Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Market Demand for Emotional Intelligence

I am privileged to be in Washington, D.C. this week, at the annual meeting for the Kennedy Center Partners in Education Program in which we and our local school district participate together.

We flew out of Bangor just under another snow storm: an "icy mix" was falling as we sat at the jetway, and soon they hosed us down with the alien green goop that they say de-ice the wings. Despite the effects of bad weather on our 30-seat plane, I was completely engaged in reading Dan Pink's book, A Whole New Mind. Pink, who is my age and a business writer living here in D.C., was yesterday's keynote speaker at the conference. For those interested in helping Maine or other locales advance in "creative economy" initiatives and/or arts education, I highly recommend Pink's work: you can find out more at

It was almost 15 years ago, when I was a young(ish) corporate executive dabbling at the edges of New Media World for The Village Voice newspaper, that my boss--the President and Publisher of that legendary paper--gathered his young execs around a table in the original conference room of Hartz Mountain Industries (yes, the bird seed / pet supply moguls, who purchased the Voice in the late 1980s and owned it until a disastrous sale in the late 1990s). "Read this," he said to us, a group of callow-radical youth in which he was trying to promote capitalist leadership skills for the new era. "It's the new way to be a leader." The badly Xeroxed article he handed us was by Daniel Goleman, the internationally-known psychologist and former science journalist, who was writing on the need for emotional intelligence as perhaps the most important leadership skill of the coming era: and my life as a business leader has never been the same.

Pink's arguments concisely and compellingly extend Goleman's research. He cites three factors--abundance, Asia, and automation--as the market levers demanding new skills from our kids who will enter the workforce. Like Goleman, who continues to work on these issues and recently posted the following on this own blog, Pink argues that a) these heretofore seemingly intuitive skills, such as ingenuity, personal rapport, and gut instinct, can be taught and b) if we are going to prepare out students for the future, they must be taught. More on "How to Think Like a Lobster Fisherman" in my next installment.

"Here’s a sneak preview of some headlines that you’ll see in the next few months: teaching kids to be more emotionally and socially competent boosts their academic achievement. More precisely, when schools offer students programs in social and emotional learning, their achievement scores gain around 11 percentile points." -- Daniel Goleman's blog

Saturday, February 23, 2008

On Suffering, Part II: Release

On Wednesday, I posted a piece using the horrible condition of our winter roads as an analogy for a discourse on suffering . . . on Thursday, I was vaulting down the back steps of the Opera House, having completed a school vacation matinee showing of "Alvin and the Chipmunks" for 36 children under 3 feet tall, and their accompanying eight adults, when three--yes, three--giant Maine DOT trucks roared around the corner and up the hill. Their trucks loaded with sand, they had just finished filling the worst dips and holes along Route 15.

Hmm. Maybe it does pay to personify god!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Suffering, or Winter Roads

Yesterday, I could smell daffodils in the sun, I could close my eyes and see and feel Easter approaching. I know it's out there, even if daffodils don't bloom in Maine until late April and the prints of crow wings grace the snow.

The wind is still cold enough to wear full winter gear: ski jacket, hat, gloves. It was blowing hard from the west and, while walking the dogs along the cove, it caused thin sheets of ice to skitter like fish across the surface, chasing us. Young Jack was alarmed; I was fascinated, having never before heard or seen a phenomenon quite like ice leaping swiftly across itself and the water. As the gusts increased, the crackling and crushing noise grew louder, and we could stand and watch layers of crispy ice advance toward us up the shore.

I have to imagine the same process is happening under our roads here, because the results include ripples, holes, trenches and dips that any good Californian would assume meant "earthquake!" Make economic development note: local business opportunity = full time chiropractor . . .

While making what felt like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride home at night across these roads, I was listening to "Fresh Air" on NPR. Terry Gross was interviewing Bart Ehrman, a professor of religion who has just authored God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.

Good question, I though, wondering which part might fall from either truck or self before reaching my destination.

But very quickly I found myself disgusted with the naive, simplistic approach this alleged professor of religion was taking. What kind of christianity is this, that so personifies god as a being, a friend and enemy; and then holds this entity responsible for our well being? Unfortunate answer: it's the literalist christianity that holds sway in an american culture that does not count metaphor, mystery, or self-responsibility among its intellectual or emotional legacies.

It is surely not the catholic christianity with which I was raised, which quite clearly taught that suffering is an inevitable part of this amazing garden of eden we call earth; this paradise in which we are responsible for our own actions and consequent suffering. We can hope for grace and forgiveness and strength to bear the difficulties and natural harshness of this world, but god is not a personal friend who, like Michael Clayton in the recent award-winning film of the same name, is gonna fix it all up for us. The "god" and bible stories with which I was raised were clearly metaphors and allegories for love and for, as Buddhists might say, "right action."

Ehrman, who confessed to what I already suspected--that he had grown up in the cult of fundamentalist, "born again" christianity--then went on to dismiss "other religions'" more advanced understandings of suffering--including Buddhism's. Buddhism, of course, directly posits suffering as the inevitable result of the way the human mind engages with the natural world of which it is a seamless part. This would, of course, be far too much self-responsibility for any born again christian to bear.

Little wonder our american political world--a democracy founded on self-responsibility--has itself suffered mightily during the reign of the cult of religious fundamentalism. It's time to move beyond such literalism in our teaching, our art, our politics.

The roads suck and we've got to get them fixed. How the hell are we going to do this?!

"And what, monks, is Right View? It is, monks, the knowledge of suffering, the knowledge of the origin of suffering, the knowledge of the cessation of suffering, and the knowledge of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering. This is called Right View." -- Mahasatipatthana Sutta: The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

40 Days

Lent is actually quite an interesting period; or it could be, if it were once again more broadly observed. Think of the potential impact on American foreign policy alone of the parable of Jesus spending 40 days in the desert, reflecting on sin and fighting temptation; and its corollary of christians reflecting on and asking forgiveness for our sins, and focusing on acts of kindness for others. When viewed within the context of our overwhelming consumption of world resources; our hubris in the face of the rest of the world; our denial of suffering by the poor both within and without our country's walls (don't even get me started on ours, or Israel's, walls)-- 40 days is not a hell of a lot. In fact, it's nothing.

If Obama or Hilary or anyone could give us this--a way to step back from American arrogance to and defensiveness from the world at large, and from the poor in particular--I'd guarantee my vote.

In fact, the questions of Lent, as illustrated in the story of Jesus and the serpent in the desert, not surprisingly cross religious borders, finding their echoes in Jewish, Muslim, and even Buddhist thought. Does a particular action serve only ourselves? What sort of power seduces us? What sort of hunger invites us to grab a short cut? What sort of attention do we crave?

For our politicians as for us, these are the ongoing questions of our time.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bored Dumb

It's Lent and I've given up alchohol (again). It is viciously icy here day after day, and Judith has just fallen on the lovely, coated shore (as pictured) for the fourth time this winter.

No wonder I am getting cranked up to be in "Post Valentine's Day, February Rant Mode," and being told by friends they are "bored"--a word used all too frequently in my neck of the winter woods--is just the thing to set me off. I've never liked the word, and ban its use with my students.

"Tired of the world" and "not interested" are the most common meanings of "bored"; but there are also those associated with the drilling aspect of the verb, such as "to make one's way steadily, especially against resistence." This I find of much greater interest. But verbs are active, and being an actor is never how one finds oneself "bored." Being bored is to have something done to you when you are NOT acting.

As a culture, we Americans, very much like unevolved adolescents (see The Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence, which cites "boredom" as a condition most frequently affecting this group--and a condition closely related to depression), have a problem with boredom.

The primary cause of boredom in any situation is a lack of attention. And that's exactly what we are taught by the media and our public schools and our families to do: to not pay attention. Rather than being taught that everything is of interest--say, if not the plot of a movie or book, then the language or the cinematography; if not the moral quandary then the characters themselves, etc.--we're taught to either "like" or "not like" things. And if we decide we don't like something--say, a political candidate or issue--we lose interest. We shut down. We close ourselves off--in fact, we defend ourselves-- from the myriad of interesting details: like these stones, their colors and shapes caught just beneath the thin, translucent surface of winter.

We've become a culture of defense, and nothing illustrates this more readily or tragically than how often so many are bored dumb.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Winners and Losers

Today our home team, the New England Patriots, are poised to win their fourth Super Bowl in five years.

Our Boston Red Sox, after not having won a World Series since 1903, won their first World Series in 2004 and won again in 2007.

Meanwhile, the Celtics, a great basketball team when I was growing up but one that's been in the doldrums for nearly 20 years, have lost only eight games this season and are 12 games ahead of the nearest competition.

Out there in media-land, they are starting to call us New Englanders "winners."

I'm just not sure how I feel about this change in perception.

OK, not that sports are the only, or necessarily the best, metric for a regional culture. There's also cuisine; and, of course, theater.

But when you grow up in a place that, let's face it, has established pride in its underdog status; a tiny region rising from the eastern underarm of New York City--and then you start to become winners: it's a big perceptual shift. What does it mean to us as New Englanders to embrace a culture of winning?

Will it mean better education, and stemming the loss of jobs from our northern climates? Will it mean a return to Blue State dominance of national politics; of New England surpassing the south and midwest in leading america's voting for a new president?

Probably not. Hopefully neither will it mean that New Englanders--famously ornery and uncaring about showy wealth and fame--will succumb to the success-crazed, ego-driven culture that appears to be, more and more certainly, dominating our national heritage.

Here's what I'm hoping for today: a really tight, tight game. Long, excellent, stunning passes by both Tom Brady and the Manning baby. High scores on both sides. A close enough game we will all be glued to our sets until the two-minute warning.

And the outcome? Why do we care so much? Why do we want so badly to identify with a team that is the winner? Maybe, just maybe, who knows: if we all asked ourselves this at half-time, while reminding each other that losing is good for the soul, we'd emerge on Monday morning a better nation.

Enjoy the game.