Sunday, March 7, 2010

Have You Been Shawshanked?

In the movie Shawshank Redemption, two imprisoned men, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman) bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.

In one scene, Red describes the effect of the prison to a couple of other prisoners.

Red: These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized.

Heywood
: Shit. I could never get like that.

Prisoner: Oh yeah? Say that when you been here as long as Brooks has.

Red: Goddamn right. They send you here for life, and that's exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway.
Brooks (James Whitmore), an older man who has spent decades at Shawshank, is later released from prison. Not knowing what to do with his new found freedom, he commits petty crimes so as to get himself arrested and returned to the prison. However, the prison doesn't take him. Lost and alone without the comfort of the prison, Brooks hangs himself.

Over the past year, I've started to notice more and more people who've been institutionalized or Shawshanked as it were. The institutionalization doesn't occur in ways that you'd normally expect to see it, not in prison or group homes or asylums. It occurs right in the midst of the everyday world.

Shawshanked by the Job
I spent a bunch of years at Bell Laboratories which was then a part of AT&T. When I joined Bell Labs in 1981, AT&T had on the order of one million employees. Bell Labs was the R&D arm of AT&T with something around 30,000 engineers and researchers. By R&D standards, that's one big lab.

Being such a large organization, Bell Labs had well defined ways of doing pretty much anything and we were all trained in them. As a young employee with no previous corporate experience, it was never clear to me what parts were generally accepted business practices and what parts were Bell Labs idiosyncrasies. Everything was lumped together.

Over time, what you were taught simply became the way things were done.

I left AT&T sixteen years later to work at a small public technology company in Boston. Culture shock would be an understatement. Many things that I thought were normal practices, no one had ever heard of. Many things that were normal practices, I had never heard of. My first inclination was to head back for the prison, but I didn't. Instead, I dove in, made a lot of mistakes and learned even more. It took a good year before I'd fully broken the bonds of my Shawshanking.

Later, when I started my own company and was approached by former colleagues from Bell Labs who wanted to break out, I happily welcomed them in joining my new venture. Invariably, as each escapee from a large corporate environment began working within our little start-up, they would have similar experiences of disorientation and confusion. One of my friends described our hiring efforts saying, "We're not so much recruiting as resuscitating!"

Shawshanked by Family
I'm really grateful to have had a mom whose primary child-rearing goal was to raise independent people. I have many friends whose parents want them to be strong an independent on the one hand, but then on the other hand load them down with obligation and dependency so as to 'keep the family together'. Holidays, vacations, Sunday afternoons, you name it, all become "family time" often to the exclusion of anything else. Eventually, a child doesn't know how to define himself outside the context of his family.

This basic type of family Shawshanking is pretty common place and in fact lauded by many as a 'good thing'. I'm not so sure about that.

Of course, there are less common forms of Family Shawshanking that might be more obvious. These take the form of things like trust funds and family businesses. My good friend Mark Kaufman is a great example of someone whose father Shawshanked him with a trust fund, effectively imprisoning Mark with money. Mark and I have often discussed how the best thing that could ever happen to Mark would be for him to lose all his money. And yet, I'm not sure that Mark would know what to do.

Over the years, I've met countless people who've stepped into senior positions in the family business, commanding high salaries and perks. Many of them lack the skills and qualifications to perform their jobs and wouldn't be able to find a similar position outside the family business. They often spend years establishing themselves and building a lifestyle, that were it not for the family business, they couldn't afford. At some point or other, they will think about leaving the family business and setting out on their own, but they can't. Not qualified for the salaries they're paid and with no business perspective outside that of the family, they're stuck.

Of course the parents who Shawshank their children typically do so with the best of intentions. Nonetheless, Shawshanked they are

Shawshanked by Lifestyle
Probably the most common way we Shawshank ourselves is through lifestyle. Most of us start adulthood with very little financially speaking. We don't own homes. We don't own a cars and if we do, they're not the expensive, brand new top of the line types. We may have some new cloths, but not full wardrobes. If we do have the above, it's likely due to family Shawshanking, e.g., money from dad or being twenty-five and still living at home.

Over time though, we start to accumulate. We buy a house. Then we buy a bigger house. Then we buy a bigger house in a "nicer" neighborhood. We trade in the old used car for a new car. Then we upgrade. We lay down roots. We have kids. We start to make our purchases not for ourselves, but "for the kids". We determine that, in order for our kids to do well, they "need" to go to private school. And so on.

Before you know it, we transition from people who are simply happy to be together in a small apartment with an old car to get us around, to people who get upset with a ding in the Mercedes or not being able to get to Paris this year. We Shawshank ourselves with our lifestyles.

Have You Been Shawshanked?
Of course, the examples I've provided above are perhaps a bit more extreme than what you might have experienced. It might not be a new Mercedes; it might be a used minivan. It might not be a trust fund, it might just be a few dollars here and there when you need them. It might not be your job or your family or your lifestyle, you might have Shawshanked yourself in any number of creative ways.

Still, if you find yourself in a situation where you don't know who you'd be or what you'd do if something external to you changed or disappeared, then you my friend have been Shawshanked.

In the end, Shawshanked isn't a good or bad thing. However, it can be a costly thing keeping us from pursuing our wants or limiting our perspectives or causing us to back down in situations where we would otherwise take a stand.

Even if in the end you decide that Shawshanked is the way to go, it's nice to do so in a way that is clear and deliberate.

So, have you been Shawshanked?

Teflon

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