Learning to reinvent and relearn is often scary. But doing it together — as men and as humans — might be the only thing we can do.
In today’s New York Times, Op-Ed Columnist Thomas L. Friedman writes about the “New Rules” – stating that “working hard and playing by the rules” and expecting a decent life in return is obsolete:
This made me think Obama should stop using the phrase — first minted by Bill Clinton in 1992 — that if you just “work hard and play by the rules” you should expect that the American system will deliver you a decent life and a chance for your children to have a better one. That mantra really resonates with me and, I am sure, with many voters. There is just one problem: It’s out of date.
The truth is, if you want a decent job that will lead to a decent life today you have to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, make sure that you’re engaged in lifelong learning and play by the rules. That’s not a bumper sticker, but we terribly mislead people by saying otherwise.
Why? Because when Clinton first employed his phrase in 1992, the Internet was just emerging, virtually no one had e-mail and the cold war was just ending. In other words, we were still living in a closed system, a world of walls, which were just starting to come down. It was a world before Nafta and the full merger of globalization and the information technology revolution, a world in which unions and blue-collar manufacturing were still relatively strong, and where America could still write a lot of the rules that people played by.
That world is gone. It is now a more open system. Technology and globalization are wiping out lower-skilled jobs faster, while steadily raising the skill level required for new jobs. More than ever now, lifelong learning is the key to getting into, and staying in, the middle class.
There is a quote attributed to the futurist Alvin Toffler that captures this new reality: In the future “illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.” Any form of standing still is deadly.
I think of this in terms of what we are doing here at The Good Men Project. Helping people reinvent themselves. Learning and relearning what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Breaking down stereotypes. Erasing prejudices. We are the only conversation about progressive masculinity going on on the internet, as far as I know – certainly the only conversation about progressive masculinity to attract 7 million people.
Sometimes re-inventing oneself means being a stay-at-home dad instead of the breadwinner – and loving every minute of that role instead of seeing it as some sort of failure to provide. Sometimes re-inventing means going outside the script of what society says is a “normal” life – finding alternatives to the happily ever after fairy tale that says you need a heterosexual relationship, house and kids to be truly happy. Sometimes re-inventing oneself means coming clean after an addiction, or finding a way back into society after a jail term. Sometimes re-inventing oneself means recovering from a war injury, or sexual abuse, or trauma or divorce. Sometimes re-inventing oneself means exactly how Thomas Friedman intended it – learning new skills, going back to school, applying the skills to the workplace. But really, all of these changes impact how productive can be. All of these changes are progress.
I recently fought a battle with Lyme disease. It left me temporarily unable to breathe, to walk, to swallow or to lift my arms. My vocal chords were completely paralyzed and I couldn’t talk. Over the course of several very long weeks, I had to re-learn how to do all of those things all over again.
And I thought a lot about social change and progress while all that was going on. The interesting thing was how my mind played tricks on me to try to stop me from re-learning. “You already learned to walk once,” it would say. “Why learn again? A wheelchair is not so bad.” Or “Don’t let them take you off the ventilator! You have been breathing with it for weeks, surely you will die without it!” or “Learning to use your right arm again is just too hard. Your left arm compensates just as well. Surely that’s good enough.”
It was uncanny how hard my brain tried to tell me that progress was not only unnecessary, but potentially dangerous. The only way I could move forward was to make a tiny piece of progress somewhere — often despite myself — and to then see the results of that progress in the form of new-found freedom and independence. Learning to walk again got me out of my room, outside the building and into fresh air. Learning to breathe without the ventilator meant I could sleep at night without holding myself stiffly in semi-upright position, without alarm bells continually sounding, without a weight around my neck, without feeling like I was choking. How could I not have wanted that? If it was scary for me to learn how to breathe again – I could suddenly see how scary all change could be — how scary it is to go back to school, keep up with a changing society, learn new skills, learn how to relate to each other in new and different ways. Yet the benefits of doing so are the same – new found freedom and independence.
Progress is scary. Heck, even freedom and independence can be scary when they are abstract concepts instead of reality. I think back to the It Gets Better campaign. With every step towards freedom and independence, with every move towards being who we are instead of what we are afraid society will think of us, it does, indeed, get better. And it reminds me of Ken Goldstein’s great post on about asking his 75-year-old father what the most profound change over the past 75 years has been. The answer is not what I would have expected.
We need to learn together how to usurp stereotypes, erase prejudice, see aging as a growth experience not a burden; to learn to embrace differences, embrace change – reinvent and relearn — not just because we are able to, not just because we should – but because we must if we are going to not just survive, but thrive together.
photo of Silhouette in a Subway Tunnel, Light at End of Tunnel by Shutterstock.com