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Can We Get It Right?

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Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

We've lost sight of what makes our time in the world important, and our lives matter. It's about time to address the matter, and see the truth.

One day, years ago, my wife and I were sitting on a couple of big, bright beach towels, watching small waves break onto the sandy shore close to our home. She said to me, wistfully, "You know, you write books that could be read a hundred years from now. And I'm just a mom and a homemaker."

Hey, I've known a lot of people who run companies that run the world. And I'm just a thinker and a scribbler.

On the surface, some jobs seem incredibly big, impressive, and important - CEO, President, Ambassador, Physicist, National News Anchor, Senator, Producer, Film Star, and, oh yeah, Creative Billionaire Tech Genius. Others, by contrast, seem vastly smaller and less valuable to our striving and chattering world.

In her engaging TED talk, "Can We 'Have It All'?" Ann Marie Slaughter raises some related issues of value that are vital for our time. In the early days, she says, the feminist movement confronted the standard, male established hierarchy of value in the center of our society, and argued for equal access with equal pay. Women should be able to run companies, and government agencies, and nations, and be as well recognized and compensated as the men who do so. Women should have an equal shot at important, fulfilling professional careers. And that's certainly right.

But Slaughter suggests that something vital was left out of the argument. We need to craft a culture where men and women have an equally broad array of life and work options that are of equal perceived value -- where running a home can be just as noble as running Home Depot, or Homeland Security.

Plato insisted that, in this world, things aren't often what they at first seem. In fact, as we know, realities can be the opposite of appearances. Something can look like a prize of great worth, and actually be ephemeral, or trivial, or worse. Other things can appear small and ordinary, and be the exact opposite.

We live at a time that has many of its values positioned upside down. Socrates long ago highlighted a dangerous tendency: The least important things, we think and talk about the most, while, the most important things, we think and talk about the least. We get it backwards. And his culture presented only a small foretaste of the current values that force dedicated teachers, nurses, and blue-collar workers to live in obscure poverty, while young media entrepreneurs and entertainers compete for vast fame and fortune.

Contemporary philosopher Rebecca Goldstein just this week wrote an essay for the New York Times called "What Would Plato Tweet?" In it, she examines our current social media mania, with its Klout Scores of Personal Impact and Importance, and shows its similarities to the fixations of ancient Greece, where a person was also judged by his renown, public image, or fame.

As she also mentions, the ancient Hebrews held that your value resides entirely in who you are, as reflecting your origination as a creation and child of a Creator God. To the Greeks, by contrast, your value was in what you do, and the reputation it brings. The Greeks didn't have Klout, but they had Kleos, a strangely similar conception of public name and influence. In their view, each of us arrives in the world with no personal meaning or value attached to us, other than perhaps the reflected glow of our parentage -- as with the Hebrews, origin still mattered, but only as it reflected the Kleos of one's ancestors. Meaning and value came from impact and influence.

But the great philosophers of Athens were revolutionaries in their day, arguing that meaning and importance reflect, not public opinion or high office, but such inner realities as wisdom and virtue. On this view, what we cultivate within us, and closest to us, in our friendships and homes, builds personal value, and the real difference we make.

In the book, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, I contended many years ago that we can't fully understand business and the professions without getting a grip on meaning of life issues. And I suggested that the great wisdom traditions can be summed up in this regard with a view that the meaning of life resides in creative love, or loving creativity. To the extent that our daily activities reflect this, our work will have meaning, and value, and real importance. If they don't, then it won't. This is true for men, and women, in corporations, and governments, and homes. Any philosophy that doesn't reflect this understanding serves us poorly.

Goldstein ends her essay by saying: "Mattering -- none of us more than the other -- is our birthright, and we should all be treated accordingly, granted the resources that allow for our flourishing." I think this deeply echoes the message of Slaughter's talk, and should cause us all to think more about what matters most in our time.

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