410 Days

May 19, 2018

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One of my favourite movies is Gladiator. There is an epic scene between Maximus, the protagonist, and Proximo, the owner of the gladiator school. Maximus angrily states: "Marcus Aurelius had a dream that was Rome, Proximo. This is not it. This is not it!" I feel the same way about our country today. But it sure as hell used to be it. Like Rome, the United States was also a shining beacon on a hill. It represented the perfect outcome of what happens when you blend optimism, opportunity, energy, and the hopes of millions of people moving here in the hopes of a better life. The Roman Empire collapsed on itself because it was not able to sustain everything that it needed to. Why? Because Romans were no longer willing to do the dirty work. They used the efforts of Gaul, Espana, Brittania, Germania, etc. to fulfill the roles that were truly essential, but didn't give their people opportunities for citizenship. There was no path to become a true Roman. What made the U.S. different is, instead of conquering neighbouring regions, we just allowed people to come here (remember "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazaurus: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"?), and the newcomers did the work that we didn't necessarily want to do. But unlike Rome, there was a path to citizenship and they quickly turned into us and the cycle continued, I believe fairly successfully, for quite some time. "The New Colossus" is etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty, one of the most iconic symbols of American ideals. Or again, it sure as hell used to be one or our ideals. I honestly don't know if we can in good conscience claim that to be true anymore. We are a very different nation than that beautiful lady proclaims us to be.

 

Back in 1930, construction started on an iconic building that I was lucky enough to look out on my Greenwich Village apartment balcony years ago and see on the right hand side.  And 410 days later, the completion and opening of the Empire State Building occurred. A technical and construction marvel, it served as the world's tallest building for 30 years.  It took a little over a year to build one of the most iconic structures this world has ever seen. When they really hit their stride in construction, their astonishing completion rate was 1 story/level per day. What can we accomplish in 13 1/2 months today? Potholes the size of a wireless mouse seem to take a decade to properly fix. Ok, that might be a wee bit hyperbolic, but look at what we used to do! And we did it with much less technology, fewer resources, and less knowledge! If we built the ESB in 410 days, I'm sure we can go to work for 410 consecutive days, or finish our class, or do anything that feels incredibly daunting. Because with very few exceptions, I can almost guarantee you that nothing we embark on is on the scale of the ESB. We have an incredible standard of what can be done in a little over a year. And I get it, there was a huge construction crew working on this. But I also get that what we're trying to accomplish isn't 102 stories of concrete, either.  

 

We used to be a nation of individuals who weren't afraid of rolling up their sleeves and going to work. Work, today, seems to be the ultimate 4 letter word. We strive to find ways avoiding the truly onerous tasks that we have to do. We look down on the kinds of people who do the types of work that we have deemed beneath our efforts. I have a strong suspicion that most of those plumbers, electricians, pipe fabricators, etc. are laughing all the way to the bank. There is a terrific book called The Millionaire Next Door by Stanley & Dankow. It talks about the behaviours of an average millionaire. They aren't what most of us would expect. It was very eye opening to learn how much wealth comes from the actions of people that others would not usually consider to be successful. Did you know that the average salary of an accountant in 2016 was $49,749? Did you know that the average wage of an electrician was $52,720? What position do you think has greater job security? The average millionaire has a pickup truck in their driveway, not a Mercedes. The payoff in the future will be for those of us that are willing to do the work that the rest of us don't want to perform.

 

We used to face a problem and wonder how it could be fixed, not who was to blame for causing it. We used to identify a problem, put very smart and capable people into positions of power to start solving them, and then allow people to work on it until it was done. I believe the reason why it's so much harder today is because we, Americans, have become Romans. We no longer feel that it is our calling to perform these kinds of tasks. And we won't allow those willing to enter our shores. So no, the current state of our Union has nothing to do with immigrants. It has nothing to do with the Chinese exporting too many goods into this country. Many of you under the guise of Star Spangled Awesome go buy those very goods at Wal-Mart, by the way. No, it has nothing to do with any of the populist sentiments that so many people have - a sickening sense of entitlement that because they are of the right skin pigmentation that they deserve all the trappings and privileges of this country and to hell with everyone else. 

 

So let's learn from the wisdom, lessons, and experiences of our forbearers. Are they better than us? I would like to think that they are not. I would like to think that we are even more equipped through the advents of technological innovations to exceed their accomplishments. But we need people to re-establish that standard. I am guilty of having a BMW in my garage and I do not always relish helping with unpleasant tasks at work or at home, but I'm committing to try and see how many Empire State Buildings I can help build in my lifetime.  I'm going to try and create things that benefit all of humanity and I plan to make sure that they welcome the participation of anyone who has an interest in making a difference. I hope to see all of your Empire State Buildings standing proudly next to mine. 410 days, people!

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