Archive for August, 2006

Three and a half years ago I wrote a story about Easter Island….the land of the Moai statues. In the face of our current global climate change, Easter Island is often held up as a model of ecological disaster…..what might happen to us if we continue to use the environment faster than it can regenerate.

The common line went that the Easter Islanders had deforested their small island making canoes and those large statues, and eventually left themselves without resources. Their society whithered and died and the island was annexed by Chile and is now a romantic tourist destination for its Moai and the fact that it is one of the most isolated spots on the planet.

My comment was this: “How the @#$&! could a society make such a horrendously bad decision as to cut down all the trees on which they depend? I mean, what did they say as they were cutting down the last palm tree? “Gee…..” Actually, I can’t even make anything up. No one could be that stupid.

Surely the Easter Islanders, capable of making those amazing statues, must have realized the consequences of destroying their own forest. It wasn’t a subtle error. Easter Island is very small. No one could have made the mistake of cutting down the last lonely tree in front of them while thinking there were others elsewhere. It would have been obvious.”

Obviously something about that story never jived with me. I really didn’t/don’t understand. It turns out my skepticism was warranted.

Easter Island’s history has been revised, and there are two new culprits.

1) The environmental degradation was caused by the polynesian rat…brought by the settlers. The rats ate the native tree species’ seeds and the trees thus reproduced less and less. Remember rats breed like rats. Without any predators and lots of food/seeds….their population exploded and they simply ate too many seeds for the trees to sustain themselves. Botanists have seen this pattern with rats and forests in other small islands in the South Pacific, so it is not a far fetched idea. The people surely contributed too….but archaeological evidence suggest there simply weren’t enough people to wipe the island clean of its large forests.

That isn’t a very glamorous explanation, but it makes way more sense to me than people cutting down ALL the forests and thus killing their livelihood.

2) What about the fall of the Rapa Nui civilization? They may have had the rats to blame for the ecocide….however, even with severly diminished resources, the Rapa Nui still did not disappear. They were alive and well when the first Europeans reached the island.

That’s when the problems started. They were enslaved by Europeans and killed by our diseases. That was the end of the Rapa Nui. There were fewer than 100 left when Chile annexed the island in 1888. Again, not a particularly glamorous story…but certainly one that jives well with the rest of history.

I think the idea of people committing ecological suicide is a tough one to swallow. Even tougher than that though is the idea that Europeans swallowed the globe searching for gold to keep up their wars….enslaving and spreading disease every step of the way.

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Twice lately I’ve been reminded of what the school system fails to teach you that has everything to do with success later in life…..I guess with the caveat that “success” does have some correlation to what work you do and how much money you make. If you think the two are completely unrelated, then I guess you can stop reading here.

Since you’re still reading, I will start with the first one: 1) School, at its best (which still isn’t very good), teach us to be employees. It teaches us to work for money. What it fails to tell you is that real success comes when you stop doing work, and start creating it.

It you are doing work, if you are an employee, you will always be doing someone elses work….they will pay you just enough to keep you coming back (sometimes that will be alot, sometimes it will be a little), and they will reap the rewards of your labor.

The tax system in the US is built to strongly support capital at the expense of labor. Those who make money do so with capital….those who work, do so with labor. Getting out of the labor camp, where you work for money, and into the capital camp, where you money works for you… where we should all be striving to get. I’m just now starting to realize this………its what they didn’t teach me in school. Workers get the shaft….those who create the work take the spoils.

Not to be all negative, there has never been a better time in history to be a laborer. With the advent of the knowledge economy, the labor camp can actually attain a standard of living all but unimaginable a century ago.

Then there is number 2….the other thing they don’t teach us in school: We don’t get paid to work.

I work with all these people just out of college; for many of them it is their first job. After high school, and a great 4 year degree from GA Tech….they fail to realize that showing up and doing alot of stuff……will get them absolutely nothing.

I see alot of them get frustrated and start blaming everyone for their inability to get ahead. Their whole life they’ve been told they were smart, and that trying hard and showing alot of work is enough. It isn’t. That isn’t what you get paid for.

They blame management for not noticing their talent….for not planning well enough. They blame coworkers for not giving them the support they need. They blame the company for pay or lack of opportunities. They think they are supposed to be given something because they walked in the door and brought their shiney degree with them.

They spend a lot of emotional effort in blame and hating. Then they wonder why they are not sufficiently motivated to perform at a high level. They aren’t sufficiently motivated because they have wasted all their energy in blaming others. Then they create a loop where the worse they do the more they blame until they convince themselves its everyone else’s fault. Then they quit and I’m sure repeat the same loop at some other company.

We don’t get paid to do work. We get paid to produce results. We don’t get paid to raise good questions, and point out defects…..we get paid to answer questions and fix defects. These new graduates sometimes confuse that with trying hard to answer questions…that’ll get you an pat on the back in school…..but isn’t worth a dollar of your paycheck at work.

So, all that is pretty harsh…I admit. And it took me a good bit of thinking to make peace with it. But it is absolutely essential if you are to ever “get ahead” at work. As I said, if you don’t care about that I applaud the high road you are on……and I hear McDonalds is hiring….pehaps the government, or state as well.

So, I do want to comment on the fact that by no means do I think it is OK to treat employees so harshly. After all, we are humans, not results driven robots. Its just that I know there is no alternative.

Either you marry rich, win the lottery, inherit something, become a wizard investor, get luckly on real estate……or start your own business. Otherwise you’ve got to work.

Either know the rules and get busy winning, or ignore the rules and get busy losing. Because unless you find buried treasure, you’re playing the game. What’s strange is that they don’t teach you the game…yet 99% of us are caught up in it without really knowing how to win.

Again, I want to stress that I don’t think the game is particularly good or fair. I just know that it is the only game in town, and not a bad one by historical standards….or the rest of the world’s standards. Its easier to wrap your brain around its unfairness and accept it than it is to waste your effort blaming other people for your inability to deal with it.

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When I was in India I worked with people doing exactly the same job as I did in the US. I got a great opportunity to compare US and Indian work cultures….and I will say that they are very different, and without knowledge of those difference you will never get anything done…with the knowledge you still might get nothing done…but at least you will be able to explain the reasons why.

So my company sent me to India to support our work there, and now, as more Indians are gaining experience to work on more complicated projects, we have begun to bring Indians to the US to learn. Ankur, a really bright guy I worked with while I was there, is the first Indian to come to Atlanta. Needless to say, he is amazed.

It was a great opportunity for me to go to India to live and work for 6 months…but lets face it: For an American, India is always within reach. We can all pack up and see the Taj Mahal if we really want. Sure, the flight is a little expensive, but we can do it. For an Indian…this is the motherlode to be chosen to live and work in the US for 2 months.

Ankur has been here for about 2 weeks, and I was curious to see how his visit is going….to compare my experience in India to his in the US.

Obviously they didn’t put him up in a 5 star hotel like I lived in while in Delhi. He lives in an apartment near the office. They did rent a car for him, which is nice, but did not give him a cell phone like they did for us. I got a business stipend in India (as all business travelers do)….he gets one too….its just half as much as mine was. I find that odd since it is far more expensive to live in the US on a Indian’s salary than it was for us to live in Delhi earning US dollars. Overall though, he is not getting shafted…it is a great opportunity any way you cut it and he is super happy to be here.

I also asked about the office….how it differs from the office in Delhi (where they did exactly the same work). What’d he say? Well…we are very busy he said…very busy. He couldn’t get over how hard we work…how focused we are during the day on producing results. The Indian office environment is much more collegial…more relaxed and more relationship oriented. In the US we do work. In India the office is a mix of things….not all of which revolve around getting stuff done.

He also said we disagree with each other more than in India….as in when we are “discussing” a course of action in a meeting, we are likely to throw out a bunch of ideas, not all of which will be of the same vein….and then we hammer out what we think is best, often having to compromise since not all opinions can be accomodated. Business research suggests that good decisions are generally made this way….the heartier the “discussion” (which often appears as disagreement), the more robust the decision. In India the manager decides and everyone else agrees….period. There is nearly as much dissent…in fact, there really isn’t any. It is not culturally appropriate for an employee to disagree publicly with a manager. Any discussion like that would need to take place through the informal channel.

He said we go to meetings all the time, where you are asked about your work and have to give updates and feel embarrassed if you don’t have the right answer. Meetings generate follow-ups too and people do them. In India a meeting is where you talk a little bit about what you should be doing and are going to do, but nothing specific is finalized, no one takes ownership of anything discussed, and all the real decisions are made informally outside the meeting. If you don’t do something or it isn’t done in the way originally expected, it is glossed over or spun until the outcome is diffused in a smoke of Indian sideways head nodding. For the record though, I love India…especially the people.

He said the US is big, and clean and very efficient. He marvelled at how we all obey the traffic laws and signals. All the cars are big and shiny and don’t have dents. He actually said the word efficient…which is something I try to explain to foreigners about the US, and they do not understand. Things largely just work in the US….although we certainly pay a high price for all that efficiency.

So Ankur expressed largely what I figured an Indian would about first impressions of the US and the office environment. I did find it interesting though, and I am very happy for him since he is such a bright guy, and a hard worker.

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Its been two weeks since I last wrote. I’m back to working 50+ gruelling hours a week. That puts a damper on my free thoughts.

I’ve started dreaming about work again…..not the kind where I’m always missing deadlines and I get fired or anything like that….but the kind where no matter what I’m dreaming about people from work are in the scene and issues from work are incorporated into the loose storyline.

I had a bad week last week overall. I need to write about that separately….but my dog was put to sleep. She was 20 years old. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have her. That was actually very sad for me, and even if I didn’t always see her, since I live in Atlanta…..I did often think about her holding down the fort in Easley….sleeping in various rooms, licking people, playing with her food, wandering around like she was lost. I loved that dog, and I often said she was the only member of the family who had never said a cross word to anyone. How true!! I’ll miss you giz/gizzer/wizzer/wizard/blizzard/lickmo.

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