by Howard J. Ross, founder & chief learning officer, Cook Ross Inc.
Last week our house was hit by the storm like so many others. We had three huge trees come down, taking out a portion of our front and back porches, as well as a huge mess and a power outage.
The historic storm was barely over when people were already complaining about how Pepco, our local power company, was too slow in getting the tens of thousands of power lines in millions of homes repaired. I know that anybody can do better, yet I have to say that I am particularly sensitive to these complaints because having had Pepco as a client at times over the years, I have been witness to the unbelievable commitment and effort that their people put in during these times of unusual demand. I have seen people work 18-20 hour shifts for days at a time, sometimes even sleeping in their offices. I know that in order to have the number of people they would need to deal with an emergency like this, they would require hundreds of staff whom they don’t need every day. In other words, our rates would have to be much higher to accommodate all of these people waiting around for a “super storm” to come. Would people really go for that?
But this tendency to look for somebody to blame is not limited to the storm. I was in London last week on business when a banking scandal emerged that involved Barclays Bank. Before the ink was even dry on the newspaper, the cry began for the head of Barclays’ CEO Bob Diamond, who eventually did resign. Maybe he should have. I don’t claim to know. But I am pretty sure that very few of the people shouting the demand at that time, or even now, have any idea if or why Diamond was at fault.
I watch the unfolding presidential campaign, and even participate in conversations about it, and see all of us pointing fingers at the other party. “It’s their fault!” “THEY are being too partisan.” And we are both right.
My point is not about any of these specific circumstances, because the reality is there could be hundreds of examples. What I am really speaking to is our profound addiction to blame. I see it primarily from my perspective as an American. We see it every day. Whenever anything happens that is wrong, our first reaction seems to be, “Who’s at fault?” “Who can we blame?” “Who will take the fall for this?”
I can’t help but see the difference between our response and the responses of people in developing countries that experience far more tragedy and far more difficulty than we do and yet seem to deal with it so differently. Some of my neighbors were already apoplectic after a day without electricity; in India I spent time in villages where people get electricity only 2 hours each morning and 2 hours each evening. We complain about our flights being an hour late, while in developing countries, or in poor sections of our own, people drive or take buses for hours longer because they can’t afford the miraculous experience of getting into a multi-ton vehicle and flying 6-7 miles above the ground!
And instead of looking for solutions to our combined needs of taking care of our citizens and managing our financial resources appropriately, politicians in this election cycle will spend almost all of their time blaming somebody else for the situation we are in.
Blame and guilt are a function of our inability to deal with life; an inability to accept that life has its ups and downs. Are people sometimes at fault? Of course. But should it always be the first place we go when something is difficult, uncomfortable, or even tragic? Sometimes storms come, and planes crash, and people steal. Sometimes the weather is hotter than we would like, and sometimes it is colder. As hard as it is for some to believe, that is not the fault of the weatherman. That is life. Perhaps before we start the next witch-hunt for “who’s at fault?’” we might take a look at our own reaction; at the incredible entitlement that is underneath it. The little voice that says to the heavens, “How dare you inconvenience me!!”
The irony is that so much of this is unrealistic. The world is factually not nearly as bleak as we think. As Freed Zakaria recently spoke about at Harvard’s commencement, there is far more to celebrate in the world than we might realize.
For example, for all of our concern about war, we actually are living in the most peaceful time in human history. Fewer people will die from war this decade than any decade, ever!
And so perhaps we might start with gratitude. I am immensely grateful that with all of the mess at my house nobody was hurt. I am grateful that even though my plane back from London was delayed an hour, we still made it back safely and much faster than our ancestors who had to spend weeks on a boat to make the same trip. I’m grateful that we have measures in place that allow us to identify people when they do wrong things, and I don't feel the need to blame an entire business for the wrong doing of a few of its employees.
On the plane back from London, I watched a lovely movie- The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The story is about a young man in India who inherited a hotel from his father and has a plan to bring over retirees from England to live out their final days. The hotel is in disrepair and the retirees have various different reactions. One, a character played by Tom Wilkinson, takes right to the city, where he had grown up. One of the others hates it there and finally asks Wilkinson’s character, “What do you see in this place?” His answer speaks to the heart of what I’m trying to say. Speaking of Indians he says, “They see life as a privilege, not as a right.”
Something to think about.