Friday, April 9, 2010

Bench Marks

It's easy to get lost in thought, to dither rather than do. This has been a week of dithering, recovering from family vacation, getting the projects I was working on before the break sorted in my head. Sitting outside Parco in the mornings, I have given out a fair number of gold stars to others pondering their own projects. It is not an easy task.

One woman, wearing a great red dress and wedges, paused slightly as my friend and I sat on the bench against the wall.

"Did you want to sit?" my friend asked her.

"Well...for just a minute," she said gratefully and pulled up a chair. Turns out she was on her way to a photo shoot for a book she is writing with her husband, a decorating book about how to make stuff yourself from what you find in the hardware store. She, like my friend and I, is trying to navigate the tricky world of self-promotion without selling out, to figure how to pay the mortgage and keep her kids fed while staying true to her ideals.

She shook her head at the coincidence of meeting us here, like minds, pondering the same problems. We didn't come up with any solutions, didn't solve the dilemma of how creative people in New York, freelancers whose calendars were not-too-long-ago filled with high-paying work for print magazines and other dying media, will now get paid. We'll have to leave that for Rupert Murdoch. But we brainstormed, we acknowledged each other's challenges and, somehow, for the moment, we felt we'd done something. At the very least, we'd made a connection. She walked away wearing her gold star, looking great, and waved, our new friend. Hopefully she will enter into our world again.

Yesterday, another beautiful day I started on the bench, the conversation with another regular turned to politics. I had asked him to summarize the paper for me, given that I never read it. It is too much, I'd rather get the synopsis through chat.

"Well," he said, "China may lower its currency..."

"Really?" I said. "Would they do it?"

"Well," he said, "if they don't, they're really screwing us..."

I laughed. "That's not why they'll do it. They'll only do it if them screwing us screws them." It is the theory of enlightened self-interest that I believe applies to people and governments everywhere. No one does anything, usually, that doesn't in some way benefit them. Making changes is hard and there has to be something in it for someone to get up the energy to do it, to try.

It's hard to know how exactly to trigger people to try. We talked a bit about this, about the idea of sanctions versus war (I vote for sanctions), and about how consultants are cropping up all over in this new economy, charging people for their ideas on how they might try better across all facets of life, both personal and professional.

"The problem," I said, "is that they charge you but, in the end, they're usually just repeating you back to you..."

He nodded. "And you still have to do the work."

I laughed. "Exactly." He had gone on his own recently, left corporate law for the freedom of practicing in shorts and a t-shirt from home. He had engaged a friend's life coach skills, which he said had helped him understand a bit more what he wanted and didn't want, even just because she read in his voice what he liked and didn't like about his old job.

I gave him a gold star when he got up to go, to drum up business, to help people with their various and sundry legal issues. It's not easy, the life of the self-employed. But it can be very, very rewarding. And the beauty is, you can sit on a bench meeting people far more often.

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