The Extremis Virus: Modern Annoyances of the Political Ninja

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“Our age knows nothing but reaction, and leaps from one extreme to another.” ~ Reinhold Niebuhr

I should clarify this not a nerdy post about the Iron Man 3 movie or the comic arc it spawns from. Rather my focus is on the absolutist filter so many of us choose to view the world through. This isn’t the first time I’ve commented on my particular qualms with those who refuse to see the world in its various shades of gray and instead try to boil everything down to a simple black and white, right and wrong conclusion. This fallacious narrow view of the world permeates every level of our society and the reasons for why this is unwise are just as common. So instead of rehashing the complexity of life and going to great detail on why I think we need to avoid tacking to either extreme I will instead delve into a few areas where this extreme ideology is most disturbing.

Societal norms, most notably the idea that everyone needs to progress into the next stage of life by the same path is an example of a monolithic point of view that fails to recognize alternative points of view (Say that ten times fast). I find this most prevalent when it comes to the idea of marriage and family. Once you get to a certain age, it’s almost impossible to avoid the question of when are you getting married. My problems with this stems from the fact, marriage should be something entered into after a great deal of thought and reflection. Not something just assumed as a necessary part of one’s life. Every relationship and individual is different and in some cases maybe marriage is not an ideal fit. Maybe instead of viewing marriage as definitive step into adulthood, we should view it as merely one of many option one can take on their quest to a complete life.

Political discourse is poisoned by a view un-open to compromise. Listening to a debate on any policy issue and you would think each side came from different realities. I can find definitive statements with a simple google search that swear Barack Obama is a secret muslim bent on destroying the country, and in the same search uncover a claim that he is the second-coming of Christ and will lead us to World Peace. Obviously, this is an extreme example, but the debates happening on our televisions, over the internet and in the halls of Congress can border on this level of extreme rhetoric. There are many things according to hard facts are true, but most often solutions require taking ideas from both sides of the debate and finding the middle solution. The one that doesn’t suggest dramatic adherence to the left or the right, but rather sees that most often the gray areas that exist in the world often require equally gray proposals is probably the right one.

Personal disagreements always seem to devolve into “always” and “never” scenarios.  I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. We find ourselves in an emotional argument and we start throwing out statements like, “George Lucas always ruins movies” and “I’m never going to another Star Wars movie again.” Well, maybe that specific example just applies to me. The point is, we make definitive statements when we are emotionally charged that are not true, and only serve to create further discord. This becomes exceptionally problematic in cases where the individuals throwing these words out refuse to acknowledge when they are wrong. So next time before you find yourself saying always or never, stop and take a moment to remember that Mr. Lucas made a number of quality movies before he started ruining them.

So there you have it, a few specific example of when the notorious extremis virus infects the world we live in. Will this rampant definitive approach to life continue? Probably. However, if we all try to listen to each other’s points of view and recognize there may be some validity there, we can go a long way in limiting its existence. Or at the very least harness it into liquid form and create the world’s next big energy drink sensation: Extremis.

Door Number Twenty-Three: Sit Back and Enjoy the Ride

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“Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle.” ~Jon Snow

Life is a complex machine. Kind of like the Cylons, but less preachy. We start out with little freedom and even less responsibility. As we grow older, we gain more independence, but our obligations rise as well. We work hard in school to get into a good college, and then work our way through college to get a good job. Replacing the authority of our parents and teachers with the responsibilities of work and social obligations. We continue to strive for the financial freedoms and professional success only to find ourselves at the end of the road wondering where the time has gone. Which is why we must not forget to take time to step back and enjoy the ride.

You would think such an idea runs counter to everything that defines a good, productive life. If we take such a passive stance towards life, we’re likely to end up falling into the mythical 47 percent some political leaders would lead us to believe are the source of America’s problems. However, there is a large gap between refusing to do work in order to survive and being consumed by one’s responsibilities. Even the President of the United States takes time to enjoy the life he has, and he’s arguably one of the busiest people in the world. I’m not suggesting abandoning all the necessary task of life, but rather gaining a better perspective on what’s important.

As I’ve pointed out we tend to spend a great deal of time working towards something. Whether it be high-paying career or world-changing invention, we are all striving towards a goal (if you’re not, that is a discussion for another time). However, its important we recognize the destination is only a part of the equation. Life doesn’t happen in some far off future where we accomplish that which we seek. Rather it occurs every second of every day. We risk missing a significant part of our existence if we don’t find a way to enjoy the quest.

So how do we do manage to find this balance? If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that our plans tend to overshadow all of our actions. It’s why so many people get burned out of the political process. Lofty ideals tend to fizzle out when tested against the slow march towards change. The same rings true for our personal lives. We start with grand dreams, that fall to the way side as we get older and begin to lose focus. So how do we continue our momentum in life, but also savor each moment? I wish there was a simple solution. I wish it was as easy as channeling “the force” to take out our personal “Death Stars.” Alas, the reality is it takes continued evaluation of our values and priorities. Making sure we not only believe in what were working towards, but also enjoy the every day steps it takes to get there.

As with every journey to discover one’s doors to happiness, finding the balance required to enjoy the ride is not without its challenges. We must have a clear idea of what our goals are. We must also recognize the time traveled in reaching any endpoint should be savored if we are to get the most out of our lives. In addition, we must not get discouraged when things don’t go as planned. We should embrace the unexpected. Because, in the end its the lessons we learn along the way that truly define our success.

The Complications of Employment

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“The greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.” – Oliver Wendall Holmes

Realistically speaking, looking for a job should not be complicated. In order for society to succeed, it would only make sense that everyone should be able to find decent paying work. Unfortunately, far too often the work available (I’m looking at you service industry) doesn’t even pay enough to allow someone to pay the bills required to live in the area the job is located, let alone have extra money for savings and bit of entertainment from time-to-time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have to work to get ahead in life, I just think anyone who puts in 60+ hours of work or gets the requisite education should not need to spend years of their life worrying about how to pay the next bill or whether they’ll ever find employment in the field of their choice. And this complicated job market isn’t just bad for the individual, it is bad for society as a whole.

Take the millennial generation for example. We grew up being told a college education was the key to a successful career, but thanks to an economic crash coupled with more efficient work procedures, there are fewer jobs available than in previous years. Not only do you have a crop of individuals who are struggling to find work, but many of them are starting out at a financial disadvantage that averages around $25,000. How is that good for the economy? How can this generation of workers be expected to take any of the innovative risks necessary to address the challenges of the coming years when they are forced to spend a vast amount of their mental capacity just finding a way to break into a job market that expects more productivity for less pay? Unless we find a solution to this problem, we’re going to end up with a generation of individuals who choose to play it safe, rather than make the big leaps forward necessary for a brighter future.

Then of course there are those, who simply can’t afford the higher education to even compete in the tight job market. These are individuals who work lower-skilled (albeit just as necessary) jobs for wages too low to live on. If someone puts in 60-hours a week at Taco Bell, why shouldn’t they make enough money to pay their bills and still have some left over to save for their future? Instead, by not having higher pay for lower-skilled workers we create a gap that will never be bridged, making it not only difficult for this group to survive, but for their children to have the opportunities to climb the ladder of success. Is there are simple solution to this issue? Probably not, but in the meantime we must find ways to raise the minimum standard for income in this country and around the world.

Say you’re one of the luck ones. You have a successful job and make an ample amount of money. How is this complicated job conundrum bad for you? Well, there’s the idea that a well-educated, employed population makes for safer society. More people making money, mean more tax revenue at the local, state, and federal level, which can they be used to improve everything from infrastructure to security. Furthermore, there’s a moral imperative here. Is it right to allow society to continue to drift apart financially? So much so that the wage of the lower earners becomes further separate from the top earners, even while the economy improves. We owe it to future generations to find a way to maintain not just our personal financial security, but that of the country and world as a whole. No one should have to go to bed worried about how they are going to pay this month’s rent, or find a job that pays enough to do so. As former U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone once said, “we all do better when we all do better.”

Ultimately, finding a job that pays enough to survive falls on the individual. We need to be proactive in gaining the necessary skills. However, that does not mean the governments and corporations of society can’t do better to makes things a bit easier for those not born into immense talent or wealth. We ought to find a way to employ those of all skill levels. Furthermore, the job search should not be so difficult or hard to break into. Practices like, rejecting applicants because they’ve been unemployed for 6 months or more need to stop. We also need to be balance out the proportion of executive to employee pay a little bit. In the long run it’ll be better for everyone, and give future generations something to look forward to.

Door Number Twenty-Two: A Sense of Mystery

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“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” ~Neil Armstrong

The best thing about being a kid is that the world is an undiscovered frontier. We knew very little about our surroundings and life in general. So everyday was filled with an adventure that left us with more questions than answers. Unfortunately, as we get older we tend to accumulate massive amounts of information. So much in fact, the world shrinks and life becomes less of a mystery and more of an inevitable conclusion. Add the ease of access to information the internet provides and it’s no wonder that we’re able to predict the outcomes of the weather, elections, and movie plots with relative ease. As a result of this, I think many of us stop striving to seek out mystery in our lives. Which, contrary to the post of this blog, leads us to the obvious door number 22 on this grand adventure, maintaining a sense of mystery in one’s life.

You might be asking yourself, what’s so great about mystery? Well first of all, the unknown keeps things interesting. We see this most notably in the entertainment found in books and movies. Take Game of Thrones for example, if someone were to reveal how everything was going to play out, I doubt it would have the critical success its experiencing. Sure sometimes starting at the ending and working back to the beginning (or Tarantinoing it as some might say) can make for a pleasurable experience. However, I would argue that most of the time it is the mystery of what’s coming next that draws us in. And if we can’t be drawn into our lives, what’s the point?

What’s that you say? My life is plenty interesting and I avoid the enigmatic at all costs? Well, even if you don’t think there’s entertainment value to maintaining a level of mystique in your life, there’s a still a compelling reason for doing so. That my friends, relates to the idea of pushing one’s boundaries. As regular readers may know I had a short-lived series on this blog titled “The Risk Experiment.” I had decided the best way I could improve on my life was to start pushing outside of what was comfortable. What I learned, among other things, was the thing preventing real growth in our lives is a fear of the unknown. By striving to look for the deeper mysteries we push ourselves to accept that just because we don’t understand something, doesn’t mean it’s not worth having in our life. In fact, our lives may become more enriched from allowing us to capture a bit of the innocence of our younger selves.

So now I’ve talked at length about why this door is so important, I should probably discuss some of its risks. When taken to the other extreme, an over-indulged sense of mystery can be paralyzing. We get so enamored by the nervous excitement that comes with anticipating something, once we experience the exciting event, there is a risk it will let us down. Which can lead to seeking out an endless series of circumstances heightened by the lack of spoilers until we forget to live in the moment and appreciate great things that, while predictable, add a great deal to our existence. It’s why so many relationships start out so well and then end so terribly. We forget it’s about the whole experience, and just focus on the butterflies the undetermined conclusion gives us.

As with any door, moderation is they key to a healthy sense of mystery. However, by incorporating it into our lives as we continue to grow older and less enchanted with the world around us we will be able to continue appreciating all we have. And of course, it will make movies, books, and television more exciting (Even if the new Star Wars films end up more like the prequels, the build up will remain epic). Most importantly, however, is the innovation that comes with capturing the essence of mystery. Every great scientific and cultural development in our history came from individuals who sought out the unknown and invented ways to solve the unsolvable. So I guess what I’m really saying is, can someone please figure out lightsaber technology already?

The Modern Progressive: Striving to Make Big Things Happen

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There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.  ~Ronald Reagan 

In the constant partisan bickering that is the constant focus of the 24-hour news networks, what actually defines the two sides of the arguments gets lost. Instead, we either get a partisan-dominated view that appeals to a certain audience (I’m looking at you Fox News) or a an attempt to avoid all controversy and give credence to all ideas, even if they are blatantly false. It’s no secret I hold to a certain set of ideals ( I’m still dealing with criticism over a blog post I did comparing Republicans to the Sith). However, I like to think that coming from a background where I was free to make my own judgments on what ideology best fit my world view has given me a certain level of understanding of what motivates both sides and why I believe progressivism is a worthwhile movement.

Before I get into the nuts of bolts of why I believe progressive, liberal policymaking is good for this country I feel I should say a few things about conservatism. First, and foremost, conservative thought is not an inherently evil set of ideals bent on destroying the world. I hate to use the trite car analogy, but if the world was a car conservatism would serve as the brake. And we all need to use brakes from time to time (some more than others). Does that mean we should ride the brakes and prevent any kind of giant, monumental change? No. In fact, when entrenched conservative interests resist all change government ceases to be an effective vehicle for positive policy.

Positive change. The number one reason progressives exist. We look to make the world better by spending money on massive projects. Whether it be massive infrastructure projects to stimulate economic growth and bring our roads and sewer systems into the next century or investment in research and development that will allow us to move to a fuel and energy source that stops polluting our environment and slows down the inevitable march towards catastrophic climate change. We look to make big things happen above all else. Of course, this can lead to trouble if the consequences of this change have not been weighed or the opposition to such an act has not been properly considered.

Not only is progressivism about creating large, grandiose developments, it’s also about ensuring everyone is treated equal. Take the recent marriage equality victory in Minnesota. This is a cause that was championed by the political left, not out of some hidden agenda to undermine tradition, but to move society forward so that all people are allowed the same legal rights. In this fight, we saw that sometimes progressive thought is not just limited to those on the left, but can find champions on the other side of the aisle as well. Moving forward, even if when it’s not the politically expedient thing to do, embodies the core of this ideology.

Does this mean we all need to be progressive? Probably not. Any situation where there is only one point of view presented is wrought with the opportunity for stagnation. The conservative counter point is vital to vetting the big ideas presented by the progressive movement. However, this does not mean the currently situation in Washington and around the United States is acceptable. Opposition for the sake of discrediting someone you disagree with is irresponsible. As is looking to starve the government to a point where it only able to perform the most basic of public services. This is where I believe modern republicans have lost their way. We need to focus on proposing bold solutions to the real challenges humanity faces and stop looking to the next election cycle.

Door Number Twenty-One: Simple Simplification

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“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” ~Confucius

So it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything (Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?). Even longer since I’ve tried to embark on the daunting task of discovering one’s 50 doors to happiness. Realistically speaking, 50 may have been too lofty a number. Not that one shouldn’t shoot for the moon, but at this rate I’m going to finish this series right around the time George RR Martin finishes the final Song of Fire and Ice book (at least I have a few more years than he does to pull it off.) In the spirit of complicated blog posts I figured I would embrace its polar opposite and introduce door number 21, simplification.

What does simplification mean exactly? I suppose you can take it at face value and say it means making things less complicated. However, sometimes they need to be that way. Ikea furniture is great and all, but it is not exactly the shining example of durability. No, if you really want something of quality you have to delve into the details which don’t tend to be simple at all. That’s why the aforementioned Song of Fire and Ice (or as the television audience knows it, Game of Thrones) is so popular. Layers on top of layers. I’m not making the most compelling case so far, am I?

I think the key, as it relates to improving one’s life anyways, is to find areas more complicated than they need to be and simplify them. For example, many of us spend a disproportionate amount of our day reading articles online. This eats up a great deal of time and leads to an unconscious stress that causes more trouble than its worth. One solution to this specific dilemma would be to simply limit the amount time we spend online. Or ya know, just use Feedly. The point of this complicated web of descriptive nonsense is there are usually easy steps we can take to eliminate excess effort in our lives.

Another advantage to pursuing this path to happiness is you can always add things back if you go to far. Take the example of a complex workout plan. Say you decide your crazy boot camp workout is taking too much time and causing you to dread the mere mention of the world fitness. You slowly start eliminating exercises until your down to just running a couple of times a week. Unfortunately, as anyone who has drastically cut back on exercise can tell you, your likely to get less than satisfactory results after a certain point. Fortunately, you can just add things back until the results balance with the desired energy expended. This can applied to anything in life, including Netflix marathons (damn you West Wing).

So on to the real point behind pursuing this door. How does this actually lead to a more fulfilling life? Well for one, it eliminates unnecessary stress. So many times I’ve made things way more complicated than they needed to be (pro tip: sometimes its better to just ask for directions). It also frees up mental and physical energy for more exciting endeavors. So instead of checking your phone 30 time a day just in case someone posts something interesting on Facebook (they didn’t) maybe take that time to go on an epic bike riding, photographing adventure (and then post those photos to Facebook). Lastly, simplicity is the mother of clarity. The less clouds we crowd our life with the more likely we will be able to see the small miracles occurring every day. And for the record, I’m not talking about Midi-chlorians.

Why is Higher Education so Expensive?

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“We have a responsibility to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, from prekindergarten to elementary and secondary, to special education, to technical and higher education and beyond.” ~Jim Jeffords

Higher Education has become quite the flash point in recent years. Students of all stripes (myself included) have been subject to constant increases in the cost of their college education. Of course, they could always decide to skip college and just enter the workforce, thus saving tens of thousands of dollars. Oh wait, never mind, they really can’t. As the cost of higher education has continued to rise, it has only become more of a necessity. Don’t believe me?  Ask all those insurance agents if a bachelor’s degree was really necessary to do the work they do.  Or the companies who need employees trained in highly specialized fields like computer science if they’ll hire someone straight out of high school. Though the more important question is how did we get here?

Problem 1: State Higher Education funding has not matched the need nor the demand of this generation. While funding for education has generally risen for higher ed over the past decade, it has not come close to meeting demand. In fact, most public state institutions have actually seen funding decrease dramatically in relation to the amount the student pays in tuition. In Minnesota, this has accounted for a state college and university system that once was two-thirds state funding, one-third tuition to shift to the opposite ratio. As we continue to see more students pursuing a higher-education, the lack of legislative will to match that increase with a proportionate amount of funding is placing the financial burden solely on the back of the students.

Problem 2: Educating a student simply costs more. One thing I never understood about Star Wars, was how they afforded to build those technological marvels like the Death Star and lightsaber. It couldn’t have been cheap.  Similarly, as the world makes rapid technological advances, the education required to utilize that technology in the work force increases as well. In order to stay on the cutting edge, college and universities must invest thousands of dollars into the latest teaching tools. Whether this is a state-of-the-art science lab or an effective Learning Management System the cost of education increases with every new innovation. Unfortunately, that cost gets passed on directly to the student in the form of increased fees and tuition.

Problem 3: Companies that use to train their employees, now rely on the higher education institutions to do it for them. There was a time when you could get an entry-level job doing something as simple as working in a mail room. From there you could work your way up with the help of in-house training. In many ways, those days are behind us. Instead, employers expect you to attend college for a very specific field, get the requisite experience through what is many times an unpaid internship, and then fill a very specific need. This  has forced anyone who would like a well-paying, stable job to first invest a great deal of resources in a college education. This of course leads to further financial stress on the colleges and universities around the country. Well at least until we can upload information directly into our brains ala The Matrix.

Getting a higher education degree is unlikely going to get cheaper in the near future thanks to the combination of the increasing cost to educate students, a lack of state funding, and the simple reality corporations expect more out of higher education. However, there are things we as a society can do to reverse the trend before the costs begin to affect our ability to maintain a competitive workforce. First, we can begin  to prioritize higher-education funding as a priority when we head to the ballot box by supporting politicians who are serious about addressing the issue. Secondly, we can encourage the use of cheaper technological solutions to old problems (e.g. open source textbooks) to reduce the cost of educating our college students. Lastly, while its unlikely businesses will return to an era where they trained their employees from the bottom to the top, we can encourage partnerships between the private sector and the colleges and universities in order to find creative solutions to drive down the cost of higher education. Or we can always just assign everyone a career chip and cut out the middle man.