Tao of the Zentropist

April 27, 2011

Why You Must Avoid Becoming “Middle Seat Guy”

Authors Note: This posting was inspired by a prior blog posting written by Curtis Franklin, Jr. on the Enterprise Efficiency IT blog earlier this month…

Anyone who has ever experienced airline travel, especially in the post 9/11 world and traveling in steerage (oops, I mean “economy”) class, intuitively understands that nobody, and I mean nobody, voluntarily chooses a middle seat. It’s simply not done. And part and parcel to this is understanding that the metaphor of occupying the “middle seat” when it comes to employment or marketability for independent, self-employed types in our Brave New World is avoiding finding ourselves in the Middle Seat, because it’s a miserable position to be placed in and ultimately, is not viable for one’s long-term viability, health or sanity.

In order to solve a problem, one first has to understand it, so let’s dive in…


If we accept the premise that one rarely volunteers to be the “Middle Seat Guy” (or Gal), absent extenuating circumstances, it is reasonable to conclude that a lack of sufficient planning and/or preparation often leads to this unfortunate categorization. And the truth is if you find yourself in the “Middle Seat” in business especially, you’re running a very real risk of being viewed as being expendable or at best, a mere commodity which is easily replaced by management on a whim.

Photo courtesy Sodahead.com

One of the major disruptions to the psyche of many white collar, or “professional” workers if you prefer, has been the realization that regardless of educational or work history pedigree, the system no longer protects those who may think of themselves (consciously or not) as being among the “elite” or most privileged. Much has been written about lately of the phenomenon of BWM’s (Beached White Males), typically displaced men in their 40’s to 60’s that were previously high-earners, some in what is supposed to be the prime earning years of their lives, who have discovered following their voluntary or involuntary termination that the world is no longer beating down a path to their door and the six-figure salaries that many were accustomed to are no longer sacrosanct.

As many corporations race to create, deliberately or not, a neo-feudal system in which the wealth and power is overwhelming concentrated at the very top with various levels of “serfdom” fulfilled by a mix of workers (including a cohort who can salve their wounded egos, if not their wallets, with various permutations of managerial or lower ranking executive titles), those who thought they had played by the rules have been disabused of the notion. Formerly convinced that they had dealt themselves a strong hand, these disillusioned and disenfranchised players have found they were mere patsies who were used and discarded, and pleas for understanding or “another shot at the big time” tend to fall on deaf ears both up and down the hierarchical ladder. After all, those who still have their jobs, especially if their positions are reasonably well paying and prestigious, don’t want to be tainted by association with perceived “failure” or the “fallen,” and those lower down in the pecking order may have little sympathy for people who once fed at the corporate executive trough and disdained or dismissed the very work which these refugees are either too prideful to accept even if offered, or completely unqualified to perform.


So if one realizes the dangers in being passive, or even worse, complacent, regarding one’s career and economic future, what mitigating steps can be taken?

Clearly, both on a professional and personal level of self-development, it is vital that we adhere to the following core traits:

  • Remain adaptable and avoid stagnation by constantly evolving.
  • Do not wait for rewards and recognition, but create opportunities for these to arise.
  • Accept that change is inevitable, and that we are best served if we see it coming or do not waste energy fighting a reactionary battle that we cannot win.
  • Make ourselves indispensable through a “can do” attitude and willingness to learn new skills.
  • Avoid defining ourselves, or letting others define us, through simple sets of labels and preconceptions.
  • Understand that market value and “worth” are two different things; sell your value and thereby increase your perceived worth.
  • Never compromise our core values and ethical framework, but remain fluid in how we achieve our most compelling life goals, which should drive our sense of a personal mission.

Many of these concepts have recently been encapsulated in the notion of teaching individuals how to forge a “Protean Career,” and for employers, a “Protean Workplace,” which author and career coach Jay Block has been advocating for and spearheading via the Protean Careers Group on LinkedIn. Over the past several weeks, a small group of participants (the author of this blog included) have codified the notion of 12 Protean Principles which are meant to serve as a guide for people who understand the importance of continual improvement and development to avoid becoming stagnant, easily commoditized, or de facto, a “Middle Seat Guy/Gal.”

Further discussion of the 12 Protean Principles and their genesis will be forthcoming in future postings, so look for these soon!

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder and principal of Black Rock Consulting, a boutique management and communications consultancy based in Los Angeles offering strategic planning, project management, marketing and writing services. Feel free to send an email to schedule a confidential discussion of your needs. Initial consultations are FREE OF CHARGE and WITHOUT FURTHER OBLIGATION


February 3, 2011

Drawing the Line Between Respect and Reverence

Early on in our development, most of us are taught the notion and meaning of “respect,” usually within the context of the culture surrounding us. For some, respect is something granted automatically based on occupational titles, personal or professional achievements, chronological age, family or clan relationships, etc. Others emphasize that respect is something that must be earned, and is not conferred automatically.

No matter one’s upbringing or cultural values, there are times when the distinction between Respect and Reverence is blurred, and this can be problematic. We live in a world filled with both Light and Darkness, and consequently, there are many shadows. As the eloquent Oglala Lakota Medicine Man Black Elk said, “It is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among these shadows, men get lost.”

The line between respect and reverence is oftentimes a thin one, but worth heeding with caution; we must temper our idealism with a measure of objectivity to safeguard ourselves from being led astray.


Respect is defined by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary in two very relevant ways:

“An act of giving particular attention” (consideration) as well as “High or special regard” (esteem).

Depending on one’s religious/spiritual beliefs, we all are granted, or get to enjoy, a decidedly finite amount of time in this world. For many years, our wants and needs are quite simple, and in most cases provided for by others until we reach a stage of development to start providing for ourselves. However, during these early formative years, we are to some degree or another socialized to pass judgment on people, institutions and things, in part to determine what is worthy of focusing our most precious commodity (time) on, and in part allowing us to interact within the societal mores and accepted standards of the larger culture.

Consequently, sometimes we are taught to respect certain things reflexively, without much further thought or analysis. Depending on perspective, this may or may not be appropriate, or even ultimately healthy for our own future development.

Personally, deciding on who or what is worthy of your respect is largely a personal choice, guided hopefully by one’s conscience and some objective analysis of the reasons why the target of the respect is worthy of purposeful consideration and emphasis. Those who deliberately choose to go “against the grain” may be viewed as mavericks and even malcontents; sometimes these people change the world for the better (as it might be commonly and universally defined), others lead themselves and others down twisting paths filled with deceit, strife and more often than not, hatred.

Whenever you are unsure, I would suggest to respect those people and things that are worthy of such admiration and emulation by virtue of the good which they return to the world around them through their actions or by the very fact of their existence; those that shine a beacon of light when the darkness closes in and step forward to be counted without thought of personal reward , much less risk; and those that facilitate and recognize the universal interconnectedness which binds all living things.

This is as good a starting point as any.


Invariably at some point, perhaps out of idealism or a willful and deliberate blindness to the faults and imperfections that mar all things, respect is transformed into reverence. Under certain circumstances, this thinking can become exceedingly dangerous, and cause us to adore and perhaps “worship” false idols.

In traditional Eastern martial arts, for example, students are often taught unquestioned obedience to a Master, and even more senior disciples of that master, because it is presumed that they are further along the path than the more inexperienced student. In one context this may be true – knowledge and command of a particular “art” or fighting style – yet this does not necessarily suggest that the Master or senior disciples are any wiser. Bruce Lee famously rebelled in part against such thinking, and faced enormous resistance and opposition from those who felt that he was disrespecting traditions because he lacked the discipline and appropriate mindset to demonstrate the proper obsequiousness to “his betters.”

In my own personal pursuit of the path of martial arts mastery, I have been fortunate to train under and with some individuals who are considered to be “masters,” and while I greatly respect the skills and understanding which they may have within their particular expertise, I do not automatically revere them as paragons of spiritual, ethical or philosophical wisdom. Some perhaps do have components of such knowledge, and if so, are given greater weight outside of a more narrowly defined context. Certainly none of them have demanded any unreasonable demonstration of respect based solely on their rank or experience; those that do, in my opinion, are the ones to be most leery of. Those who would coerce reverence, or falsely manipulate others to create such a feeling, are dangerous indeed.

To be reverent of someone or something is to imbue it with great power. We would do well to only cautiously extend such favored treatment and create such vulnerability to ourselves after very deliberate and careful consideration.

While respect is a gift which should be freely given, reverence is a sacrifice of some piece of ourselves upon a higher altar, and therefore must be reserved for only the most worthy recipients…

January 5, 2011

What Power Balance Bracelets Teach Us About Belief

To quote Captain Renault in the classic film Casablanca, I was “shocked” to learn via the Associated Press newswire that the manufacturer of Power Balance bracelets, in response to an Australian consumer protection inquiry, has admitted, “There is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims,” in reference to its televised marketing campaign boldly stating that wearing its silicone bracelets improves balance, strength and flexibility.

Gee, you think? Plastic bracelets with “magical” holograms don’t really interact with the body’s chemistry, or alter your “chi” or encourage the instantaneous development of more fast-twitch muscles and neurological pathways? For those seeking instant gratification, this must be disappointing news indeed. But what this does reveal is how powerful belief can be, and how psychological conditioning can lead to positive outcomes.


What science does seem to suggest is that an individual’s mental state does have a measurable impact on not only athletic performance, but a wide range of human endeavors. Indeed, much of the “self-help” industry, including the cottage industry spawned by “The Secret” and the notion of the Law of Attraction, is based upon affirmations of positivity and reinforcing an attitude of belief that one is capable of achieving whatever goals one desires. You just have to want it badly enough.

Psychological mindset is important, and at elite levels of competition, any potential edge over a competitor is widely sought out. As Henry Ford is credited with saying, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

The danger, of course, is that it can be very difficult for most people to maintain the focus and discipline necessary to remain positive 24/7, especially in the face of challenging circumstances which undermine confidence and perhaps speak to nagging self-doubts or feelings of inferiority. That’s why many Eastern traditions speak of focusing on the NOW, or the present moment, because it is the one thing that we have direct control over. Quantum mechanics aside, for all practical purposes the past is behind us (although as Shakespeare wisely noted, “The past is prologue”) and the future is still unwinding and unknowable. But we do have the ability to act in a certain way at this very moment, and adjust our attitude accordingly.

Of course, part and parcel to our mental attitude and maintaining a “Can Do” belief system is also recognizing where our talents and interests lie, and finding the sweet spot where these intersect and we can excel. Returning again to the topic of athletics, competition at the elite levels in every sport requires the right combination of genetics, hard work (physical and mental) and even a healthy dose of luck; absent any of these factors, just believing that one can become a highly compensated professional athlete is ultimately an unhealthy delusion.


Now what’s interesting, and frankly, not too surprising is that Power Balance has also admitted that some of the sports figures raving about the efficacy of its product are actually paid endorsers. We can be cynical about this, as vested financial self-interest is a powerful motivator, but I suppose that it’s also possible that people like Shaquille O’Neill and Lamar Odom really believe that their performance is enhanced by wearing a talisman which invariably is manufactured overseas by people who will likely realize in their lifetime less income than these gentleman do in a single season of athletic competition.

Based on interviews, I’ve come to the conclusion that Shaq is probably a nice guy whose heart is in the right place, but I wouldn’t hold him up as a paradigm of intellectual horsepower or as someone experienced in the art of critical thinking. And the Power Balance “demonstrations” featured on their television commercials and Website of haplessly weak, out of balance people suddenly “centering” themselves and resisting a tug on the arm are comical as any competent martial artist knows; notice how a subtle change in angle when force is applied can make all the difference between being able to maintain some semblance of balance and toppling over. I’ll be more impressed if someone can maintain their center (not to mention their equanimity!) with the aid of the magic bracelet when confronted by a well-trained fighter.

Yet even still, I would draw an important lesson from yet another scam tapping into the tendency of most people to want instant results with minimal or no effort; belief is a powerful tool in support of achieving one’s goals, so long as it is also backed by what Buddhism identifies as the Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.  One doesn’t necessarily have to agree with traditional Buddhist definitions of each of these, but rather the spirit of how they apply to each of us individually.

That’s something that all of us, regardless of religious affiliation, can potentially believe in…

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder and principal of Black Rock Consulting, a boutique management and communications consultancy based in Los Angeles offering strategic planning, project management, marketing and writing services to start-ups, early stage and more mature businesses. Feel free to send an email to schedule a confidential discussion of your needs. Initial consultations are FREE OF CHARGE and WITHOUT FURTHER OBLIGATION.

December 29, 2010

Success Nourishes Hope

The Scottish Clan Ross, of the Northern Highlands, bears an interesting and inspiring family motto worthy of comment.

Spem Successus Alit. “Success Nourishes Hope.”

If we all fundamentally agree that to be stripped of hope is to be stripped of a crucial human belief that is absolutely essential for progress and our well-being, understanding the causality between “success” and “hope” and making the necessary psychological and attitudinal adjustments to maintain our definitions  of each no matter the external circumstances facing us is vital.

It is always worth remembering that “success” is often relative and subjective, and like failure, it is by no means permanent should we grow complacent, lazy or arrogant. In part it is a mindset and even a habit, and something worthy of striving for and pursuing with our full attention and vigor.


How we individually and collectively define success is in part influenced by our personality makeup and societal conditioning. For many, the accumulation of material possessions is high on the list of defining success. In a competitive, consumer-driven society addicted to spending and maintaining an image, this is perhaps understandable, although its sustainability has obviously come into question over the past several years. For others, the quality of relationships and interactions with family, friends and even strangers is given the most weight. Some choose to focus on acquiring as much as possible (and not strictly in a material sense), through whatever means necessary, placing the emphasis on the feeding and aggrandizement of their own ego and self. Others believe that “giving back” or serving others in whatever capacity one’s natural talents and capabilities allow is the true measure of success.

What is clear from these diverse viewpoints is that success comes down to a value judgment, no more and no less. We might condemn a particular attitude or view as being wrong-headed or undesirable, and feel rather smug and self-satisfied with our moral superiority, but to whom must we give account? Our belief in whether our actions in this world reflect upon our soul in some other realm of existence is most telling in this regard. Do we choose to act in a particular manner out of a “nobleness of intent” or “purity of our spirit,” or rather out of a fear of punishment in this world or the next?

As Marcus Aurelius observed, “The measure of a man is the worth of the things that he cares about.”


No matter how we personally define success, invariably there will be peaks and valleys, times of abundance and scarcity, and perhaps even a sense that either our “best is behind us” or that the future is so uncertain as to diminish our sense of hope. These are the times when remembering our past accomplishments, even if we think them humble, point to our ability to realize success on our own terms and encourage us to believe such success is repeatable and within our capability.

Failure comes when our “reach exceeds grasp” and we attempt to achieve something that we are unprepared for, or which circumstances prohibit, in the moment. We learn by doing, and this is true in every aspect of human endeavor. Virtually all entrepreneurs have encountered “failure” of one degree or another in pursuit of their dreams; what separates those deemed “successful” from those who are not is their ability to learn from past mistakes, make adjustments, and apply the lessons learned to either the venture in which they initially stumbled or a new one. Sure, some setbacks are more formidable and daunting than others, but oftentimes this can be mitigated by recognizing when one is on an inadvisable course and having the wisdom and courage to change direction before the worst case scenario is realized.

We do well to consider that obstacles are ultimately opportunities for us to grow, to test our mettle and fortitude in ways which we otherwise might not. Sometimes this involves improving certain skills, or learning new ones. Sometimes it’s about adjusting our attitude or our expectations. While going through such a time may force us temporarily to “eat bitter,” it is essential that we not allow the experience to make us bitter.

It is always worth remembering Plutarch’s admonition that, “The measure of a man is the way he bears up under misfortune.”


Most things will yield to hard work, determination and commitment. But perhaps not all. While it is important that we never give up on our dreams, we must also learn to interpret these dreams in new ways, or understand the underlying motivations for them. While we do not always realize it, there are more often than not many paths to the top of a mountain. Some of those paths are more scenic. Some are more arduous. Some are longer than others.

Hope may be nourished by success yet it is also driven by our expectations. It is our constant striving to be a little bit better than the day before. It is our ability to recognize and acknowledge incremental progress and to “light a candle rather than curse the darkness.” Finding the kindling to ignite the flame may be a challenge at times. That’s okay.

Because when we find that kindling, and coax forth the flame, we have realized a non-trivial success. And from that tiny ember, hope springs forth, and the journey continues…

December 22, 2010

Decoding “The Narrative”

Filed under: Commentary — zentropist @ 4:31 pm
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Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, or are even consciously aware of it, our lives are often influenced, if not governed, by “The Narrative.” So what exactly is the Narrative?

In short, the Narrative is the set of beliefs, assumptions, pre-conceptions and myths that we choose, individually, collectively and institutionally, to give shape to how we perceive the world. It’s the filter or prism through which we consciously and sub-consciously view our role as players on this temporal stage, and how we more often than not rise to or simply settle for the expectations and limitations imposed upon us.

The Narrative is most certainly subjective; it can contain truths, so far as we understand them, but it also may contain lies, deceptions, distortions and disinformation. At times it may serve us, while at other times it destroys us. If we never challenge it, it remains indifferent; the moment we hold its gaze too long, it rears its head and we’re faced with either challenging and subverting it, if not defeating it, or submitting to its raw power.


It is the rare individual that never suffers from self-doubt or feelings of recrimination, particularly when things don’t seem to be working out as planned or desired. It’s easy to fall victim to the pessimistic internal voice that can be self-defeating and self-limiting if given free rein, which is why so many motivational speakers, philosophers and others who dispense their wisdom emphasize the need to remain positive and optimistic no matter the circumstances, because ultimately every moment is transitory and, “This too shall pass.”

By becoming self-aware, we are better able to counter-act and balance our personal Narrative when it turns overly pessimistic, and by the same token, we can remain humble and grateful when the other extreme strikes and we tend towards over-confidence, hubris and arrogance and believe that our current success is either “owed” to us or solely the creation of our own greatness and genius.

The early Romans of the Republic Period understood this when they awarded a victorious military commander a “triumph” and allowed him to ride through Rome on a chariot to the adoration of the masses. Tradition stated that the triumphant general would have a slave accompanying him in the chariot, constantly whispering the refrain, “Remember that you are mortal” lest the magnitude of the rare honor lead to behavior not conducive to the Senate’s rule.

Ultimately, as individuals we must not allow the personal Narrative to limit our potential, nor should we allow it to justify behavior which ultimately reflects poorly on ourselves. If we are inclined to see ourselves as  “extraordinary” and capable of making lasting contributions to the world around us, it is up to us to live up to that standard and realize this potential. Conversely, I would urge those that see themselves in a different light, and who feel their gifts or abilities are meager or poor to realize that their potential to impact the world in a positive manner is far greater than they imagine. They just need to get out of their own way.


The collective Narrative can be found at both an institutional and societal level. Like the billions of personal Narratives found on this planet, it is rife with half-truths, closely held beliefs rooted in unquestioned assumptions, and other detritus and noise which often obscures objectivity and rational analysis. It can be found in our incessant need to compete and win at all costs, to prove the status or establish the dominance of the institution or society in question as “better” than those around it, as more evolved, or compassionate or enlightened, or whatever.

That’s not to say that competition is inherently bad, or that all forms of governance or leadership or moral values are equal. They’re not.

Freedom always trumps servitude. Compassion always trumps antipathy and indifference. But blind allegiance and unquestioning loyalty to any man-made institution, dogma or social construct is a dangerous path. The tendency to buy into “Groupthink” without applying any critical thought or checks and balances often leads to disastrous consequences. Human history is littered with examples of this.

We cherish myths because they speak to closely held desires. Myths are often rooted deep in universal psychological themes or motifs, and some perhaps hold kernels of truth around which much “color” has been added through generations of storytelling. So too goes the Narrative.

Yet just as we cannot and should not allow our personal Narrative to go unchallenged, we cannot and should not buy into the larger Narrative without continuous introspection and contemplation. The Narrative may have a spine upon which it hinges, yet it constantly evolves despite the fact that it is not sentient. It feeds upon the energy invested in it. It is constantly becoming

Never discount the power of the individual to change the Narrative, for better or worse.

November 16, 2010

The Art of Formlessness

Mastering the Art of Formlessness is as valuable in the business world as it is the practice of martial arts. The ability to assume different forms as circumstances dictate, if only momentarily, can be invaluable in dealing not only with business competitors, but even rivals, supervisors and co-workers.

Depending both on one’s interpretation of “formlessness” and its actual application, this practice may be construed as an expression of deceptiveness, although in reality, it argues for the ability to not be wedded to a single definition by outside parties, and to display such traits as adaptability and resourcefulness in order to provide a range of useful attributes. Fans of Bruce Lee may recall his admonition to, “Be like water,” which was not an analogy original to him. However, his point to remain malleable and fluid, traits that water in its liquid form clearly exhibits, speak to its nature.


So how exactly does the pursuit of formlessness translate into everyday life?

Ultimately, it emphasizes the importance of not adhering to a rigid definition or state of being, which is a hallmark of remaining adaptable to changing circumstances. While change has been a constant since time immemorial, the speed of change which confronts many of us on a daily basis only seems to accelerate, and the consequences of not adapting to such change only seem to grow more severe over time, rather than less so. However, given the all too natural resistance to change which seems to be evident in most people, such a process of “re-invention” or even evolution is often only undertaken under the gravest of circumstances, and seldom willingly. In other words, the default setting for most people is to be “reactive” rather than “proactive.”

This I believe is a fundamental mistake, and one that can cause missed opportunities, if not complete paralysis in our modern working world. Water again is an appropriate metaphor in understanding the practical application of this strategy. Regardless of the form (i.e. state) that it assumes in a given moment – liquid, solid or gas – water’s core properties remain the same. However, by its very malleable nature, water adapts to its environment and short of consumption and evaporation, it essentially endures.


It is readily observable that water, given sufficient time, can erode and otherwise degrade the hardest stone or metals. Yet liquid water, to the touch, can feel quite soft and by definition is supple and pliant, which belies its power to act on other substances.

When dealing with people on a personal level or within a business context, it may be advantageous not to confront them directly or attempt to bend them to your will or influence a favorable decision from your own point of view via a direct approach, but rather to employ more indirect tactics such as flattery or via compromise on less important issues.  Alternatively, you might re-direct their attention to other matters in order to make the person feel more secure, powerful, and ultimately more favorably disposed to agree to the primary result that you are seeking.

Direct confrontation, whether it is verbal or physical, is ultimately predicated on being stronger, or in a position of real or perceived greater advantage than the other party. It’s really that simple. So if direct force is to be applied in order to seek a favorable resolution, you must be confident in the ability of the force that you can muster to overwhelm the opponent’s counter in a specific moment in time.

Otherwise, your use of force is likely to result in failure.


It is important to understand that “strength” is a relative term and that attributes which in one context might be considered favorable or classified as assets, can in another context become liabilities and vulnerabilities which can be exploited.

For example, if you are dealing with an individual with a rampant ego, challenging that person’s ego directly may be a non-starter or detrimental to obtaining the results that you are seeking. Such people may be threatened by ideas or work output which challenges their own preconceptions or potentially exposes poor decisions which they have made. The art in dealing with someone of this temperament is to appeal to their ego and vanity and present your ideas or work in such a way as to enable them to assume partial or even full credit for the work or idea, or to otherwise point out benefits that they can realize by supporting your vision. In doing so, you avoid challenging their authority or knowledge directly, and do not cause them to “lose face” with others, which is often of paramount concern for such individuals.

From one point of view, such behavior might seem manipulative, but human interaction is often based on people seeking to obtain a specific result, which may or may not coincide with the direct interests of the other party. When interests align, securing such cooperation is easy, but in situations where they do not, diplomacy and tact, perhaps tempered with some subterfuge, are often the means utilized to obtain what is desired.


As human beings, we make choices in life, and among these are whether we stand for certain principles or not, and whether we believe in situational ethics or not. Truthfully, in my interactions in both business and personal affairs, I’ve noticed that there is a segment of the population which believes solely in expediency and will change their stances on issues to suit their immediate needs. For people of this ilk, “truth” is highly elastic and integrity is a nice concept to pay lip service to, but is absent when the rubber meets the road.

In assuming formlessness, an individual can still remain true to core principles and closely held beliefs. Those who dissemble and spin the truth are fraudulent, not “formless.” Water, even if existing in a solid or gaseous state, returns to its liquid form when environmental conditions change. It does not become something else.

Your principles, and how firmly you hold to them, will in large part determine your destiny. You can temporarily assume a posture of formlessness by not clinging to a narrowly defined model of attributes and behavior without betraying the core of who you are.

This is the Art of Formlessness…

October 20, 2010

On (Office) Politics

“War is a continuation of politics by other means…”

Carl von Clausewitz

A few days ago, while performing research on another unrelated matter, I stumbled across an interesting article written by Don Tennant on IT Business Edge entitled, “10 Reasons to Avoid Office Politics.” While I admire the spirit in which the article was written, and actually agree with Don’s reasoning (which was written in response to information on Salary.com encouraging the practice of office politicking in order to get ahead), as a pragmatist I believe that holding oneself aloof from office politics, as well-intentioned as it may be, can seriously backfire and like it or not, acquiring the skills to outmaneuver those that resort to this practice is part of one’s job (and even life) survival toolkit.


One reality that must be acknowledged is that by definition, interaction among two or more individuals in any social setting (and make no mistake, the workplace is a social setting, more so for some than others) immediately establishes a power baseline, in which the two individuals, consciously or not, establish a relationship which may be more complex and dynamic than either are aware. At the risk of being misinterpreted, all relationships, whether professional, personal (e.g. based on notions of friendship), romantic or casual acquaintances, have either a formally acknowledged balance of power and/or some expectations of reciprocity. Humans, like most animal species, inherently establish a social order and dominance, and while this admission may be offensive to some, wishing it weren’t so or pretending it doesn’t exist can be highly detrimental to one’s career.

While office politics may take many forms, more often than not the most insidious and subversive expression of this “great game” is the back-biting and hard feelings engendered by playing different people, if not entire departments, off of each other in order to realize some personal agenda or gain.  Sometimes this is done to mark one’s territory or to curry favor with others (typically of higher rank and authority) within the organization, but sometimes it’s done for the perverse pleasure of sowing chaos to underscore one’s “importance” or to position oneself as a “broker” of favors, with the full expectation that payback (with interest) will be expected in the future.

While it’s not necessarily true in all instances, some of the most adept and accomplished office politicos tend to be those who are most inept, incompetent and eager to shirk responsibilities by assigning these tasks to others in order to cover for their shortcomings. Typically, these people have well-developed office survival skills and have learned how to manipulate corporate bureaucracies or enjoy favored status with higher-level management, which is why they manage to flourish even if harder-working and more accomplished employees could outperform them if given the opportunity.  While we typically like to believe that workplace promotions are based on merit, even in environments where hard metrics and incisive performance evaluations are utilized, allowing one’s “soft skills” to atrophy can blemish and otherwise distinguished history of accomplishments.


One of the most challenging situations to deal with in a workplace environment is when a co-worker, especially one with longer tenure or more prestige and power in the organization, is working behind the scenes to discredit you or actively sabotage your efforts.  While perhaps many are familiar with “The Prince” by Machiavelli, which is arguably one of the earliest literary works to address realpolitik, a more recent book which contains a great deal of wisdom (and admittedly, perhaps a healthy dose of cynicism about the human condition) regarding relationships is Robert Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power.” Among the laws that Greene advances are the following:

  • Never Outshine The Master
  • Never Put Too Much Trust In Friends, Learn How To Use Enemies
  • Conceal Your Intentions
  • Always Say Less Than Necessary

And if you’re seeing a certain pattern beginning to emerge, bear in mind these are merely the first four of his laws! With that being said, I do believe there is a context which must govern the application of these “laws,” and in relationships where true openness and honesty are expected and desired (if such a thing is indeed possible), those who abide by these rules are really “stacking the deck” and not living up to such lofty ideals.

While many of us would tend to be inclined to take the moral high ground and condemn Greene’s observations on how to wield power, there is an argument to be made that when dealing with people that act without scruples, or seek to deceive others through outright fabrications or lies of omission (which they may believe to be harmless, but seldom are), it is morally acceptable and even defensible to deflect their energies and stratagems back at them. For example, if dealing with someone in a position of authority that has raging insecurities, the worst thing one can do is threaten their authority or position, even if unintentionally, by outshining them or failing to call attention to the correctness and efficacy of their actions.


There is little doubt in my mind that among the keys to satisfaction with one’s career and working life is to continuously build upon one’s skills in both breadth and depth, while hopefully aligning these with one’s interests and fundamental passions, but we must also accept the fact that in challenging economic times, many people must resort to not necessarily, “Following their bliss” but simply working to survive.

In an “employer’s market,” workers that lack sufficient interpersonal skills, which include the ability to be cunning and perhaps quite circumspect when necessary, may find themselves outmaneuvered by those more willing to engage directly in subterfuge or outright deception. While it’s relatively easy to condemn politics in the workplace, escaping it is probably a chimera, and staking one’s future on illusory beliefs is a poor strategy indeed…

July 8, 2010

The “Scott Nicholson Syndrome” – A Glimpse Into American Entitlement

The New York Times recently published an article entitled, “American Dream is Elusive for New Generation” which garnered 60 pages worth of comments, the vast majority of which were hostile, tinged with class envy or hints of the author’s own unrealized or otherwise unfulfilled dreams, and largely symptomatic of the direction that our society is headed.

Scott Nicholson, the hapless subject of the piece, is a 24 year-old college graduate, whose expectations that his undergraduate degree from Colgate and “family connections” from a privileged upper-class Northeastern background (which have apparently failed to materialize into much thus far) would enable him to waltz into a high-paying executive-level “career-track” position despite an apparent lack of work history have been brutally dashed. Whether he realized it or not (although it’s hard to believe the journalist and editors did not realize the ensuing maelstrom that would result), his self-absorbed, self-pitying statements and the attitudes expressed by his well-meaning but equally naïve family only served to paint him as the poster child for unrealistic expectations coupled with massively overinflated ego and sense of self-worth, notions of class privilege, and a disconnection with the harsh realities of the massive global recession.

And I’m willing to bet, he and his family are hardly alone in this.


Perhaps one of the harder lessons for people to learn is that while formal education certainly has value and can open doors, not all education is equal nor does education automatically translate into a lucrative and stable long-term career. As many of the respondents observed, certain undergraduate majors tend to be more “marketable” than others, although those that believe that an undergraduate math, science, engineering or business/accounting degree will guarantee employment are also deceiving themselves.

Quite frankly, many of us in hiring positions have encountered prospective employees with BA or BS degrees that are inarticulate, lack demonstrable critical reasoning skills, or are incapable of clearly expressing themselves in written communication. I found it ironic that while some respondents were quick to denigrate “liberal arts” degrees (poor Scott majored in Political Science, which in the interest of full disclosure was part of my own major, and history), such degrees can and should teach valuable critical thinking and analytical skills, reading comprehension, as well as the ability to communicate clearly in both verbal and written forms. Given the fact that some of Scott’s most vocal critics misstated information provided in the article or simply made assumptions that the reported “facts” did not necessarily support, these skills are clearly lacking in more mature adults as well.


Many people seem to believe that 4-year institutions are in the business of teaching technical skills and/or trades – well this is simply not the case. Given the pace at which technology evolves, at best college is a time to absorb and hone skills which may be useful and applicable right now, but could very well be obsolete (or otherwise in lesser demand) just a few years down the road. However, what education ideally should teach is the necessity of maintain a lifelong interest in learning, whether this is self-directed, obtained from an accredited institution, or simply obtained via on-the-job training from an organization or mentor. There is little doubt that given the proliferation of colleges and universities, not to mention online degree programs, that the value and worth of a BA/BS degree in general is in decline, that standards do not necessarily measure up in many schools to what was expected a few decades ago, and that increasingly, obtaining post-graduate education is a necessity to either fulfill a checkbox on the HR forms of corporations hiring for better-paying positions or to gain experience and credentials to support their own entrepreneurial ventures.

Meanwhile many skilled “blue collar” workers (e.g. trade jobs such as plumbing, electricians, etc.), if they are skilled at running a business and able to compete in their given location, are able to carve out more solid and stable careers than those that aspire to “white collar” work. These services are also, for the moment, less susceptible to off-shoring practices, although they too are dependent upon having a customer base that can afford their fees. Such a realization hopefully validates the notion that all honest labor is admirable and beneficial, and that there is no shame in earning a living by getting one’s hands dirty, as opposed to pecking at a computer keyboard, shuffling paper or providing “knowledge” to other people.


Here’s a news flash. Every generation lies to some extent to the one following it. That’s just the nature of human behavior. Some of these lies are well-intentioned ones, or lies of ignorance or omission. While age may bring wisdom, young fools / charlatans / malingerers sometimes age into older fools / charlatans / malingerers as well, if they don’t accumulate wisdom, maturity and humility along the way.

Perhaps Scott Nicholson and those of his ilk are an extreme example of the narcissism and lack of self-awareness that can arise when well-meaning parents insulate their children from the realities of the world until adulthood, never teaching them the value of money, or to realize how privileged they are relative to so many others. I understand – a lot of people have “played by the rules,” getting an education (and in many cases incurring significant debt to do so), working hard, not causing trouble for others, only to realize how the financial system is gamed by some to enrich themselves obscenely, which in many cases (although not always), leaves others squabbling over diminishing pieces of the pie.

Of course, it should not be overlooked that many people, in creating wealth for themselves (often by taking significant risk, such as starting and operating their own businesses), help build wealth for others by creating jobs, providing valuable services or products, or creating even more opportunities for other businesses to address.

But let’s get this straight. The world owes none of us anything. Life is hard for everyone – relatively speaking, of course. Some face financial challenges, some emotional, some physical and some psychological (or a combination thereof), and sometimes these challenges are setbacks which we overcome through persistence, dogged determination and an unwillingness to quit, while others are of a more permanent and lasting nature. But keep this in mind – the only time we fail completely is when we stop trying, and we will all taste disappointment in life, but it is up to us to imbue it with meaning.


In closing, I’d also like to observe that while it’s easy to take potshots at what we perceive as entitlement thinking, many of us are loath to admit to our own. Planning on collecting on Social Security? How about Medicare? Senior citizen discounts? Do you actually pay federal income taxes or are you one of the millions of Americans that don’t qualify under the current system. As of 2007, the top 10 percent income bracket (essentially those with an AGI of $113K plus) paid more than 71 percent of all federal income tax collected. Now I realize that most Americans consider an income above $100K to be pretty extraordinary, but depending on where one lives, it may be less extravagant than you might think (e.g. many people forget that surgeons, most of whom do NOT earn more than six figures and require education and training that delays such rewards until age 30 or so, pay six-figure malpractice premiums) and the chasm between those earning even mid or high six-figure salaries and those in the seven and eight figure salary range (or above) is arguably as wide as those getting by on mid five-figures and the $100K plus club.

So while it’s clear that some commentators on this article and Scott Nicholson’s situation and attitude in general took undisguised glee in expressing their Schadenfreude, it’s also clear that many fail to understand just how dysfunctional and illusory our consumer-oriented culture has become. Sure, some Baby-Boomers have been able to make hay in the generally economically vibrant decades of the latter half of the 20th Century, but many of their cohort either failed to plan properly for their retirements (if they want to maintain their pre-retirement lifestyles) or thanks to the near financial meltdown that began taking shape late in 2007, have seen their 401-K’s plummet or are counting on pensions which may very well be underfunded and may evaporate once exposed to the light of day.

What remains to be determined is whether we as a nation will continue to delay making the necessary sacrifices and adjustments to right our ship of state and crack down on the irresponsibility, selfishness and criminal malfeasance in some quarters which has created so much hardship, or if we will surrender to an “inevitable” decline which could very well end in violent upheaval once we can no longer borrow money to forestall the massive financial, societal and natural resource intensive debts that we have collectively incurred.

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder and principal of Black Rock Consulting, a boutique management and communications consultancy based in Los Angeles offering strategic planning, project management, marketing and writing services. Feel free to call us at 310.598.6161 to schedule a confidential discussion of your needs. Initial consultations are FREE OF CHARGE and WITHOUT FURTHER OBLIGATION.

May 10, 2010

Embracing the Mysterious

While there may be many different views on what the purpose of life as we know it is, we do find that a commonly held view is that fundamentally, it’s a learning experience, in which our great challenge is to seek out both knowledge and wisdom and apply it to lead a “meaningful” existence. What’s interesting about that interpretation is that a lesson learned on this journey of discovery is that there are key differences between “knowledge” (In Greek, γνῶσις which in English is translated as Gnosis) and “wisdom” (Σοφíα to the Greeks, which has come down to us in English as Sophia), and being able to differentiate between the two is confirmation that said lesson has indeed been absorbed and translated into practice.

Perhaps one of the most eye-opening conclusions that we must draw, which for some can be a bitter pill to swallow, is the acceptance that there are things in this world that we can never know with any certainty; that there exists certain information or points of view which can only be personally experienced or accepted on faith, but are not readily provable through any empirical process of observation and experimentation.


It is said in Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism that one must walk the “Middle Path,” which certainly lends itself to wide interpretation. While some might view such a philosophy as living life with emotional detachment, thus stripping away an important aspect of the material world and our senses, I personally do not view this approach in such cold and clinical terms.

To my mind, walking the Middle Path implies maintaining a sense of balance, an appreciation of the very Taoist notion of duality which exists in all things and a nod towards the concept that there is an important difference between commitment to a cause or belief, and an over-commitment which clouds one’s judgment and leaves one unable to respond appropriately to experiences or views which challenge our fundamental assumptions or preconceptions. In my own practice of Wing Chun Kung Fu, this principle is embodied in the physical expression of the art, in which practitioners must learn to be “interruptible” at all times. If we are not, we risk becoming extremely vulnerable because we cannot know for certain how an opponent will react to a given strike, series of strikes or other offensive (and even defensive) actions due to the fluidity of the situation.

This does not mean, of course, that one cannot hold firm to principles, for if there is any “truth” to be found in these principles, they are certainly worth preserving and building the framework of our lives around. What it does suggest is that being malleable, much like water, is an important concept to grasp; rigidity, while appropriate and desirable in certain situations, may be disadvantageous in another, and the ability to move between “states of being”  imparts us with the flexibility to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

There are many paths to the summit of a mountain, and those paths may diverge and converge in ways which we cannot readily fathom. While the views from those paths may differ for those on them at any particular moment in time, if they all lead to the same destination, then ultimately the view will be the same for all that have successfully completed the journey.


The entire notion of “success” is subject to not only individual interpretation, but also to societal and cultural ones as well.  For some, the accumulation of material wealth and possessions, or perhaps rank and titles, provides a means of “keeping score” and confirming the validity and efficacy of our efforts and daily struggles. It is all too easy for us to get caught up in the trappings of our perceived success, to chase elusive chimeras as a means to prove our worthiness not only to others, but ultimately to ourselves, yet perhaps miss a more important lesson. I have always subscribed to the belief that anything worth doing entails a certain amount of risk, and harboring an adventurous spirit is part and parcel to this creed. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee has observed that, “To live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk,” and this is true not only of physical dangers and pitfalls but emotional, psychological and spiritual ones as well.

We should all embrace and encourage the thrill of discovery – it is a joy that we should welcome into our lives, for it enriches our souls. Likewise, we should hold firm to the notion that we all matter – every living thing, whether it walks on two legs or four, crawls, slithers or flies – for if we deny this premise, we destroy the very promise contained within us all.

Truth cannot be held hostage; it reveals itself in time. However, we cannot always control when that time will manifest itself, only take comfort in the knowledge that inexorably its season will come.

The journey through life is easy for no one; all sentient living things experience joys and sorrows. Perhaps some see a disproportionate share of one or both, but each leaves its mark on us, visible or hidden. We must draw courage from knowing that who we are is not defined by what we have (or don’t have) but by the voice that whispers to us in the dark. The voice that summons forth the goodness and light we are all capable of, or the dark, destructive urges that some choose to indulge in, whose currency is pain and suffering. We all hear this voice, although some choose to ignore it. And it is this voice which reminds us that our choices are not made for us by some outside agency, but ones that we freely make ourselves.


Personally speaking, one of the great blessings of my life has been my young son’s favorite utterance upon waking up to face the world, “It’s a sunny day.” What makes this remarkable in my book is that such an innocent, offhand remark can contain so much truth, especially when the day in question does not appear to be suffering a surfeit of apparent sunshine. Because fundamentally, what this speaks to is an attitude – a mindset that another day, no matter the weather or conditions that we face at the moment, is one full of the magic of possibilities, and that no matter how we regard how things are going for us at a given moment, we can rest assured that change will come. It is how we manage that change and incorporate both its overt and hidden lessons that define our success in our journey.

The winds of fortune can be fickle and changing, but even when struggling in the Doldrums, we are wise to remember that there will again come a “sunny day.”

February 23, 2010

The Coming American (R)Evolution

Part One of a Planned Multi-Part Series…

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

The time has come to tackle a subject which many pundits, opinion-makers, and ideologues across the political spectrum have been speaking of with increasing vitriol and divisiveness, which is the fracturing of the veil of prosperity and upward mobility which has been the hallmark of the American Dream for generations, forged in the fires of our Founding Revolution gaining independence from Great Britain.

We’re in trouble, folks, and pretending otherwise is foolish and will only postpone the inevitable. The United States has become a massive debtor nation, and an increasingly large percentage of the population in what is the “richest, most powerful nation on earth” are living lives of increasing desperation, at least so far as our traditional American standards and expectations have defined. While politicians dither and in many cases, cynically manipulate the system out of personal interest and beholden to those that control their purse strings, the physical and educational infrastructure of this country crumbles, executives with little concern beyond the next quarter’s bottom line make decisions with implications that impact the lives of millions, our population grows even more anaesthetized and disengaged as it gorges on a diet of 24/7 “info-tainment” and mindless lowest common denominator “reality” fare, and meanwhile, we engage in conflicts which on many levels may be necessary, but with a tiny fraction of the population bearing the actual burden of the fighting.

Like all civilizations before us, we have reached a crossroads and the choices (difficult as they may be) which we make now will define us for eternity. Even if we do nothing, which is what many in positions of power seem compelled or resigned to do, we have made a choice, and the repercussions of our inaction will echo throughout time as we slide into the chasm which has engulfed other once great peoples. If recorded history teaches us one thing, it is that human nature does not change, and throughout the world lie hints that contrary to the widely accepted view that mankind has technologically evolved over time, save for periods of “back-sliding,” we operate under no assurance that this is a constant or that we are somehow immune to the pressures and choices which have destroyed empires and nations that had cohesively endured far longer than our 234 year run thus far.


As I see it, we face very stark choices right now, which will likely become more restricted as time goes on and we slip deeper into the quagmire we’ve created for ourselves. The United States as a whole can seek to evolve, to apply the enormous potential of our creative and business minds to adjust our course, to make certain sacrifices which may be unpleasant in the short-term, but which are far more preferable to what we could face in the mid or long-term if we do not take such action. Or we can continue to allow the fear, hopelessness and steadily building anger which is permeating many sectors of our population to build, until it finds release in revolution, which even in its non-violent expression leads to fractures and rifts in which the rights of dissenters to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – as well as the rule of law – may be compromised as passions inflame action and desperation yields to extreme agitation.

Before I get too much farther, I should clearly state for the record that the thought of our present circumstances leading to violence, organized or not, is deeply troubling and not a course that I wish to see inflicted upon this nation. Yet I cannot help but observe that circumstances are staging themselves nicely for the emergence of demagogues on either extreme of the political spectrum, and I do not deceive myself into believing that right-wing or left-wing extremism cannot take hold in the United States. I believe it is the duty of the vast majority of us who occupy positions somewhere in the amorphous and not easily defined “middle,” that understand that we can find solutions if we bravely face and acknowledge reality, to try to prevent a schism which would destroy the very promise and noble ideals that America was founded upon.


In order to present solutions to any problem, it is first necessary to acknowledge that the problem exists, to understand what the repercussions are if the problem is not addressed, and to seek to find solutions that will eliminate the problem as an ongoing concern or at the very least, minimize the impact that the problem will have on the future.

Unlike many op-ed writers in many “papers of record,” at the very least I feel compelled to try to offer possible solutions to these problems in upcoming postings. Rather than be yet another “doom and gloom” naysayer crying that the sky is falling, I believe it is incumbent to try to motivate others to seek solutions while we still have palatable options, or before we are backed into a corner individually and collectively and the only choices remaining are poor or unthinkable.  I can’t promise that my answers are the best ones available, but I hope that they are better than silence or the monumental and borderline criminal obfuscation and collusion with special interests engaged in by the majority of our current crop of politicians.

As I see it, there are seven vital issues facing us right now, some of which are interlinked, which must be addressed in a coherent and forward-looking manner:

  • Unemployment and Underemployment – Why the U6 Number Matters
  • Crumbling Physical and Technological Infrastructure Heading Towards Obsolescence
  • Energy Dependence on Foreign Oil
  • Geo-Politics and Global Security – Why Radical Interpretations of Islam are a Threat
  • Spiraling Healthcare Costs and Government Entitlements – There is No Free Lunch
  • Underfunded Pension Liabilities – The Nasty Surprise Awaiting Many Future Retirees
  • Education and Lifelong Learning – Ignorance is a Choice with Serious Consequences

Each of these issues is of significant scope and pressing need to present formidable challenges on their own; the fact that we are facing these in a confluence of bad timing due to years of inaction, recklessness and lack of political will to deal with these before they escalated to pending or current crisis status is most unfortunate.


Many Americans would do well to remember Gerald Ford’s admonition that, “The government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.” I do not believe that more government is the answer to the problems facing us – our government is bloated and inefficient as it is, and while government can work in partnership with the private sector to help facilitate solutions, with rare exception has government ever proven to operate more efficiently or productively than profit-motivated private industry. It’s not that Capitalism as a concept is fatally flawed or outdated; however, unbridled and unregulated capitalism does concentrate wealth, and correspondingly, power, in the hands of a few and if we rely on a sense of benevolence or noblesse oblige from some of today’s oligarchs (little better than the 19th Century’s Robber Barons) raised with little sense of a moral compass or civic responsibility greater than themselves, we are really in trouble.

While it may be true that it’s hard in modern society to be completely self-reliant and to one degree or another, as individuals and nations we are all inter-connected, this does not mean that we cannot strive to do better. For all the pessimism and bad news that the 24/7 news cycle seems to feed upon, every day witnesses all too often unheralded acts of kindness, compassion and heroism from ordinary people that are willing to put their money, principles and sometimes even their lives on the line to help others.

Freedom is a scary proposition, because freedom entails risk, but ultimately, we can only trade our freedom for the illusion of security while voluntarily and cowardly slipping on the shackles and fetters that enable us to become little more than serfs to the minority in power at any given time or place in history.

In my next posting I’ll delve deeper into the employment situation in America, taxation and our faltering primary and secondary educational system…

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder of Black Rock Consulting and the blog “Tao of the Zentropist.” In the interest of full disclosure, he is a political independent that deeply admires President Teddy Roosevelt and believes in the principles of limited government by, of, and for the people; increased personal responsibility and accountability to society;, and enlightened regulation of free market economies to safeguard the financial interests and livelihood of the majority. He believes that the Bill of Rights enumerates individual rights and that it’s specious and self-serving to selectively claim that any (e.g. The Second Amendment) are meant collectively only. He feels that people’s personal lives ought to remain personal and that what goes on between consenting adults, so long as no one else is getting hurt, is neither the business of the state nor of anyone else. While he believes in international cooperation and free and fair trade, he also believes that nation-states and their populations have the right to sovereign and secure borders and the right to self-defense, which extends to the individual level as well. And finally, he believes that as flawed as it may be at times, representative democracy is the best means of governance yet devised by Man and those that threaten it are a clear and present danger to peace, freedom and any hope of global stability now or in the future.

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