I was on vacation over the past few weeks on a trek through Europe. It was amazing and wonderful and such a fantastic time. So much so that I’m now plotting how to move to Paris. It was that great.
The out of office response was on. I had ditched the suits and heels. And as my reading material for the trip, I picked up Tom Friedman/Michael Mandelbaum’s That Used to Be Us… how America fell behind in the world it invented and how we can come back. I thought it would be, and it is, an interesting read. Anything Friedman I’m usually willing to pick up. But reading this while traveling abroad specifically was interesting.
The book works toward spelling out what’s needed to sustain the American dream and preserve American power in the world. Fine and dandy. Obviously, I reap the fruits of powerful (hopefully not declining too quickly), capitalist America. And with immigrant parents who had little to nothing, I am living proof of the American dream, right? But as I sat on planes and trains with my book, I struggled.
For one, I was keenly aware that I was not on my turf and I was a visitor. Admittedly, I was a little embarrassed to pull the book out in public given the jacket is literally plastered with American flags. But that aside, the greatness of America and the nostalgia for what our country used to be that’s talked about in the book – I still am not sure I can really identify with it. Warm, fuzzy feelings for American greatness? I dunno if that’s me. Especially while I was running around Europe feeling like life there just felt… really good. And compatible. And right. (But doesn’t it always on vacation?! I know…)
So I’d sit there trying to read the book while struggling with the fact that yes, absolutely, there’s a problem with America that needs to be solved. But is it my problem? Especially when I can’t identify with the nostalgia for America’s past greatness and that’s to be what drives me to want to make change happen… do I even own this issue? Is it my problem?
“That’s not my problem.” Ugh. No one loves hearing that. I hated hearing myself say it. Which is when I had to pause and step away from the book and somehow I started to think about possible parallels to the organizations we work within.
You see something that needs to change. A flaw in a process. A behavior. An action that has potential harm. You discuss it. Maybe you come up with action plans to fix it. But ultimately… it will remain unfixed unless there’s some sense of belonging for and ownership in some kind of larger construct like an organization or company which drives you to want to make change. When you belong, when you feel a strong attachment to, you become protective of a culture. And then things happen. People act. They feel compelled. But you’ve got to feel like you belong. And you and I as HR and recruiting folk… we already know this.
Growing up, and still now, the notion of all-American mystifies me. What is it? How do we define it? Pie, baseball… I shrug my shoulders. I’m thankful to call this place home for a lot of reasons. But I’ve always felt a little lost between different cultures. I don’t feel like I belong. Which drives the “that’s not my problem” situation I’m in. Yet Friedman and Mandlebaum’s hope is that through collective action, and by tapping into our nostalgic feelings for what America used to be and can be (our culture), we can restore America to greatness. On the surface, it could be compelling. But I think there’s a challenge with that remedy when you might not have a collective that feels they belong. And as you and I already know, that’s important.
I’m noodling on this one a bit more… I don’t have the answers here for how to fix the mess America is in. But I sure as heck know that culture rules. And for our organizations at least, when you’ve got the right fit, it all works itself out. Pretty nicely.