by Michael Chabon (Harper, 2012. 480 pp)
Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize–winning author of numerous bestselling books, and Chairman of the Board of the MacDowell Colony. He, his wife (novelist Ayelet Waldman), and their children live in Berkeley, California.
Book review by Donovan Richards
Escaping to the Mountainside
“After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples.” (John 6:1-3 ESV)
While I don’t intend to draw any universal theological conclusions from these verses, I find Jesus’ insistence on maintaining space and solitude in the midst of a busy schedule of teaching and healing to be fascinating. Here, God Incarnate reveals his human side and the importance of recharging his batteries. Jesus chooses at this time to avoid the crowds—the very people to whom he has devoted his mission. At what point do we, as leaders, need to follow Jesus’ lead and step back from our important duties?
Telegraph Avenue, the latest release from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, thematically cuts to the heart of this question.
A Small Business Owner Drowning in the Complexity of Life
Set in Oakland, Telegraph Avenue is a heartfelt story surrounding the life of Archy Stallings, a small business owner and expecting father.
Archy’s business, a small record store called Brokeland Records that he founded in partnership with his best friend Nat Jaffe, is failing. People aren’t buying music anymore—let alone vinyl, the store’s specialty. To make matters worse, a music mega-store is slated to open a couple of blocks away, a development certain to remove what little hope Archy has left for business success.
Aside from his dwindling business prospects, Archy’s home life fares no better. He is woefully underprepared for the conclusion of his wife’s pregnancy; he carries zero patience for his incorrigible, formerly-famous movie star father; he has no strategy for the 14 year-old son of a former girlfriend who has arrived at his doorstep.
Archy’s life is complicated. It seems as if his futile attempts to balance his home and professional life leave everyone worse off.
When Life Requires Recalibration
The more I read about Chabon’s complicated protagonist, the more Jesus’ temporary escape into the mountains came to mind. Archy needs time to recharge, to make things right with his family, and to prepare for the new life he and his wife will bring into the world. But his dream to lead a profitable small business gets in the way.
As leaders, we need the wisdom and humility to recognize when it’s time to step aside and rejuvenate. Our life’s work must not be allowed to ruin either our own life or the lives of those around us.
Personally, I recall the time I needed to step down from leading worship. While the circumstances around this decision were painful, it allowed me to recalibrate my vocation and it helped me grow in my faith and my relationship with my wife.
Michael Chabon’s protagonist in Telegraph Avenue raises deep questions about what we value and how we can balance complicated lives. When the pressure mounts at work and at home, let's not forget to unplug once in a while. In doing so, we may come to understand the importance of stepping down from our position to recalibrate and help others. Or, we might find added strength to return to our work with the vigor and balance it requires.
How to tell when it is time to step down:
Are you facing diminishing returns? No matter the hours you devote to the cause, your organization seems to sputter.
Are you in a morally questionable situation? Staying put in your position pressures you to compromise your ethics.
Are you physically unable to perform your tasks to your highest potential? No matter the passion you have for your work, burnout is real. Whether it’s the rhythm of the Sabbath or a long-term sabbatical, don’t forget to charge your batteries.
This review appeared in Fieldnotes Magazine, a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership, on December 12, 2012.
Donovan Richards earned an M.A. in Business and Applied Theology from SPU and works as a consulting analyst for See Seven. You can read more reviews on Donovan's blog.
“Big data” refers to information that is too large to be handled by a simple operating system. It can be used to research a broad spectrum of information such as purchases from various businesses, or the online tools we use to store photographs. Big data allows us to view big chunks of information in order to better understand the popular majority. While this benefits those who want to spot trends in the general population, it can underemphasize the importance of individuals.
The nature of decision making in work systems has likely influenced the way we understand and/or utilize big data. In the past, citizens would present requests for services or favors directly to a sovereign, who would grant or deny the petitions. As bureaucracies and communication channels developed, the distance grew between those making the decisions and those affected by them; it became easier for rulers to lose sight of the impact of their decisions. We can imagine that it might be easier to order the back-breaking labor required to build a monument (like a pyramid) when thinking of an abstract “workforce” instead of the faces of individual people. Detachment from the source of data poses similar risks for today’s business leaders, and presents questions about whether or not they are making ethical decisions.
Nonfiction narrative offers one way to personalize big data. By telling a story based on big data, one can re-humanize the people behind the data. For example, imagine a retail vice president reporting on sales across all of its outlets. By personalizing data in the context of narrative, the VP can paint a clearer picture of the customers’ needs and how the company might better serve this vital stakeholder community. However, before one creates a data-driven account, it is imperative to ask a few questions: what is the goal for creating this narrative? Will it be transmitted through advertising, a grassroots movement, social media, etc.? What impact will the nonfiction narrative have on its audience? What is the purpose of transforming the data into a storyline—for the betterment of others or to manipulate the consumer?
If we look to the Christian faith for guidance, we might acknowledge that God is the epitome of big data. God is omniscient and omnipresent, and can make grand proclamations about why, when, and how we live. Instead of dealing with humanity in the abstract, however, God persistently chooses to work through individuals, often men and women who are “average” in many respects. God called a shepherd to lead his people, a refugee girl to save his people from the Persians, and none of Jesus’ disciples were on anyone’s Who’s Who list. So what’s the lesson in all this? God sees the grand view, but engages us one-on-one. Data-driven narrative can honor the same commitments.
Big data offers us an opportunity to understand our world on a macro-level, but if we want to foster change, we have to connect with individuals on a micro-level. Translating numbers into a story that informs and influences, while respecting the people behind the data, can bring about the desired impact in an honorable way.
Kristen Voetmann earned her M.S. at Azusa Pacific University and currently works in the Office of Student Programs at Seattle Pacific University. Her participation in SPU’s Industrial and Organizational Psychology course, Hacking the World of Work, has spurred her growing interest in organizational development (and the role of ethical decision making).