This is the week of the TED conference in Vancouver. As a former speaker there I've gotten to know some amazing participants. What they seem to have in common is self-empowerment. They view themselves as inventors, not only of products but of their own lives and beliefs. TED talks inspire people not only because of the particular topic but because of the demonstration of individual initiative on display.
Individual self-determination is harder to accomplish in the modern world of big business, big government, and bureaucracy everywhere. We have the tools of instant knowledge but fewer obvious ways to act on that knowledge in an individually creative way. Young people come into the job market and find themselves in jobs hemmed in by high walls of established corporate protocols. Retirees can't find cracks in the bureaucratic walls to make a difference in their communities. They're not "certified" to teach or provide hospice care. The municipality insurance doesn't cover volunteers.
This airless, over-organized world can discourage people. Professor Barry Schwartz made the point that a structure can change people. They involuntarily adopt its values. People stop asking what's right, and just follow rules. They even watch people die because the rule says they should "get permission" to help rather than acting themselves, as we saw recently in D.C..
Arianna Huffington has an inspirational new book, Thrive, which exhorts people to make choices about their personal priorities. Maybe it seems like the world around you demands that you give up your personal life for success, but don't buy it, she says. Personal fulfillment comes from deliberate choices about what you value. Individual initiative starts are home. She's right, and her breezy, self-confident sermon about life's meaning, addressed mainly to women, comes at a time when both men and women are under enormous pressure to sacrifice basic joys and needs to the demands of the workplace.
David Brooks is also on this beat. His sermon, delivered yesterday at TED, suggests that we'll never get the leadership we need to pull ourselves out of this cultural and bureaucratic rut until we stop listening to the muse of raw ambition and begin listening to our souls about what is right and what is wrong. Only with humility and a sense of uncertainty can we face honestly the imperfect choices needed to move forward responsibly. Here too, the answer lies in self-discovery and a commitment to self-determination.
The problem here is not just that people are discouraged from self-determination. Modern society is organized to avoid human choice. Ever-more-detailed rules are designed to prevent people from acting on their own sense of right and wrong. Leadership might as well be illegal. What does the law allow? A giant bureaucratic blob has paralyzed the halls of power as well as the nooks and crannies of our lives. The solution, as in our personal lives, is to seize back these choices. But reclaiming democratic self-determination is not a matter of personal will, but of an organized movement to rebuild government into a structural framework based on human responsibility. Self-determination is indeed the secret sauce of fulfillment, as Arianna Huffington's new book makes clear. That truth applies equally to the structures of our democracy.
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