In our quest to be better, have we become the “Ugly Americans?” I was recently discussing the term “Ugly Americans” with a European friend and this made me reflect on the term and what it really means. We also discussed the American notion of “Self Improvement.”
Let’s face it, self improvement and getting ahead has been our national obsession for as long as most of us can remember. But have we gone too far? For over a decade now we have been working diligently on our self improvement, reading self-help books, attending motivational seminars, and spending $billions in the process. If we’ve worked so hard to be better, why are we failing as a nation? Yes, failing:
- 17 $Trillion in debt and rising http://www.usdebtclock.org/
- 9% unemployment
- +$40 Billion trade deficit/month
- +50% Divorce Rate
- Less than 10% of the population controls more than 90% of the wealth
- A government in dead-lock
Ok, so what’s the problem?
1) Me, Me, and more of Me: The culture of me. I used to work for a company where this trend was evident. They had a turn-over problem and they couldn’t understand what the problem was (or maybe still is). It wasn’t that people were leaving in droves, it was that they were losing employees who contributed real value to the organization, many had critical skills that were hard to replace. I didn’t understand this until recently. The fact is, they are a victim of the me, me, me, and how I am better than you trend. When I think about how their managers talked, it becomes obvious in their speech and the words they use. These managers often said, (after pretending to listen to others)” Well, MY idea is……..” or “I want ….. I need……” When the managers talked, it was all about them, “Well, I told them to …… and they didn’t, so now look.” These people became managers because they were masters of how to make themselves look good, playing political backgammon, or just because they had been there so long, there was nothing else to do with them. So why were people leaving? It’s simple. They were not part of the equation, me + me + me = me. Upper management meant well, but they had become “Ugly Americans.” If you’ve read, “Tribal Leadership,” by Logan,Kink, Fischer-Wright, you’ll identify this with stage three behavior. I am not trying to single them out; unfortunately, this is the norm for American companies.
So what about “Self Improvement?” Let’s face it, when we say “Self Improvement,” we mean “Get ahead of others around us.” Basically, we’re in a never-ending cycle to be better than others, and there is big money to be had fueling the fire. Teach me to be better than you – teach you to be better than me, etc, with lots of $ generated along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe in constant improvement; I’m just saying that isn’t it time to focus on “We Improvement” more than “Self Improvement?”
2) Talk less, listen more: We are a country of talkers, not listeners. Working at a Japanese company (different from the company mentioned above) I realized that the Americans were talkers while the Japanese were listeners. I’ve sat through entire meetings where the most experienced person, a Japanese, said nothing. The Americans discussed the problem and came up with a solution without pausing or asking their Japanese counter parts for input. We had become “Ugly Americans.”
3) Patience. Americans are shooting each other with pepper spray to get ahead in the line at Walmart, really? Part of being all about me is instant gratification. We’ve forgotten that good things come to those who are patient.
4) Our politicians in Washington D.C. have become the ultimate Ugly Americans. Long gone are the politicians who actually sacrificed for their country. Now, it’s all about what’s in it for me, especially when I’m finished running for office, “Can I get a nice job with a lobbyist firm?” It’s not about what’s best for America. Not just the government in D.C., but state and local governments as well. I’ve lived in many states and have learned that most states are dominated by one party. Usually this party has intrenched itself using influence and greed. Once on top, it cannot be toppled. There is no longer competition to do better, and the people suffer.
Take the outsourcing of the new San Francisco bridge:
as an example. This action would be unthinkable just a few years ago. It’s clearly a sign of beuracrats in California thinking only of themselves and justifying it by saying, “We’ll save…..$$$” when in fact the lose of jobs and know-how will cost the country as a whole much more than the $$ saved on California’s budget. What would George Washington or JFK say? (they wouldn’t say anything, they would get busy fixing the real problem.)
5) The divorce rate in America continues to hover at about 50%. So if you get married, you’re just as likely to get divorced as to stay married. As a society of me, we are less likely to compromise or sacrifice for the good of the family. Part of this has become our inability to put our own needs aside and focus on our family’s goals. Although any tool to help communicate is good, Social Media is aiding the trent: A survey of American marriage lawyers states that Facebook was cited in 1 out of every 5 divorce cases. My grandmother used to say, “The devil is dangerous not because he lies, but because he doesn’t tell the whole truth.” If you think about this while you surf facebook, 800 million people are the devil.
If you’ve ever tried online dating, you’ll quickly realize that it’s all about completing a “Check List” and quickly ditching the person you’re currently talking with for the next one who somehow fits your checklist better. There’s an unlimited amount of people available, so it’s easy to checkoff one and move to the next, move to the next, move to the next. Why put up with someone’s strange habit when you can just move to the next candidate? This is exacerbated by the fact that many (most?) people on dating sites misrepresent themselves (devils?). And most dating sites are fine with this. That is, their objective is to build traffic (traffic = $). Proof? How many dating sites kick you off when you contacted more that 10, 20, 30 people and still have not found a match? (hint: none).
6) A nation of middlemen. When I first visited Vietnam, I noticed one phenomena almost immediately. That is, everyone wanted to be the middle man. It was hard to buy a product or service from the source; there were always middlemen in the process who raised the price and took a commission. It was like a never-ending chain of salesman. I’m sure the locals had little problem buying direct, but for a tourist like me, it was middleman hell. America has adopted the same philosophy. Our manufactures have become just middlemen. That is, they are just the middle process between the actual manufacturing in China and the consumer in the U.S. They have become super rich off of controlling the distribution. Many of these companies are feeding us the line, “We can no longer afford to manufacture in America so we’ll focus on design.” It’s a lie from Ugly Americans. I’ve lived in Asia for many years, and I can assure you, they can design as well as we can. What happens when the Chinese can design these products without us? (Like Zenith TV, our companies become hollowed out and swallowed up by overseas companies.)
Great, so how do we fix it?
1) Drop the “me” language and share the spotlight. Let’s change “Self Improvement” into “Group Improvement.” Walk outside and knock on your neighbors door. Say hi, ask them if there is anything you can do for them. Yea, do it TODAY. At work ask yourself, “Am I trying to show that I am better than my colleagues?” BE HONEST! Most likely the answer will be “Yes.” Start forming triads: relationships with three or more colleagues where information is shared freely. Is there someone at work you hate? Include them in your triad; work on a project together. Take a look at their values and your values. Are they really different? Probably not.
2) Listen to someone that you normally would not listen to. Don’t just give some change to a homeless person begging. Ask them why they need the money. Ask them what they really want in life. For me, it was the occupy movement. During my last visit to NY, I stopped by the movement and talked to a few protestors. It was awesome. I realize how different the movement is from what is being portrayed by the media. I don’t consider my self a protester (yet?), but I understand them. An understanding only possible by meeting them in person, not by watching the 6 o’clock news.
3) Live half of your life for yourself, and half for others. As a couple or family, set goals and focus on those goals, not yourself.
4) I don’t want to overload you, so work on these three!
(Ok, a couple of political things….)
5) Bring manufacturing back to America! Real value is only created through manufacturing. We are selling the family jewels for a night out on the town. I’ve also learned this lesson the hard way. In the past two years, we’ve purchased three compressors for our garage. The first two were made in China and broke immediately after the warranty ran out. Finally, we purchased a domestic made Craftsman compressor. Had we purchased the Craftsman first, we would have saved several hundred dollars. Buying junk from China only costs you more in the long run. I love Apple products, but must all of their products be manufactured overseas? Just think how many jobs would created if they were made in the U.S. We can’t expect Apple to do this on their own; corporations exist for one thing: maximize shareholder value. This initiative must come from D.C. We must force Apple to manufacture more in America.
6) The super rich must pay more in taxes. Even some super rich individuals have come forward asking to be forced to pay more. I strongly believe in the Capitalist system that rewards the successful, but no one man needs more than $1Billion.
Yes, there was a time when we were a country of “WE.” When my grandfather and his friends talked about WWII, they usually used “We” language. “We knew the Japanese were gong to attack, but we didn’t know where. . .” “We knew we had to meet these production results for the boys overseas, but . . . ”
How powerful is this notion of “WE?” Hollywood likes to portray white troops and black troops in WWII as contentious. This is a lie. My grandfather often talked about the good relationship between white and black troops during the war. They depended on each other and worked together to get the mission accomplished. This cooperation eventually lead to the abolishment of segregation back home. They solved problems as a country, not as individuals. The term “Ugly Americans” didn’t exist during their era. Together they created the greatest super power the world has ever known. Are we doing a good job filling their shoes?
(Disclaimer: I use the words “they,” “we,” etc. a lot in this blog post. I am generalizing. There are many exceptions.)