The economic interpretation of history is for the birds.
THE CONCEPT OF A SUPERMAN IS CERTAINLY NOT exclusive to our era. In fact, we could probably argue that the desire to transcend the powers of mere flesh and blood had its origins in the first hominid ancestor to observe a buddy falling prey to some horrific beast or circumstance.
Closer to home, many if not most of us were captivated as school kids by tales of ancient Greek gods and heroes who looked like us but possessed superhuman powers. A quick survey reveals this was hardly the exclusive preoccupation of the Greeks. Buddha sat under his Bo Tree and turned legions of attacking warriors into a shower of lotus blossoms. Much later, Mohammed ascended straight into the sky on his horse. Consider also the wondrous exploits of Arthur and Lancelot and the wizardry of Merlin in England, the extra-human courage of Beowulf as he vanquished the demons Grendel and Grendel's mother in Denmark. Then there's the illuminating adventures of Odin in Northern Europe and the odd but compelling belief embraced by his devoted warriors, the berserkers, that paradise-Valhalla-was a place where they could fight all day, feast every night and awaken each new day fully healed from their wounds so they could fight on day after day, eternal warriors.
Among the many possibilities in North America, we need only look at the Haida who could transform themselves from man to beast and back again at whim. In South America, think of the legendary abilities attributed to the Inca, Pachacutec, whose name meant "earthshaker." After commanding the very stones to rise up to turn the battle against the Chancas, he went on to build the enormous Inca Empire.
Fast-forwarding in time, we find that the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and the great Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw both publicly took up the topic of superness each in his own way, Nietzsche in the second half of the Nineteenth Century and Shaw early in the Twentieth.
So as we approach an examination of the most recent and, for us in this day, the most culturally potent incarnation of a superbeing, we should keep in mind that he has quite a pedigree in a very old, broadly-held, much-storied yearning to escape the bounds of human frailty.
Syndrome is a word appropriately derived from the Greek, syn, meaning "with" and dramein, meaning "to run". Thus, "a running with." As we use it here, always respectfully keeping its lineage in mind, we are referring immediately to the American Superman myth born in 1938 out of the minds of two teenage boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and popularized over more than six decades through comic books and films-the fellow most of us think of with a capital S when we hear the word "superman"-Kal-El alias Clark Kent alias Superman.
For our purposes, syndrome specifically indicates a widespread parallel between the commonly known surface details of this contemporary myth and current socially admired behavior-a running with the appearance of the myth. We can go further and say that the superman syndrome represents the glorification and imitation of these surface details. Here are a few quick examples: Superman moves fast. Our culture glorifies and imitates such speed, more now than ever. Superman has extraordinary endurance. We admire stamina and call top performers in a variety of fields "superstars," "supermoms," "superheroes" and, sometimes explicitly, "supermen" and "superwomen." Superman feels no pain. We glorify "roughing it out," "stiff upper lip," "never let 'em see ya sweat," "big boys don't cry," "don't cry over spilt milk," "swim with the sharks," "mind over matter," "it's all in your head," "suck it up," "gut it out," "no pain, no gain," and so on. All of these carry the same basic message that silently enduring pain is a mark of maturity. Originally, this referred to male maturity, but now we see it increasingly applied to women who wish to "compete" in the male world. We also see it pervasively presented to our children as the model of adult power.
In sum, the superman syndrome is an active glorification of speed and toughness with an accompanying denigration of depth and tenderness of spirit.
Our serious literature and popular media, both print and electronic, herald an endless procession of features on star athletes and political, social, and military leaders who are said to achieve superhuman feats. These provide us with ample opportunities to examine the superman syndrome in detail. However, nowhere is it more prevalent than in the business world. The Cold War is over but our worship of the warrior plays on in the boardroom. From Bill Gates to Steve Case, from Andrew Grove to Steve Jobs, from Wayne Huizenga to Al Dunlap, CEOs, high performance managers and entrepreneurs have actively donned the cape in order to satiate our hunger for soaring heroes and compelling drama.
Of course, work-obsessed businessmen are not new to us. What is new is the degree to which their values are impacting the rest of our culture. Never has there been such adulation for the image of an individual who ostensibly can rise early after only five hours of sleep, get in an hour work-out, tear through the morning news, conduct the 8:00 a.m. meeting with perfect focus and control, then skip, dance, and hop through the obstacle course and mine field of the day's e-mails, voice mails, live phone calls, decisions, and deadlines. On he flies through power lunches and dinners-with a little help from caffeine, megavitamins, ginseng, "smart" drugs, and stress hormones-ultimately arriving home to put in an intense fifteen minutes or half hour of "quality time" with the kids before they go to bed. Then, ostensibly, he listens dutifully to all the spouse's tales of woe and joy, makes meaningful love, catches another five hours of ZZZ's, gets up, and starts all over again.
The unrepentant, unconflicted high-flying priests of the superman syndrome embody a unique synthesis of intense personality traits-above all, a single-minded willingness to sacrifice all else in pursuit of "success." We might all be a lot happier if their attitude were simply, "Hey, I love working fourteen hours a day but the rest of you, whadya say you put in six? How's that sound?" Fatuous, of course. Three hundred business leaders responded negatively to a 1989 letter urging a shorter workweek. Not a single one, not one out of 300 embraced the idea! Consequently, the fact that these pure supermen represent a relatively small percentage of the total adult population is a moot point. They wield enormous power and influence. The rest of us feel helplessly swept up by a kind of Momentum Function. We'd like to strangle and mangle The Energizer Bunny-a superman in a warm, fuzzy pink costume-- because we know we can't keep going and going and going. Yet, the other side of the story is that we do! Willing or not, a huge proportion of Americans are giving themselves over to the credo that spending long hours at work, moving fast, taking on extra duty, thinking about work, talking about work, and stoically acting as if there's no cost or pain to it, working hard at our investments, hard at parenting, hard at playing, hard at dieting, hard at getting in shape, even working hard at relaxing-all these confer a badge of honor, a confirmation of worthiness, a validation stamp on our driver's license in a world that worships drive.
Under the sway of the syndrome, our work week has grown longer than it was 40 years ago. We've added approximately an entire additional month a year! It's also grown far more intense. Yet no studies of average work time account for The Distraction Factor-the hours we spend physically present but mentally and emotionally absent to our families. We the consumers are being consumed by our jobs, yet no one measures this phenomenon. If men have long tended to allow their obsession with work to interfere with their personal development and family relationships, that tendency has been multiplied by the shift from an industrial to a high-tech information-saturated market place. Stephen S. Roach, an economist for Morgan Stanley: "Laptops, cellular phones, wireless modems, and fax machines ... help to extend the working day; in effect, they have created a portable assembly line for the 1990s that 'allows' white-collar workers to remain online in planes, trains, cars, and at home. So much for the liberating technologies of the Information Age."
From observations on the streets of large and small towns across the nation, it's fair to broaden Roach's comments to apply not only to white-collar workers but nearly every category of worker, including elementary, junior high, high school, and college students. The cell phone has become pervasive in the last three years alone, greatly increasing the frequency of short-burst interruptions in our days. Voice mail and e-mail for both professional and personal use has brought a quantum leap in the raw volume of communications we must process. Computers have substantially changed the nature of the work, cramming an overload of additional "to do's" into the same or fewer minutes, multiplying the sheer volume of attention shifts, the intensity of focus on small details, the frequency of small motor tasks, and the raw quantity of small magnitude decision making in workers' minds in the course of a day. The ability to walk upright is one of our vaunted advantages over the great apes, yet we prefer to sit. The supreme irony here is that if you take the normal stooped, four-footed posture of a chimpanzee or gorilla and rotate it up ninety degrees, you have a near perfect replica of the posture of a man or woman seated at a computer, hands on the keyboard. So much for evolutionary gain!
Stephen Roach is right. By and large, it's not an expansion of freedom we're experiencing. It's the illusion of freedom. Call it "freeness." It carries the possibility of freedom, yes, but the probability of enslavement, even addiction. Beyond a certain threshold, freedom has very little to do with material things. It has very little to do with how many people you need to call, or who needs to call you. Yet, anyone not wishing to be part of this hyperactive-interactive world is in danger of being labeled an outcast, slow, irrelevant, or depressed. It takes a great deal of inner strength to put effective boundaries around the use of the new power toys and tools and there is no evidence we're doing a better job of raising such strong individuals, individuals who can really "just say no" to anything that might satisfy the quest for instant gratification. Consider the influence the TV remote control has on young children. Its illusion of power is positively entrancing. It is arguably the single most alluring technological enabler of impulsiveness in early childhood. With the flick of a thumb, a one-year-old child can blow through walls in seconds, just like the Man of Steel.
Robert Kamm is an author, public speaker and resource on issues of fatherhood and the effect of technology on family life. Kamm has worked with a wide variety of companies, ranging from General Motors and J.D. Power & Associates to the Canadian Olympic Synchronized Swim Team and in a wide variety of fields, ranging from technology to the performing arts.
Kamm can be reached at 805-544-9726, through e-mail at email@example.com or via his Web site at www.kammtown.com.
Copyright Association for Quality and Participation Summer 2001
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