The Secret of Getting Ahead?

Those who are old enough to have watched “Hee-Haw” will remember a song that Tennessee Ernie, Buck Owens, and the gang sang almost every week, “Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me.”  One of the lines was, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”

These days, it sometimes seems like if it weren’t for bad news, we’d have no news at all, especially on the economic front.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – not the economy per se, but the news, that is, the stories we tell about the economy.  I’ll have more to say about this later, but it’s increasingly clear that what we have beneath the headlines are dueling paradigms, different core assumptions of what is good and bad, what works and what doesn’t.

Here is a core assumption that never has gotten much air time:  altruism rather than self interest may be the greatest motivational force for people at work.  This is the thrust of the teaching and writing of Adam Grant, 31, the youngest tenured and highest ranked professor at the Wharton School of Business.  Sarah Dominus, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, profiled Grant in a March 27 article,  Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?.

Grant first made a name for himself in the field of economics as a 22 year old grad student in organizational psychology, when he applied himself to boosting motivation and output at a university fund raising call center, a notoriously unpopular student employment option.

Realizing that the call center helped fund scholarships, Grant invited a scholarship recipient to address the callers to give them an idea of the value of their work.  Even Grant was amazed when the next month, revenues were up 171%.  In later studies, the jump was as high as 400%.  Since then, Grant designed other studies in other fields that gave parallel and equally quantifiable results.

Grant’s work has drawn criticism as well as praise, much of it centered on the potential for abuse of the findings.  Will corporations try to use them to keep workers happy while cutting their wages and benefits?  According to Sarah Dominus, Grant is skeptical of corporate motivation as well and says his effort is to understand the mechanism, not necessarily suggest implantation.

Two weeks ago, I attended a day long retreat with Norman Fischer, a long time teacher and former abbot at the San Francisco Zen Center.  The subject of his retreat was compassion.  “Self-cherishing never makes anyone happy,” he said.  “In the long run, concern for others is very practical.  It’s our only chance for living a satisfying life.”

I started thinking of the how and why of our bad news headlines when Fischer said he remains optimistic.  Despite the chaos and breakdowns of our traditional systems, he believes that interactions based on compassionate regard for each other are the future.  “Not in my lifetime and maybe not in yours, but I think it’s coming,” he said.

That’s why I was so pleased to discover Adam Grant’s work.  I don’t often think of economics as a likely field of compassionate action, but if, as the Buddha asserted, it’s an impulse at the core of our being, we should expect to find the evidence everywhere.  Adam Grant seems to have found it at the heart of “the dismal science.”  His first book for a wide audience, Give and Take, was published on April 9.

Another Thread in the Social Fabric Unravels

My wife and I both come from (different) upstate New York factory towns.  My family moved to San Jose when I was nine.  Mary moved to California after high school, while her brothers stayed in Rochester and went to work for Kodak.  In the early ’70’s, that was a reasonable path to choose.  Kodak was a solid Dow Jones company and historically, one of the first to offer generous benefits to workers.

Over the last three decades, Mary and I have gone back for fun, for weddings, and funerals.  Rochester isn’t the same city.  Weeds grow in the parking lot of many silent factories.  Birds fly out of smokestacks once touted as the tallest in the country.

Kodak is a textbook example of a successful company blindsided by a “disruptive technology.”  But textbooks are the last thing on the minds of many of Kodak’s 38,000 retirees.  Late to the digital party, there is now talk of Kodak going bankrupt, and unfortunately, Kodak retiree health care is tied to the company’s fortunes.

There are way too many stories like this in the news.  This one caught my attention because I know the town a little bit, and know people who are affected, people who played by the rules and now find themselves getting screwed.  A week from now, their story will be forgotten.


I found myself thinking again of the Occupy Wall Street protestors and some reactions from our “leaders” to their attempt to give people like the Kodak workers a voice.

According to Paul Krugman of the New York Times, Eric Cantor has called the protestors a “mob” and denounced them for “pitting Americans against Americans.”  Mitt Romney accused them of “waging class warfare.”  Herman Cain calls them “anti-American.”  Senator Rand Paul fears the protestors will start taking iPads from the rich, and according to the talking heads on CNBC, they are “aligned with Lenin.”


Hard times bring out the best in some people and the worst in others.  These days I find myself paraphrasing the Serenity Prayer – asking for “the wisdom to know the difference.”