December 1, 2022

ruining it for everyone

a phone booth on the edge of a walkway at a marina
photo caption: a working phone booth is a rare sight to see these days. this one is near a marina full of boats of all sizes and configurations. before smartphones dominated the world, a phone booth was one of the few ways people could talk to someone away from home. the public utility moved to a service maintained by individuals. nowadays it seems like everyone has a phone, and they’re often a necessary part of life. this booth even has a phone book, but don’t get me started on that!

I went for a walk last week. I wasn’t having a particularly good day and needed to go out into the world to help clear my head. I bought a paper from a local vendor. The sun was shining. It’s been cooler than usual here, but I like “sunny and cool” much more than “sunny and hot.”

I walked to the park to read my paper. I wanted to lie on a park bench and enjoy my day. Instead, some jerk built all the benches to have a bar in the middle. In another part of town, some asshole placed benches in a public space that were too small to be comfortable. They might have blamed the person living houseless for ruining their park. Don’t fall for it. Parks belong to more than the wealthy.

Last month I wanted to go swimming at a nearby pool, but it had closed for the whole summer. Park officials had delayed maintenance of this pool for years. It was now literally crumbling under their watch. Bridges and infrastructure all over the country are following suit. These great septuagenarian public works are faring worse than the Parthenon these days. A whole bunch of assholes cut taxes with the same scissors they used to shred the safety net. More and more people fall below survival every day.

Human innovation doesn’t fail to impress, doesn’t it? We created two-income households when one job wasn’t enough. We invented grind culture, then hustle culture and the gig economy. These improvisations only help to delay the inevitable failure of survival. And still we live in a world that urges us to do more with less. To deal with inflation on an individual level. Where people work full-time and still need food stamps instead of receiving fair wages.

The story of the tardigrade is well-known by now. My young nephew can spot them in media without missing a beat. Tardigrades are microscopic beings that most often live in water or on plants. They’re known to withstand radiation, low temperatures, and even the vacuum of space. But tumblr user adelicateculturecell shared a quote that has stayed with me. It comes from their episode of a youtube series, Journey to the Microcosmos.

“Tardigrades are not extremophiles. They don’t enjoy living in extreme conditions. They are just good at surviving them. In that way, maybe they are something like us. We also sometimes live through situations we thought would be impossible to survive. But, all things being equal, both tardigrades and us just want a nice place to live, plenty of yummy food, and whenever possible, to not be exposed to the vacuum of space.”

We owe each other more than survival. We’ve gone too long letting a few people ruin it for the rest of us. We’ve spent too much time going after the wrong people for the ruin spreading around us.

the moderating force

For every sector I’ve spent time in, I’ve worked with people who think of themselves as reasonable. Pragmatism has a high value in a lot of workplaces. Being practical all the time can have invisible but drastic effects on progress. When you focus all your efforts on what’s reasonable, you begin to lose sight of what’s possible. Sober-mindedness forecloses the ideas that are so crazy they just might work. It’s one reason why entry-level workers with great ideas leave their restrictive workplaces. They’re burnt out or experiencing moral injury. People get excited about ideas that may actually solve our problems. It’s so draining to hear, time and again, from people in power who say they will never work.

If you are a person with more ideas than power, keep trying. Take your ideas elsewhere. Find alternate sources of power. Use a tool like the Midwest Academy‘s Strategy Chart to help plot out a winning strategy.

Change your tactics. Continue to refine your ideas. Don’t accept the shortsightedness of people in power as proof that your dreams won’t work.

If you are a person in power, receive those ideas as you would from a peer or superior. If the approach doesn’t feel right, what is another path that gets us to the same place? Are you relying on your instincts or the way things have always worked? Could your discomfort or unfamiliarity with an idea prevent you from fair judgment? Is this an opportunity to stand against the status quo of white supremacy? Is this an opportunity to focus on the discomfort of others before your own?

Instead of saying, “this will never work,” help refine the idea without dismissing it. There are countless examples of people choosing the reasonable option that still fails. While it might seem reasonable to you, someone else might say as easily, “this will never work.” Ask yourself: is the only difference between you two is that you have power or privilege and they don’t?

break free of the binary

We don’t have to settle for mere survival. When we see a human sleeping on a bench in the park, who has nowhere to go, there are at least two choices we can make. We can find out what they need and help them get it. Or we can put a bar on that bench to prevent sleeping. We can watch a few billionaires and their friends go to space. Or we can feed every person on this planet. It clearly isn’t possible to do both. Which one will you choose to accept?

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space