of geocentricism, Galileo is rumored to have muttered “E Pur Si Muove” (“And Yet It Moves”) either on leaving the Inquisition chamber or on his deathbed.
Was Galileo a coward? Was he just being pragmatic? Did he feel that he could do more good for mankind and the cause of science by being free to continue his work, even though he did it in handcuffs? How would you have chosen in his situation? What would you do today if you were working on an important project, but were told to stop work on it because it was a dead end? What if you truly believed that your boss was wrong, but you faced the choice of being fired if you insisted on continuing? How much are you willing to risk for the Truth?
What Price Is Too High?
You might not have to face a choice between death, exile, and supporting a lie; but similar situations occur often. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, German scientists performed eugenics experiments on “subhuman” Jews and other captured prisoners. Today these are rightly considered atrocities, and yet that work was done in the name of Science. The experimenters may truly have believed that their work would benefit many more people than were harmed.
On the side of the Allies, what about the research that led to the atomic bomb? Those scientists were discovering fundamental secrets of the Universe in the fields of chemistry, physics, and engineering. Most of them focused on the science and tried to do it as well as they could. But when the bombs exploded over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, they knew that their work was being used to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. Certainly many of them must have realized what an atomic weapon could do. Should they have stopped work, or obstructed it in some way? Did they believe – as President Truman evidently did – that those deaths were worth the cost? If the war had continued, possibly millions of Japanese and Allies would have died.
What price is too high for the Truth? For Science? For what you believe in? That is a choice which each of us must make every day. How you choose is the measure of your personal integrity and of the price you place on life, freedom, and your beliefs. It is worth spending some time considering scenarios such as Socrates, Galileo, Truman, and the Manhattan Project scientists faced, because someday you may find yourself faced with just as difficult a decision.
Friday, March 27th, 2009
All the news lately seems to be bad. Banks failing, rampant greed on Wall Street and other businesses, conflict in Iraq and other countries, record budget deficits in the U.S., the collapse of the Icelandic economy, systematic erosion of personal rights in response to terrorism, terrorism itself, and flooding and other natural disasters.
I’ve recently been reading a fascinating new survivalism book, Emergency, by Neil Strauss. Neil’s theme is preparation and training for personal survival in an increasingly dangerous world. It is also about making difficult choices in crisis situations.
No One Left
“In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.” — Herman Neimöller
Early in Emergency, Neil Strauss talks about his grade school history classes and the choices faced by Jews in Nazi Germany. As Hitler rose in power, the German government systematically stripped away the rights of Jewish people. First their businesses were boycotted. Then they lost their citizenship. Then they were forced to register, and a “J” was stamped on their passports to identify them. Then on Kristallnacht, many Jews were attacked, beaten, and even murdered on the streets. And finally, they were put in concentration camps and sent to the gas chambers to die.
Neil’s question to his teacher was, “When things were getting so bad, why did any Jew stay in Germany?” The answer, of course, was that they could not predict in advance how bad life would become. The German Jews naturally saw themselves as Germans first. There was no reason to believe that they were so hated by their neighbors that they would become victims of mass hatred and genocide. By the time their lives were in serious danger, their passports had been marked and their wealth had been taken away. By then, it was too late to leave.
Even in those dark times, some Heroes took action. Steven Spielburg tells one such story in his film, Schindler’s List. Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who perhaps started out as an opportunist, ended up as a humanitarian. After gaining control of a Polish enamelware factory during the German invasion of Poland, Schindler found that there was a shortage of unskilled labor due to the war. He arranged with the government for Jewish laborers to be assigned to his factory. Although he may have done so initially out of greed – the Jewish workers were far less expensive than voluntary workers – he ended up protecting over 1000 Jews, perhaps saving their lives.
This is the power of one man who treated others with respect and did not let his life be ruled by hatred and prejudice. Each of us has similar power. If we do not like the way our employers run their businesses, we can switch. Or, like Oskar Schindler, we can start our own businesses and run them in a way that helps others while still making a profit.
I spent a year in Berlin, Germany during High School. One day, one of my teachers stopped to talk with me about his experiences during World War II. He had been a Lieutenant in the German army stationed on the Northern front. He said that he had disagreed with many of the policies of the army and of the German government, but that he never felt he had any choice but to serve. Had he protested or refused to follow orders, he would have been arrested and his family would have been punished and possibly sent to a concentration camp. He “sat tight” because he saw no other choice.
Fight or Flight… or Just Sit Tight
How bad is it today? Is it time to leave? And for where? As I sit here in the United States looking at a screwed-up economy, a government that seems to want to bankrupt itself, and loss of privacy and personal freedom, I realize that we are now part of a global economy. The problems we see in the U.S. are reflected everywhere else around the world. And our readers from former Soviet-bloc nations are no doubt rolling their eyes at what are merely minor inconveniences compared to what they’ve suffered for years.
Are we, as Neil Strauss’s book suggests, in a state of emergency? Have we gone far enough down the roads of danger (from angry foreign powers) and erosion of civil liberties that it’s time to get out before our own Kristallnacht? Is it time for each of us to plan our escape from increasingly-dangerous places? Should we just sit tight as so many did in Nazi Germany?
In Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, the most competent engineers and business people decide that the government and incompetent people are leeches on their efforts and energy, and they leave society. In the ensuing collapse, perhaps the people who are most hurt are the ones in the middle – the average, semi-competent individuals. They are “neither here nor there”, not quite good enough to be invited into the domain of Homo Superior, nor strong enough to hold the world together when the finest minds and most effective producers have deserted them.
There is another choice.
The Choice of the Hero
“…take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” – Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
So how bad is it, really? We have faced disasters and crises before. They may have scarred us, but we survived them. We came through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, and Hurricane Katrina. All of them hurt us, but we are still here. In 1980, many survivalists thought that economic collapse was imminent and inevitable, but we are still alive.
We can start by changing our own attitudes. Leo Babauta suggests a three-stage plan in his recent blog article, The Cure for What Ails You: How to Beat the Misery of Discontentment:
- 1. Change your attitude and perspective.
- 2. Take some kind of positive action.
- 3. Do something that gives you meaning.
Do you think that a lone Hero has no power to make a difference in the world? That you are no Oskar Schindler? Then join with others. Habitat for Humanity builds inexpensive houses for homeless people. They need thousands of volunteers to give a few weekends of their time to build these homes.
As The School for Heroes grows, we will find others among our fellow students with whom we can work on projects too big for a single Hero. In the meantime, there is work for each of us to do wherever we live. There are opportunities for training and preparation that will teach us not only to survive, but to prosper, and to help those around us to live well.
We can prepare ourselves for disaster without becoming paralyzed by the possibilities. The Boy Scouts taught me wilderness survival, first aid, pioneering, and many other skills that could prove important in an emergency or after an economic collapse. The Red Cross and other organizations teach similar skills to adults. The second half of Emergency is all about developing survival skills in case you are caught in a disaster. In these challenging times, “Be Prepared” is a motto every one of us should take to heart.
Wherever you are in the world, whatever your political leanings, it’s time to take action. Speak up while you still have the chance to be heard. Volunteer to help a local charity or relief organization. Above all, make sure that you are a person of honor in everything you do. Show others what it means to be a Hero, and maybe we can turn these challenging times into ones of hope, opportunity, and freedom for everyone.
Don’t take flight… Bring light! Make the choices that will help bring about a better future. Speak out, take action, and join with others to do what you can’t do alone. Show the people around you that Heroes live among them… and that they can be Heroes too.