Internet, Politics, Startups

The Era of Good Work

My friend Om has a good provocative post up today: With 2008, Let’s Say Good-bye to Mediocrity. Go read it.

Om writes: “In 2008, U.S. society — from the very top (our political leaders) to the very bottom (our bankers) — came to embrace mediocrity.”

I have a slightly different take. The examples Om cites of our supposed embrace of mediocrity are are trailing indicators, not leading indicators. They tell us more about where we’ve been and what we’ve done wrong, not where we’re going.

2008 wasn’t the year we accepted or embraced mediocrity; it was the year the chickens came home to roost. It was the year where the bill came due for two, maybe three, decades of steady cultural and political rot. Decades in which our individual and collective desire for more money and more stuff drove our policies and our behaviors.

An era where your worth was measured not by your character or good works, but by the size of your yacht or your private jet. Where we were endlessly fascinated by folks like Mark Cuban (a funny and interesting guy, to be sure, but famous because principally because he got Yahoo! to buy his company for way more money than it was worth) and Paris Hilton. Where an MBA degree was revered, not mocked. ( Trillion Dollar Meltown, Richistan, and Liar’s Poker — the latter two the perfect bookends for our sad story — are excellent chronicles of the past thirty or so years.)

When I try to divine and look at the leading indicators (oddly and ironically in light of the heavy toll of the past year and likely heavier toll to be paid this coming year and my own ingrained and deeply-rooted cynicism) I find myself more optimistic this new year than any other in recent memory about the state of the country and where things might go the next twenty to thirty years.

I don’t see people embracing mediocrity  — I saw that in spades in the late 1980s, the very, very overhyped 1990s, and the first part of this decade. Rather, I see more evidence of more people doing good work in more places than I can recall in my adult lifetime.

Some examples:

1. Start with politics. Coming up on the one year anniversary of Barack Obama’s win in Iowa, and nineteen days from his inaugural, I find myself more optimistic about the state of our politics than ever before.

It’s not only — or principally — because of Obama. Rather, it’s  the serious, sober-minded, and eminently practical bunch of kids in their 20s who spent the last year and a half working for him. I got to see them up close, as a volunteer for Obama in California, Indiana and finally Ohio. Many in the press, trained to be cynical and wry, tried to portray this as some sort of cultish movement (volunteers and workers were “Obamabots”). But really, it was a group of kids (and they were mostly kids) who were sick of how the country was being run, and who decided to do something about it rather than complain or sit on their hands. They didn’t protest, they didn’t march on Washington — they just got stuff done, did the hard, demanding, and unglamorous work of grassroots politicking, and changed our country.

2. The hard-headed, largely unheralded work by folks to fix our public school system. People like Michelle Rhee, or Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, who founded KIPP.

3. Our media. Don’t laugh. Between the renaissance of great writing and performance on television (The Wire, Sopranos, Mad Men, Elvis Costello’s new show, and many, many more) and the development of sustainable, strong new voices on the Internet (folks like Om but also Josh Marshall at TPM, music sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum) there are more signs of life than ever before. It’s invigorating and inspiring.

4. And, closer to my daily life, an impressive wave of startups and entrepreneurs launching companies the last three to four years.  The work done by this second wave of startups has been far better, and resulted in many more useful and more durable services, than the efforts of their predecessors in mid- to late-1990s (I’m in a position to judge, I’ve been involved in both eras!). More of these companies act like Craiglist (the most important web company after google); few act like Pets.com.

It’s not incidental that this second wave of  entrepreneurs came of age after (and in reaction to) a previous — if smaller scale and more localized — calamity; the bursting of the dot-com bubble.  Folks who worked in and around the Internet business realized they’d been on a bender, went to work putting their value systems back in order, and renewed their focus on doing good work, not just doing well.

As a society and country, we’re paying the price for our decades of binging this year. It will be painful. But people seem serious about confronting the problems, about doing real work again, putting our values back in order, and that gives me hope on this first day of this very new year.

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9 thoughts on “The Era of Good Work

  1. Mark

    That is a very uplifting take on things and yes, we need to do good work. I quite enjoyed reading the post. Now as part of this new era, you must blog more often.

  2. Interview Request

    Hello Dear and Respected,
    I hope you are fine and carrying on the great work you have been doing for the Internet surfers. I am Ghazala Khan from The Pakistani Spectator (TPS), We at TPS throw a candid look on everything happening in and for Pakistan in the world. We are trying to contribute our humble share in the webosphere. Our aim is to foster peace, progress and harmony with passion.

    We at TPS are carrying out a new series of interviews with the notable passionate bloggers, writers, and webmasters. In that regard, we would like to interview you, if you don’t mind. Please send us your approval for your interview at my email address “ghazala.khi at gmail.com”, so that I could send you the Interview questions. We would be extremely grateful.

    regards.

    Ghazala Khan
    The Pakistani Spectator
    http://www.pakspectator.com

  3. What a great post you are certainly on target! As a champion of people and a person working with leaders to help them improve their leadership skills, we believe integrity, honesty and the importance of following a set of values one can be proud of is a good start! This post is a great example of where we can direct ourselves in 2009 and the coming years.
    Thanks!

  4. cmajor7 says:

    Thanks for the uplifting post. I’m not as optimistic, but that’s probably because I’m not reading enough good stuff, like yours.

    Keep it up.

  5. Much of what you speak traces back to a decline in an appreciation that values define value. That greed for innovation, long-term value creation and goals can transform and empower leadership to accomplish the seemingly impossible.(see “greed is good” http://miroslodki.wordpress.com/2008/09/17/greed-is-good/

    This requires a new breed of leadership that is prepared to sacrifice for an ideal and not just be rented out to manage the pursue of it. New leadership that selects and supports teams that share in that vision.

    Except we create matrix management systems where no one is accountable for anything -where specialists optimize locally not globally and eveyone has their own set of ‘relevant’ metrics to justify their value to the hive.

    Businesses have no higher ideal than profit maximization for shareholders. They have lost sight of the fact that the value they create for their shareholders comes from the value they are able to create for their customers …which in turn requires an ability to create trust and a partering relationship with customers. You don’t buy or sell those things – they are things of character.

    If we are the shareholders (through 401k) and stocks as well as customers, how is it that we allowed this to happen? Where was the crowd wisdom? The transparent efficicnecy of market risk pricing?

    Who goes to jail?

    We don’t have senior management leadership we have cost controllers who hide behind the comfort of ROI calculations as if the formulas were the modern day equivalent of gold laying geese…protect the cashflow as its the path to their entitlements.

    Yes we need new leadership. Americans are getting that at the top. But what happens everywhere else and how long will money sit idle before it gets into new mischief?

    Who and how do we create a new business model?

  6. monycoleman says:

    From one optimist to another. I agree wholeheartedly that 2009 holds tremendous promise for change. 2008 felt, to me anyways, like our whole country from the low man on the totem pole to the highest elite has been shaken (kind of turned upside down by their ankles) with the result of all the junk falling out and then being set back on their feet to shake off the dizziness and begin again. Here’s to a better year!!!

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