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Recently, I had a debate with my teen-aged daughter regarding the concept of a thing being overrated. She’d used the term to describe a TV show that was awful (in her opinion) but very popular, calling it “overrated.” I offered the opinion that something good can also be overrated. I used the movie, Avengers: End Game as an example. Fine movie. Super popular. But an epic? Well, it’s certainly long like one…

My daughter vehemently shook her head. She said all her friends really liked End Game so therefore it couldn’t be overrated. While her definition of the term is certainly valid I believe mine is more accurate. What do you think? Can something good, even very good, be overrated?

Three examples of good but overrated:

In & Out Burgers – This so-called California icon is the textbook example of overrated. No question the burgers are solid. But the fries are plain awful.

Outdoor Music Festivals – People love these things until they actually go. From parking to potty they can be a freaking nightmare.

The Matrix – I love science fiction. I like Keanu Reeves. But I have never understood the adulation heaped upon this interesting but mostly befuddling flick.

Big Bang Theory – This contrived and silly sitcom has some of the highest TV ratings in the 21st century. Yet, the show feels phony as a three-dollar bill.

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Becoming a monster to defeat the monster

 

After watching the brutal second-to-last episode of Game of Thrones I turned on a news channel to alleviate my discomfort. What was I thinking? Bear with me, I’m going to start in an unusual place…

I’m troubled by the vilification of highly literate and educated people, labeling them “elitists.” Once upon a time, the most learned among us were undisputed and logical choices to run companies and govern nations. Regardless of their privilege and pretense, cultivated individuals were valued above all else. After all, didn’t we want the smartest people running things? Fallible wisdom is better than uncontested brutishness.

The populist agenda would have us believe otherwise. Higher education is for entitled liberals and rogue progressives. Such elitists don’t care about hardworking Americans, they say. Professors and scientists live in ivory towers. They are so out of touch. Learning is thusly framed as a luxury i.e. elitist. Only snobs have the luxury to care about esoteric things like Truth and Beauty.

There are kernels of truth in such notions; that is why they become popular in the first place. Yet, it’s paradoxical. We all aspire to be successful geniuses even as we relish dismantling those who are. The rich are evil. Yet everyone plays the lottery.

We reap what we sow. Populism has become the new normal. Any satisfaction seeing a Washington elite lose the 2016 presidential election has been replaced by something far more depressing and sinister. We have a dumb-ass for a President. And when absolute power is given to a dumb-ass we all get screwed.

That said the other side has taken the bait of outrage, fomenting extremism. As the POTUS has gone low so, too, have they. To fight the monster they have become one, unwittingly or otherwise. The insidious political correctness demanded by the “smart” and “woke” has made speaking one’s mind a minefield. God forbid you do not walk and talk a certain way. You will be shunned. You will be fired. Or worse. The outraged have become an angry mob. Journalism is no longer objective. Media channels are mouthpieces for one side or the other, both equally repugnant. I am as sick of CNN as I am of Fox.

In this crucible of correctness socialism feels like a reasonable idea, an antidote. It is neither. Power to the people is merely a bizarro form of populism, a ploy fronting as a bold idea. At first the Mother of Dragons was the Breaker of Chains, freeing the oppressed and punishing their captors. She was a good idea, too. Spoiler alert: She isn’t anymore. Give anyone absolute power and invariably all goes to shit. An angry mob created this government. Now an angry mob wants to take it out. What is the common denominator? An angry mob. Brandishing their hash tags like Valyrian steel.

I want my leaders to be literate and temperate. I want them to be smarter than me, vastly so. So that they have the courage to forsake righteousness for compromise, to ask for help in difficult matters, to be able to say the three bravest three words of all: “I don’t know.”

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Left side of my reef, featuring the big Sailfin tang I call “Moose”

I maintain a 180-gallon reef aquarium in my home. Try to anyway. The coral reef is the most complex, delicate and beautiful ecosystem in the world. Lighting. Filtration. Water parameters. Flow. Everything has to be calibrated and monitored in order to even passably mimic a real coral reef. One or two miscalculations and your reef crashes. Suffice it to say, this is not your father’s guppy tank.

Still, or maybe because of the challenges, I am an addicted reefer. I can easily spend two hours in twenty-four with my hands in the tank and even more online doing research. Nothing tweaks my nerd DNA more than scouring websites, gaping at corals, bidding on equipment, or contributing to a forum. Reef porn is real.

An ad agency has a lot in common with my reef. Though it can be more polluted (joke), the hallways and cubes of an agency ecosystem are populated by equally diverse and complicated organisms. Some species, like the showy creative, can in fact be very sensitive. While others, the account director for example, can be very aggressive. Given the two must live together the experience can be challenging. Certain aggressive species torment smaller creatures, nipping at their work, crushing them. Biting criticism takes its toll. The wounded creative hides in his cave, camouflaged by earphones, avoiding the persistent predator. If the biggest fish in the tank is a bully, everyone suffers. When the tank becomes mired in territorial disputes, the whole thing crashes. Sound familiar?

It doesn’t have to.

Last night I observed my cleaner shrimp nibbling parasites off a troubled yellow tang and I realized that there is wonder here. When all these myriad creatures work together, giving and taking in harmony, the results are truly breathtaking. The solitary superstar flashes brilliance. A school of darting Anthias shows the awesome power of collaboration. If the tank masters accept the occasional skirmish, providing nourishment to all, then the ecosystem will flourish.

I am now available for writing projects and/or a creative leadership role. Please contact me directly @ Steffan1@rcn.com or via Linkedin.  I look forward to engaging with your ecosystem!

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You’re boxed in behind a slow driver. Cars speed by you on either side, making it difficult to pass. You bang your hands on the steering wheel, cussing. You flash your high beams. Honk. The driver in front of you continues as he was, probably listening to a favorite song on the radio, or maybe chatting with one of his children on speakerphone. In that moment he is an unfit driver, quickly morphing into your nemesis and all that is wrong with the world. Finally, you see an opening and tear by him, raising your middle finger. Fucking idiot! It all happens in the span of a minute. If only you could see yourself. Raving.

Fortunately, this is not you, not today anyway but rather a passage in Daily Reflections, a small book in the lexicon of recovery literature. The chapter’s title: Levitation.

Being able to view yourself from above, in a moment, in general. This is what the reading means by levitation. Seeing what is really happening versus the way it feels – perspective over pandemonium. With it, maybe one doesn’t go off at every provocation. Maybe nobody does.

Is the lack of patience human nature, besetting the entire species? No other creature stops crawling to get up and walk. Then to drive, fly and eventually break the sound barrier. Tom Cruise in Top Gun: “I feel the need… the need for speed.” Original Sin begot this defect, upon Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden. They could not wait. With each passing generation the concept of gratification has grown, and now the right now is all that matters. Instant gratification has zoomed past the virtue of patience like the driver from the story, adding a vulgar gesture.

The vast majority of technology and innovation is defined by speeds and feeds, not creating something new but making which already exists even faster. From primitive fire to unseen microwaves, from handwritten letters to messaging Apps, the world keeps shifting into higher gears. You want your fast food faster. Forget drive-through, there’s an App for that. And the human race races forward. You just read on the Internet (not in a magazine or newspaper) that Starkist tuna is suffering profound financial losses because today’s consumers are unwilling to use a can opener. Suddenly this tool, a mainstay in every kitchen on earth, is now obsolete. It makes sense a turn crank no longer has value but the wider implications are scary. If one of your daughters is hungry and discovers a can of tuna in the pantry, she will be clueless how to acquire its contents. She will look at it as she would a novel. No way I’m opening that. Why bother?

This is not a diatribe on the ignorance of new generations. Your children are not stupid. Rather they are lazy and impatient, as much as any addict, and you cannot blame them. Indeed, you haven’t opened a can of tuna in years. You too prefer a quicker solution for your hunger. No surprise the once iconic can of tuna is dead in the water.

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Before I was offered a new job, I visited a lot of agencies. Typically, I met with people representing the management team. It was a gauntlet. But I always expected a positive reception, from both the interviewers and myself. However, that was not always the case. At one agency, a number of the folks I met were down on their company and told me so. There were politics. There was unfairness. Dead weight permeated the company. One interviewer asked: “Steffan, do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

Sad but true.

Complaining is common in Adland. Granted, usually not as part of a first impression but typical nevertheless. It’s not a good look. Seldom is it useful. Startled, I told the above-mentioned complainer a parable, the best thing I could think of at the time. Here is part of it:

Every day a group of men set out to forage in the desert by their village. They ventured far in order to get to the forest and its abundance of resources. At the half way point of their journey was a lone, large tree in which they took a break to rest and eat lunch. “A shame this tree,” one man said. “It has no fruit for eating.” The others agreed. “And its wood isn’t suitable for building either…”

And so on they complained. What the complainers failed to realize was the great benefit the tree provided. In fact, the old tree was a refuge. Seemingly barren, it provided shelter from the noonday sun without which their journey would have been infinitely more treacherous. This critical benefit was lost on the men. As was the unity this resting place fostered among the travelers. All was taken for granted to spite the obvious.

I recall a company meeting at a previous place of employment, a long time ago. We’d had a tough year. Morale was low. The employees were skeptical about their agency’s future. Many used the setting as a forum to voice their complaints: Management was inept, they cried. Our clients are bound to mediocrity. Woe is us!

During my turn to speak I told the story about the old tree. Our agency was beleaguered but I wanted us to appreciate all that we had: jobs, community and a place to voice our grievances freely and without fear of reparations.

In some respect I was talking to myself. Though I harbored many of my fellow’s misgivings I wanted healing words. Not apathetic ones. We’d had plenty of those already. Change was needed. And change would come. But on that day I needed gratitude. We all did. I worked for one of the greatest advertising agencies in the world. It had been hobbled but it was still there. Despite our weakened position, so were we.

Author’s note: I published a version of this story some time ago, while I was looking for my next job. Having found one, I am filled with gratitude. Here’s to never forgetting what matters…