Every Team is Better and Worse Off Because You’re On It

Atul Gawande, one of my favorite authors, is about to gain a wider audience through this new book that will do very well.

His New Yorker essay, Cowboys and Pit Crews, got me thinking about how we live our lives on a never ending series of teams whether grade school classrooms, athletic teams, art and music based teams, community groups, home owners associations, church councils, families, school faculties, work teams, book clubs, special interest groups, political campaigns, boards of directors, etc.

You would never guess that if your only frame of reference was elementary, secondary, and higher education classrooms in the United States. Students almost always work on things individually and faculty almost always assess students individually. Sure, sometimes students work in small groups, but they’re not taught to be thoughtful observers of small group dynamics. It’s rare that they’re ever asked why some small groups work well and others don’t. Too often, teachers wrongly assume students already know how to be good teammates. As a result, students tend to be clueless about group dynamics.

And since teamwork doesn’t factor into student evaluations, they’re even less self aware of their team-based strengths and weaknesses. They’re hardly ever asked the most basic group process related questions such as, “What do you do well as a team member? What’s most challenging for you when working closely with others? Where could you improve?”

Every person, you included, has specific skills, knowledge, and personal attributes that benefit and hamper all of the teams they are on at any one time. Which of your skills, knowledge, and personal attributes do your team’s often use to positive advantage? And how does your presence on teams sometimes limit their effectiveness? What could you do better as a teammate?

Aren’t sure how to answer those questions? Welcome to the “Almost Everybody” Club. It’s not your fault. Individualism is so pervasive in American life, schools think about students as cowboys  and cowgirls despite the fact they’ll live their lives on pit crew after pit crew.

 

Life After Work

As is often the case, I’m confused. One day last week Ron Lieber, a Times blogger, summarized research from The Journal of Consumer Research that finds older people often draw as much happiness from ordinary experiences—like a library visit or an afternoon spent gardening—as they do from extraordinary ones. Then, on the same day, with stories of extended trips to exotic locations, the Times David Wallis’s published a contradictory article titled, “Increasingly, Retirees Dump Their Possessions and Hit the Road”.

Wallis writes that between 1993 and 2012, the percentage of retirees traveling abroad rose to 13 percent from 9.7 percent and about 360,000 Americans received Social Security benefits at foreign addresses in 2013, about 48 percent more than 10 years earlier. Wallis illustrates this trend through examples of people like Lynne Martin, 73, a retired publicist and the author of “Home Sweet Anywhere: How We Sold Our House, Created a New Life, and Saw the World”:

Three years ago, Martin and her husband sold their three-bedroom house in Paso Robles, Calif., gave away most of their possessions, found a home for their Jack Russell terrier, Sparky, and now live in short-term vacation rentals they usually find through HomeAway.com. The Martins have not tapped their savings during their travels, alternating visits to expensive cities like London with more reasonable destinations like Lisbon. “We simply traded the money we were spending for overhead on a house and garden in California for a life in much smaller but comfortable HomeAway rentals in more interesting places,” Ms. Martin said by email from Paris.

Another couple in the late 60s sold their house, bought a Recreational Vehicle, and started volunteering full time for two nonprofits. So far, they’ve repaired damaged homes in 28 different states.

One of the older vagabonds, or Wallis’s term is better, itinerant baby boomers (IBB), said, “I used to dream about all the places I would go as soon as I was old enough to get away. But then. . . life happened.” That’s probably the key variable, whether older people have pent-up wanderlust.

Wallis explains that many IBB’s are traveling on the cheap, volunteering for nonprofits and organic farms in exchange for room and board or finding free places to stay through Couchsurfing.org which puts its membership of people 50 and older at about 250,000. Given the manner in which most retirees are traveling, maybe the two pieces aren’t completely antithetical after all.

The common thread is that retirees are choosing experiences over material possessions. Listen carefully everyone under 50 and you’ll hear the collective, “Ah shit, why did we accumulate all this crap?!” Personal finance researchers tell us one-third of seniors have nothing saved for retirement. It’s a good thing ordinary experiences prove so fulfilling in later life.

Both pieces were short so an important subtopic was left out, just how similarly retired partners think about how to spend the last chapters of their shared lives. I know many couples think differently about their idealized post-work lives. What to do when one person wants to see the world, and the other, the backyard?

I’m the opposite of the IBB who dreamed about all the places to go. I’ve been very, very fortunate to travel and live all over the U.S. and on three different continents. Don’t tell the Good Wife, but I’m content to walk, swim, run, cycle, and drive throughout our hood, our state, and the Western United States and Canada. She wants to travel to Spanish speaking countries so I should probably renew my passport. I will take one or two or three long distance trips for the team. But I’d be just as content taking the labradude for a walk in the woods.

 

 

 

 

 

When Our College Graduate Moved Home

Our culture emphasizes independence first and foremost. Young people fortunate enough to go away to college are supposed to be independent upon graduating. But of course it’s a process, especially given mounting student loan debt. Moving home is seen as a negative, but it doesn’t have to be.

On Monday mornings run, the posse and I were passed by a car driven by a recent grad who lives with his parents in our ‘hood. Like many people who live in this hamlet, I learned he works for the state government, meaning he probably earns $50-60k/year. His parents are from Vietnam. If both parties can suck it up for three years, he should have at least $100k saved.

From afar, Asian-Americans like our neighbors seem less anxious about their children’s independence. They also seem more comfortable caring for their parents in their own homes. Dare I say they’re better at blurring the generational lines.

We’ve enjoyed having our college graduate live with us this summer. Recently, her mother said to me, “It’s been nice getting to know her again.” I agree. She’s working a few part-time jobs, saving money for an eventual move to Chicago. On Monday we went on a hike on Mount Rainier. Today we had a D&D Club lake swim (Dad and Daughters).

She cooks on Tuesday nights and feeds and walks the Labradude. She works for a catering company on the weekends so every Sunday morning I excitedly open the refrigerator to see some combo of leftover chicken, green beans, salmon, salmon spread, and wedding cake. I make her a green tea latte on Fridays.

We had a misunderstanding a week or two ago. Tears were shed. We’re conflict avoiders so we tipped toed around each other for two days before finally talking it out. She gets credit for taking the initiative.

She’s wonderful, same as her younger sissy whose company we’re also enjoying right now. Second Born is between her summer camp counseling job and her second year of college. Tonight we watched an episode of American Greed together. We also dig “Love It or List It”. The other day I was working on the humble blog while she was watching HGTV and video clips on her phone at the same time. I told her I couldn’t concentrate. No tears were shed. I’m going to miss her beginning next week.

When it comes to our young adult children’s independence, maybe we should chill. It will happen. Not in the exact way we’d draw it up, and not on our timeframe, but it will happen. Until then, the Good Wife and I are going to appreciate their presence in our lives.

Tipsoo Lake/Natches Peak

College grad to the left. Handsome Devil middle. Taylor Swift fan to the right.

 

 

 

On Robin Williams and the End of Life

In reading people’s reflections on Robin Williams, I’m amazed at how many people met him in “real life”. Nearly everyone has a story. Case in point. In the summer of 1997, our family was walking across the UNC Chapel Hill campus when I saw a crowd gathering. It was Williams on a break from filming Patch Adams. It didn’t matter that there were only twenty of us, he was “on”. My infant daughters were unimpressed until I told them he was Aladdin. In a few years, Mrs. Doubtfire would loop in our house for months on end.

I propose we make t-shirts for the minority of people ripping Williams for being selfish. The shirts could say, “I’m clueless about mental illness in general and severe depression in particular.” Or “I struggle to listen and learn.” Or “I lack understanding and empathy.” That way we could side step them altogether. When you don’t understand something like suicide, it’s okay to admit it. In fact, it’s admirable. We’d all be better off if we demonstrated more curiosity and humility.

I’m far from a mental health expert, but I’m indebted to some of my first year college writing students for teaching me about depression. Other people, like Molly Pohlig, continue to teach me about it. I’ve learned, as sad as it is, some people get so depressed they think they’re doing their family and friends a favor by ending their life.

Journalists writing about Williams often reference recent suicide statistics which I find staggering. Especially for my peers, white men, 50-54, who have the highest rate of suicide. We have to get better at identifying and helping the most susceptible among us.

A positive thought. In part, Williams will live on through his incessant television and film work. That’s a cool aspect of being a successful artist. An easily accessible legacy. Today, in the U.S., I’m struck by how we ignore the elderly and quickly forget the deceased.

In thinking about Williams’s legacy, I’ve thought some about my own. Initially I thought, if anyone wanted to remember me, all they’d have is lots of academic publications including a lengthy doctoral dissertation. And no one loves me enough to revisit those! In all likelihood, not even the occasional newspaper or magazine essay, or this blog’s archive, will live on.

If I’m lucky, I suppose, some aspects of my kind and caring Mrs. Doubtfire loving daughters will remind people of me on occasion. Somewhere in Florida or Indiana my sister is saying to herself, “It’s not all about you.” Since she’s right, more than likely then, like most people, I’ll be forgotten in relatively short order.

Recommended.

The 5 Most Important Things You’ll Read All Week

1) Have you noticed? Increasingly, bloggers are inserting numbers into post titles to increase readership and improve search engine rankings. “5” has replaced “3” for most popular number. “17” is trendy too. I don’t know why numbers increase readership and improve search engine rankings. I find it disingenuous at best and insulting at worst. As if all anyone can process anymore is a list. My one-time use of it here is sarcasm. I should start a movement. . . force a number into your title and we’ll refuse to read what follows. Who is in?

2) Imagine a world in which everyone reads and discusses books with people different than them. My favorite story from last week.

3) The Seattle Mariners are the best team in baseball when it comes to this.

4) Is this a trend. . . dad’s helping grown daughters who aren’t necessarily interested in their help? I’ve never offered unsolicited advice to my daughters. . . that’s an additional serving of sarcasm. One of my daughters’ friends laughed at her dad for sending her an article on “How to save and invest money”. Another “couldn’t believe” her dad mailed her bicycle to her at college, then assembled it during a visit. The “extremely large” bike box was difficult and embarrassing to pick up at the mail room. The two wheeler was used one or two times during the school year. This isn’t limited to dad’s and daughters. Parents often presume their young adult children want to save money, invest wisely, prepare healthy meals, bicycle, etc., etc. Maybe I should start a movement where parents let their young adult children know they’re interested in sharing different “lessons learned” if and when they’re interested. And then we’ll sit back and wait for our young adult children to ask us for help.

5) I’m filing this under “Sometimes I Amaze Myself”. I’ve done it again, I’ve come up with a brilliant idea. This one will enable me to extend my triathlon career for many more years. Based upon my swimming, cycling, and running training log, I have a very good feel for how fast I can swim 1500 or 1900 meters, how fast I can ride 40k or 56 miles, and how fast I can run 10k or 13.1 miles. That means all I have to do is guess how bad my transitions would likely be, and presto, I can spend a few minutes on-line on Mondays to see what place I would’ve finished had I actually shown up at that weekend’s races. This way I save tons of coin and race every weekend without swimming through seaweed or increasing my exposure to the sun. I “won” my age group at a few recent races.

 

Life (Right) After College

Hurray, the eldest is a college graduate. And I’m happy to report that apart from wearing shorts to the commencement ceremony*, and getting caught mostly naked (I had my watch on) in a co-ed dormitory bathroom**, I didn’t embarrass her too much.

I’m proud of her. A religion major, she wrote an excellent senior thesis on how Martin Luther King’s notion of the beloved community changed after the Watt’s riots. After reading it, her grandfather crowned her the “best writer in the family”***. Also, her college experience started out pretty rough, but she persevered, and in the end, flourished. She swam, co-hosted a groovy radio show, learned to write, and gained lots of confidence, meaning dinner conversations are more contentious now. Which is good. And she made lots of close friends.

That last point seems to be the all important one. Her friends and her seemed way more focused on close interpersonal relationships than my college classmates and I ever were. Maybe that’s explained by gender or because I went to a large public university, but I suspect there’s a lot more to it. Psychologists who study happiness recommend all of us do more to build community in our lives, but one significant trade-off may be less certainty about what to do after graduating.

Most of my daughter’s classmates’ plans were nebulous, meaning going home to work for the summer while trying to figure out the medium-long term. The Good Wife, my older sister, and my brother in-law and I and thought and talked about this throughout the weekend. My sister insisted that her friends and her all had permanent full-time jobs lined up right after crossing the stage. She said there was a stigma attached to returning home.

Here’s the problem, my sissy and I, like all fifty and sixty-somethings, fall into predictable traps when trying to make sense of our Millenial offspring.

Predictable trap one, our memory fails us; consequently, we accentuate our successes and downplay our challenges. Simply put, we forget about our parents’ continuing help, our struggles, and classmates who didn’t have jobs, who did return home, whose paths to independent adulthood were circuitous at best. When comparing ourselves with others, we almost always cut ourselves more slack. That’s why we routinely get angry at other drivers, but forget our own sudden lane changes or thoughtless maneuvers.

Predictable trap two, our selective perception contributes to an unhelpful, collective impatience with new graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do. We want our twenty-two year olds to be independent tomorrow morning even though, in all likelihood, the transition to complete independent adulthood will still be running it’s course during the next World Cup. Our impatience results in strained relations and dissension.

Predictable trap three, we routinely resist change. It’s difficult to understate the effect of social media on this generation of college grads, the pace of economic change, and the consequences of our more liberal parenting. Baby boomers label Millenials slackers for lacking gumption. That knee-jerk criticism is a predictable result of these mental traps. If social scientists ever quantify a generational gumption deficit, Boomers like me will have to take responsibility for it.

Predictable trap four, we overgeneralize from our lived experience and project our accomplishments onto others. Because we overcame “x” and accomplished “y”, others should be able to as well. As a result, we lack empathy for others, including recent college grads. For example, a close friend always struggled in school because of dyslexia. He overcame it with tremendous grit and now he’s often angry at others for “making excuses” for their relative lack of success. He writes off others without factoring in extenuating circumstances such as poverty, institutional racism, or neighborhood violence, because he didn’t experience those things.

I wish that by describing these traps, I was immune from them. In actuality, I can describe them because I’m so susceptible to them. As just one example, I’m as impatient as they come. Can I make it to the next World Cup? Truth be told, I’ve written this to myself. If you find something that helps you on your journey, all the better.

Postscript: Do NOT read this.

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* Someone has to establish the sartorial floor. And I probably should come clean that I did do one thing that greatly embarrassed, or at least “weirded out” both daughters. Cycling season = shaved legs. Way better for sunscreen and massage, way worser for father-daughter relationships.

** Fortunately, while getting into the shower, I was caught by my roommate, the Good Wife. “What was I supposed to do,” I protested, “undress standing in the tiny shower behind the curtain?!” To which she emphatically said, “YES!” New rule co-ed college dormitories, if you want me to undress in private, provide a door and a small bench before the shower curtain, like in Watson Hall, otherwise, be on guard for the Full Monty. Also, why the urinal RIGHT NEXT TO the door?

*** first signs of cognitive slippage