How to counteract our current cultural crisis of confidence
Growing up in Georgia in the 1970s, Jimmy Carter was a hero in my home. I know it became fashionable later on to make fun of him and to focus on the failures of his administration. Still, those who did so often ignored the rather remarkable accomplishments of his life and his single-term administration.
My father served in a submarine during World War II, so he admired President Carter for his service as an officer in the Navy. He identified with him as someone who had made something of himself after a childhood spent in poverty, growing up in rural Georgia.
My mother saw in President Carter a God-fearing man who, like her, taught Sunday School at the Baptist Church and, also like her, loved Willie Nelson with all his heart. She admired his devotion to his wife, Rosalynn, and his mama, Miss Lillian.
Although I was young when Carter was in office, I remember a lot about his presidency. I remember watching his inauguration and all of his speeches on television.
One of his most famous speeches has come down in history as the "great malaise" speech, though that is not a phrase he used. Instead, it was a speech where he talked about a "crisis of confidence" in the American economy and culture. The speech was the result of a Camp David meeting he had had with leaders from around the country, discussing the economy and fuel shortages that were driving up the cost of gas (sound familiar?).
The purpose of the speech was to challenge Americans to focus less on material consumption and more on working toward energy independence, which was a popular position at the time.
Less popular were the energy conservation measures Carter called for, like lower speed limits, parking the car once a week, and turning up the thermostat in summer.
So what's the point of this history lesson?
I was reminded of Carter's speech this week when talking to a colleague (shoutout Rachael Hite) at Inman. For months now, we've been seeing talk of a shift in the real estate industry. People are scared. They're struggling financially. Confidence is low in many markets and in a variety of market sectors.
Zoom out. The anxiety goes beyond real estate professionals. Consumers are afraid that they'll never be able to afford a home. Older parents are afraid they'll never be able to retire. Their adult kids are afraid they'll never be able to move out. Everyone is scared.
Beyond that, even the traditional measures of comfort and security no longer hold. People who are religiously non-affiliated are now the largest segment of the population. In the absence of religion, people seem to be throwing themselves into everything from their political party to cryptocurrency with almost religious fervor as a sort of alternative belief system.
We live in a world that is almost unrecognizable in comparison to the one that Carter was speaking to that evening in 1979. The technological advances that have occurred , along with those that are on the horizon, stand alongside the fearsome existential threats we see playing out all around us — arising from climate change, political turmoil, domestic terrorism, and a host of other dangers — creating a stew of uncertainty that makes the crisis of confidence Carter envisioned seem almost quaint in comparison.
Enough! What can we do about it?
It would be pretty presumptuous, if not downright comical, to tell you that I have all of the answers to life and death and the universe. But I do have a fair working knowledge of basic philosophy and the things that many of the great thinkers have recommended in times of trouble. After all, other cultures in other times have faced fears of their own. We're not the first.
Okay, so all of that said, what are we supposed to do in the face of this much upheaval, especially when so much of it is outside of our control? Now, your mileage may vary, but here's what I propose.
No. 1: Tend your garden.
This has always been my go-to advice (and Voltaire's) and it's the one that works for me time and time again. When in doubt, stop looking outward and stop focusing on the big picture. Figure out what you can control, even if it's small, and focus on that.
You can't control the real estate industry but you can work your business every day according to best practices. You can't control housing affordability but you can focus on saving up for a down payment. You can't control the broader economy but you can focus on learning more about smart financial management and investment.
Tending your garden doesn't mean that you don't care about the world. It just means that you're less inclined to get caught up in big-picture cultural, political and societal upheaval in favor of taking care of yourself, your business and your family.
No. 2: Develop a spiritual practice.
If you are a member of a church, you may think that you've got your spiritual life covered. However, you may still need to implement a daily devotional, quiet time, or other focused spiritual practice to help you disengage from the immediacy and anxiety of everyday life. You may have trouble finding time to do this if you are always working, but it's important to make time for it.
You don't need to practice yoga or sit in a full lotus position to meditate. You can sit comfortably and quietly and focus on your breathing for 15 minutes each day to see results. You can practice moving meditation while walking or working out. You can get out in nature and away from your cell phone for a few minutes a day to feel a difference.
If you're one of the growing number of "nones" — those who don't subscribe to a specific belief system — you may be in need of some type of practice, especially if you're looking to replace a prior religious belief or practice.
You don't need to believe in a higher power in order to do this. Find something outside of yourself to love and appreciate and tune in to. Lose yourself in art or music or movement. Try to get out of your head and connect with your heart.
BTW: Many people who are agnostic or atheist have a hard time finding help when needed for stress or substance abuse because so many therapists and treatment programs are religion-based. Check out secular AA and therapists if you are struggling.
No. 3: Drop the judgment
If there's one thing that could instantly improve our world, it's this advice from Marcus Aurelius. The tendency to judge each other is the root of so much of the finger-pointing, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and political polarization we're seeing right now.
While you might not be able to fix it on the macro scale, you can certainly do something about it on the personal level (remember, tend your garden). While you might have your own opinion about things, as much as possible, keep those opinions to yourself and strive to examine your opinion for false assumptions and flawed reasoning.
In addition, be mindful of the things you're sharing on social media. Just because you share a damaging and ugly opinion on social then follow it up with "Just sayin'" or "No offense" doesn't mean that your comment is innocent or inoffensive. Remember that, as Marcus Aurelius says here, in the vast majority of cases, there is no need for you to even have an opinion, much less share one.
When someone asks your opinion on some topic, feel free to answer with the always refreshing, "I don't have an opinion." You'll astonish the questioner and provide an excellent example for everyone else.
No. 4: Unplug as much as possible
I know you feel like you have to be tuned in all of the time, and of course, in many ways your business requires it. I'm certainly no exemplar in this regard, rarely taking a day off and checking email from early morning until late, late at night.
However, you can begin to set some boundaries and create a healthier relationship between you and the technology that helps you to drive your business. Consider the following:
Tl;dr: Overnight, your brain spends time helping you to process all of the input that went on during the previous day. When you grab your phone first thing, you undo a lot of that good work. Give yourself one hour in the morning without the phone. Take your shower. Make your coffee. Take the dog for a walk. Then get caught up. It will help start your day on the right foot.
Create blocks of time that are sacred. Maybe it's yoga class. Maybe it's the first hour after the kids come home from school. Maybe it's naptime in the afternoon. Make your non-phone, non-work time as much a priority as client time.
Give yourself an evening or two each week when you unplug. Maybe it's on the weekends or maybe it's just an arbitrarily chosen "slow" evening or two each week. Schedule date night or family dinners on those evenings as well to make them even more special.
Work your way up to a true vacation. Here's a great checklist to help you plan ahead so that nothing falls through the cracks.
Create leverage to free up more time on a consistent basis. Maybe it's an organizational plan. Maybe it's a smart hire or outsourcing a task. Stop trying to do everything and start making more time for yourself.
No. 5: Create and nurture meaningful connections
The people in our families may be difficult to get along with, causing estrangements and disconnections. We may have lost some of our closest family members, either through death or divorce.
However, others of us have families that are intact, yet we don't spend much time with them because we're working all the time. This is an even bigger problem when things feel scary and out of control. That drives us to work more because we're seeking added financial security.
Thus, when we're the most fearful and in need of closer connections, we're distancing ourselves from those we love the most and who love us the most. It's a vicious cycle.
While you do need to work, keep going back to item number one: Tend your garden. Take care of your family. Take care of your friends.
Rethink what that means. It may be less about spending money and more about spending time. It may be less about giving gifts and more about giving undivided attention.
It may be less about material possessions and more about experiences. If you think that things are all anyone in your life wants from you, that may be because that's all they've ever reliably gotten from you.
Now is the time to regroup and reboot your most important relationships. Draw close with those you love.
Stop giving all of your time and devotion to outside groups. Those that only want to take your time and money and manipulate you, anger and inflame you to push their agenda. Instead, spend your time and energy on the people in your household and your friend group.
What if, instead of being upset all the time, you spent the next week:
Working your business the way you know you should
Eating better and taking care of yourself physically
Taking care of that honey-do repair list around the house
Checking in with your family and friends
Spending some time each day in contemplation and quiet
Showing love and attention to your significant other
Adding leverage to your business
In short, tending your garden
Wouldn't you have a good week? Wouldn't your life feel better and more in control at the end of that week? Wouldn't you feel better physically, mentally, emotionally? Wouldn't your family be stronger? Wouldn't the world be a better place? Even a little?
The answer, ironically, lies with you, but not because you need to fix everything. You just need to fix the little things. The things that are simple and entirely within your purview.
So stop being mad at everybody.
Stop waiting for someone to fix everything, whether it's a politician or an economist or a celebrity.
Stop feeling like there's some kind of magic answer out there that somebody needs to come up with.
There's just you and the simplicity of a life well lived.