Monday, August 28, 2017

Moving the Goal Posts

One of the central challenges we face in our association is determining how we're going to measure success.

Even in a static environment, where our strategic objective and our methods for pursuing it remain unchanged, there are always differences of opinion about which metrics best represent true success and which metrics can actually be measured. Differences of opinion among both Board and staff members, all of whom must agree on a compromise if the organization is to both pursue and measure the effect of a single course of action.

That's hard enough. But when the environment is dynamic, when the association is pursuing an objective that requires frequent changes in both strategy and methods, coming up with a unified agreement of what spells success gets even more challenging.

We're pursuing a few of these "dynamic" initiatives in my association right now. They are marked, I've found, by the need for the association to learn more about the environment it is entering before it can successfully identify the true markers of success. In other words, you leap into an external environment with one understanding of what is needed, necessarily calibrating the program defining/metric tracking piece of your operation with that understanding, only to discover that, once you are in the thick of implementing those plans, that different tactics, and sometimes, a different strategy, are needed in order to achieve success.

What does one do in those circumstances? Ultimately, there is little choice. One has to move the goal posts. We were trying to achieve this. But now we're trying to achieve that.

That can create a lot disruption in the organization. Old programs have to be shut down and new programs have to be started up. Old metrics have to be abandoned and new metrics have to be identified and embraced. The Board and staff-level compromises that were made based on the first understanding have to all be revisited and revised. None of that is for the faint of heart.

But the alternative is to continue pursuing a strategy that increasing evidence shows is not getting your organization to the destination it seeks. If that is allowed to continue, it will wreak even greater havoc on your organization. Yes, moving the goal posts means re-engaging with all of your organization's stakeholders and doing the difficult work of re-educating them on your essential purpose. But keeping the goal posts where they are means turning what might be your organization's greatest endeavor into a make-work exercise.

As an association leader, there shouldn't be much of a choice between those two extremes.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, August 21, 2017

You Must Be Staff Driven

Last week I wrote about a presentation I would be giving at one of my association's major conferences -- a presentation on the work product of one of our technical committees. In that post, I said this:

Why I'm giving this presentation -- instead of say, the chair or other member of the committee -- is an interesting story in and of itself. Without going into too much detail, let me just say that I think it is a reflection of a larger trend within my association where we are becoming more and more staff-driven. Or, if I want to be brutally honest, not staff- but CEO-driven. More on that, perhaps, in a future post.

Here's that future post.

I was at another conference not too long ago--a conference of my peers; chief staff executives of manufacturing-based trade associations--and I got into an interesting conversation with two colleagues of mine.

It was a discussion about the role of committees in our respective organizations. I trotted out my usual policy stance. Namely, that there are two different kinds of "committees" in our organization (committees in quotation marks because they go by several different names: committees, councils, task forces, working groups, etc.). Whatever we call them, there are essentially: (1) Governance committees that are appointed by the Board and which help the Board perform its governance function, and (2) Working committees that are appointed by the chief staff executive (i.e., me) and which help me manage the programs of the association. Although none of these working committees are currently chaired by me, I speculated in my discussion with my colleagues that perhaps that was a step worth taking, since one of the biggest challenges I had with our working committees was confusion over what their role in the organization was.

My two colleagues were both appalled by the apparent brazenness of my position. Neither one of them had anything like this in their organizations. For them, committees were always, always appointed by the Board and they always, always reported to the Board.

But aren't your Board agendas cluttered up with a lot of committee reports? Yes, they admitted that they were, and that this kept their Boards from being a strategic as they would like them to be.

And don't you have committee chairs trying to reinvent whatever strategy is determined at your Board table? Don't you find your attempts to execute a clear strategy hampered by a group of committee chairs who, rather than help you drive to the destination determined by the Board are always trying to define their own destinations and to get you to head in those directions? Again, yes, they admitted that these were among the most vexing problems that they faced.

Well, I told them, both of these problems are eliminated with the committee structure that I've described. When working committees report to the chief staff executive, and more pertinently, when the chief staff executive is actually positioned as the chair of those working committees, there's no need for the committee to report in to the Board, and there's no opportunity for the committee to work on things that fall outside the established strategy of the organization.

You must be staff driven, one of the colleagues said to me.

That made me stop and think. Staff driven. It's often a pejorative term in our industry, those using it seeming to imply that the association in question is less ethical than one "driven" by the volunteers. I've shied away from the term myself over the years, preferring to think that whatever control I was exerting over the associations I've worked for was solidly subservient to the strategic and budgetary decisions made by the elected volunteer leadership.

But the discussion with my colleagues helped me realize that it was no longer useful for me to be doing that. Like so many things in our world, the concepts of being staff driven and volunteer driven too often set up a false dichotomy in our minds and attitudes. The best associations, I believe, are neither staff driven nor volunteer driven. They are both. Their governance is volunteer driven and their management is staff driven.

Pretending that the appropriately staff driven parts of your organization are volunteer driven serves neither your volunteers nor the mission of your association. When it comes to executing a clear and coherent strategy, I believe you must be staff driven. And if that means that your working committees report to your staff, then that it what it needs to mean. To be effective, that part of your organization must not only be staff driven, it must be unapologetically so.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Hooking Up by Tom Wolfe

I’ve not read much Tom Wolfe, but he strikes me as the kind of author I should read more of. That’s why I picked up a used copy of Hooking Up at one of the recent book sales hosted by my local public library. I knew nothing about it. I assumed it was a novel, similar in style to the only other Wolfe I have read, A Man in Full.

I was wrong. Hooking Up is a collection of essays (and one novella), some far more interesting than others. The worst of the bunch, in my opinion, is actually the titular Hooking Up, where Wolfe adopts a retrospective satiric lens to “report” on “What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American’s World,” as described in the essay’s subtitle.

By the year 2000, the term “working class” had fallen into disuse in the United States, and “proletariat” was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter old Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink. He spent his vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or St. Kitts. Before dinner he would be out on the terrace of some resort hotel with his third wife, wearing his Ricky Martin cane-cutter shirt open down to the sternum, the better to allow his gold chains to twinkle in his chest hairs. The two of them would have just ordered a round of Quibel sparkling water, from the state of West Virginia, because by 2000 the once-favored European sparkling waters Perrier and San Pellegrino seemed so tacky.

That’s the first paragraph -- and it goes downhill from there, the satire drifting more frequently into condescension than intuitive understanding. It doesn’t date well, frankly. Perhaps it describes the world Wolfe saw when he looked around at the occupants of rent-controlled New York apartments, but the year 2000 that he describes is all-but-unrecognizable to this Midwesterner that has lived now 17 years past that mystical date.

But the essay Hooking Up does introduce and reveal an underlying theme for the rest of the book. Wolfe is clearly both a big thinker and an entertaining writer, combining those two elements together in thoughtful and engaging ways. But in all the various subjects he tackles -- art, science, politics, religion -- his bias is towards the idea that the old ways are the best. Wherever man tries to upend the established order, to Wolfe, he will fail.

For example, he (rightfully, to my way of thinking) dismisses most of the hype over the impact of the Internet on the human animal.

All of our digifuturists, even the best, suffer from what the philosopher Joseph Levine calls “the explanatory gap.” There is never an explanation of just why or how such vast changes, such evolutionary and revolutionary leaps forward, are going to take place. McLuhan at least recognized the problem and went to the trouble of offering a neuroscientific hypothesis, his theory of how various media alter the human nervous system by changing the “sensory balance.” Everyone after him has succumbed to what is known as the “Web-mind fallacy,” the purely magical assumption that as the Web, the Internet, spreads over the globe, the human mind expands with it. Magical beliefs are leaps of logic based on proximity or resemblance. Many primitive tribes have associated the waving of the crops or tall grass in the wind with the rain that follows. During a drought the tribesmen get together and create harmonic waves with their bodies in the belief that it is the waving that brings on the rain. Anthropologists have posited these tribal hulas as the origin of dance. Similarly, we have the current magical Web euphoria. A computer is a computer, and the human brain is a computer. Therefore, a computer is a brain, too, and if we get a sufficient number of them, millions, billions, operating all over the world, in a single seamless Web, we will have a superbrain that converges on a plane far above such old-fashioned concerns as nationalism and racial and ethnic competition.

Wolfe doesn’t buy it. And it is probably only partially because he is a champion of the old-fashioned.

I hate to be the one who brings this news to the tribe, to the magic Digikingdom, but the simple truth is that the Web, the Internet, does one thing. It speeds up the retrieval and dissemination of information, partially eliminating such chores as going outdoors to the mailbox or the adult bookstore, or having to pick up the phone to get hold of your stockbroker or some buddies to shoot the breeze with. That one thing the Internet does, and only that. All the rest is Digibabble.

I sympathize with Wolfe’s intolerance of the hype. But at the same time, his indictment above rings a little hollow to me. With the shoe on the other foot, an equivalent faultfinder might complain that the human brain also does only one thing: it moves calcium ions across the synapses between neurons. That is the brain’s basic electrochemical function, just as Wolfe has described the Internet’s basic information retrieval function, but those basic functions are capable of giving rise to so many wonderful abilities and experiences. Citing the elimination of walking to the mailbox or making phone calls as the only benefit of the Internet is akin to citing the ability to walk and make phone calls as the only benefit of our brains.

But I’ll cut him some slack on that one. Because the place where Wolfe really comes across as a curmudgeon is when he tackles Richard Dawkins and his theory of memes.

In 1976, a year after Wilson had lit up the sky with Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, a British zoologist and Darwinian fundamentalist, Richard Dawkins, published a book called The Selfish Gene in which he announced the discovery of memes. Memes were viruses in the form of ideas, slogans, tunes, styles, images, doctrines, anything with sufficient attractiveness or catchiness to infect the brain -- “infect,” like “virus,” became part of the subject’s earnest, wannabe-scientific terminology -- after which they operated like genes, passing along what had been naively thought of as the creations of culture.

Wolfe’s bias is really on display in this first paragraph. What he calls a Darwinian fundamentalist, others might call an evolutionary biologist. What he calls wannabe-scientific terminology, others might call a scientific hypothesis.

Dawkins’s memes definitely infected the fundamentalists, in any event. The literature of Memeland began pouring out: Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, William H. Calvin’s How Brains Think, Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works, Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore (with a foreword by Richard Dawkins), and on and on.

I hope Wolfe has actually read all these books. I haven’t, but I have read The Selfish Gene, and I think he’s got his facts wrong. But before we go there, let’s serve up this delicious paragraph.

Dawkins has many devout followers precisely because his memes are seen as the missing link in Darwinism as a theory, a theoretical discovery every bit as important as the skull of Peking man. One of Bill Gates’s epigones at Microsoft, Charles Simonyi, was so impressed with Dawkins and his memes and their historic place on the scientific frontier, he endowed a chair at Oxford University titled the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science and installed Dawkins in it. This makes Dawkins the postmodern equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dawkins is now Archbishop of Darwinian Fundamentalism and Hierophant of the Memes.

No, Dawkins is not the Archbishop of Darwinian Fundamentalism, he is a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, an objective that has obviously failed with the segment of the public named Tom Wolfe.

There turns out to be one serious problem with memes, however. They don’t exist. A neurophysiologist can use the most powerful and sophisticated brain imaging now available -- and still not find a meme. The Darwinian fundamentalists, like fundamentalists in any area, are ready for such an obvious objection. They will explain that memes operate in a way analogous to genes, i.e., through natural selection and survival of the fittest memes. But in science, unfortunately, “analogous to” just won’t do. The tribal hula in analogous to the waving of a wheat field in the wind before the rain, too. Here the explanatory gap becomes enormous. Even though some of the fundamentalists have scientific credentials, not one even hazards a guess as to how, in physiological, neural terms, the meme “infection” is supposed to take place.

Now, anyone who has read my reaction to The Selfish Gene may be surprised to find me coming to Dawkins’s defense, but I’m pretty sure that even Dawkins doesn’t believe that memes have a physical existence that can be found nestled among the various lobes of the human brain. Memes, in his description, are an analogy, an attempt to describe a mechanism by which cultural phenomena can be transitioned from generation to generation, some rising in prominence, others falling away into disuse and extinction. Wolfe cries that memes have no explanatory power, yet, to Dawkins, memes are not meant to be an explanation, just a cognitive framework in which the explanation could someday be found.

And besides, let’s not forget that the revolutionary idea in The Selfish Gene is not about memes at all. It’s about genes being selfish.

But, despite these incongruities, Hooking Up is a mostly engaging read, offering up insights that likely only make sense when viewed from Wolfe’s idiosyncratic, half-enlightened, half-luddite perspective.

Insights like..

In the middle of an essay on the navel-gazing distractions of intellectual culture, the perspective that multicultural studies have become the new haven of Marxist ideology, with the chosen minority serving in the role of the proletariat.

Today the humanities faculties are hives of abstruse doctrines such as structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, deconstruction, reader-response theory, commodification theory … The names vary, but the subtext is always the same: Marxism may be dead, and the proletariat has proved to be hopeless. They’re all at sea with their third wives. But we can find new proletariats whose ideological benefactors we can be -- women, non-whites, put-upon white ethnics, homosexuals, transsexuals, the polymorphously perverse, pornographers, prostitutes (sex workers), hardwood trees -- which we can use to express our indignation toward the powers that be and our aloofness to their bourgeois stooges, to keep the flame of skepticism, cynicism, irony, and contempt burning.

And in the middle of an essay on abandonment of journalistic curiosity in halls of serious literature, the view that movies have today replaced literature as repositories of the intense realism the public still seeks.

Today it is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who are themselves excited by the lurid carnival of American life at this moment, in the here and now, in all its varieties. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who can’t wait to head out into that raucous rout, like the Dreisers, Lewises, and Steinbecks of the first half of the twentieth century, and see it for themselves. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who today have the instincts of reporters, the curiosity, the vitality, the joie de vivre, the drive, the energy to tackle any subject, head out onto any terrain, no matter how far it may be removed from their own experience -- often because it is so far removed from their own experience and they can’t wait to see it for themselves. As a result, the movie, not the novel, became the great naturalistic storytelling medium of the late twentieth century. Movies can be other things, but they are inherently naturalistic -- and I suggest that this is precisely what their audiences adore most about them: their intense realism.

Insights like these kept me turning the page, enjoying the perspectives offered, and the prose in which they were composed, whether I agreed with them or not.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sticking to What You Know

It's hard for me to write about anything this week except the presentations that I'm going to give at one of my association's major conferences next week. Hard, because creating and rehearsing them has occupied an enormous portion of my mental life this week.

Preparation for two of these presentations has been fairly routine. They are the presentations that I will give at the start of each of the conference's two major days. One is a report on the activities of our association. The other is a report on the activities of our affiliated foundation. As I think I have written before, these are typically focused on reinforcing the same strategic messages, and creating a new presentation amounts to little more than calling up last year's and updating the facts and figures. Our strategy hasn't changed much. We've just got another year of success to talk about it.

But the third presentation is quite a different animal. It is essentially a report from one of my association's technical committees. The committee is question is responsible for maintaining something we call our technology roadmap -- a document that represents a consensus in our industry about the pre-competitive research challenges that must be addressed if our industry's technology is to continue to meet or better meet the evolving needs of our industry's customers. The committee updates this document every couple of years, and the presentation next week is where we will unveil the latest update.

Why I'm giving this presentation -- instead of say, the chair or other member of the committee -- is an interesting story in and of itself. Without going into too much detail, let me just say that I think it is a reflection of a larger trend within my association where we are becoming more and more staff-driven. Or, if I want to be brutally honest, not staff- but CEO-driven. More on that, perhaps, in a future post.

For now, I'd rather focus on how I approached the task of composing this presentation. I did what I always do, what I have been taught to do from very early in my career. When you're going to get up and talk to a room full of people on a subject -- any subject -- it's essential for you to stick to what you know.

So what do I know about this technical report, this technology roadmap? Quite a bit actually. Putting the document together was a long and involved process, spanning many conference calls and a few in-person meetings. The committee first defined the high-level elements of the document, and then divided into several working groups to examine each of those elements in greater detail. This is the third time we have updated the document after it was first published in 2009, and each time, the process that we use to accomplish it is improved and made more inclusive.

And it is me, not the chair of the committee or any of its members, that is in charge of that process. I was there in 2009 when the document was first created, and I have guided every refresh of the document since then. The committee chairs and members that have come and gone over the last eight years have been the voices that have defined the essential content of the roadmap -- the evolving needs of our industry's customers, the challenges we must confront is we are to meet those needs, and the mechanisms that we should employ if we are to tackle those challenges. That is a picture that the technical experts in our industry have to paint, but I am the individual who has built for them the frame in which their painting will be displayed.

And that gives me some unique perspective in giving the presentation. I can certainly describe the painting, as I was a witness to its creation. But the focus of the presentation I will give will really be on the frame. That is, the purpose of the document and how it will be used by my association and the industry it represents.

I'm looking forward to it.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Giving Core Values Teeth

I heard a great way for organizations to give their core values "teeth" at a recent conference I attended.

I've written before about some of the steps my association has taken -- using our core values as a screen during our interview process, and making alignment with our core values a part of our performance evaluation process. These are both important steps and they have helped make our core values something more than just "a plaque on the wall." But what the organization I learned about at the conference has done takes their values a step further.

They are also part of their performance evaluation process, but they are something more than just one performance category among many. They are, in fact, a "pass/fail" assessment that comes at the very front end of the performance evaluation.

If the employee in question passes, meaning that they consistently demonstrate behaviors that align with the core values of the organization, they go on to the other performance categories.

But if the employee in question fails, meaning that they consistently demonstrate behaviors that do not align with the core values of the organization, then they go no further with the performance evaluation. The misalignment issue with the core values must be dealt with -- either through the successful completion of an improvement plan or, in the worst cases, dismissal of the employee -- before the employee can be evaluated in the other categories, and receive any of the rewards and compensation incentives that go along with those categories.

It strikes me as an bold stand, putting real teeth into the core values adopted by the organization. It essentially makes alignment with those values the most important factor in determining both the compensation levels and continued employment of the people who work for it. Importantly, it also gives supervisors a tool for enforcing and rewarding that alignment. The system effectively says either you act in a manner that supports our core values or you leave our organization.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

Life is funny, you know? Six pages into the very next book I pick up after reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth, and I run across the following diagnosis.

The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up. They don’t believe it is empirically true to the problems of their lives and times.

Yeah. Tell that to the Swede, and he might have a better understanding of why Merry did the things she did.

But The Denial of Death is only partly about the heroic struggle that each generation must define for itself. In its totality, Becker’s work is really about the existential paradox that plagues man’s conscious mind.

Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew.

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways -- the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.

Indeed. So terrifying, in fact, that Becker, in this Pulitzer Prize-winning work, will go on to claim and describe how this existential paradox, and our denial of it, forms quite nearly the whole of human psychology.

To deny the reality of our own deaths, to give ourselves the feeling that we control our lives and our deaths, we construct what Becker calls a vital lie.

We called one’s life style a vital lie, and now we can understand better why we said it was vital: it is a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation. This revelation is what the Freudian revolution in thought really ends up in and is the basic reason that we still strain against Freud. We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives. We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us. This power is not always obvious. It need not be overtly a god or openly a stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center. All of us are driven to be supported in a self-forgetful way, ignorant of what energies we really draw on, of the kind of lie we have fashioned in order to live securely and serenely. Augustine was a master analyst of this, as were Kierkegaard, Scheler, and Tillich in our day. They saw that man could strut and boast all he wanted, but that he really drew his “courage to be” from a god, a string of sexual conquests, a Big Brother, a flag, the proletariat, and the fetish of money and the size of a bank balance.

Powerful stuff here. Becker is stripping everything down to its basic essence, and he’s doing a pretty good job of it. Because this lie, as vital as it is, is also something we rebel against, instinctively if not consciously understanding that it is a lie, and that its artificial trappings are exactly that, incapable of helping us truly come to grips with our existential paradox.

The defenses that form a person’s character support a grand illusion, and when we grasp this we can understand the full drivenness of man. He is driven away from himself, from self-knowledge, self-reflection. He is driven toward things that support the lie of his character, his automatic equanimity. But he is also drawn precisely toward those things that make him anxious, as a way of skirting them masterfully, testing himself against them, controlling them by defying them. As Kierkegaard taught us, anxiety lures us on, becomes the spur to much of our energetic activity: we flirt with our own growth, but also dishonestly. This explains much of the friction in our lives. We enter symbiotic relationships in order to get the security we need, in order to get relief from our anxieties, our aloneness and helplessness; but these relationships also bind us, they enslave us even further because they support the lie we have fashioned. So we strain against them to be more free. The irony is that we do this straining uncritically, in a struggle within our own armor, as it were; and so we increase our drivenness, the second-hand quality of our struggle for freedom. Even in our flirtations with anxiety we are unconscious of our motives. We seek stress, we push our own limits, but we do it with our screen against despair and not with despair itself. We do it with the stock market, with sports cars, with atomic missiles, with the success ladder in the corporation or the competition in the university. We do it in the prison of a dialogue with our own little family, by marrying against their wishes or choosing a way of life because they frown on it, and so on. Hence the complicated and second-hand quality of our entire drivenness. Even in our passions we are nursery children playing with toys that represent the real world. Even when these toys crash and cost us our lives or our sanity, we are cheated of the consolation that we were in the real world instead of the playpen of our fantasies. We still did not meet our doom on our own manly terms, in contest with objective reality. It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.

This, then, is Becker’s basic thesis. We fear death. We construct a lie that keeps us from facing it. Then we rebel against the lie because it is a lie. And in doing so, we believe we are wrestling with our fear, but we are not. We have lived a life of struggle, not against the death we fear, but against the thing we have put in its place. Becker will go on to use this thesis to explain a variety of psychological phenomena. More interestingly to me, he also uses it to generate several fairly profound ideas.

Freud Shot the Right Gun at the Wrong Target

It is clear to us today, too, that Freud was wrong about the dogma, just as Jung and Adler knew right at the beginning. Man has no innate instincts of sexuality and aggression. Now we are seeing something more, the new Freud emerging in our time, that he was right in his dogged dedication to revealing man’s creatureliness. His emotional involvement was correct. It reflected the true intuitions of genius, even though the particular intellectual counterpart of that emotion -- the sexual theory -- proved to be wrong. Man’s body was “a curse of fate,” and culture was built upon repression -- not because man was a seeker only of sexuality, of pleasure, of life and expansiveness, as Freud thought, but because man was also primarily an avoider of death. Consciousness of death is the primary repression, not sexuality. As Rank unfolded in book after book, and as Brown has recently again argued, the new perspective on psychoanalysis is that its critical concept is the repression of death. This is what is creaturely about man, this is the repression on which culture is built, a repression unique to the self-conscious animal. Freud saw the curse and dedicated his life to revealing it with all the power at his command. But he ironically missed the precise scientific reason for the curse.

Two deep things going on here. First, the thought at the very end of this passage. What delicious irony that a thinker and trailblazer such as Sigmund Freud could come so close to true understanding of human psychology (assuming one agrees with Becker’s thesis), only to be foiled by the same kind of vital lie that must have kept all his patients on his couch. He saw that man’s world is built on a scaffolding of repression, but even he missed the thing that was ultimately being repressed.

And second, go back on read that sentence about this repression of death being unique to man as a self-conscious animal. If true, and if it is true that culture is built on the same repression, it certainly explains the abundance of human culture compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.

Becker’s work is like this. He’s offering a concept that keeps turning in on itself, and only expanding its application in the process.

Culture as a Handy Frame for Self-Actualization

As we saw in the previous chapter, people need a “beyond,” but they reach for the nearest one; this gives them the fulfillment they need but at the same time limits and enslaves them. You can look at the whole problem of a human life in this way. You can ask the question: What kind of beyond does this person try to expand in; and how much individuation does he achieve in it? Most people play it safe: they choose the beyond of standard transference objects like parents, the boss, or the leader; they accept the cultural definition of heroism and try to be a “good provider” or a “solid” citizen. In this way they earn their species immortality as an agent of procreation, or a collective or cultural immortality as part of a social group of some kind. Most people live this way, and I am hardly implying that there is anything false or unheroic about the standard cultural solution to the problems of men. It represents both the truth and the tragedy of man’s condition: the problem of the consecration of one’s life, the meaning of it, the natural surrender to something larger -- these driving needs that inevitably are resolved by what is nearest at hand.

There’s a lot of jargon in that one, but hopefully the point is clear. Culture, built on the scaffolding of man’s own repression, provides him with handy frames to imbue his short and brutish life with meaning and a kind of immortality -- species, collective, or cultural.

Society: The Double-Edged Sword That Keeps Madness At Bay

Sometimes, those cultural frames don’t just provide man with the narrative he needs to be his own hero. In many cases, they, and the societal imperatives that are built around them, are the things that keeps him from going stark, raving mad.

… the proletariat demands the obsession of work in order to keep from going crazy. I used to wonder how people could stand the really demonic activity of working behind those hellish ranges in hotel kitchens, the frantic whirl of waiting on a dozen tables at one time, the madness of the travel agent’s office at the height of the tourist season, or the torture of working with a jack-hammer all day on a hot summer street. The answer is so simple that it eludes us: the craziness of these activities is exactly that of the human condition. They are “right” for us because the alternative is natural desperation. The daily madness of these jobs is a repeated vaccination against the madness of the asylum. Look at the joy and eagerness with which workers return from vacation to their compulsive routines. They plunge into their work with equanimity and lightheartedness because it drowns out something more ominous. Men have to be protected from reality. All of which poses another gigantic problem to a sophisticated Marxism, namely: What is the nature of the obsessive denials of reality that a utopian society will provide to keep men from going mad?

I found this utterly fascinating to contemplate. The job of a well-functioning society is to provide its citizens with the “obsessive denials of reality” that keep them from going mad, from turning in on themselves and fatalistically revealing the repressed idea that they are going to die. Becker’s last question, about the challenges that any utopian society -- that is, any society without a multitude of activities that mimic the absurdities of the human condition -- is telling. It certainly explains the failure of most of the utopian attempts that we have witnessed in our history. And it also encapsulates a warning about the kind of absurdities that well-functioning societies should strive for.

… we have to ask who this average man is. He may avoid the psychiatric clinic, but somebody around him has to pay for it. We are reminded of those Roman portrait-busts that stuff our museums: to live in this tight-lipped style as an average good citizen must have created some daily hell. Of course we are not talking only about daily pettinesses and the small sadisms that are practised on family and friends. Even if the average man lives in a kind of obliviousness of anxiety, it is because he has erected a massive wall of repressions to hide the problem of life and death. His anality may protect him, but all through history it is the “normal, average men” who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves.

This is the challenge of our time, and perhaps of all time. Can our culture and society provide us with the obsessive denials of reality that we need, but do it in a way that causes no harm to others? In this simple narrative frame, it may be worthwhile to thank the often crass consumerism and consumption that seems all-encompassing. The heroes of those stories clearly make better global citizens than those whose stories are built on outgroup aggression and war.

But some people, of course, rebel against these cultural narratives.

The Artist and the Madman

Becker borrows heavily, with proper attribution, from a work by Otto Rank called Art and Artist, which seems to be some kind of psychological treatise on my favorite subject in fiction: the existential struggle of the artist. I immediately put in on my “to-read” list. Let’s dig in.

The key to the creative type is that he is separated out of the common pool of shared meanings. There is something in his life experience that makes him take in the world as a problem; as a result he has to make personal sense out of it. This holds true for all creative people to a greater or lesser extent, but it is especially obvious with the artist. Existence becomes a problem that needs an ideal answer; but when you no longer accept the collective solution to the problem of existence, the you must fashion your own. The work of art is, then, the ideal answer of the creative type to the problem of existence as he takes it in -- not only the existence of the external world, but especially his own: who he is as a painfully separate person with nothing shared to lean on. He has to answer the burden of his extreme individuation, his so painful isolation. He wants to know how to earn immortality as a result of his own unique gifts. His creative work is at the same time the expression of his heroism and the justification of it. It is his “private religion” -- as Rank put it. Its uniqueness gives him personal immortality; it is his own “beyond” and not that of others.

But the challenge facing the artist is more subtle and complex than simply fashioning a heroic gift outside the bounds of the collective ones determined by the society in which he is enmeshed.

No sooner have we said this than we can see the immense problem that it poses. How can one justify his own heroism? He would have to be as God. Now we see even further how guilt is inevitable for man: even as a creator he is a creature overwhelmed by the creative process itself. If you stick out of nature so much that you yourself have to create your own heroic justification, it is too much. This is how we understand something that seems illogical: that the more you develop as a distinctive free and critical human being, the more guilt you have. Your very work accuses you; it makes you feel inferior. What right do you have to play God? Especially if your work is great, absolutely new and different. You wonder where to get authority for introducing new meanings into the world, the strength to bear it. It all boils down to this: the work of art is the artist’s attempt to justify his heroism objectively, in the concrete creation. It is the testimonial to his absolute uniqueness and heroic transcendence. But the artist is still a creature and he can feel it more intensely than anyone else. In other words, he knows that the work is he, therefore “bad,” ephemeral, potentially meaningless -- unless justified from outside himself and outside itself.

It is this dilemma -- this starkly existential one -- that is unique to the artist, and which so often leads to madness. It is not just their inability to come to grips with the cultural soup in which they were born. It is their inability to create anything that truly transcends it.

In Jung’s terms -- that we noted previously -- the work is the artist’s own transference projection, and he knows that consciously and critically. Whatever he does he is stuck with himself, can’t get securely outside and beyond himself. He is also stuck with the work of art itself. Like any material achievement it is visible, earthly, impermanent. No matter how great it is, it still pales in some ways next to the transcending majesty of nature; and so it is ambiguous, hardly a solid immortality symbol. In his greatest genius man is still mocked. No wonder that historically art and psychosis have had such an intimate relationship, that the road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there. The artist and the madman are trapped by their own fabrications; they wallow in their own anality, in their protest that they really are something special in creation.

To me, this all seems to beg the ultimate question -- fraught with existential terror on both sides. Which are you? The average man or the artist? And what will be the heroic gift that gives meaning to your dualistic existence?

The whole thing boils down to this paradox: if you are going to be a hero then you must give a gift. If you are the average man you give your heroic gift to the society in which you live, and you give the gift that society specifies in advance. If you are an artist you fashion a peculiarly personal gift, the justification of your own heroic identity, which means that it is always aimed at least partly over the heads of your fellow men. After all, they can’t grant the immortality of your personal soul. As Rank argued in the breathtaking closing chapters of Art and Artist, there is no way for the artist to be at peace with his work or with the society that accepts it. The artist’s gift is always to creation itself, to the ultimate meaning of life, to God. We should not be surprised that Rank was brought to exactly the same conclusion as Kierkegaard: that the only way out of human conflict is full renunciation, to give one’s life as a gift to the highest powers. Absolution has to come from the absolute beyond. As Kierkegaard, Rank showed that this rule applied to the strongest, most heroic types -- not to trembling and empty weaklings. To renounce the world and oneself, to lay the meaning of it to the powers of creation, is the hardest thing for man to achieve -- and so it is fitting that this task should fall to the strongest personality type, the one with the largest ego. The great scientific world-shaker Newton was the same man who always carried the Bible under his arm.

The price of being an average man is ultimate anonymity. The price of being an artist is ultimate failure. Either way, one should make the choice with great care.

So What?

But how much of this choice is conscious? What happens when the artist -- or the average man, for that matter -- becomes self-aware of this psychology? Of his need to find a heroic gift in either the cultural patterns of his society or the cross-cultural currents of his own creativity? Does that remove any of the existential terror, or only serve to heighten it? Are we better off oblivious to the psychologies that we use to assuage our fear of our own deaths, or is there any solace to be found in understanding them?

After reading this illuminating study, I’d have to say I’m still unsure of how to answer that question. Becker, however, seems to say that it is an error to even ask it. Near the end of the book, he questions the very utility of this understanding, this “liberation through therapy,” certainly for the world, but even for the individual.

Even with numerous groups of really liberated people, at their best, we can’t imagine that the world will be any pleasanter or less tragic a place. It may even be worse in still unknown ways. As Tillich warned us, New Being, under the conditions and limitations of existence, will only bring into play new and sharper paradoxes, new tensions, and more painful disharmonies -- a “more intense demonism.” Reality is remorseless because gods do not walk upon the earth; and if men could become noble repositories of great gulfs of nonbeing, they would have even less peace than we oblivious and driven madmen have today.

Pessimistic enough for you? Wait. It gets worse.

Besides, can any ideal of therapeutic revolution touch the vast masses of this globe, the modern mechanical men in Russia, the near-billion sheeplike followers in China, the brutalized and ignorant populations of almost every continent? When one lives in the liberation atmosphere of Berkeley, California, or in the intoxications of small doses of unconstriction in a therapeutic group in one’s home town, one is living in a hothouse atmosphere that shuts out the reality of the rest of the planet, the way things really are in this world. It is this therapeutic megalomania that must quickly be seen through if we are not to be perfect fools. The empirical facts of the world will not fade away because one has analyzed his Oedipus complex, as Freud so well knew, or because one can make love with tenderness, as so many now believe. Forget it. In this sense again it is Freud’s somber pessimism, especially of his later writings such as Civilization and Its Discontents, that keeps him so contemporary. Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world.

And so, it seems, we have come full circle. Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world. Meaning, if any is to be found, comes in our heroic, but ultimately futile struggle against this painful fact. And awareness of the psychology behind the struggle only seems to heighten our sense of its futility.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at