Wednesday, April 15, 2009

'Nothing you read in this magazine is worth remembering!'

As a preamble, here's one magazine article that, I not-so-humbly submit, may be worth remembering: my piece on PMA for Skeptic, now online.

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What is it with this culture-wide need to soak our brains in vapid, overstated feel-good nonsense?


Last night as I'm writhing around on the couch, trying to relax my neck muscles and get my head to stop pounding after way too much time in a cramped airplane seat*,
I hear a line of dialogue from some lame show that's on ABC in the background:

"Nothing worth having is ever easy to get," says the man, oh-so-earnestly, to the woman he's been persistently wooing.

Earlier in the day I'd plucked a tabloid magazine, Woman's World, from the airplane seat pocket, and that's where I found this inspirational gem: "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm!" Not just enthusiasm, mind you. Enthusiasm! This same magazine, incidentally, contains a story about a woman who discovered she had cancer but decided to forgo standard treatment and instead beat the disease through a new eating plan and her innate positivity. Now there's a great message to spread among American women! I can almost hear the mortality numbers soaring as I write this.

Anyway, both statements are a load of crap. People luck into easy fortunes/cushy situations all the time, and I say that as someone who has just returned from the Land of the Easy Fortune, where I heard it happening around me (though never to me) on several occasions over the past week. Even leaving aside unique venues like Las Vegas, though in most enterprises hard work and perseverance generally yield better results than indifference and laziness, it's simply wrong to posit any sort of straight-line relationship under the guise of being "inspirational." There are people who land their dream jobs and find their ideal life partners right out of the chute. There are even people like Donald Trump and Anderson Cooper, whose "hard work" consisted of being born to the right parents (or like Bill Gates, who, some allege, finagled their way into America's corporate ru
ling class). Some if not many of the most important discoveries in science and medicine came about solely by accident. Planning and diligence had nothing to do with it.

Conversely, there are undertakings where you give 110 percent of yourself over a substantial period of time...and fail anyway, sometimes losing out to someone who didn't try half as hard. And by the way, many of the hardest-working people in America have the lowest-paying jobs.
I realize, that's slightly outside the strict logic of the quote, but it's worth considering nonetheless.

As for enthusiasm: While I definitely see it as a plus in most settings, enthusiasm also can be irrelevant as long as other predisposing elements are already in place. In baseball, for example, a surfeit of talent can take you a long, long way, even if you don't particularly give a damn. Then too, one is mindful of the timeless line from management consultant Jay Kurtz, as quoted in SHAM: "The most dangerous person in corporate America is the highly enthusiastic incompetent. He's always running too fast in the wrong direction."

Tell me this: Why isn't it enough to simply say: "Always work as hard as you can. It might help"? Why do we have to make an absurd bumper sticker out every single piece of advice?

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This may sound naive and old-newsy to people who get out more than I do, but the embattled airline industry
, or at least US Airways, has hit upon a new revenue-enhancement scheme. Why not charge passengers for...nothing at all!

The boondoggle in question is known as "choice seating," wherein the traveler, by slapping a fee of between $5 and $15 on his credit card at one of those automated check-in kiosks, is able to exchange his assigned seat for presumably nicer accommodations on an aisle in the "first few rows" of a coach cabin. (I quote from US Airways' own description of the policy.) My original seats were in Row 28, well back in the aircraft. Since the premium seating I was now being offered, in Row 16, clearly was not among "the first few rows" of the coach cabin, I assumed that the extra $15 per seat would at least garner me a bulkhead seat or maybe even an exit row. (Only later would I lea
rn from the official US Airways site that exit-row seating is never sold.) But no, my new seat was just a plain old seat, exactly like the one I'd been assigned to begin with, except 12 rows ahead of where I started. And next to a lady with a colicky baby, to boot. (That's not the airline's fault, but I'm just saying...)

People, I'm sorry, that is willful fraud. What makes me even more convinced of this is the procedure: Forcing you to obtain your "choice" seat at a kiosk means that there are no actual US Airways-type human beings involved (who presumably would have to give truthful answers to questions about what makes these new seats better than your old seats). Not only that, but the choice seats do not become available for purchase until shortly before flight time, which means that target customers are in a rushed state of mind and thus are less inclined to do much homework before tapping the button that says "Yes, charge my card $15." And finally, there are no refunds for these seats unless the flight itself is canceled.

Apparently I'm not the only one who's been duped by this little gambit and is ticked off about it. When confronted, US Airways has tended to stonewall. I plan to contact them as well, and I'll report back once/if I hear anything.

* To be clear: My entire body was in the cramped seat, not just my head.

34 comments:

Noadi said...

You can't control luck. Your own hard work however is something you can control, therefore it is the most reliable way to succeed. A few other things help like a willingness to take a (smart) risk and accept the possibility of failure.

However enthusiastic incompetents who take stupid risks are downright scary.

Steve Salerno said...

Noadi: I think the back-and-forth nature of your own comment illustrates the problem here: Look at the way you feel compelled to qualify your own thoughts, even in a short comment. (I'm not being critical of you; just making a point.)

Which is why I say here (and repeatedly in my book) that any program that purports to distill success down to a few bullet points in the sort of absolute way today's gurus do cannot possibly be translated to real life.

Anonymous said...

"Why isn't it enough to simply say: 'Always work as hard as you can'?"

Because Steve, we don't always have to work as hard as we can. Most of the time, we can just glide along in our comfort zone, leaving plenty to spare if we need it. Since my job depends upon the work of others, working as hard as I can is akin to out-kicking the coverage, and not really helping the team.

How about "Work as hard as you can when you have to; the rest of the time keep up a good pace and don't let other people's problems become your problems. And don't ever speak to me about 'giving more' than 100% or you will be exposed as a math idiot."?

Steve Salerno said...

Well, OK, Anon, in a literal, more nuanced sense I agree with you. But I stand by my larger point: Why do we have to take good, worthwhile thoughts and explode them into the realm of caricature and quixotic excess? Why do we lie to little children by telling them, "If you just believe in yourself, you can achieve everything you dream of!"? Why not just say something like, "Don't be afraid to chase your dreams...but don't feel bad about giving up on them, either, if the price gets too steep"?

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - Remember me telling the story about how my son used to like terrorizing the ducks at a local park, and asked me if it was OK to chase the geese, as well? I gave him "permission," and when he took up the chase, they quickly turned and started chasing *him.* He was frightened, and angry as hell at me, but I think the lesson stuck with him: Opportunity and exuberance will always bring "success," but that success might not always be what you intended.

Oh, yeah... He also learned that Dad can be a devious SOB, to be trusted with a good dose of caution! :-)

Great article, by the way. I was heartened by the responses to Vitale's blog post where he essentially blamed the victims of the San Diego fires. He got such a drubbing that he removed the post and comments in their entirety. Perhaps there's a glimmer of integrity & common sense, even among the lemming crowd.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: You remind me of a story I might've told before, but I guess I'll tell it again. When I was small, my dad used to give me math problems, 5 or 10 at a time. I was always very good at math, and I took a lot of pride in racing through them and presenting myself mere moments later with all the right answers. This continued as we moved on into algebra, etc. So one day he gave me the usual complement of problems...only I couldn't get the last one. No matter what I did, I couldn't make it work.

Finally I go to him in frustration. And he says to me, "You know the reason you couldn't get the last one?"

I shrug.

"Because there is no solution. It's a trick question. And the reason I did that is, there are going to be times in life, too, where you run into a problem that has no solution. There's no sense killing yourself over it. Some things, you just have to accept, and move on."

So naturally I was mad as hell at his tactics--"Gee Dad, next time just tell me what you have to tell me straight-out, and give me math problems that actually work, OK?"--but I never forget what he said.

RevRon's Rants said...

Just out of curiosity, was it the one about the 3 guys who shared a $30 hotel room?

You were lucky... All I learned from my dad was how to duck a left hook, how to lie my way out of a beating, and eventually, how to deliver an effective sucker punch on someone much bigger that I was.

I'd have preferred the math... or the geese.

Steve Salerno said...

That's a damn shame, Ron. Leaving all the macho pretense aside, it breaks my heart to hear that kind of stuff.

RevRon's Rants said...

I left one thing out: He did teach me, even if by negative example, how to respect my own kids, and to let them know they're loved... even when Dad's in a pissy mood.

And we both know that a "macho pretense" is just that... a highly ineffective cover.

Noadi said...

I think my comment just didn't turn out the way I intended and my joke fell flat. I was trying to make a point about focusing on the things you can control (like hard work, risk taking, etc) over worrying about things outside your control. Of course competence should always be a factor in the equation as well.

It's more than a bit pathetic that people need to be told this as adults but our culture and the media is saturated with messages of the opposite. Lose weight without more exercise or eating less, get rich without even trying, etc.

Steve Salerno said...

Noadi: Precisely.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

How do you feel about luck?

I'm only asking now because one of the other English blogs I often read has a comment about the anti tax "tea parties" that are currently happening in the states.

Not to get to political about it but they are basically saying that the rich should pay more in tax because they benefit the most from the state as it is the state taht upholds their property/wealth ownership. Furthermore, they think that people get rich either because they inherit it from their parents or they become successful because they had parents who read to them and had access to good schols etc and this is all based on luck and very little about how hard one works. They being very liberal would obviously like to level the playing field but if this is mostly luck - can we really spread luck more evenly?

Londoner

Steve Salerno said...

I think this gets into the realm of Marx's theories on "dialectical materialism," as I understand it (which is along the lines of my own feelings on determinism). Point being, if we all end up sorted out along the social spectrum based on inevitability--if Donald Trump couldn't help being Donald Trump any more than the poorest of the poor could help being born in Calcutta--then it's up to those of us who recognize the fundamental truth of that human condition to even things out. On the one hand, I sort of buy that; on the other hand, I think we have to take into consideration human nature, and the fact that if we actually translate that theory into a political movement--as Marxists, of course, tried to do--what you often produce (unwittingly, as per the law of unintended consequences) is laziness and lack of initiative. As we've seen in the U.S. with the many decades of the welfare state, people who know that they're going to be taken care of anyway have little incentive to excel or even self-improve. So this is a toughie.

Anonymous said...

Yep tell me about it.

Londoner

Anonymous said...

Steve, read the piece on Skeptic. Excellent! And that led me to your blog, which is not only excellent but a revelation. When we talk about debunking we tend to focus on magicians, psychics, religious fanatics and the like, but those are small potatoes compared to the entrenched cultural practices you describe. And I agree with you, the things done under the rubric of "self help" can be the most dangerous and subtly destructive of all.

Oh, I especially enjoyed your opening story about your football coach. Like the TV ad says, priceless!

Dr. David Demangone, OH

roger o'keefe said...

I take issue with your views on success, Steve, and I even take a degree of offense. I don't even think what you say adds up. On the one hand you spent all that time in SHAM talking about how indulgent policies eroded the value of hard work, but now you're saying that people get where they are in life through plain dumb luck. So I'm supposed to look at a lifetime of achievement and dedication on my own part and just say "Boy, I'm sure glad I caught a break"? I'm not buying it. And no other hard-working successful person would either, I promise you.

RevRon's Rants said...

Roger, all the "achievement and dedication" in the world can be for naught if opportunities are lacking. And some of those opportunities come about wholly independent of one's efforts or abilities. That's where the luck comes in, and I doubt you'll find any successful person who can *honestly* say that they never benefited from being in the right place at the right time... with the right abilities, of course.

Anonymous said...

Hi Roger

It's good to see you back and ruffled again!

I think you misunderstand Steve and I when we say that most of success is down to luck. It doesn't mean that we don't think people who are successful work hard - rather that the factors going into success eg wether people decide to work hard, proximity to people in the business, intelligence, body shape etc - is based on luck.

It has been shown that a child born to parents who read to it - has a higher chance of success then those that don't and its not rocket science why - but what makes a baby born into that family and not another is completely luck - isn't it?

Londoner

Anonymous said...

If you want success it helps to kiss ass, too.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: That is very true. Biggest mistake I've ever made in my (brief and ill-fated attempt at having a) 9-5 career was to respond forthrightly when a superior said, "Tell me what you really think. I honestly want to hear." There are two very specific instances I can think of where that question was asked of me, and I answered with my true thoughts, and those answers contributed significantly to my being let go within a short period of time.

In my experience, that strategy works only if the honest answer you're about to give also happens to be precisely what your boss wants to hear.

RevRon's Rants said...

As we've all learned - the hard way, of course - it's foolish to EVER answer such a question honestly. Almost as dumb as answering a woman's "Does this make my butt look big?" There's NO good answer to the latter one... :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: You raise a subject that has always bothered me. If a woman says, "Does this make my butt look big?", and the only acceptable answer is something like, "No, honey, nothing could make that beautiful butt look anything but beautiful," then why is she asking the question at all? I'd like to hear from women on this: Is it just a devious cry for reassurance? There's no desire for an honest answer?

Anonymous said...

And of course another way to be successful is to have an empathy bypass.

Anonymous said...

I mean, lacking empathy opens up whole new profit making and promotion horizons. Could be as handy as being born rich, in fact being cold and predatory may be an excellent compensation for being born poor.

Anonymous said...

You make a good point Anon 8.38, being cold, predatory and with a pronounced ability to brown-nose must be invaluable in aquiring and keeping success and riches.

The ability to sell the poor suckers you've just shafted on the idea that the shafting is beneficial and in their best interests is helpful too.

Its quite important to take the moral high ground and despise the less cold and predatory suckers also so that blaming them for their subsequent, shafted predicament comes naturally.

Anonymous said...

An interesting take on the dynamics of success/failure from Matt Taibbi on contemporary phenomema:

But actual rich people can’t ever be the target. It’s a classic peasant mentality: going into fits of groveling and bowing whenever the master’s carriage rides by, then fuming against the Turks in Crimea or the Jews in the Pale or whoever after spending fifteen hard hours in the fields. You know you’re a peasant when you worship the very people who are right now, this minute, conning you and taking your shit. Whatever the master does, you’re on board. When you get frisky, he sticks a big cross in the middle of your village, and you spend the rest of your life praying to it with big googly eyes. Or he puts out newspapers full of innuendo about this or that faraway group and you immediately salute and rush off to join the hate squad. A good peasant is loyal, simpleminded, and full of misdirected anger. And that’s what we’ve got now, a lot of misdirected anger searching around for a non-target to mis-punish…
Full text:

http://tinyurl.com/c9mzox

The comments are astute also.

Anonymous said...

WW2 was lucky for some, profiting from both sides of a war, how lucky is that?

http://www.thenation.com/doc/20000124/silverstein

Elizabeth said...

It has been shown that a child born to parents who read to it - has a higher chance of success then those that don't and its not rocket science why - but what makes a baby born into that family and not another is completely luck - isn't it?It is, Londoner. The best recipe for getting rich and successful is being born to rich parents and/or well-educated ones. Say, dad and mom went to, for example, Harvard, you are an automatic shoo-in by the virtue of legacy. Your parents of course can afford to pay for your education there. The Harvard degree opens doors for you whether you really deserve it or not -- you do not have to be especially bright and/or creative to graduate, after all, but you certainly have to have enough time and money to do so. Etc.

Yes, there are exceptions -- born poor and exceptionally bright, having the right teachers/mentors along the way, getting scholarships, etc. But those are indeed exceptions and they are touted a bit too often, IMO, as the proof that anyone can make it.

And, Anon(s), yes, being a psychopath without a conscience is certainly a plus in succeeding, in the material sense, in this culture.

Elizabeth said...

Okay, this is apropos your earlier topic on male violence (and the recent series of mass murders throughout the country):
http://tinyurl.com/df7hst

Not a day goes by this spring, it seems, without another piece of similar sad news. That shortage of bootstraps that Ron's has mentioned previously is really taking on tragic proportions.

It's not hard to imagine that financial hardships are behind most of these events, or at least serious contributing factors. We bail out failed banks and other financial institution whose owners and operators willfully and knowingly mismanaged their own and other people's monies. Where is the bailout for regular folks who suffer so terribly without a way out?

This is really perverted, to help well-to-do who don't even notice a change in their lifestyle caused by the economic downturn (selling one vacation house does not count) and who are responsible for creating this mess in the first place. You mentioned several times a possibility of capital punishment for these folks, Steve, and the more I see what effects these financial machinations have had on regular families, the more I agree with you on this proposition. The Chinese communists have gotten it right in this respect. But we here pamper the guilty ones and, hey, even reward them with positions in the Obama's administration. This goes beyond irony. It's tragic.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you said Edwin Black's work was journalistically dubious, is this the work that was nominated for a Pulitzer or some other rubbish?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: If you're referring to his arguments about IBM/Holocaust, I said there are gaps/leaps of faith in his arguments. And I think he draws global inferences that are not warranted by the (provable) facts at hand.

Anonymous said...

OK Steve, any particular sticking points that I can go check and see if you are right?

Anonymous said...

"Anon: If you're referring to his arguments about IBM/Holocaust, I said there are gaps/leaps of faith in his arguments. And I think he draws global inferences that are not warranted by the (provable) facts at hand"

I would also like to read it - can you put a link or does the anon know?

Elizabeth, I'm in total agreement with you about Rich parents whose kids get a much easier ride but what do you think about the alternative - amongst some liberals I know they would like to abolish inheritance completely as it gives such a huge unfair advantage.

That makes me a tad nervous no?

Londoner

Anonymous said...

Link for IBM and the Holocaust

http://www.ibmandtheholocaust.com/

Steve's right, there are counter and alternative viewpoints such as

http://ckprojects.org/ibm.pdf