ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

September 1998


Standing Your Ground In The Face Of Change

Turning Local Government Into A Business

Stop Trying To Be "Friendly" And "Courteous"

It's A Small World Afterall
Lucent's Performance


My Way Is The Highway
by Peter Block

What's So Super About Collaboration?
by Michael Finley


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


My Way Is The Highway
by Peter Block

I was in San Francisco last week and Denver before that. Atlanta before that and earlier Boston, Chicago, New York and L.A.. All anyone talked about was the traffic. How long it took to get here, how long to get there. As soon as we arrived we started worrying about getting back. And all this driving was about getting to work and back. And if we were not going to work, we were going shopping.
When did traffic become so important? And what happened to talk about the weather? In San Francisco there was an earthquake, but all anyone talked about was the traffic. I kept saying, “What about the earthquake?” and they responded with, “Traffic was awful this morning.”

When they say life is a journey, not a destination, now I know what they mean. It means we got stuck in traffic.

What seems important about this is that when traffic replaces the weather, technology has replaced nature. A walk in the park has been replaced by the ride home from work.

And where are we driving to? Work and the mall. When did work and shopping begin to define our lives and go from occupation and necessity to obsession and desire. When did Mother Nature turn over the reins to Henry Ford and Home Depot?

The distance between home and work is a measure of the distance between our body and our mind; it is the distance we have traveled from ourselves. If home is where the heart is, work is the place where feelings are unwelcome and reason is worshipped in the form of economics. Is the call of the workplace, where we make the money, and the mall, where we spend it, so seductive that it has convinced us these are life’s destinations and worth spending so much time getting there?

Us for Sale
When earning and purchasing defines us, it is us that has been consumed. We have surrendered our personhood and become a product ourselves. We are the target market we thought we sought elsewhere. If we are the product, the highway is the distribution channel and our office is the showroom.

The shareholder has become the real customer and management has become a sales force convincing us that it is right and necessary to be consumed in service to that customer.

As products, employees are now inventory, warehoused at home, transported on the highway and delivered for purchases in the showroom called a workplace. Employees have become “just in time” commodities. Add ten or ten-thousand when you need them, ship out ten or ten-thousand when you are done with them.
Transformed from a long-term worker to a cost item, a temporary, short-term asset that can be capitalized, exported, factored at a discount to be converted to cash. And all with our consent.
And for this privilege we convert our cars into fast food restaurants, mobile offices and communication centers, forget about the weather and focus on the final ride home. Slow today. Stop and go. Watch out for the accident in the right lane on 880 South, near Fremont, Calif.’s Great Mall exit.

I Shop, Therefore I Am
We take that exit to the shopping mall to complete the triangle of highway and workplace. After we have been consumed during the week, we go to the Great Mall and are resurrected into a weekend consumer. There to be entertained by the purchase possibilities of one hundred and ten stores.

It is not by accident that the mall is as standardized and predictable as our workplaces and the highway we use to get there. You can shop at any mall in any city and never know you were out of town. In a way, the mall should feel like the workplace, for they serve to justify each other. I shop to justify having worked so long and hard, and I work long and hard to support the shopping habit.

What connects the highway and the mall and the consuming nature of work is that they are all high control environments, each with its own order and culturally driven promise. We embrace them as a retreat from the wildness and unpredictability of nature. Not only Mother Nature, but our own nature as well which is filled with chaotic emotions, feelings, doubts and mortality. Commerce, the car and the mall have a reassuring promise of security that our own experience cannot deliver. Nothing is so unpredictable as the weather, and it is in its unpredictability that we seek a replacement.

The problem is our willingness to pay any price for what the work, the mall and the car mean to us. We have bought the illusion that success is defined by the work. Freedom is found in the car and pleasure is purchasable at the mall. These are three basic tenets of the consumer society and they are false gods. We feel more and more vulnerable at work. While the car, spending its time creeping on the interstate, laughs at freedom. And the mall is too numbing to call it a pleasure.
It would be nice to offer an answer to all of this. Some think the solution is to work at home, interestingly called telecommuting. Working at home only masks the nature of the problem. It may keep us out of our cars, but it invites instrumental, commercial energy into the home. Once the wolf is in the door, it will move from room to room, and no matter how unwelcome, will be reluctant to leave.

In Search of Balance
It is on our watch that workplace, shareholder value and materialism have surrounded us and are signaling the end of nature.

We often talk of needing more balance in our lives. Balance is not about giving equal time to work, personal life and free time. Balance is the capacity to know who we are and to feel that our mind, body and spirit are in balance wherever we are. We are unbalanced in the power we have given working, traveling and buying. We have lost ourselves in their pursuit. And the work culture and consumer culture are happy to prosper as a result.

Maybe seeing things as they are helps a little, even more important is seeing our own part in it. The world we complain about is the world of our creation. If we stopped shopping for entertainment, got to work using back roads or stopped moving to the suburbs, went home at 5:00 every day and took all of our vacation time, it would help.
And all of this because last week in San Francisco, I wanted to talk about the earthquake and all they cared about was the traffic.

September '98 News for a Change | Email Editor
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