Michael Karlesky

A cabinet of wonders. Minus the cabinet. And possibly the wonders.

Filtering by Category: Reflections

I hereby refuse to call your creative work “Content.”

  Image  credit:  Martin Stabe  [via Creative Commons]

 Image credit: Martin Stabe [via Creative Commons]

I love the good the web and the Internet bring. They have become an extension of my brain. I suspect there are neurons in the back of my head slowly forming into a port to directly jack into the network.

But no good thing comes without unintended consequences. I’ve observed a phenomenon I suspect has paralleled the growth of the web: the tyranny of “Content.” Content strategy. Content marketing. Content distribution. Content syndication. Content. Content. Content. Web and streaming companies seem to build their “platforms” with the assumption they just need to find “Content” (user generated or otherwise) to fill their “channels.”

So what? 

Do you think of a Van Gogh as content? Shakespeare? So how about that blog post you saw a few years ago that was so beautiful it moved you to tears? Good content? How about that YouTube video so funny you showed it to everyone you know? Just content? How about anything you, dear reader, have ever toiled over? Have you thought to yourself, “I’m so happy with this content I just produced.”?

The rise of “Content” has served to obscure and trivialize the creativity of an online generation whether or not that work is expressly online. The stories, the poems, the films, the photos, the songs, and even the remixes. However brief and however terrible, that “Content” took effort and vision and creativity and maybe even guts to put out into the world.

So please forgive me if I pause a moment when talking about any such work of creation — maybe yours — as I find the right word to credit its author, however anonymous, for the gift they have given us.

ca·reer /kəˈri(ə)r/ [noun]: A word invented chiefly to provide guidance counselors with careers.

[Embedded video: Monster.com “When I grow up…”

Words and ideas and culture are all tangled up with each other. The definition of a given word may be harmless enough, but its real meaning, with all its cultural baggage and unspoken connotations, can come to embody incredible influence.

Career is a word that has quietly amassed untold power. Websites and conferences and books and entire industries are devoted to its realization. Its entry in the dictionary is unassuming: “An occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life and with opportunities for progress.” So why does career feel like such a heavy, imposing, stress-inducing, worrisome, self-worth destroying thing?

I’ve come to think this is because the idea of a career exists in a loveless marriage with another idea, the notion of security. If we have a good career — our thinking goes — we’ll have the good life. Our paycheck will cover our needs and wants. Our work will bring us satisfaction. We will attain status and influence. Our friends will respect us. Our family will be protected. And we have come to believe that each step along a proper career path should be a step up to greater income and more responsibility and further achievement with more satisfaction and security.

What utter nonsense. 

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
— Niels Bohr (disputed)

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” Don’t you just hate that question? If we were any good at answering this question, we might be better off picking lottery numbers or buying undervalued stock and then phoning in our answer via satellite from our own private island. Wait. Why would even need to answer the question? I digress.

Wise decision making is virtuous, and I am not advocating for recklessness. However, I am arguing that any presupposition of security in life’s decision making is an illusion. Projects fail. Markets change. Economies rise and fall. Insurance plans get cut. Opportunities are missed. Scandals unfold. Life happens, and it’s messy. More often than not, following after the false god of security leads to a series of sacrifices where each compromise builds on the last until we find ourselves locked away in a comfortable jail cell of our own making.

I once had breakfast with someone who had an idea and opportunity for a new business. He was clearly enthused about it. I asked him what was holding him back from pursuing it. He replied that he could not jeopardize the security of his family. In one of the rare moments I had something sharp to say in response I asked, “Which does your family need more… the illusion of security or you fully alive?”. I think I’ve had a good retort like that maybe three times in my whole life.

Why not live as though my job is insecure and experience the freedom this provides? Why not spit in the eye of all the ways a career should go and set my sights on adventure or helping others or achieving the supposed impossible or creating beauty — something that matters more than the empty promise of job security? Taking chances means you are likely to work to make ends meet out of necessity. It is living in near complete dependence on a system that could lay you off on a moment’s notice that seems nuts to me. I’ll grant you that even being able to consider such questions is born of a privileged station. However, if we are so privileged, dear reader, I believe it is incumbent upon you and me to ask these questions and make the most of that privilege.

Morbid as it may be to imagine, if you could have a conversation with yourself on your own future deathbed, do you think a nice steady career development track would rank high in that conversation? Then why are you on that track — real, imagined, or put upon you?

Maybe career is best understood simply as our history and not our future. Perhaps a career is only the series of twists and turns that were the envelopes holding your paychecks before today. Tomorrow is tomorrow and not wholly determined by yesterday.

Am I suggesting this perspective is an easy one to embrace? Nope. But I am suggesting it is a good one to embrace, a freeing one to embrace. Am I advocating that everyone embark on adventure to start their own business? Certainly not. Maybe the most freeing thing you can do is work for less money in a different occupation. Maybe it’s to climb the ladder for a while so you can retire debt as quickly as possible and then move on unencumbered. Am I encouraging breadwinners to shirk responsibility in light of the needs of their family? Absolutely not. However, I am advocating a stare down with the ideas of need and security so as to watch them flinch and shrink away as their true nature is revealed.

In this particular season of my life where I have been blessed with the opportunity to struggle after something more than a nice safe career I can be cavalier about saying these things. I hope, though, that by having written these words down they will press against me when I inevitably stray over the border into the fiefdom ruled by the feudal lord of career.

Good leaders lead. Great leaders love.

In my daydreams I think about what comes after grad school. I fantasize about starting a company — the sort that changes the world for the better through the efforts of amazing creative people acting with shared purpose. I am not in graduate school to land a fancy degree; the degree is incidental. The plan all along has been to develop certain embryonic ideas in the fertile soil and timeframe that graduate studies afford. The shape and form of this imagined entrepreneurial endeavor gets just a bit clearer as time moves on, as I have opportunity to encounter profound ideas and interact with exceptional people. Of course, only time will tell if these lofty things will come to pass.

The thought of leading such an organization is thrilling (and terrifying). I've seen my fair share of leaders, in the business world and elsewhere. There is certainly something to be said for the essential discipline of leading. Books on the topic abound. Many of them are quite good. But as I have pondered the most remarkable leaders — known to me personally or simply admired from afar — it is their character more than their practice that stands out. They love what they have been charged with accomplishing. Or they love those with whom they work. The greatest among the great do both.

When I say “do both” I mean that little “do” as an action verb. I can easily be infatuated with the idea of my work and with my ideas of who I believe people to be. But it's not love without action, without attention, without investment, without empathy, without risk, without sacrifice. And, so, as I prepare to be the leader I desire to be, and as I watch those around me busy with the privilege and burden of leading, I am now considering it all through the lens of love. What will it take to love my work? What will it take to truly love those with whom I will work? How can I do so in the here and now — not merely in my daydreams? How can I love those leading me? 

In the end, should I be blessed with the opportunity to live out my daydream, I want to lead in such a way that those around me follow not because they must, but because they choose to in response to being loved. If I am successful, though I desire to contribute towards achieving something significant, I hope I will be remembered some day more for how I loved than only what I achieved.

On Wonder

I grew up a certifiable know-it-all. I suspect it was not long after I uttered “mama” and “dada” that I discovered the phrase “I know.” I still recall moments of instruction and questioning where the first thing out of my mouth in response was “I know.” I did not know. I had no business saying I did. I once went so far as to declare before a room of people that I intended to know everything. I was serious. And I was fully confident in my ability to do so. I was also, of course, utterly wrong in each of the various meanings of the word wrong.

I suspect that while I developed certain social graces as a young adult in college and would never say as much, I believed myself to be very active in my quest to know everything. It was in these years that I finally started to feel the internal strain of such a compulsion. There were things I did not know. There were things that nobody could know. Perhaps worst of all there were things I was incapable of comprehending for which others had no such difficulty.

It was not long after college that I was granted redemption for all my vain struggling. I can say that it was, in fact, a spiritual experience. All in a moment of clarity bestowed upon me and not formulated by my own faculties, I came to know the transformative beauty of wonder. In this one moment, the arc of my existence was bent in a new direction. I came to see mystery not as a problem to be solved but as a gift to be enjoyed. Now I am not so foolish as to suggest we should forgo knowledge and understanding. Rather, I am saying that where knowledge and understanding are lacking, there is opportunity for wonder to abound in its splendor. I tend to think that God inhabits wonder.