Want it all? Get your Head Back in the Clouds
By Gideon Ben-Zvi
You may have missed it, but being mediocre is all the rage. Talent, ambition and innovative thinking may be lauded in your company’s mission statement but our digital age is nurturing the rise of an uninspiring yet thoroughly competent class of office heroes.
While earnest, hard working cogs were commendably skipping lunches, working late and coming in early, a new world order was taking shape, with managers replacing leaders; tasks replacing goals and groupthink replacing initiative.
Some of this has to do with the development of the microprocessor, which has transformed virtually every aspect of modern society. Nowadays, our flattened world is dominated by industrialized nations that are fueled by service economies. The making of a tangible product has given way to finance, hospitality, retail, health and other facets of the service sector.
And studies show that technology’s growing role in our lives is actually causing our skills in critical thinking and analysis to decline.
It is the merely passable who are reaping the rewards of this paradigm shift since today’s measure of success is not how much or well you produce but rather how involved you are in the delivery of a service – a rather gooey, undefined yardstick.
When objective measures of productivity no longer apply, accurately evaluating the operating efficiency of a company’s employees becomes impossible. As a result, a whirling, swirling vortex of political intrigues, backbiting and manipulations fills the void.
Welcome to Thunderdome: a world of microminiaturization advances that’s utterly devoid of basic civility.
In “The Cost of Bad Behavior” the rise of incivility in the workplace is described as having had a devastating impact on individuals as well as the companies they work for. Furthermore, incivility in the office is connected to increased levels of stress and a decline in on-the-job performance.
In this nasty, brutish cubicle jungle, it is the self promoter, serial ingratiator and chronic schnorrer who survive and sometimes even thrive. Hiding behind vague notions of teamwork, the humdrum have turned individualism into an affliction, to be exorcised away at the next company trust circle.
This obsession with collaboration is based on the widely held belief that groups produce better ideas than individuals. However, research strongly suggests that people are “…more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”
The primary casualty of this race to the middle is the daydreamer. The corporate matrix many people inhabit has done such a comprehensive job of rounding off any rough edges that consensus has become an end onto itself. With productivity untethered from creativity and inspiration, the traditional fields where the daydreamer once grazed are rapidly disappearing.
Inspiration in imagination is a documented phenomenon: Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton glimpsed the secrets of the universe while tuning out the world for awhile. Genius or not, everyone can benefit from daydreaming: a study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, shows that people who returned to a difficult task after taking a break and doing an easy task boosted their performance by around 40 per cent.
Yet, the slow death of imagination isn’t just confined to the office space.
I dream of getting paid to create worlds, characters, plots, subplots, plot twists, conflicts and surprising resolutions that will take the world by storm. My reality is that I’m a minor functionary in the propaganda department of a mid-sized corporate behemoth that while no worse than any other of its kind, is still a faceless, soulless entity that feeds neither my soul nor my intellect. It’s nothing but a means to an end.
Now, a practioner of the dark art of mediocrity would say that it’s a waste of time and energy to dream little dreams that have virtually no chance of developing into reality. How many times have I heard that ‘everyone’s a writer!’ Yet, while there are many better writers who will live and die in anonymity, I choose to believe that there are lesser literary talents who have achieved a modicum of success. And all I’m looking for is a pinch of prominence, just enough to make rent, keep the family fed and perhaps even save a few quid for the twilight years.
Now, as a freshly minted, first time father, I’m well aware that a certain little monkey face is astutely observing every one of my actions and reactions. Whenever I fall into a deep, reflective, protracted silence as thoughts turn to comparing where I am today to where I see myself, our baby girl is not oblivious to the heaviness in the air.
Yet, my daydreaming is also my greatest gift to our little girl. If she learns nothing else from her old man, she will take away one lesson: that one’s current station in life, even if acceptable, is rarely exceptional: never settle.
But shouldn’t I somehow find a way to alleviate the tension between what is and what can be? Why should those most precious to me have to bear the brunt of one of my black dog days?
The answer’s simple: it keeps me human.
Now, through my early twenties daydreaming served me well. Many of the most substantial and correct life decisions magically came to me while gazing out a window; listening to a Beatles album or watching The Shawshank Redemption.
With my lofty educational pursuits keeping me busy, my jobs du jour were nothing more than a sop to financial realities. I never for a second defined myself by my occupation. After all, my true character was being molded in the hallowed halls of California State University Northridge, where I was chasing down a degree in Political Science that would be a stepping stone towards law school and, of course, a brilliant legal career that would surely follow.
Well, something happened on the way to becoming a junior partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. I discovered pretty quickly during my first year at Southwestern University School of Law that I had neither the chops nor the desire to develop the chops required to earn a J.D.
Law requires an academic rigor that I do not possess. I’m more of an intellectual dilettante, stimulated to distraction by a new song, new film, new book, new idea or new people. I’m curious by nature about many things, but in an admittedly superficial way. In contrast, the study of law is dry, repetitive and thorough. I washed out of law school after just one year.
My life-work paradigm shifted at the exact moment I left that law school campus for the last time. Work became the focal point of my life; it was no longer a means to an end but the end all and be all of my existence. As such, like any other corporate tool, my job became to keep my job. Being a mature, responsible and thoroughly rational adult, I set aside such childish pursuits as writing for pleasure. What was the point of scribbling for no other reason than it felt damn good?
That was the logical quicksand that nearly engulfed me.
Why do so many bright, self-possessed people sacrifice their souls at the altar of security? I believe that a false dichotomy has developed wherein one must choose between being a hopeless dreamer and a steely-eyed uber-pragmatist. People as they grow into adulthood tend to crave set, steady patterns – with spontaneity and surprise being the hobgoblins of the undergrad set.
This life motif is problematic since it sacrifices fulfillment in the name of maturity. John Lennon once wrote and sang that ‘happiness is a warm gun’. Could well be. Happiness is where you find it: in the strumming of a guitar; hiking of a previously unexplored canyon trail; sampling of a new wine or jogging through an empty park on an early Saturday morning.
While there is no doubt something childlike about wanting to feel at peace at all times, a life dedicated to settling for what’s merely possible is a life lived in ‘neutral’.
People also tend to lose their nerve as they get older. Babies are fearless. Children become aware of fear and run loops around it, not allowing it to deter them from whatever the goal of the moment may be. Young adults imbibe the lessons of their parents, preachers, teachers and peers and begin to at least consider acting with all due caution, all though the sheer thrill of accomplishment in the face of danger remains difficult to counter with serious, reasoned, rational thought.
Yet pressure and time inevitably take their toll. Eventually that twinkle in our eye, which is simply an external refraction of the glimmer that lights our souls, is extinguished for good.
Or does it have to be so? At some point along my life’s journey, I simply became tired of living a life that was uniformly gray. It wasn’t that anything bad ever happened: it was that nothing happened.
I was surviving. I was existing. I was breathing. But I wasn’t living.
Four years ago I thus decided to run down a recurrent daydream. This momentary lapse of reason has brought me more wealth than any one man is entitled to. My wandering mind brought me to a new land where there just happened to live the most unexpected pleasure – one that even my fertile imagination couldn’t have dreamt up. And baby makes three.
And what about that stultifying cubicle jungle? Well, an early retirement made possible by a six figure screenplay deal with Time Warner is only a dream away, no?