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Hello all--

We began the week in horror over another mass shooting. Afterwards, I suggested on Twitter that we focus on the good in the world, including the good that was so evident in the Las Vegas rescuers, but I found it difficult to take my own advice. It's been a season of troubling and uneasy.

Hopefully, this newsletter will help. News items today include the first social network to compensate its participants; the interplay of parenthood and career;  humor in work's most boring corners; and when one man's workplace priorities came out in a song. The values@work story this week aims at rethinking positive thinking. 

1.      Blockchain does social media
 
The featured newsitem last week was about Bilaji Scrinivasan’s prediction that our work is about to change forever. He argues that we will all have jobs that will pay us with digital currency for scarce and valuable resources like our time, talents and personal information. As we gain new earning power, the ways that we currently work will change in ways that we are only beginning to imagine today.
 
One of the underlying notions here—that all of us deserve some “economic dignity” for surrendering data about our interests, demographic profiles, buying habits and physical movements in exchange for the “free” use of social networks—came ( at least in part ) from a 2013 book by Jaren Lanier called Who Owns the Future. Lanier proposed a more humanistic information economy where participants are compensated for their personal contributions to massive data clusters like Facebook and Google. His book is excellent ( a review in the Guardian can be found here. ) Lanier’s interview with Here & Now’s Robin Young is also worth your listen.
 
This week, I discovered a social network that is using its own blockchain currency exchange to compensate its users with a digital currency called Steem for every post, comment, and like. The network is called Steemit.  As users accumulate Steem from their network involvement, it can be cashed in for traditional money ( like dollars ) with the exact amount exchanged determined by Steem’s traded value at the time. Those who are active on the network are funding jobs like taking pictures for travel blogs as they wander around the world and their gigs as free-lance writers. 
Andrew McMillen wrote a story this week in Wired about Steemit. The more people who like your post, the more you like other people’s posts, the quicker you spot a post that later becomes popular, that is, the more that you contribute to “the human hivemind” on Steemit, the more "money" you can make. McMillen estimates that at least one early-and-often user has accumulated more than a million dollars worth of Steem. In other words, people already have paying jobs on Steemit’s social network. And “Steem is the first cryptocurrency that attempts to accurately and transparently reward…[the] individuals who make subjective contributions to its community.”
 
Facebook is not only taking our data points as the price for our “free” admission to its social network, it is also trying to sell us products that it gets paid to show us while we’re there. As Jaren Lanier might ask:  which do you think is the more humanistic alternative?
 
 2.      Generosity meets autonomy
 
In my writing about work, I consider any occasion where we use our skills and experience to add value as “a job.”  That includes the office job that you drive to every weekday morning, the volunteer job you do one night a week, and the care-giving job you start whenever you come home.
 
That being said, so-called paying jobs often take precedence over non-paying ones—that is, jobs where the compensations are gratitude or love or pride in different kinds of value creation. And that’s where the rubber hit the road for Mike Sager, when his “everything” job as a journalist seemed to be placed at risk by the new job he was about to take as a father.
 
Sager’s baby boy is grown up now, but he looks back on his earlier trepidation with his gonzo sense of humor as well as some heart-felt honesty in an on-line journal for the creative community called 99u. His quandary is often our quandary. I finally have a career, is my kid going to destroy it?
 
Sager ( and every expectant parent he’s talked to since ) seems “scared to death and kind of resentful, or worried that their entire way of being was about to change, or that their career as an artist/writer/musician/ creativist was about to nose dive into a lumpy sea of incredibly malodorous baby poop.”
 
Sager has been described as “the Beat poet of American journalism, that rare reporter who can make literature out of shabby reality” for Esquire and other publications. But this time, “the shabby reality” seemed to have been his own fatherhood.
 
As a journalist, he tells us: 


“I lived with a crack gang in LA, hung out with pitbull fighting middle schoolers in the ghetto of North Philadelphia—the most disappointing of the dogs were hung with electrical wiring from rafters of abandoned houses.  I embedded with the Animal Liberation Front on a raid of a federal research facility—29 cats and seven miniature African piglets were saved that night. I lived inside a refugee camp in Gaza during the early days of the Palestinian intifada.  I even risked a days-old marriage engagement to my future ex-wife with an assignment at a swinger’s convention on the Gulf coast of Florida. I shall never forget one husband from Alabama, his greenish teeth: You gonna get with my wife, ain’t cha?”

Can't you tell that he loved his job! If you didn’t register “the higher calling” of his career in writing before, the following disclosure makes it clear:

That scene in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Where Paul (George Peppard) goes with Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) into the New York Public Library and takes out his own book? And she makes him sign it?
 
I could have died happy right there.


Sager was excited but also “deeply fearful that I’d inalterably screw up this human life I’d so selfishly created. Or that this human life I’d so selfishly created would inalterably screw up the artistic life I’d so selfishly created for myself.” But over the years, the selfish parts of him yielded to the needs of his son, and to the discovery of how much he got from meeting them. (You can read for yourself about the fatherhood details that parallel his exploits as a journalist.) Somehow his career as a writer filled the cracks around being a dad while also managing to thrive. His final judgment: 

of all the places I’ve gone and the people I’ve met, nothing has taught me as much as fatherhood.
 
Because raising a child is the ultimate creative act. 


One work priority is autonomy, or the freedom to become as capable, as empowered, as possible. The drive towards autonomy in a job is always threatened by untested skills and imagined constraints: the definition of first-time parenthood. But the other priority of work is generosity or empowering others. A journalist can express it by listening to stories that almost no one else knows, and then empowering those stories ( and those behind them ) by telling them again.

For a parent, the generosity always comes first. Only later do you discover the freedom and capability of a job that’s unlike any other. Not everyone hangs around long enough to find it, but Mike Sager ( for one ) did. 
 
3.      Wish fulfillment
 
“Always look on the bright side of life” was Monty Python’s comic jab at the relentless positivity of Disney songs like “Give a Little Whistle,” even as one of its heroes (Pinocchio) faces his almost certain death.

 
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this will help things turn out for the best 

Gabrielle Oettingen also explores the limits of “positive psychology,” but does so in exhaustive research about how people think about the future and how the outlooks they adopt change their cognition, emotion and behavior.
 
A psychologist on the faculties of NYU and the University of Hamburg, Oettingen begins with the proposition that “hoping for the best” is not really "good for us" but, in fact, a trap where the initial sense of reward inhibits the effort that will be needed to realize it. “Such relaxation occurs because positive fantasies fool our minds into thinking that we’ve already achieved our goals—what psychologists call ‘mental attainment,’” she writes in an article that summarizes both her theory and the studies behind it. “We achieve our goals virtually and thus feel less need to take action in the real world.” In other words, our goals are being sabotaged by our positive thinking about them. 
Oettingen proposes a simple, two-part way out of this trap. The first part involves balancing the positive aspects of goal fulfillment with the negative aspects of the obstacles you are likely to face along the way ( or what she calls “mental contrasting” ). The second part is making a realistic plan that captures both sides. When you temper your positive thinking with a visualization of the challenges you are likely to face, it is possible to plan a way forward that just may succeed.  Her simple 4-step process involves identifying what you wish for, the outcome you imagine, the obstacles that stand in your way, and a simple plan of action.
Initially, Oettingen’s theory of motivation seems unremarkable for its common sense.  I was reminded of wisdom from Stoics like Seneca that has been handed down through the centuries (“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” or “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body”). But as a reviewer of Oettingen’s work in the New York Times noted an easy “you can do it” attitude pervades our culture.  “It seems like an obvious and deceptively simple concept, yet according to [Oettingen], only one in six people spontaneously thinks this way when asked what accomplishment is foremost in his or her mind.”  In other words, most of us are getting lost in our dreams and frustrated by what we fail to accomplish.
 
You can watch Professor Oettinger presenting her ideas here in an engaging 12-minute video. Her 2015 book, which lays out the empirical evidence behind this “new science of motivation,” may also be of interest.
 
We all seem to believe in the power of positive thinking. But there’s more empowerment—and fewer pitfalls—in realistic thinking that’s built into a game plan that you’re likely to follow. None of us can ground our values in our work with idealism alone.
 
4.      Sticky at work
 
Working for what you value most also requires occasional relief. Take Jacques Dubochet. This week he shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry, a pinnacle that’s seldom reached when you’re confused about your priorities. But seriousness of purpose like that always needs a break, and Professor Dubochet gives us a glimpse of one of his—where else?—but in the curriculum vitae (CV) that appears on his official Universite de Lausanne profile page:
 
October 1941
Conceived by optimistic parents.
1946
No longer scared of the dark, because the sun comes back; it was Copernicus who explained this.
1948-55
1st part of an experimental scientific career in Vallis and Lausanne (instruments: knives, needles, strings, matches).
1955
First official dyslexic in the canton of Vaud – this permitted being bad at everything … and to understand those with difficulties.
1962
Federal maturity exam.
1967
Physicist-engineer at EPUL to become biologist.
1968 
Very important.
 
( I’m particularly fond of his experimental childhood 1948-55. and his entry for 1968. ) If one of Dubochet’s purposes on the faculty is to “relate well with others”—like his students, research assistants and fellow scientists—there is nothing more sticky ( or “engaging” )—than the generosity of your humor. It’s says: “I welcome you to share in what I’m doing.”
The woman who put so much of her personality into her out-of-office/OOO messages ( reported here a few weeks back ) was breathing life into another dull corner of working life. And if you want to see how you can do so when you’re asking someone to hire you, this post about a guy who (hilariously) took to selling his skills the same way that Amazon sells to you just about everything will also be inspiring. 
 
To get your job done, you’ll need to stick to those who can help you along the way—so it's always good to keep them smiling.
 
5.      Ground your values by using your skills
 
We have moral positions about everything, but almost always I pull back from voicing mine. My parents didn’t agree about much, but they both said: “be willing to put my money where my mouth is, or don’t bother saying it at all.”  There was a spectacular example of both of these tendencies this week. Lin-Manuel Miranda started with a lack of moral restraint (which he later regretted), but he quickly followed by grounding his values not in his words but in his actions.
 
Miranda was the creative force behind the ground-breaking play Hamilton, as well as one of its long-time performers. He also traces his roots back to Puerto Rico, and has been vocal in support of the island's relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria. A Presidential tweet that seemed to blame the victims for not recovering more quickly caused Miranda to snap however, also on Twitter. A story on Thursday in the New York Times covers what both said, along with Miranda’s regret (“That’s not how I talk…I’m not that guy.”)
  
Unfortunately, we’re all that guy sometimes, but what’s inspiring about Miranda (and how to try living his kind of example) asks another question: If this is so important to you, if your moral judgment is so fearsome and certain that you have to share it with everyone listening, what are you actually doing to make things better? In Miranda’s case, it was using his stature and musical skills to call attention to Puerto Rico’s plight and raise much needed funds. In other words, he put his money where his mouth is. 
photo credit Santiago Felipe/Getty Images
His “money” is a song called “Almost Like Praying,” that cleverly takes its title and chorus from “Maria” in West Side Story. In bi-lingual verse, Miranda (along with 21 other performers including Rita Moreno, Gloria Estefan, Ruben Blades and Jennifer Lopez) name all 78 towns and municipalities in Puerto Rico. According to the Times, he said that “those complex verses were inspired by the outpouring of geographic call-outs on social media from those hoping to locate friends and family…during the days of ‘terrible silence’ after the storm.” You can listen to the song and read the lyrics here.
 
For me, this sort of effort defines the very best work. 

Here's to a more hopeful week.
Copyright © 2017 David Griesing, All rights reserved.


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