Getting Ahead In A Game That Never Ends

At first, I was writing about how I am sometimes irked by the phrase “get ahead.” As in, ”I just want to get ahead.” It’s the implicit metaphor that bothers me, when it bothers me. It’s the idea that we are each of us in a race against each other and the only way to finish that matters is to place and the only to place is do so at someone else’s expense—because nobody cares about those assholes who place below.

“I may be in third place, but at least I’m not one of those losers vying for fourth.”

This bothered me a bit when the President used the phrase on The Tonight Show:

And, traditionally, what held this country together was this notion that if you work hard, if you are playing by the rules, if you are responsible, if you are looking out for your family, you are showing up to work every day and doing a good job, you’ve got a chance to get ahead. You’ve got a chance to succeed. And, right now, it feels to people like the deck is stacked against them, and the folks in power don’t seem to be paying attention to that. [via the Washington Post, emphasis mine]

Then I realized that the basis of my ire was bullshit. The phrase doesn’t have to mean “to get ahead of your neighbor.” It could just mean “to get ahead of where we are now.” To move forward, even together. The implicit object doesn’t have to be thy neighbor. We can many of us get ahead—maybe all of us. (See also, something about rising tides and ships.)

Civilization is not a race to a finish line. No finish line exists. No limit has been set on us, no ceiling holds us down.

We should be able to grow our civilizations and keep them growing. Setbacks, sure—but the notion that he who dies with the most toys wins is a sham. It’s a minigame that distracts and diminishes those players who have mistaken an inning for the game, for the season, for the sport. When your at-bat is over, the game doesn’t end. The dugout is full of hitters and next year’s rookies are eager to play. When you die, you don’t win, you just stop running. The game is bigger than you.

Then I saw this passage from Douglas Rushkoff go by on Tumblr:

Rather, they see the futility of attempting to use the tools of a competitive, winner-takes-all society for purposes that might better be served through the tools of mutual aid. This is not a game that someone wins, but rather a form of play that is successful the more people get to play, and the longer the game is kept going. [via Douglas Rushkoff]

I agree. The point is to keep the game going. The hope is that our pitches and fields, stadiums and domes don’t end up as mysteries marking our vanished people, our vanished ways. The aim is to fill the stands with cheers and the taverns with stories, to build great teams and great respect. And a lucky few get to be heroes, held up on shoulders and sung about by fans.

But heroes aren’t built out of stolen parts. They’re built out of admiration and excellence, and we can always make more admiration. We can teach excellence.

That’s what I think it should mean to get ahead.

Zoo Politics

At the zoo with a bear.

At the zoo with a bear.

A couple of months ago, I was at a party and I met a couple of staffers from a local zoo. They were talking about all the politics over there, at the zoo, about the power plays and the clashing agendas.

On one hand, I was surprised. I mean, it’s the zoo. Is no place free of the kind of workplace shenanigans that make people frustrated with office politics?

On the other, it felt inevitable. Everything has its own politics. Wherever a hierarchy stretches its fingers out, politics develop. Wherever one person wants to control or influence something they don’t yet control or influence, politics unfold. Wherever people come together to accomplish something, politics emerge.

Wherever a technique is practiced, an alternate technique lurks or looms. However you do it, somebody wants it done differently.

In this case, it’s about raptor handling. Literal raptors, literally handled. Where’s the best place to put your arm when summoning a bird of prey? “We did it like this,” one zoo staffer said, making a fist and holding her bent arm out in front of her lowered head. Apparently that’s a dreadful mistake, because if the bird misses you, its talons are coming right for your scalp. Another zoo recommends holding your arm out to the side, extended straight.

Do you keep food ready in your hand or dig it out of your pocket after the raptor lands? Having the food ready is apparently best, because an impatient bird may go for you if you keep it waiting. But one institution’s everyday practice is another’s outgrown habit.

Every workplace has its strife. Maybe every workplace eventually comes into contact with a dissimilar cousin, a bizzaro twin, or a doppelgänger that’s too close for comfort. Sometimes its different camps within the same workplace, whether that workplace is a florescent-lit office filing TPS reports or an animal sanctuary, and when there’s differences, the social animals get to politicking.

I guess I take some comfort in knowing that no place is free of these antics. It’s soothing to know that everyone treats everyone like this—politically—sometimes. The inevitability, while somehow sad, placates.

“Forget about it,” we say around the house now, “it’s zoo politics.”