If ever there was a “Psychic Batman” in my life, it would be Bob Maurer, the head of behavioral science for UCLA’s Medical School. Once, we were talking about dating. He said, “The single most important thing you need to know about someone before you marry them is how they respond to fear.” Until then, we know nothing of value. To elaborate, how many people, when frightened, lie, become mean spirited, drink, move, stop whatever they are doing, or simply check-out?
I learned from Bob that the sole biological purpose of fear is to take action. When we are finished taking action, the only healthy way to shut down our alarm system is to seek comfort from someone. Our children teach this to us all of the time. They get frightened, we pick them up, the alarm mechanism shuts down, and they move on with their lives.
We never outgrow that. But, we can override the pattern at a very big price.
For example, we are in the midst of the greatest restructuring of work since the printing revolution. As advancing technology frees us from task work, Artificial Intelligence will provide us with the power to exponentially grow our capacity to impact the world around us. But, we have a growing crisis around taking action. At the very time that we need leaders to tell us what to do, we are given promises that more jobs are coming our way and someone is going to fix it. Promises and hope promote inaction. Far too many of our workers are not taking the kind of right action to make use of the opportunities at hand. Instead, their underemployment grows and the fear no longer produces action, it is met with the need to stay in comfort.
Change, on a fundamental and personal level, is frightening! I’m at the early stages of reinventing our business model and platform. It is a “go big or go home” initiative. Whenever I’m at the beginnings of a big personal change, I usually look for a sign. When we seriously began this reinvention of the business, I got a call from a client. She asked if I would like to have Katherine Graham’s desk. Yes, that Katherine, the one who took over The Washington Post when her husband died. The one who risked losing the family business over Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. Today, I lead our new initiative at the desk of someone who led one of the most terrifying events in publishing history.
While the greatest superpowers prepare their workforce for the future, our country, the one that has the greatest amount to lose, has developed a collective pathology where far too many of us are seeking comfort before action.
It isn’t the healthy comfort of reaching out to others or getting help. It is the comfort of checking out, eating a layer cake, watching too much Television, hiding, acting out, running away, and using technology to check-out rather than empower us. Right now, 48% of America’s workers characterize themselves as “underemployed.” This means holding multiple jobs to keep a roof over their heads or holding onto obsolete jobs with the fear they will not find anything better.
If there are any doubts about our country sinking into a national trance, go to a big grocery store and note how many times you have to jump out of the way of someone who isn’t looking where they are going.
This behavioral wrestling match between action or comfort shows up in workers that hold onto unfulfilling jobs in shrinking industries. It shows up in middle-class parents who’ve embraced the role models provided by European royalty. Discussions about work and responsibility are put off for so long that adolescence is delayed until middle age. Today, our country consumes over 80% of the world’s legal and illegal drugs. We consume, on average, 46 pounds of corn syrup, 170 pounds of sugar per year. We average over 5 hours of screen time per day. The average family watches over 4 hours of television per day. If there are any doubts about our country sinking into a national trance, go to a big grocery store and note how many times you have to jump out of the way of someone who isn’t looking where they are going. On the streets of Los Angeles, we have to avoid people driving 5,000-pound sport-utes as they text, work on their hair, yell at the kids, schedule more meetings, or take more calls from their employers.
How can our country create a meaningful U-Turn?
If any of this is relatable, don’t wait!
Don’t wait for our leaders to take charge.
Don’t wait for our educational system to modernize.
Don’t wait for your boss to tell you to reinvent yourself and leave.
Don’t wait to learn new skills.
But especially, don’t wait to find the work that you love. Because courage is in order. Courage means we take action whether or not we are frightened. Courage moves us to change. In observing thousands of people make vastly better career changes, I find that courage usually doesn’t happen when we are ambivalent. The most reliable fuel for change is to select work that we love and to learn more about the work that we love.
We cannot afford to wait. Here is just one example. Over the years, hundreds of attorneys have come through our programs. We cannot find one law school that requires sales and business development training to get a degree. But, if we take two equally capable associates only one differentiator determines which one becomes a partner. Of course, it hinges on their ability to bring in business. In large law firms, hundreds of thousands of associates made good money performing high-end tasks. Then, LegalZoom offered the consumer cheap and quick alternatives for legal task work. As a result, today’s large law firms require around $2Million to be considered as an associate. Many of those white-collar workers are in firms that resemble sweatshops, making $30-50/hour.
Technology is offering all of us freedom. It is offering the assembly line worker options like going to a German Plant where workers are constantly being trained to do more creative and accountable work. 3-D printing is already allowing former blue-collar workers into business ownership that provide parts for collectible cars, customized products, and countless other products. Artificial Intelligence is already giving entrepreneurs the capacity to leverage their gifts into world-changing initiatives. We will not see these opportunities if we are “tranced out.”
I don’t believe in fearlessness. In the self-help book market, virtually every pioneer who promised we could become fearless turned out to be a criminal or con artist. Napoleon Hill, the grandfather of self-help, set-up shop in town after town, only having to flee because the police were about to arrest him. His first book was about the secrets of success given to him by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. He never met Mr. Carnegie.
Success stories such as Ellen DeGeneres provide far more authentic human role modeling. When Ellen got her first TV show, a journalist asked what it was like to become so successful. She responded, “This elevates my terror to a whole new level.”
Fear is not our enemy, it is the dance partner to action.
If we want to be the country that wins in the game of change than it is time for all of us to find our way forward. It doesn’t really matter if we are motivated by fear or that we are excited about an unprecedented opportunity to do what we love and what we want.
There was an old parable about God telling Lot to take his family and leave Sodom and Gomorrah. They packed up and fled. The only person to look back was his wife and she turned into a pillar of salt. I am not a religious person. But, the story is quite apt in demonstrating that for those of us who wait, look back, and become obsolete, the consequences are not attractive. But, for those of us who take the initiative, including the fears, and define our role in the new world of work, the future is bright indeed.
Meaning, purpose, a sense of legacy, impact, contribution, progress, solutions, empathy, accountability, engagement, personal growth, commitment, autonomy, these are just a few of the characteristics underpinning the emerging world of work. They seem to be so much more than monotony, repetition, clocking in & clocking out, and “it’s just a job.”
We don’t need Batman! We cannot afford to wait for leaders who tell us how to change!
We need to become superheroes in our own lives! We need to become heroes to our children and friends and loved ones and colleagues. Most of all, we need to set aside this hiding from our very own souls. Because, if there is one thing about life that I know for sure, it is that each and everyone comes into the world with a DNA of Purpose. Only the most motivated people came into our programs to define or become more successful in their unique role. Now, there really isn’t an alternative.
This is good news.