Forgiveness, busyness, the U.S. brain drain, and the passing of Steve Jobs

When the length of the title threatens to be longer than the post itself, when the title expresses seemingly separate, disjoint thoughts, not just facets of a single, big idea – then you know you’re in trouble.

Please forgive me!

[There, that’s one taken care of. No, not really! Please read on.]

A lot of people seem to have read the last post on social sustainability. So I thought some of you might be wondering…did Hooke actually go to church? What did he hear about there? Did he learn anything?

Well, the topic was forgiveness. And I have been pondering it ever since. Our pastor had some great things to say. But what made it great was that they weren’t just thoughts he’d made up on his own, but thoughts from the Bible. So they weren’t new thoughts. They are threaded throughout our culture. You and I have heard them all before, many times over. We know we’re supposed to forgive each other!

Forgiveness is not trivial. You and I are not suffering from imagined hurts. People have done us dirt. They’ve hurt us financially. They have ignored us, or worse – they’ve defamed our character. They’ve hurt us in big ways and small. They’ve cut in front of us in traffic. They’ve stolen from us. Abused us physically and mentally.  They’ve damaged our prospects for the rest of our lives.

We’re supposed to forgive that big, real stuff.

And to bring it a little closer to the theme of the blog, we’re damaging each other in our climate debate. Our political discourse. Our federal budget decisions. Scientists are damaging broadcasters, and broadcasters are hurting scientists. Scientists are hurting scientists(!). There’s hurt and lack of forgiveness between environmentalists and big business, between public- and private sector, between democrats and republicans (fill-in your own favorite fight here, closer to your direct experience). Mud and worse are flying. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt us? Wrong.

Now the reason most often given for why we’re supposed to forgive each other is that we have been forgiven a great deal ourselves. But we don’t spend much time in contemplating that. Try it sometime. Go back over your life and tot up all the occasions on which somebody showed you mercy when you didn’t deserve it. Having trouble getting started? Look no further than the closest person in your life. Maybe your spouse or partner. A parent. A child. Yes, a child. Or a sibling. Take it into the office. Think about that co-worker.

But the reality? When we look around, sometimes it seems we’re living in a forgiveness-free zone. We find it very hard to forgive each other when they’re so nasty and so wrong. And no one seems to be cutting us any slack.

A story will show you how rampant this is. Years ago, Michael Hart wrote a book entitled The 100: A ranking of the most influential persons in history. You can find more, including the list, here. Number 1? Mohammed. Number 2? Isaac Newton. Number 3? Jesus.

Caused a flap at the time. [Can you imagine the reaction today?]. Why was Muhammed Number 1, and Jesus only Number 3? Here’s my recollection of the argument. [Please forgive any flaws; and by the way, I don’t buy this argument. I’m only recounting it!) Hart said that Muhammed’s instructions –daily prayers, bowing toward Mecca, etc., were actually followed, and he took a small, ragtag population of folks living in the desert, and set them on a course of empire that a few centuries later extended from Spain through Indonesia. He called that influence.

By contrast, Hart said, Jesus gave a lot of instructions that hardly anyone has ever followed, like “love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you,” and “forgive one another, as you have been forgiven.” And he went on to say that Jesus needed help to spread the faith – from the apostle Paul, whom he ranked number 6.

Hmm. Nobody follows those precepts? That hurts!

So to recap; the first part of today’s message is maybe we could all take a moment to recognize how much we’ve been forgiven, and then turn around and spread some of that forgiveness around to others.

Which brings us to busyness.

Chances are you’re going to find yourself “too busy” today to do that.

Think about that a little bit today before diving into the morass that has become the workplace. Most of us are knowledge workers. Putting that knowledge to productive use requires a divorce from busyness. [Remember that September 29 post?]. But most of us find ourselves thrashing around, struggling to keep up. We can’t find the time to make our work and our lives meaningful. Really, though, when you think about it, it’s management’s fault! They’re the ones imposing all this red tape and tasking on us.

Forgive them! (Like all of us), they know not what they do (you’ve probably heard that before too). And take a small measure of control over your busyness, and reduce it. Chances are good your boss and your co-workers will applaud you for it – maybe even take heart from it. Separate the productive from the essential, as you see it, and move forward with courage and good will.

[And an aside; the reason it’s taken me until Thursday to post Sunday’s revelation? Busyness. Please forgive me!]

And that calls to mind the brain drain.

Click here, and you’ll find an article by Vivek Wadhwa appearing on today’s Washington Post website centered on his Congressional testimony on the subject. Worth the read, but to me it looks less like an article on brain drain and more like a set of recommendations for what we should do to remain an attractive destination to all those bright thinkers the world over. For it is waves of immigration that have made America great, beginning thousands of years ago with those peoples we today call indigenous, and extending right up through the present ( or more precisely 2001, when we started going through one of our historic periods of closing the doors).  So here are two thoughts on brain drain, which might more accurately be defined from our reference point as bright people leaving America.

And they are. Some are folks who came to study in the United States. They’re going back to their homelands, where today they see more opportunity. In the past, they came and they stayed. Others are going abroad because the United States no longer funds their research. Or – just a guess here – because they are worn out by the lack of forgiveness in the air, and the (too often meaningless) busyness of the U.S. workplace.  I know…the grass isn’t greener elsewhere; this is a global malaise. Nevertheless, the pull of the world outside our borders, for some, is increasing. Just yesterday, I had a European tell me that Europeans had more respect for scientists and science than do Americans.

But there’s another kind of brain drain, that’s more pervasive, and more dangerous.

Brain-drain in place. Because the fact remains, when we see no forgiveness, when we see meaningless activity compounded daily, we feel drained. And our capacity for solving real-world problems is compromised. Daily, smart people who have much to offer the world are being dragged down. So, we haven’t physically gone abroad, but our brains, like Elvis, “have left the building.”

Don’t blame anyone else for this. Get a grip. Man up. It’s tempting and easy to see this as externally imposed. But you and I are doing this damage to ourselves. Don’t let yourself live in a funk. Own your creativity and potential. Exercise it. Rejoice in the results. They may seem small, hard to see, but through them you’re influencing those around you, changing the game – changing the world itself. Like Steve Jobs.

But sadly, Steve Jobs has died.

At age 56. Waaaaaaaaaaaay too soon. Millions of words must have been written about this already; surely billions more are on the way. You might take the time to read Patricia Sullivan’s article in the Washington Post. Her writing was crisp. Simple. But eloquent, capturing the extraordinary magic of the man, his genius – his transformation of the world. What a legacy.

It’s too early to see the reaction as reflected in the price of Apple stock. But bad news in the past – the announcement of Jobs’ initial departure from the company back in the day, the first announcement of his pancreatic cancer, this most recent time he stepped down (for good, as it happens) – have triggered sharp declines.

That assessment of his contributions to his company and the world may well prove accurate. But Apple has the order of 20,000 employees. Their aggregated intelligence and creativity, if not consumed by bitterness (i.e., lack of forgiveness), if not squandered through unnecessary busyness, if not drained by the departure of bright people seeking greener pastures, ought to dwarf the loss represented by his passing. And chances are, probably nothing would please him more than to see some evidence of that from the enterprise he (and they) built.

And the seven billion of us who don’t work for Apple? We don’t get a free pass. We’re called to be creative problem solvers ourselves.

Let’s get back to it. Have a great day.

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