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Catering to Weakness and Insecurity

Our world gets weaker daily, and this can be seen on so many levels.

Let’s start with youth sports.  When I was a kid I played little league baseball and basketball every year. There were winners and losers.  Within each team there were recognized stars, those who were more skilled and who worked harder to hone those skills.  In basketball not everyone got a “fair” or equal share of the team’s shots and in baseball not everyone got the same amount of turns at bat.   Some kids made the all-star team, recognition for their excellence, while others understood from their lack of playing time or respect that they were not as talented or, even more pertinent, not as committed to excellence.  For those of you who have raised kids in the past generation you’ll note that things are mostly not the same for them as the experience that I just described.  In the interest of not hurting anyone’s feelings there is a premium placed on a misguided notion of fairness, whereby each young athlete regardless of talent or effort is given the same treatment.  There are no losers or laggards.  Everyone is a “winner,” gets the same playing time, and the same hollow rewards and praise.  From these experiences our youth never gets to learn how to win, never tastes the bitterness of rejection or failure that might propel them to work harder, and learns to expect equal outcomes regardless of skill or effort.  And, our children learn that it’s ok to lie.  They know very well who won and who lost, who is good and who stinks.  But they learn from adults that lying in the interest of sparing people their hurt feelings is acceptable.  They also learn that acknowledging success or failure honestly is wrong.

Then there is the fitness industry in which last year I helped launch a company called Fitwall.  Fitwall is an amazing product that promises to deliver the magic combo of strength, cardiovascular health, and mobility and all in a fun, yet challenging 40-minute class.  As the company’s management strives to make it a commercial success they seem to constantly struggle to find the balance between communicating to committed athletes that the class experience is sufficiently challenging to produce great results, while at the same time communicating to those with fears of hard work that the experience is suitable for them too.  And, to those in that last group, the team has the added challenge of working to re-orient how they think about the relationship between effort and results.

I know that the Fitwall team has had to think through how to attract clients in a field which contains successful offerings such as Curves, where out-of-shape women are asked to do very little but get to do it in the closed environment comfort of the reinforcement of peers.  Or in which people spinning on a stationary bicycle in a darkened room where intensity of effort can be faked by leaving their bike parked in the easiest gear all the while pretending to turn the dial when the instructor barks commands to do so.  And, with most spinning rooms exceptionally crowded and warm even sitting relatively still for an hour produces some sweat, further perpetuating the myth that real work has been done - more examples of society’s proclivity to avoid hard work while hoping (or pretending to have) an acceptable outcome.  One need only observe the physical condition of most people to understand that hard work and sacrifice, and honesty about outcomes, are not traits that are pervasive today in this industry.

In 2008 banks failed, yet the government stepped in to bail them out.  Jobs were preserved, even though many of those executives were responsible for managing their institutions to failure.  Shareholders (with the exception of a few institutions like Lehman and Bear) were left in place to recover their losses in spite of their poor investment decisions that should have cost them dearly.  Similarly, depositors and even bondholders were preserved.  This seemingly consequence-free failure of our financial system has undermined society’s capacity to grow and improve, and are further examples of the deadly combination of dishonesty and zero tolerance for failure that pervades our society.  And, Fed Quantitative Easing and Zero Interest Rate Policy have had similar masking effects.

For some reason we have a very low tolerance for failure.  We seem to misunderstand failure as being a badge of shame rather than being our best form of learning and growing.  We would rather be told a lie: “your kid is a solid ballplayer,” “you look great,” “you’ve done the best job you could given the circumstances,” or“your money is safe,” rather than face the truth about things and being challenged to deal with it.  This phenomenon has inevitable consequences including reducing out-of-the-box or contrarian thinking, or risk taking in general, both of which are hallmarks for a growth economy.  I would venture to say that it also reduces authentic self-esteem, from which anything great must naturally emanate.

I’m not exactly sure what precipitated this societal shift in mindset, but I can say the following without doubt or equivocation:  Honesty is the foundation of self-esteem and accomplishment; failure provides us with the feedback required to improve ourselves; and a dishonest society that shuns failure will become increasingly unproductive, weak, and dependent.  Only when we all decide to have thicker skin and commit ourselves to honesty and lives of growth will we demand honesty, and then, magically, companies will react with products and marketing campaigns based upon these principles, and political leaders will lead with the truth.  May we all live to see that.

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