Have Things Turned Permanently Ugly?

Last Updated Sep 21, 2010 11:29 AM EDT

Remember when you were little -- say, second or third grade -- and you stayed home from school on a biting cold winter day with a sore throat and a fever? Your mom would come in and put her lips to your forehead. Then, just to be sure, she'd take your temperature. Maybe she'd fluff your pillows, too, or bring you that satin and goose down comforter she saved for special occasions.

Well, this New New Economy -- or whatever charitable name we're giving it right now -- is nothing like that. It's more like that prison in Midnight Express, but without the friendly guards. Or the worst paper-cut ever. Or spontaneous human combustion, where a person's clothing soaks up liquefied fat from the body and acts as a giant wick. Yeow.

What I'm trying to say is that things are still very, very bad.

It's not like the high times, the fat years. Nothing compared to, say, 2002. Back then you could sail along in your upgraded aisle seat and perhaps wind up chatting with a famous entrepreneur or a television weather guy. You, the capitalist with the soul of a poet. You were going somewhere then! You were doing business! Oh, the irony...the horror.

Not to be negative or anything...but it appears that everyone's patience is fried from a long binge of risky business, dangerous living and wandering too close to the edge. We really deserve a open-ended tropical vacation, but that's not happening until those stock portfolios reinflate. Retirement is out the question, at least during our lifetime. But instead of learning from our excesses and numerous errors in judgment, a lot of us have become merely cynical, cold and brittle. Every man, woman and child for himself. No time for losers. Get out of my way. What did you bring me today?

The operating system has changed, but quite a few people are still running the equivalent of Office 2000. In their heads, that is. Ben Stein, bless his conservative heart, has called this old program "Wishful Thinking."

We each carry within us a sometimes invisible but powerful veneer of imagery to inspire, motivate or otherwise trick ourselves into believing or acting a certain way. It's the glue and the lubricant and the engine fuel all together in one. We resolutely try, usually without much success, to jump from peak moment to peak moment, hoping to milk each experience for every drop of juice we can get. So we tell ourselves stories -- stories about heroism, patriotism, glory, adventure, respectability, wealth or romance, featuring none other than ourselves as the chief protagonists. It's like one big Secret Life of Walter Mitty going on in our heads, innit?

What if the problem is not the giant slot machine we've been playing, but the expectation and overwhelming sense of entitlement -- demand, even -- that we must always be winners? What if, instead of dangerous, we tried "prudent"? We could substitute "cautious" where risky was the rule. And what if everyone decided that real prosperity came from diligent effort? Would we all explode or something? (Don't get upset. It's just a thought.) Maybe the "little guy" has more transformative power than we realize. Isn't it at least possible we could restore the fortunes by focusing on quality instead of quantity?

I can't speak for anyone else, but I've personally had it with getting ahead in business on good looks alone. Just once, I'd like it be about the quality of the work. Unique aspect of service. Elegant delivery. Lasting value. Put these elements together and you have a recipe that's close to magic. With magic, it's not about convincing people to watch you do your tricks. It's about doing tricks so well that people ask you -- over and over again -- to keep doing them.

  • Mark Jaffe

    As President of Wyatt & Jaffe, Mark Jaffe has been called one of the 'World's 100 Most Influential Headhunters' by BusinessWeek magazine. His firm, Wyatt & Jaffe, works with a select list of financial services, high-tech and consumer companies worldwide and has been called one of the 50 leading retained search firms in North America.