New York. The Good. The Bad. The Unnecessary Roughness.
New York. The Good. The Bad. The Unnecessary Roughness.
The only way to take control of your life, raise your standard of living and move beyond merely surviving is to create your own unique product or service that you offer to increasing numbers of people in exchange for the things of value that you desire. This simple formula applies to countries as well as people. A self-sufficient economy has its own products or services of value to export to the world. Similarly, a self-sufficient individual has something of value to exchange in the global marketplace. That thing of value is based on your natural talent, skill, or interest—in other words, your passion!
Greetings from New York! Yet again, I have occasion to be here for a few weeks to take care of some business. In the process, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with the police department, the court system, building managers, a host of financial institutions and various independent vendors, as well as engage in the usual activities one might expect during any such visit: driving the streets, reading newspapers, eating at restaurants, shopping in stores, etc.
Every encounter with the people and processes here is an opportunity to compare life here with life on Saipan. It was similar experiences and observations on a previous trip that inspired a few of my earlier articles "Profit and Paradise" and "Ten Commandments of Paradise" (See Saipan Tribune: Wed, July 26, 2006, and Wed, Aug. 2, 2006, respectively). This time around, the contrast is starker than ever.
First the Good.
New York is an entrepreneur's muse! During the first few days, to help myself integrate into the rhythm of the city, I flipped through television channels and saw dozens of infomercials advertising everything from power vacuums, real estate wealth strategies, male enhancement pills, subliminal weight loss CDs to Internet marketing DVDs. I listened to newscasts, podcasts, and radio broadcasts to get a sense of what was hot and happening in the world of business ideas. From an entrepreneur’s perspective, these ads serve as constant reminders that there’s an expectation of material success permeating the very fabric of the city; that money is being made, that products and services are being offered every moment of every minute of every day. I don't own or watch television on Saipan, so this was the first time that I actually saw many of these products and services.
My favorite concepts were the "Ask a Mexican" advice column I saw in the Village Voice, and the “Hip Hop Abs” fitness program, which both show a savvy use of niche marketing strategies, combined with a personal passion to create a unique business idea.
Yes, for those who are tuned in, there’s no lack of unique ideas, inspiration and information on the airwaves, billboards and newspapers this side of the international dateline. The bar is set high here, and to compete, you’ve got to step up.
Now, the Bad
Of course, life in the big city also comes with higher levels of pollution, higher tempers, selfish driving, more apathy, general indifference, outright hostility and a general “me first, me last, and me only” attitude to survival and advancement. The bar is set low here, and to compete, you've got to step down.
Then, The Unnecessary Roughness
But the most striking difference I noticed, was what I call the unnecessary roughness of life here. Within the interactions with tellers, clerks and agents of various institutions, there's a clinical and cold tone that jumps out.
I’ll spare you the gory details, but after discussing, dissecting, lamenting and laughing about some of my experiences with friends and family, I was able distill it into a single word: bureaucracy. As I write, I Google the term "bureaucracy" and chance upon a quote attributed to an eighteenth century author, Baron von Grimm about the bureaucracy of 18th century Germany: "...here the offices, clerks, secretaries, inspectors and intendants are not appointed to benefit the public interest, indeed the public interest appears to have been established so that offices might exist."
Similarly, I get the sense that I-as a customer, client or caller-do not represent an opportunity for the person on the other side of the call or desk to provide exceptional service, but represent a distraction and intrusion to an otherwise safe, uneventful, undemanding day's paycheck. As I wait on line, or in waiting areas, I listen to the interactions between reps and customers all day and come to the conclusion that the underlying tone of much of the interaction can be summed up in one phrase:
“I can't help you!”
To express it in a simple worldview, the underlying theme of many of my encounters with the bureaucracy here is "I can’t help you." Even before I plead my case; even before I explain the details; even before I ask for what I need as a customer, if my case does not fit into the neatly prescribed box of “form 21A” I'm met with a confident “Sorry, I can't help you” or “We don't allow that.”
But, I understand. This is New York. The sheer number of people living in this high-stress, high-density, high rent, highly uncertain environment-which increases the possibility of fraud and deception-reduces one’s ability to make judgment calls on a strangers’ legitimacy. Everyone's a stranger who poses a possible threat. Coupled with that, the litigious nature of the society in general, and the consequences of making a mistake ("I’ll lose my job or get sued if I’m wrong") makes it unwise, and unsafe for a clerk to go above and beyond his/her basic job description to provide truly exceptional service. Of course, there were exceptions, usually in the outlying regions of New York further away from ground zero.
But, by and large, few people will stick their necks out to facilitate a transaction or special request ("sorry, I can’t help you"). In addition, few people in this sort of bureaucracy even know the names and identities of their fellow employees in other departments ("I’ll have to transfer you to the legal department for that, sir").
"I can't help you. If the telephone bill you’re using for secondary proof of address reads "Walt JF Goodridge" and not "Walt FJ Goodridge," then I’m sorry I can’t help you.”
“I can't help you. If what you're requesting is not explicitly allowed and described with instructions in my job manual, I can’t help you.”
In other words: “I can't help you unless I’m sure. I can’t be sure unless I follow the written rules. If it's not in the written rules, then I’m not free to make any judgment calls based on human interaction, emotion, decency, expediency, or common sense, because if I make a mistake, you will sue me or I will get fired. So, I'm afraid I cannot and will not help you...NEXT!”
People cling to what is safe. People cling to what they know. People find their power and security in what they can be sure of. They may not know how to really help in ways that are kind and humane, but they know they can confidently say “no” if any “t” is not crossed, or if any “i” is not dotted. That is a source of certainty and thus confidence. And in the fast-paced, high-pressure, chaotic, litigious, uncertain city that is New York, it is what people seem to cling to most. Of course, there were exceptions-bright spots of assistance within a drab landscape of apathy-and I've sent them letters of thanks and appreciation to help encourage that sort of attitude.
But lest all of this sound simply like a rant of frustration (which indeed it might be), let me get to my point. The point is this. Ahem. I'll be heading back to Saipan in a few days! See you soon!
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Until next time, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!-Walt