Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men: Postmodern villains vs. modern heroes

Two of my favorite movies over the last year are The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men. On the surface these movies are very different. The Dark Knight is set in a fictitious city, Gotham, with a cartoon-based hero. Meanwhile, No Country is set in West Texas in 1980. Dark Knight showcases spectacular special effects and stunts with an implausible plot while No County the feel of an Alfred Hitchcock movie with a deliberate pace and realistic action.

While all of this is true I also believe these two films share two things in common: a postmodern villain and a hero who represents a perplexed moral center. I plan to post more on postmodern relativism but in essence it is the belief that there is no objective truth because our inherent prejudices and conceptual shortcomings prevent us from establishing hard and fast principles. Someone who buys consistently buys into postmodern relativism believes they can do anything they want regardless of consequences. A person who believes this will act as if he is an end in themselves while treating others as means to their ends.

Hence you have someone like the Joker in the Dark Knight who sets up situations in which his victims are mere toys for his entertainment. The Joker wants to show that under the right conditions everyone will devolve to his level and kill each other without second thought. Similarly, Anton Chigurh routinely dispatches anyone who gets in his way and at times uses a coin flip, the ultimate in random decision making, to decide if someone will live or die. (A coin flip is also used in Dark Knight but by Harvey Dent, the hero who does succumb to the Joker’s arguments.)

To be fair, there does appear to be one key difference between the Joker and Chigurh: the Joker doesn’t show much interest in committing crimes in order to obtain money while Chigurh does pursue the $2,000,000 of drug money. If anything, the Joker represents a more “advanced” stage of devolution than Chigurh who still has the ultimate goal of getting the drug money.

Both movies also feature a hero who fights the evil of the villain without fully gasping why his nemesis acts the way he does. They represent the “modern” worldview (i.e., reflecting the Enlightenment) which holds there is objective truth and sound principles including respect for others. As a result they cannot truly grasp what motivates the Joker or Chigurh. Their confusion and dismay is more clearly expressed by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in a couple of conversations where he decries the increasing violence and the deteriorating moral condition of the world. Both films share a similar apprehension over the evolution of villains from the petty criminal who steals or robs for personal gain but still plays within some “rules” to the postmodern villain who merely wants to destroy value for amusement or treats humans as mere nuisances in the way of their goals.

So why do I enjoy these movies given their dark center? Because I think they capture (even if inadvertently) the sign of the times without giving up hope that truth and justice are worth upholding.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Conscious Capitalism

I recommend an interesting site named Flow Idealism for ideas on how businesses can evolve beyond the current model. (More on this below.) This web site was co-founded by John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market. The title FLOW is described in their About Us section.

The FLOW Vision is based on the principles of economic freedom, voluntary exchange, and individual initiative, combined with social and environmental consciousness, and embodies FLOW Principles, which include commitments to human flourishing, non-violence, and radical tolerance.

The name “FLOW” has two primary roots:

1. An optimal state of human experience in which individuals are fully engaged in creative endeavors, experiencing fulfillment, happiness, and well-being. This state is articulated by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

2. The means by which increases in the free global flow of goods, services, capital, people, and information will accelerate human progress and well-being.

Csikszentmihalyi’s book continues to be one of my favorites. His research found that we achieve a “flow” state when we take on a task that is challenging but not too challenging. It needs to test our talents enough to prevent boredom but not so much that we feel overwhelmed and therefore become anxious.

The Flow Idealism web site also provides a copy of Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism, a 16 page free download that explains Mackey’s ideas on how the current business model needs to be updated to reflect the evolution that has occurred in our cultural in the last 200 hundred years.

Although economic theory has evolved since Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, many economists continue using industrial and machine metaphors to explain how the economy works. Now that we are well into the post-industrial Information Age, these metaphors have become outdated and mislead our thinking about business.

The world has become much more complex since those simple machine metaphors were first developed. Unfortunately, current business thinking does not easily grasp systems interdependencies.

[H]appiness is a by-product of pursuing those other goals and I think that analogy applies to business as well. In my business experience, profits are best achieved by not making them the primary goal of the business. Rather, long-term profits are the result of having a deeper business purpose, great products, customer satisfaction, employee happiness, excellent suppliers, community and environmental responsibility – these are the keys to maximizing long-term profits. The paradox of profits is that, like happiness, they are best achieved by not aiming directly for them.

I encourage you to check out Mackey’s ideas.

On a different but somewhat related subject, I have concluded after having worked within the corporate world for 35 years that the bureaucracy and pecking order we see in the business (and in other hierarchical organizations like government) represent remnants of the feudal era (and probably earlier). Instead of obeying kings and princes we obey managers. Communication typically flows from the top down while the minions dutifully carry out their marching orders. I’m exagerrating a bit to make a point. I think Mackey’s ideas hold a promise for changing this model to something more individual-friendly.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Happiness Trap Review

I first starting reading “self-help” books way back in college when Maxwell Maltz wrote Psycho-Cybernetics. (I also got to meet Maltz and interview him for my college newspaper. During the talk he gave at my school he called me onto the stage to answer some of the questions from the students!) Anyway over the years I’ve read dozens of books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Tony Robbins, Dwayne Dyer, Stephen Covey and others. Almost all of these books offered some value to varying degrees. Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of my all time favorites. Earlier this year I read The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris which joined Covey’s book as one of my favorite self-help books. While the other books I’ve read were good almost all of them offer variations on one of several themes. Think positively. Repeat affirmations to counter negative thoughts. Bolster your self-esteem. All of them, according to Harris, share the same trap. “To find happiness, we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings, but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create.” This trap comes from the shared definition of happiness as feeling good. The Happiness Trap adheres to a different definition of happiness: living a rich and meaningful life.

Living such a life doesn’t automatically mean we’re feeling good all the time. We will still have negative feelings and challenges to overcome. The goal of The Happiness Trap then is to give us strategies to deal with negative feelings without denying them. Harris offers six core principles.

1. Defusion. Painful or unpleasant thoughts are defused by various techniques such as labeling them. When one notices such a thought instead of suppressing or denying it we create some distance by saying “I’m having the thought that …” In doing so we put some distance between the thought and us. In other words, we strive for objectivity.

2. Expansion: consists of making room for unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

3. Connection: being fully aware of your here and now.

4. Distinguishing between your thinking self and observing self. The various techniques in The Happiness Trap get us out of our thinking self and into our observing self.

5. Values: what kind of person are you and want to be? What is significant and meaningful to you? What do you stand for?

6. Committed action. All of this business about being objective and mindfulness must be followed by a commitment to action if we truly want to change.

These principles form the core of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), developed by Steven Hays. While Hays and others have published a number of books on ACT they were written for therapists applying ACT to different conditions. The Happiness Trap translates ACT’s principles for laymen interested in applying these principles. As Harris points out ACT also stands for something else:
A – Accepting your thoughts and feelings and being present in the moment,
C – Connect with your values, and
T – Take effective action.
The Happiness Trap holds a lot more insights and techniques than I can do justice to here. Overall I like several aspects of The Happiness Trap and ACT.
  1. They don’t try to suppress or ignore emotions. The recommended methods aim at honoring these emotions while trying to get beyond them.
  2. They emphasize mindfulness and objectivity.
  3. The end goal is to get us to act, not just to idly analyze our feelings.
  4. Values play a key role because ultimately this is what motivates us to action: what is important to us.
As I said at the beginning The Happiness Trap has joined the small group of my favorite books. It offers a realistic guide with a number of helpful activates to get us to move beyond self-limiting thoughts and emotions so we can obtain, express and enjoy our values.
Just recently I received the latest newsletter from the author which had an interesting observation.
[I]f we believe that happiness is the same as feeling good, we are constantly going to be struggling. Expecting to feel good all the time is like expecting a crocodile to be your best friend. You’re soon going to be disappointed. In ACT, we generally stay away from using the term “happiness”, as so many people think it means “feeling good”. Instead, we talk about “vitality”: a sense of being fully alive and embracing each moment of life, regardless of how you are feeling in that moment. If we were to define happiness in ACT terms, we would define it as living a rich, full and meaningful life in which you feel the full range of human emotions; or as the sense of vitality and wellbeing that comes from living by your values (something the ancient Greeks called “eudemonia”).
I like this idea of vitality and eudemonia (also referred to as “flourishing”). In fact, in the late 1980’s I wrote a paper titled Is Self-Interest Enough that was sold as an audio tape through Laissez Faire Books (and received a rave review in their catalog). My paper suggested how the Objectivist ethics could benefit from incorporating the Greek concept of eudemonia.
Edith Hamilton best summarized the eudaemonist approach in her The Greek Way as: “The exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.