I heard a podcast the other day featuring a gentleman I had never heard of named Parker Palmer. He was quoting Thomas Merton, the late American writer, and it was one of those moments when the information you need comes to you at the exact moment you need it.
Merton wrote, “There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.
It destroys the fruitfulness of his, or her, work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
(These words were written in 1966.)
I have been reflecting on the modern violence of overwork on my own behalf, but also on behalf of a dear friend who I have watched grapple with these same issues. The feeling of near drowning is one we can slowly become accustomed to, until it makes us forget what “normal” was.
We are a society obsessed with effectiveness, results and outcomes. The tighter we cling to that effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we take on. The smaller and smaller, inevitably, we ourselves become.
Faithfulness, Palmer exhorted, must trump effectiveness. By faithfulness he meant “am I being faithful to my own gifts and how I can affect the world around me? Have I shown up fully with what I’ve got everyday?”
The concept of violence goes well beyond doing physical harm. We do violence every time we violate, or fail to respect, our own or another person’s soul.
And the soul is built entirely of attentiveness.
Uber has been in the news quite a bit lately, mostly for reasons that cast doubt on its long-term viability. Tone deaf comments from CEO Emil Michael about spying on journalists who had unflattering things to say about the company to reports about the company’s valuation alternately set at anywhere from $17B to $40B have kept the glare of the spotlight on the ridesharing service. The company often butts up against municipal regulations that they seek to address AFTER entering a new market. Their “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude seems ill-suited to sustainability, but I will leave that to others to analyze.
No, the news story that caught my eye dealt with how Uber is putting downward pressure on the cost of medallions in taxi-friendly cities like New York, Boston and Chicago. (Medallions are essentially the operating license one needs to legally operate a cab.) Medallions ain’t cheap- in New York, Uber is thought to have depressed the price of a medallion 17% to $872,000.
If the barrier to entry to become a driver is so low, and the cost to the passenger for the Midtown to JFK trip at 5pm is a fraction of a yellow cab, why would anyone ever drive or hail a cab again?
To me, the troubling trend at play here is one that I have been tracking since 2009 when I wondered “how good is good enough?”
Long about 2006 or so, I began to notice a trend away from specialization in video production. The rise of the prosumer camera and cheap laptop editing software made anyone a producer. But, at what cost? Quality and experience began their inexorable decline into relative irrelevance.
The news business similarly eroded when reporters were now forced to both report on and take pictures (and maybe video of) the stories they covered. They might also be charged with writing both a print and web version of those same stories. The work of several specialists was now distilled down to one (likely underpaid) generalist.
“Hey,” I can hear you say, “you need to cut costs to respond to market pressure and increase value.” Or I can hear you saying, “how hard is it to drive a cab?” Perhaps, although I’m not sure that argument would have as much weight in London or Los Angeles where knowledge of one’s surroundings literally takes a lifetime to learn.
And that’s just the point: what value do we place on expertise and experience? I would say the the answer increasingly is “not much.”
Is good enough good enough? How do you value those hard-won life skills? And what happens when there’s no one around with the perspective, background and experience to make decisions?
It’s one thing to be a well-rounded individual who knows a little something about a lot of things. But I wonder if we haven’t made the expert extinct at an incalculable cost as we continually belittle and devalue their contributions.
We see it all areas of life: the big box store that offers every imaginable item from oranges to orange carpet to books on William of Orange; that newspaper (remember those?) reporter who now must report, take a picture of and edit the video of the news while posting it twitter and Facebook; or the company that can no longer afford to be the best at one thing but, instead, has to be passably decent at a lot of things.
Good enough is good enough. Until it isn’t.