Wednesday, March 18, 2015


David Brooks' has a shiny, new future waiting just for you!

Well, not you exactly.  You can hop the nearest ice floe and disappear into oblivion as far as Mr. Brooks is concerned.  But he does have a bright future prepped and open for business for his affluent neighbor's kids, some of his students at Yale and a few of his fellow passengers on the Acela Corridor express.

So yay!

But what (you ask) are these mad skills that are the entree to Mr. Brooks' Brave New World of Tomorrow?

And how does one get them?

And can I haz some?

The answer to your last two questions are "Magic Eight Ball says 'It's...fuzzy'' and "No", so let us concern ourselves with your first question.

But first, let me tell you a completely true story which will pay off at the end of this post...

Once upon a time, many years ago, back when I hadda full time job with a nice salary, decent benefits, an important-sounding title and a lunatic/sadist manager, I was called upon to put together a presentation for a forum we would be conducting with representatives of a friendly, foreign government.

I was on a team of three, and we each did their own little show.  Mine was so comprehensively better than anyone else's that, as we took our show on the road (all the way to D.C. and back), the other two acts in our road show fell away, and mine became "the" presentation.  Also, it stopped being "my" presentation, and became "our" presentation.

Also, because it wowed 'em, my boss benched me and he started doing the entire act, start to finish.

Then, one day, they needed to lay off staff so that more politically connected people in other departments would have a soft place to land.  Which is how -- during the week of Barack Obama's first inaugural and in the depths of the Great Recession -- I was kicked to the curb.  (Since that time I have done equally excellent work in a variety of part-time/no-benefits jobs at a considerably reduced salary, and have been laid off from each of those jobs in turn -- five times in six-and-a-half years now.)

Funny thing, though.  A couple of years back a friend of mine who works pretty high up in Chicago city government emailed me a briefing my once-upon-a-time boss had made to some Very Important People.  And lo and behold, what do I find but my little presentation, which had moved up in the world; had gotten a promotion and job security and gone merrily on without me.  Of course by then any embarrassing reference to my existence had long since been sandblasted away right down to the "Created By" tag in the file information folder, but otherwise it was virtually unchanged since the day I had brought it into the world.

So, end of that story for now, and back we go to the subject of the skills which Mr. Brooks describes in the second half of his column (the first half is about teachers and Big Data and "microgestures" and such): skills which, unsurprisingly, are either: those skills which will be of greatest value in the coming American feudal state, fulfilling the desires of a small, ruling clique who are expertly serviced by anticipatory and technologically proficient valets...or are the skills about which that small, ruling clique ruminate dreamily at cocktail parties, Aspen Institute weekends and Davos.
For example, in today’s loosely networked world, people with social courage have amazing value. Everyone goes to conferences and meets people, but some people invite six people to lunch afterward and follow up with four carefully tended friendships forevermore. Then they spend their lives connecting people across networks.
I would be willing to wager my next month's salary against Mr. Brooks' salary that not "everyone" goes to conferences.  And of the small minority that do, a very high percentage are now being sent to "webinars" because they are cheap and you employer can have you at your desk working on the Markelsen report at the same time you are wolfing down some lunch at the same time you are learning about the paradigm-shifting power of whatever.

But please continue, David.
Similarly, people who can capture amorphous trends with a clarifying label also have enormous worth. Karl Popper observed that there are clock problems and cloud problems. Clock problems can be divided into parts, but cloud problems are indivisible emergent systems. A culture problem is a cloud, so is a personality, an era and a social environment.

Since it is easier to think deductively, most people try to turn cloud problems into clock problems, but a few people are able to look at a complex situation, grasp the gist and clarify it by naming what is going on.
I have watched my Liberal brethren and sisteren synthesize complex political and cultural problems and "name what is going on" for decades now, and so far the big payoff for has been that we are either willfully ignored by people like David Brooks or told to fuck off by people like David Brooks.  
So color me doubtful.

On the other hand, I am sure that this is much talked about as a desirable skill at the parties Mr. Brooks attends.  And I will keep it in mind the next time I am plunged into a power struggle over, say, the fate and future of NBC, where the millionaire titans of the digital communications industry are running through the corridors with their hair on fire screaming thought-leader gibberish while throwing every insane idea at the wall to see if anything sticks because money:
By last summer, [then-newly-minted NBC President Deborah] Turness finally came around to what others had been saying for a year: Gregory had to go. She secretly began searching for a replacement. Todd was the obvious heir, but Turness and Fili-Krushel also considered blowing up the show. At one point, they sat down with Jon Stewart to gauge his interest. “They were exploring it in the way of, ‘Maybe it’s time to do something ridiculous,’ ” Stewart told New York last year. Stewart passed, and in late July, they settled on Todd.
But so far NBC has ignored my clear and specific directives, and out here where 90% of the rest of Murrica lives and works, it is extremely unlikely that your boss (Out here in Real America we have things called "bosses", David.)  wants you to think outside the box because it is very likely your boss drew the damn box.  In fact, your boss lives in the box, along with his wife and his kids and his house and his mistress and his other house and his boat and so on.  

What your boss really wants is to be seen as innovative without actually moving the contents of the box around in any significant way.  He wants...adjectives.  He wants just enough new paint on the old box so when he struts his stuff at the next Chamber meeting, his peers will whisper, "That Joe sure is one paradigm-shifting motherfucker isn't he?"

But propose something actually and disruptively new?  Tell her something uncomfortable and true that might put a real dent in the box?

Hello unemployment!

Moving on, Mr. Brooks suggests:
Making nonhuman things intuitive to humans. This is what Steve Jobs did.
I know how attractive it must be for the newly divorced and "desperate to get remarried" David Brooks to push for quicker advancements in the field of lifelike and pliant sex robots.  But for you, the average American human middle class worker, betting your family's future on learning to anthropomorphize technology seems nuts.

Mr. Brooks continues:
Purpose provision. Many people go through life overwhelmed by options, afraid of closing off opportunities. But a few have fully cultivated moral passions and can help others choose the one thing they should dedicate themselves to.
Because if he didn't shove the word "moral" into it, how would generations unborn know David Brooks wrote it?  Also, this sounds a lot like the kind of weirdly diffracting sentence one would construct if one had spent many years as a moral scold and "disordered family" finger-wagger and suddenly had to explain to a paying audience why he was divorced.  

But hey, that's just me.  


Opposability. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” For some reason I am continually running across people who believe this is the ability their employees and bosses need right now.
For the moral coward who made money writing long, screechy paeans to orderly families, old fashioned values, the military and economic genius of George W. Bush and the stupidity and depravity of Iraq War opponents...and went on to make even more money preaching the gospel of Both Siderism...and then made even more money writing thundering sermons on the need for Judgment, Accountability and Atonement...and then reacted to simple questions about his long, screechy paeans to orderly families, old fashioned values, the military and economic genius of George W. Bush and the stupidity and depravity of Iraq War opponents by denying he'd ever said such things...well, color me shocked that Mr. Brooks would try to use Fitzgerald's quote to make being a weasel into a virtue.

But as a skill?  Go ahead and try to earn a living out in the real world telling your boss that maybe she should do one thing...or maybe she should do the exact opposite.  Because opposability!

See you at the next job fair, moocher!

It turns out, the punchline which punctures these dreamy dreams is to be found, of all places, in the Wall Street Journal.  In an article from late last year in which we find some blunt and practical wisdom about skills for the 90% of American humans who will never make it past the gun turrets and human resources department and into Mr. Brooks' Brave New World of Tomorrow.  It seems the #1 problem with the real skills gap which real American human trying to make a living really face has nothing to do with opposability or creating lifelike sex robots who will coo over your every New York Times jot and tittle (Ohhh Mr. Brooks.  Your 251st column about Both Sides being wrong makes me soooo horny!) 

Instead, it turns out, a lot of employers are cheap bastards who -- surprise! -- just don't want to pay for what they need
But the fault rest with employers, not workers, says a new working paper from Peter Cappelli, the director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Mr. Cappelli says a better explanation of the inability to fill certain jobs rests with employers themselves. The “obvious solution” to “virtually all the skill problems reported by employers is to increase training and produce the skilled workers they want themselves.”

Much of the evidence in support of a skills gap could be explained by employers who are no longer willing to train their employees or raise salaries, and instead want to be able to hire people with exactly the right skills–and on the cheap. Mr. Cappelli points to data showing apprenticeship programs are being abandoned. The number of apprentice programs registered with the Department of Labor declined to 21,000 in 2012 from 33,000 in 2002, and the number of apprentices has plunged from 280,000 from 500,000 a decade ago. If employers really faced a damaging shortage of workers, this would be an odd time to abandon programs to train employees.

Rather than facing an insurmountable skills gap, some employers may have a different agenda, he concludes: ”No doubt some component of the complaints is simply an effort to secure policy changes that lower labor costs.”
So there's that.

And also this -- the conclusion to the totally true story I started way up above.

The one skill that has been of use to me on every job I have ever had was storytelling.  

For real.  

From crafting RFPs to applying for grants to writing speeches and press releases and scripts to preparing briefing books and white papers, no skill in the workplace is both as critical and staggeringly undervalued as the ability to construct a clear and compelling narrative, targeted to a specific audience to accomplish a specific purpose.

Conquering the terrifying blank page with words in a row.  

Using those words to build a complete and engaging story in whatever time and within whatever parameters I am given.  

And doing it well, over and over again.  

This has never been the job I was hired to do, (Go look up 'Writer' in the Help Wanted.  Be prepared to laugh.) but it has always ended up as a huge "other duties as assigned" part of every job I have ever landed.  Because every organization needs this done, and damn few are capable of doing it at all, and fewer still can take policy-wonkese or clinician-speak and turn it into a story that can hold the audience's attention and move them in your direction.

Unfortunately, no matter how critical it really is to the health and success of the organization, no executive staff or HR department in modern, post-literate America has ever categorized griot as a vital skill, so be advised that being a capable and gifted writer will not save you when the terminator comes to kick you to the curb.

That is, unless you specialize in one, very specific of genre writing.  

The kind of writing that David Brooks has built a career honing to a razor's edge. 

The gentle art of telling the rich and powerful exactly what they want to hear. 


Ivory Bill Woodpecker said...

I expect Drifty and all of his regulars know this already, but if y'all will indulge me:

Those things which the rich and powerful (is there a difference between those two in a capitalist system?) do not want to hear are exactly the things they need to hear in order to learn what adjustments they need to make to keep themselves and/or their descendants rich and powerful.

As long as the rich and powerful hear nothing but the soft sucking noises of the Brookses of the world kissing their buttocks, they will not learn what they need to know, and The March Of Folly will continue.

"Same as it ever was, same as it ever was...

Unknown said...

David Brooks isn't the problem. It's the corrupt ideas he espouses that are the problem because others use them as cover. Attacking David Brooks does nothing to weaken him.

Kathleen O'Neill said...

Driftglass, you are absolutely correct in your assessment of the importance of telling a good story. That is also the the mark of a good sales person, and I have always contended that every job one has is a sales job because one is selling an idea or a request for help or support or self. You really could be very successful at your own business communications business which I think you could accomplish and love without selling your soul.

Deny Smith said...

Curious: did any of your layoffs have anything to do with your political views? Thx.

Deny Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fish said...

If Brooks ever pulls out a copy of Popper's book to support his intellectual wasteland again, I will beat him with it. He isn't fit to wipe Popper's ass.

Kent Anderson said...

David Brooks "thinks" he's the heir to William F. Buckley. He's not. Nor is he the intellectual equal of Buckley, Christopher Hitchens or Gore Vidal. It was Vidal who coined the term "The United States of Amnesia."

The problem I have with Brooks is the same problem I had with Vidal (not so much Hitch). They both think they are (or were) smarter than everybody else and they brag about it. Brooks makes an art form of condemnation, with his nose stuck half-ways up his brandy sniffer glass. Vidal loved rubbing his wealth and supposed "superior morals" in front of everyone. He was at least a bit entertaining in the way that he did it, though. Who else could get away with a 30-year vendetta against Truman Capote and still come out smelling like an ass who hadn't got laid in 50 years?

But getting back to Our Man Brooks. I sincerely hope that his dog, Moral Hazard, runs away. Soon.

Mister Roboto said...

1) What Ivory Bill Woodpecker said.

2) We clearly don't live in a meritocracy. We live in a socio-economic tyranny of dumb pretty/ well-connected people. And dumb, shallow people have a way of seeing what they want to see and hearing what they want to hear, which as IBW pointed out just ends up slowly chipping away that the very system that allows these pretty/ connected dummies to live in a self-congratulatory la-la-land. Socio-economic collapse is going to appear to be a very "out-of-the-blue-who-could-have-seen-it-coming" thing to these folks.

3) From the sound of it, I would not have been able to read this latest spewing from Brooks from start to finish without spewing myself, as it sounds like the sort of upper-managerial-class bullshit-gibberish that makes me instantly nauseous. In fact, just those few snippets I read in this post had me reaching for my bottle of pink bismuth medicine.

4) FWIW (which can probably be counted in fragments of post-1982 pennies), if we really did live in a meritocratic society, your situation in life would probably be rather different than it is today, and I'm truly sorry that isn't so.

Ivory Bill Woodpecker said...

I hear Pink Bismuth is getting back together, dudes! I read their reunion tour is gonna feature their playing their whole classic album, Dark Side of the Sun, in concert! I hope they bring back the lasers and giant balloons and everything, man! This is gonna ROCK!!!