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Friday, September 21, 2012

The gift of deciding what matters to us

I just finished reading a book that I had picked up at a recent conference. It is titled "I moved your cheese" and is written as a critical parody on the 1998 bestseller: "Who moved my cheese." Over the years, I have frequently mentioned that old bestseller in my presentations, lectures, and writings, because the message it provides is -in itself- strong enough: two mice and two little people who live in a maze and daily meet each other in cheese station C, where they obtain their cheese. On a bad day, however, the cheese has disappeared, and everybody is in disarray. Yet, the two mice don’t waste too much time: they quickly put on their running shoes, and set off into the maze in order to find new cheese.

The two little people do what most people do: for a few weeks they grumble about the injustice done to them, but in the end one of them suggests that they follow the example of the mice and also start looking for a new cheese source. The other doesn’t want to hear about this, because he feels that his rights have been violated, so he prefers to sit and wait until the cheese supply in station C is restored.

The little person that takes off to look for new cheese learns many lessons on his way to the uncertain future, but eventually discovers a new, bigger cheese station, where, lo and behold, he gets reunited with the two mice, who have settled in, but nevertheless keep their running shoes hanging around their necks in case of a new crisis.

Moral of the story: changes are continuous and unpredictable, and flexibility is the best way to respond to it.

In "I Moved Your Cheese" the author firmly criticizes the above story. While he agrees that life is full of surprises and that we must be flexible, he also feels that we shouldn’t take everything as a given, but should think critically about our situation and the changes we face. He comments that the first book fails to address the issue of who has actually moved the cheese.  Thus, he feels that the figures in that story promote a victimized mentality: someone took the cheese out of our mouth, and now we just look for other cheese -- no questions asked. The writer underscores that if we think this way, we will always remain the victims of "others".

In “I moved your cheese” the author introduces three mice, Max, Zed and Big, each of whom is exceptional in his own way. Max is incurably inquisitive and wants to know the "how" and "why" of everything. This is how he ultimately discovers that there is a world outside the maze, where people decide where the cheese gets moved to, so they can study the reactions of the mice. Once aware of this, Max begins to manipulate the logbooks of the people when they are asleep, and realizes that he now has the power to determine where the cheese will be placed on a daily basis.

Zed lives in the maze like all the other mice, but doesn’t care much about cheese. He eats just enough to stay afloat, and doesn’t allow his happiness to depend on abundance or scarcity of cheese. The other mice don’t understand him, because he is so stoic and detached in a way. When Max tells Zed about the world outside the maze and all the manipulations that go on with the cheese, Zed wisely responds: "the problem is not that the mouse in the maze, but that the maze in the mouse is: we all determine for ourselves what our shortcomings are".

Big, finally, becomes disturbed by the growing masses of mice around him and actively starts looking for a way out. Strong and athletic as he is, he begins to test the walls of the maze. One day he gathers all his physical and mental strength and runs straight through the thinnest wall, leaving a big hole in the maze for whoever wants to follow him, but determined for himself to never return to that restrictive maze.

Of course it depends on each of us to decide who we want to identify with: the mice of the second book, the mice and little people of the first book, or our own unique self, flexible and quick, but at the same time creative and critically thinking about what, in this life, is most important for us.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The gift of seeing things in perspective

Culture is a more influential phenomenon than we often think, and I don’t just mean the culture of a country, but every prevailing behavioral pattern in large and smaller communities. The other day I read in an article about an employee of a Brazilian beer company who was granted $25,000.00 after suing his employer for unreasonable and unethical demands. The man accused his employer of forcing him to participate in parties with prostitutes and watching pornographic movies. The judge handling this case asserted that the plaintiff, who is married and a devoted member of a Christian Church, had frequently been humiliated and ridiculed by his coworkers.

Disturbing situation, especially if we consider that it happens far more often than we read about it. Workforce members often find that they can only safeguard their jobs if they stretch their ethical boundaries. One can say, of course, that everyone is free to move on if they feel that their job brings unreasonable demands, but that's easier said than done, because we all know that jobs are not readily available, and that one cannot simply exit if one has monthly expenses and a family to uphold.

So, it might be worthwhile to examine why working people are placed before these types of moral challenges. First off, I would like to clarify that I, personally, have nothing against commercial sex workers. I think they suffice a need and probably even help lower the number of rape crimes in their communities. What disgusts me is the fact that business executives consider it necessary to entertain their affluent clients with distasteful activities that place their employees before ethical dilemmas.

And this is not a problem limited to certain parts of the world: it’s a global pestilence. In America plenty of scandals have been published over the years, especially about financial giants on Wall Street, where the millions roll as if they were peppermints. By default, women have had a hard time staying afloat in such an environment, not only because they often got harassed or bullied by their male coworkers, but also because they felt awkward taking clients to strip clubs. As a result women in this sector remain unmarried or exchange their high-paying but unreasonable jobs less prestigious but more ethically sound ones. The male employees generally seem to have fewer problems with this culture, even though there are some who abhor this part of their obligations, such as the above-mentioned Brazilian beer company employee.

As for the forced viewing of porn films I do have some reservations, because I feel that one doesn't have to look at something one doesn’t want to see. Of greater concern to me is the fact that some may think justice has been done now that the Brazilian beer company employee has been awarded $ 25,000.00 for having to endure this culture. But when we consider that the company has an annual turnover of more than half a billion, it quickly becomes clear that this sum is an absurd pittance for this mammoth company. Consequently, I would be very surprised if this fine would change anything about this corporation’s culture. After all, if you can sway a client into a collaboration that will guarantee several millions of dollars annually, and in return you might be fined the meager sum of $25,000.00 every ten years, would you stop if you had no moral conscience? Of course not!

Therefore, I believe that this entire damage compensation issue is a farce, intended to derail the masses, while the wicked corporate culture gets prolonged uninterruptedly. But then again, there’s nothing new under the sun.

The gift of focus

Life is a sequence of experiences, gentle and hard
This is a reality from which none of us is barred
But there are different ways
Of perceiving our living days
And to do so, we don’t have to be unusually smart.

We should always consider – before we raise our voices
That what we experience is the result of our own choices
We may not have known before
What our chosen path had in store
But reflection is always better than making twitchy noises.

Yet, even more important for us is the understanding
That we alienate others by complaining and demanding
If we grumble and gripe all the time
Our life’s value won’t be worth a dime
And worst of all: we’ll feel as if our misery is expanding!

For, while we cannot see in our future when we choose
We can decide to sing a happy life-tune or wail the blues
You see, our focus actually determines
The content of our personal sermons
It triggers the difference between sensing if we win or lose.

In our lives we have many things to be overjoyed about
But also things that can cause us to moan, cry, or shout
Some of us see our glass as half full
Others nag that it’s a half-empty pool
Forgetting that overcoming trials is what it’s all about.

So, if you wish, take this as a well-intended invitation
To reflect on your life and engage in contemplation
Is it really all terrible and bad?
Or are there things that make you glad?
If so, let’s gratefully celebrate our life’s jubilation!

joan marques