Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Brush with Inequality: Why People Really Hate Working on Thanksgiving

When Costco executive Paul Latham was asked why the company is keeping its stores closed on Thanksgiving, his answer to The Huffington Post was clear and simple: "Our employees work especially hard during the holiday season, and we simply believe that they deserve the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with their families."

But while closing stores is the right decision, his reason misses the mark. Let's be honest: is being away from family really why people hate working on Thanksgiving? As much as we all look forward to commenting on the size of the bird and praising how wonderfully moist it is this year (what's your secret?), the truth is that the meal and ensuing ennui are less important than what they symbolize: everyone, young and old, rich and poor, sitting together at the same table.

That meaning is turned upside down when people have to work on the holiday and face today's harsh reality: we don't all get a seat at the table. As much as we tell ourselves that America's the land of opportunity and the place where dreams are made, the truth is that some of us will always have to work on Thanksgiving.

When I began my career as a young journalist, I often had to work nights, weekends, and public holidays, and for good reason: it was a daily newspaper. But working those days always made me reflect on where I was and where I would be in the future. I was thankful that I had a job, a place to live, and food to eat. But I was frustrated that I had to work when so many others got the day off.

On Thursday, Costco and those retailers who remain closed deserve our thanks -- not for honoring tradition or time with extended family, but for something far more basic: giving everyone the day to call their own. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Living a Full Life on Social Media

At a panel discussion I attended earlier this year, a successful entrepreneur was asked what he does and does not want to see in a job applicant's Facebook page. His answer surprised us all: he doesn't care.  "We all live full lives outside of work," he said. "And I expect that my employees do as well. What's important is that they do their jobs."

At first, that statement might seem a little crazy. After all, most experts will tell you that posting photos of drinking with friends will convey to a potential employer that you're more into partying than working. Even if all your photos were taken at one party, employers will worry: if he can't present himself professionally on social media, how will he represent the company in "real life"?

These are legitimate concerns, and most of us manage our social media pages to reflect who we are and how we want to be perceived. But the reality is that as social media continues to grow, these "red flags" will become harder to find. Every second, our uncensored thoughts are shared with people on social media around the world and become trends that attract marketers and advertisers. A controversial performance at the MTV Music Video awards this year not only raised the profile of Miley Cyrus, but also led to one of the nation's most respected actors, Morgan Freeman, reading a definition of "twerking" on TV. Whether it's a Facebook Town Hall led by the President, or a "new language" of Twitter hashtags, the evidence is clear: social media has become a way to promote our original thoughts, publicize our "compelling" lives, and share our "funny" stories with millions of people around the world. And with all of us competing for followers, friends, and retweets, we'll all inevitably say something "cool" that we regret.

So is engaging in social media a risk worth taking? I'd say yes. Just remember what Taylor Swift once said: "All of my favorite people - people I really trust - none of them were cool in their younger years." Which reminds me: hey, @taylorswift13, can I get an RT?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

When Did Being Smart Become So Shameful?

Thomas Edison was probably the smartest guy in this room.
Below are two columns. The left column contains five quotations, and the right column features the famous people who said them. Without using Google, try to match each quotation with the correct speaker.

1) I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m certainly not the dumbest.
A. Michael Bloomberg

2) I'm not the smartest guy, but I can outwork you. It’s the one thing that I can control.

B. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
3) I’m a great believer in low self-esteem.  So consequently, if you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room and you think you’re going to have to work a little harder. . . you can actually do quite well.

C. Bill Rancic

4) I'm never the smartest guy in the room. I'm willing to work harder than most people around me, come earlier, stay later.

D. Nick Hornby

 5) I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I can sure pick smart colleagues.

E. Jay Leno

If you can't figure out who said what, don't worry. The quotations all convey the same basic idea, which may seem quite noble. After all, there's nothing wrong with humility, even if it's used to highlight your strengths. But the issue I find perplexing is: why is being the "smartest" considered shameful while being the "hardest working" considered an honor? 

My guess it has something to do with the American values of hard work and opportunity. Concepts like "if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything" and "no pain, no gain" reflect how we think about success: it only comes as the result of hard work. Being smart means being arrogant and stubborn, and working hard means being passionate and devoted, spending all hours of the day devoted to your business. I'm all for hard work, and whenever I tackle a project I always give it my all. But is it possible that our definitions might be hurting us more than helping us? That we are focusing too much on quantity over quality, and on how much time we spend, rather than how we spend our time?

I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I think I know the answer. And speaking of answers, here are the correct responses to the quiz above: 1)D; 2)A; 3)E; 4)C; 5)B.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Is Negotiation Ethical or Exploitative?

Is negotiation ethical? Before you answer that question, think of all the times you negotiate with friends and family without even knowing it.  Pizza vs. sushi; watching football vs. going shopping; sitting on the couch vs. doing laundry.

But then, think of the time you learned that your friend spends $400 less a year on cable and gets the same level of service. Or consider how you would feel if you found out a younger colleague who does the same job as you at work is making $25,000 more a year. 

Whether you like it or not, negotiation is part of life. And while it feels great when you make deal, it feels horrible when you've been exploited. Since September, I have been taking a class on Negotiation at Baruch College, as part of its part-time MBA program. Each week, we split up into pairs or teams to improve our skills through timed negotiations. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to be aggressive or pushy to win. In fact, it is quite the contrary: planning, listening, and at times remaining quiet will often help you reach a more successful outcome. Still, no matter you negotiate, at the end of the day, there are often repercussions than can last far beyond the agreement.

When you learn that Frank bought the same car for $5,000 less from the same dealer, you're upset and will likely change your behavior the next time you buy a car. You might even see it as a competition, and be angry at Frank for "beating you" and jealous of his ability to secure a better deal. The same is true of receiving money, whether it be a peer's higher salary or a sibling's greater inheritance.

When I debated this question of ethics with someone recently, I was told I was a communist. That was a bit harsh. So we negotiated, and agreed I would be deemed a socialist. But just so I don't feel like I got the raw end of the deal:  socialism, despite its historic misuse, still helps millions of people around the world get free healthcare and education. Of course, whether those systems are truly free or ultimately helpful will be our next debate, and hopefully we'll be able to reach an agreement.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Making Boxing Safer

Heavyweight Mago Abdusalamov suffered a stroke after a fight Saturday night.

The Russian heavyweight Mago Abdusalamov had knocked out all of his opponents going into Saturday night's fight against Cuban Mike Perez. But as I sat in the crowd at MSG and watched Perez dominate, I thought nothing of the heavy beating the Russian took. He looked like one of the toughest guys I had ever seen and I had little doubt he'd be back to fight another day.

But the next day I learned that after complaining about a headache, Mago had undergone tests at Roosevelt Hospital and was found to have a small blood clot in his head. He was placed in a coma by doctors to keep the swelling under control and underwent surgery. After surgery, he suffered a stroke.

It's a sad story, and everyone is praying that Mago recovers. There is no blame to be leveled for the tragedy; not even for the referees, who in retrospect should have stopped the fight earlier. Boxing is inherently a violent and dangerous sport. The only question is: are there any ways to make the sport safer but still competitive? Here are a few ideas:
  • Softer boxing gloves - If the boxing gloves were softer, this would make the blows to the body and head less damaging. The punches will still hurt, but could potentially save a boxer's life.
  • Fewer rounds - People want their money's worth when it comes to a fight. But if fights were much shorter, the boxers could potentially fight more often. 
  • Points, not Knockouts: Everyone wants to see a knockout, but what if you couldn't win by knockout after the second round? What if the points for each round were determined by total punches landed, with no extra credit given for power shots? The fights would be more about the sweet science -- of dancing, ducking, and connecting -- than about killing your opponent. Ultimately, it's the tactics, not brute force, that make boxing so much fun to watch. 
In the meantime, if you would like to help Mago's family with its rising medical costs, you can donate via PayPal to 100bbb@mail.ru or send a check made out to Magomed Abusalamov to BakanayAbdusalamova, PO Box 90174, Brooklyn, NY 11209.