Have you had enough of this "evangelical pessimism" that has for months held our nation in its tyrannical grasp? Our tabloid era reduces everything to sound bites of doom and gloom; it's as if the Grim Reaper was given his own primetime news show and has been broadcasting 24/7 on every channel. I've decided to exercise my Constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness. Here's what is making me smile these days...
Community Reinvented by the Internet
What's the difference between the last Great Depression and the current economic crisis? In 1929, there was no Internet, and our sense of community was limited to family, friends and our city, not much beyond that.
Government and our industrial leaders spoke at us. We're no longer a top down society where a few a few white-haired elders decide the future of our country in a smoke-filled room. Now we all have a voice -- and that voice can find its like-minded tribe and change the course of history.
Today's Internet communities consist of members so diverse and far flung that a single common thread -- whether it's Obama supporters or Granny Olympics -- can unite like-minded individuals from around the globe. They may never meet in person, but they can belong to a virtual community every bit as strong and cohesive as your Neighborhood Watch or PTA.
Community is good news for commerce, too. Businesses that have embraced the online, two-way dialogue have found that consumers are more than willing to respond in kind, often in beneficial and unpredictable ways, like through online surveys or beta testing. By giving customers a forum -- and actually listening -- companies can find answers and switch gears more quickly than ever. On the flip side, businesses that fail to recognize the power of online communities might as well stand on the tracks of an oncoming train. They'll be run over just as surely as the blogosphere will blow the whistle on their failure to deliver their value promise, or on how they abuse their carbon footprint, or whether they run an honest shop.
Not only does this information exchange occur faster than a T3 download, it just may well be the cheapest form of marketing research ever available. Search engine optimization and keyword buys allow even the smallest startups to gain traction with their potential market, providing an inexpensive way to find out just who that target market is and how they respond to a new idea or product.
Distance no longer separates families and friends or even soldiers in far-off battlefields. International boundaries have become meaningless in cyberspace, allowing the sharing of ideas and exposure to new cultures that might have otherwise been shunned, or even banned, depending where you live.
Today, whether you're a jock, dweeb, princess, rebel or outcast, whether you're in Paris, Panama, Pittsburgh or Podunk -- you can find your tribe, no matter how arcane your niche may be. Floating on this little blue marble in outer space just got a little less lonely.
Science Back in Vogue
For the past eight years, the White House often misinterpreted scientific information on global warming, allowing our nation's basic environmental protection to be ignored in favor of industry. Our government abused public trust and endangered our health and the health of our children through irresponsible acts.
Just a week ago, large corporations in certain sectors were instructed to report their carbon footprint beginning next year. Although buried on page 7 of many newspapers, this is a great step forward to cleaning up our environment. How the next phase of environmental reform will play out remains to be seen, but the prospects all look far brighter.
This reformation in our scientific thinking is spreading. The Obama administration has taken preliminary measures to allow stem cell research, a move that will attract some of the world's greatest scientists to America, as well as retain our own scientists who had been previously lured to countries with more enlightened policies. There is also the hope that with the best higher education system on the planet, the United States will allow gifted international students to stay and contribute after they've received their degrees. And those young Americans who are just entering college or graduate school, who thought they would study finance, may hopefully enter engineering, medicine or science; areas that have been neglected in favor of the get-rich-quick Wall Street career.
Last year alone, so much good news about medicine was introduced it was enough to make a hypochondriac giddy. Scarless surgeries may soon become the norm. A five-in-one vaccination may help the country reach its goal of proper immunizations for 80% of children. There have been advances in organ transplants, cardiovascular treatment and surgery for Parkinson's disease. The concept of preventative medicine in the form of nutrition and physical activity are gaining traction in our schools and in our lives.
Non-Profits: The New Age of Giving Back
It isn't pretty watching scores of recent MBA graduates realize that not only do their dream jobs no longer exist, neither does Wall Street. But with many of these young people coming from privileged homes, they can afford to dedicate a year or two in the non-profit sector.
Non-profits need help more than ever, and in an ironic twist of circumstances, the unemployed and recently graduated comprise the ideal talent pool. Many non-profits have lost their endowments and may have to close their doors. If these young people decide to take the virtuous path, they will be rewarded far more than they would by a seven-figure paycheck. President Obama has made service an important part of his mission, with plans to expand AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, establishing a goal of 50 hours of annual community service for high school students, and even tax credits worth up to $4,000 in exchange for public service.4
Such programs are rites of passage we need to reconnect to what is truly important in life. If passed, they will serve both benefactor and beneficiary, and much as with John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps, they will usher in a new age of service that will help solve some our nation's worst problems. Non-profits cannot help but prosper in such an environment.
Big is No Longer Best
For the past 20 years, it was behemoth companies like Enron, AIG, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers that commanded the most respect, especially from Wall Street. These brands were so revered that Americans entrusted their life savings through their IRAs and 401Ks to ensure a comfy retirement.
With such leviathans dominating the financial landscape, there wasn't much opportunity for small startups to gain traction. Remember, every great company in American history started as a small company, often in the midst of a great economic downturn. The Coors Brewing Company opened its doors at the beginning of the Long Depression of the 1800s, while IBM got its start at the tail end. UPS hit the ground running in Seattle during the Panic of 1907, Hewlett-Packard was conceived in a Palo Alto garage near the end of the Great Depression, and the Super 8 hotel chain opened its doors during the oil crisis of the early '70s. The History Channel could fill an entire series based on companies that snubbed popular economic wisdom and made a go of it during financial crises.
For the first time in recent history, small businesses are on nearly equal footing with corporate giants and may be more capable of survival without the onerous overhead and debt of the big guys.
Now is the time for which entrepreneurs have been longing. Those who choose to shun their muck-colored glasses for rosy ones will see the opportunity awaiting them. What's more, they will see that innovation and altruism will attract the many talented individuals currently seeking employment, because those attributes are more lasting than the oversized tactics employed by yesterday's dinosaurs.
America is the Home of True Innovation
Most of modern society's greatest discoveries are the direct byproduct of the can-do spirit of the American inventor and entrepreneur. Think of some of the most recent achievements of our fellow citizens... the Human Genome Project, space exploration, computer technology and the Internet (there's a reason code is written in English and not Hindu or Chinese). Now, faced with the potential devastation of global warming and the dangers of our dependence on foreign oil, America will focus its efforts on environmental advancements and be an example for change.
In America, technological breakthroughs breed like mechanical rabbits, with one new disruptive technology hopping after another. Some of the most innocuous inventions have proven earth-shattering, with reverberations felt around the planet. The Internet is the poster child for disruptive technology, but even such inventions as Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPod have rocked their respective industries by changing how we entertain ourselves. There will be more disruptive technologies in this time of need. In a garage somewhere, two kids are cooking up a widget that will make our lives both easier and less expensive.
Hope Springs Eternal
These reasons may not be wonderful enough to throw a party or inspire a T-shirt, especially if you were recently laid off in a town that has no jobs. Hopefully, the rebuilding of our debilitated infrastructure will put lots of Americans back to work. It could be a time to discover something new in you, something you've wanted to do that you can now try -- especially because there is so little to lose.
America is saving for the first time in a long time, out of desire, or downright fear, it doesn't matter. Perhaps in time we'll be able to finance our own future. We are rediscovering that our true happiness comes from the love of our families and closeness of our circle of friends. "You Are Here," as the mall directory sign says. Make the most of it!