Wisdom, Self-Improvement, And Other Misconceptions

The current state of business literature runs the gamut from a bit of Stoic philosophy to leadership to marketing to start-ups.  The mix is interesting because of the new trends that arrive each year.  I say trends because it is really the same old information dolled up in a new Barbie outfit.  Around the turn of last century there were business schools where the high school graduate could attend so as to learn a set or sets of skills in the business world.  A college or university education was expensive, even at the state schools since these institutions were not close enough geographically for most prospective students to attend while living at home.  And until the last fifty years the experience of leaving home and taking digs at the university dorms while living with roommates was considered a valuable experience.  We know it now as networking and the ultimate networking group was the fraternity, an institution that was by invitation only.  But business colleges such as LaSalle, to name just one, were popular because the tuition was by far cheaper and the prospect of a decent employment was good.  By decent I mean that one might start as a clerk, go into payroll or accounts receivable, perhaps do some sort of personnel work, and rise from a low paid white collar job to a higher paying white collar job.  And if one was good enough one might even make the ranks of supervision and lower level management.

Indeed, these popular schools served as a secondary educational resource.  Some even started granting degrees in accounting or business management.  Oh, there was no fear that these degrees carried the same weight or prestige as a state college or university degree, but they did offer a leg up in the business world.  Later on we would see the need for the trade schools that taught machine shop and electrical machine repair, among other fine points of blue collar work.  And the junior and senior high schools moved steadily into a three tier gradation system of classifying students.  Those who were destined for advanced education were put into the college academic track while those who were perceived as smart but either lacked the resources or the perceived ability were placed into the business tract,  All others went into the industrial tract.  Those in the business tract took classes in bookkeeping, typing, and other business subjects while their academic classes were dumbed down.  Survey classes in biology and science were for them to gain a glimpse of future education should they prove themselves worthy.  Industrial arts included metal shop, wood shop, mechanical drawing, and other types of industrial processes.  The girls would learning sewing, cooking, cake decoration, typing, home economics, and a host of other useful studies.  This is a far cry form today’s emphasis of everyone goes to college whether they have the ability or not.  And today’s college education is often dumbed down because society wants college graduates regardless of how poor their training has been.

Where once religious belief and training served to provide a course of ethics, the religious establishments have become more concerned with right beliefs.  We have seen a rise in not only the need for more schooling in ethics but a lack of training in the public school system since there are the clashes with religious organizations in what constitutes ethics.  Thus, in the old days when college freshmen were suppose to take what amounted to a survey course in philosophy with includes a sprinkling of ethical questions, we now encounter courses called business ethics, as if this were completely different from personal ethics.  And for the past fifteen years we have seen the movement to foster stoic philosophy as the resurrection of philosophical investigation of ethical behavior.  The current tenor is that by reading the stoics one will store up considerable wisdom.  Unfortunately this means that so many treat wisdom as a commodity that can be set of a shelf and used when needed.  And, of course, the more wisdom one stores up the wiser one becomes.  The other problem is that the stoics never bothered to address the really big questions or puzzles like metaphysics.  Stoicism came at a time of social and civil breakdown so the question of why we are here on this earth at this time were not particularly important as knowing when, where, and to who to do the right thing.  The how was often left to the time of the reader as conditions change.

My grandfather came from Maine and ended up in Washing DC ware he found work at the bottom.  He put himself through the business school experience and learned bookkeeping, bank teller, accounting, and finance, and then a bit of banking.  He soon got a job in an investment bank, JP Morgan.  Then he put himself through LaSalle Law School and obtained his first degree in law.  He would follow that with two different masters degree in law and a certificate to practice any case in front of the Supreme Court.  He became a mover and a shaker in Washington, had a coveted membership in the Arlington Gold and Country Club, and had Friday night poker groups that usually includes at least one federal judge and member of congress or senate.  Of course he became early on an EVP in JP Morgan which put him into the back rooms of power.  He had no need of books of self help although I saw that he once read The Power Of Positive Thinking.  But that was more for its religious aspect.

All that was still in the days when a man went to work, married, and had a family.  A woman married, had children, and kept the family working together.  Role models were a bit more defined then and people had a better sense of where they fit into life.  Now we find that half of all marriages end in divorce, including those same sex marriages, that children have a far more difficult time fitting in because the family, or what remains of it, moves around so much, and everyone seems to have at one time or more trouble discovering just where they fit into life and the world. Enter the world of self help.  Self help is no longer a simple business but an institution.  What was once the province of family and ministers became the sinecure of the psychological professional and then the amateur practitioner.  But self help has extended to most areas of human endeavor such as sports and careers.  Indeed, we have all those self help books on how to start up a business enterprise and how to find your creativity.  There is no subject to which so many individuals have provided all the right answers, as evasive and as general they might be.  But that is the hallmark of self help writing and advocacy, the fog in which the supposed answers are suppose to appear is the fog of belief, a belief as much as a religion as it isn’t a science.  What is offered as a science cannot be quantified or tested because of its vagueness.

As for start-ups, well, here we go again.  My grandfather started his own insurance business when he retired, seems it came as natural a managing a bank.  He drew up his business plan in his mind without having to commit it to paper.  And he was successful in its establishment and continued operation.  Do you know the most difficult problem of any start-up?  Money, most small businesses go bankrupt within the first year.  Very few ever make it past two years.  It’s the capital formation and the cash flow needed that makes a start-up successful.  Yes, a good marketing plan helps as does a good product or service, but it’s the money side that kills most of the start-ups.  Unless once can con the public with an IPO based of bullshit.  But playing con man isn’t a real business, it’s a crime, although on wall street it is a legal crime.

All this chase for wisdom, chase for personal excellence, chase for money through the start-up, it’s all just a game of chase.  What happens when you have reached that pinnacle of wisdom or self improvement or financial security?  What comes after that plateau?  Are we suppose to spend out time being he best we can be without much thought to the process?  If one wants to be the best in snowboarding or surfing, what happens to you when your body gets too old, when it breaks down, when you can’t do that activity any longer?  You were the best then but now where are you?  How do you deal with that problem when all you have left are memories of how things use to be and are not now or will ever be again?  I wanted to play professional golf when I was a teenager.  I caddied at the local country club to earn some money.  But I never had enough money to buy a set of clubs.  On Mondays during the summer we could use the practice hole and green for the morning, so I would have to borrow or use another caddy’s clubs.  But all throughout my life I never had the disposable income to afford to play gold.  I haven’t hit a ball since 1968.  A couple of divorces, children, all manner of expenses have kept that dream of even playing for pleasure from the present.  Sometimes in the early years it’s all you can do to keep your head above water, let alone being all you can be.  Do I regret never having played a round of gold?  Can’t say that I have, there were always other things on my mind, other experiences.  Not everyone can do what they think they love, stuff happens and the way is no longer clear.  I discovered writing back about 1993.  I always hated having to write.  You know what cured me of that?  Every class I took at San Jose State University required a term paper, usually 20 to 40 pages worth.  And then at work when I complained about a lack of documentation my supervisor told me to write it, to write the processes that others would use.  That was my start in writing.  Later I discovered poetry and wrote a hundred poems or so.  Nothing I would ever care to have published as I never felt them good enough to see the light of day.  To write poetry you must be your own worst critic or others will blindside you with criticism.  I may never write a work of fiction (actually I have written two but I am the critic that decides whether any of it will see the light of day for I expect perfection from myself) and then again I may finally write a book that I would allow to be published.  The same goes for essays and technical books.  I have three technical books written but since I am long out of that area no publisher would be interested and I refuse to go back into technology.  Being a publish author is a nice ego trip but what would I do with the honor?  It is enough that I am driven to write almost each day.  It is not about being a world class writer, what ever that may be.  It is about the act of writing, of expressing myself through the medium of the written word.  Could I write better, perhaps spend far more time publishing my expressiveness?  What for, very few people read what I write.  I write for me, for my need to think.  I don’t need the self help industry to tel me how to live, I am doing quite well under my own power and thought.  All it has to offer is misconceptions.  With age, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking, comes wisdom.  Not as a commodity but as a way of thinking and living in the world.

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