Monthly Archives: February 2015

Surviving the Swamp


February 15


“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
                             Theodore Roethke

Few of us spend much of our lives down in the swamps of confusion, contradiction, confrontation, or controversy.  On the contrary, most of us enjoy quality time on the high ground where we relish our particular version of order, tranquility, civility, and predictability.  Sometimes we even get bored!

Yet at one time or another each of us will find ourselves down in a swamp, either because “things happen,” and we are pushed over the edge – or because we make unfortunate choices, serious mistakes, or do stupid things and  push ourselves in – or,  we have chosen work that is often swamp-like in its nature.  No matter what takes us into a swamp, once there we face three challenges:  how to Survive;  how to Flourish; and  and how to Find an Exit.


Surviving in a swamp means getting through it without paying too high a cost.   We can minimize the costs by paying attention to what is happening and then responding appropriately.  However, some people adopt a strategy that almost always makes things worse:  They deny that they’re in  a swamp.  While they may  admit that “something is happening,” they pretend that it’s something else:  It’s “Not – a – Swamp”  and label it  as “No Problem,” or  ”What a Great Opportunity.”  Time spent in a struggling in a swamp may, in fact be a great opportunity, but that judgment can only come later and is always associated with how things eventually turn out.

Even though it is popular these days to focus on the positives and deny or ignore the negatives (and what could be more negative than being in the middle of a swamp), insisting that one is not in the middle of a swamp when all evidence points to the contrary, is a really bad idea.  Why?  When we deny that we are in a difficult place there is a serious risk that our attention will move to the wrong things.  It’s as if you are about to go over a waterfall in a canoe and you focus your attention on “What’s for lunch!”

While it makes your life difficult, being in a swamp and acknowledging it, has the effect of focusing your attention and effort on  the real issues:  What’s going on and what should I do next?”  If Jerome Groopman, the new medical intern whose plunge down into the swamp I described in a previous posting  (Dr. Groopman Discovers the Swamp) would have denied that he was in serious trouble while he was in the middle of it, a double tragedy would have occurred: His new patient would have died, and Groopman would have been less motivated to dig in and learn what he did not know.

Survival in the swamp begins with a similar candid affirmation:  Hello!  This really is a swamp! It is not a bad dream!  It cannot be explained away by denying that it exists, or insisting  that isn’t really serious.  Claiming that a swamp  is not really a swamp sets the stage for things only becoming worse.

There is another defensive strategy often relied upon by people who find themselves in a swamp.  ”This isn’t my real life” they say to themselves, “and once it’s over, I can get back to my real life.”

Insisting that what is happening is not one’s “real life” is also a serious mistake.  Make it often enough and there may be little left of one’s real life to enjoy.  Author and philosopher Alfred D’Souza found himself thinking this way and then discovered a way out.

For a long time is seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life.  But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin.  At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.  

Just as the obstacles standing in the way of D’Souza getting on with his life turned out to be his life, so our time spent in the swamp is our life as well.  At times, our stay may be brief; at other times we may be mired down for a long while.  Either way, life in the swamp is real, perhaps as real as it will ever be.  Denying that it is part of our life is a way of choosing not to live.


While surviving in the swamp is crucial – everyone wants to make it through and then get out – there is more to it than that.  Since at some time we all will spend time in the middle of a swamp, it makes good sense to explore ways we can benefit from our time down in what a former CEO of Northwest Airlines called  the “muck, the mud and the beer.”  Here I begin five conversations that may open doors not only to surviving in swamps, but also finding ways to flourish while there.


Martin Seligman, among the founders and major architects of what has come to be known as Positive Psychology, asks a crucial question: “What is it that enables you to cultivate your talents, to build lasting relationships with others, to feel pleasure,  to get the most out of life, and contribute  meaningfully to the world?”  His answer?  Learning to “flourish.”  In Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Seligman identifies the five elements that, if explored,  acquired, and then mastered, will lead to what he calls the “gold standard for…well-being: flourishing.”

And what are the five components that when taken together will lead to our flourishing?

  • P – Positive Emotion
  • E – Engagement
  • R – Relationships
  • M – Meaning
  • A – Accomplishment

In Seligman’s view the chances of flourishing are increased when we experience satisfaction and happiness (P); when we are actively involved in interesting and challenging activities(E); when we engage in these activities with people we care for and who care for us (R); when these activities are seen by us as valuable and worthwhile (M), and finally, when we  involve ourselves in activities in that have intrinsic value (A).

Seligman’s exploration of “flourishing” does not make specific reference to flourishing while foundering around in a swamp.  Yet I believe there is an important connection.  Once in a swamp, our chances of not only making it out alive, but of making important gains are increased if we eschew such phrases as “Ain’t it awful!” and “Why does this have to happen to me?” and put in their place “This is really interesting,” and “There is a lot to be learned here.”  If we seek out other people and join with them in figuring out what is valuable, meaningful, and worthwhile about the experience, and if we come to understand that struggling effectively in a swamp is in itself a notable achievement, we can help prepare ourselves for future experiences in swamps.

Take a Stance

During World War II, American author Norman Mailer received his draft notice to report for military duty.  Preferring not to serve, he requested a deferment on the pretext that he was writing a novel about the war that would make an important contribution to the war effort.  As it turned out, he would not get to his novel until after he was drafted.

After his request was denied, he found himself with the 112th Calvary Regiment of the U. S Army in combat in the Philippine Islands.  While Mailer never engaged in much combat, he found his experience  so traumatic that he doubted that he could survive.  He was deep in a swamp, both literally and figuratively. Then, in a flash of insight, he decided that rather than fight the war,  he would write it.  He would write a novel about soldiers in combat.  Suddenly everything was different.  Rather than experiencing the war as a soldier, he now saw it from the different perspective of a novelist who was busy keeping a journal.  And this stance allowed him to see everything with different eyes.  The noise, the blood, the suffering, and the dying that previously were experiences of human trauma and tragedy,  suddenly became material for his book, events to be observed and written down.  Everything was now grist for a new mill.

Mailer not only survived the war, but valued it.  It  made the book possible.  After the war, he published The Naked and the Dead to positive reviews, and his career as an author was launched.  Years later, publisher Bennett Cerf remarked that there were three 2oth Century novels that everyone should read:  Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder, and The Naked and the Dead.  There is no doubt tha Mailer not only survived his time in the army, but flourished in it as well.

Just as Mailer learned to flourish as a soldier by choosing to see the war through the eyes of a writer, so we can learn to take advantage of our time in the swamp by finding a place to stand and then “see differently,” to understand what is happening from different perspectives.  Though this process, we may even come upon a project that interests us, one that we could become committed to and  that we could continue to pursue after things returned to normal.

Swamps are Incubators for Problems

The beginnings of problems in relationships, in families, in organizations, and in nations have their roots in the swamps of confusion, disagreement, failure and misunderstanding.  Being in the swamp and observing these embryonic problems begin to emerge, then gather momentum, and move toward becoming serious issues and disruptive controversies, offer us unparalleled opportunities to get into the game at the beginning, before opposing arguments are defined and conflicting positions are hardened.  Having been present at the creation of a problem, gives us the advantage that history always bestows: A broader and more complete perspective of how things get started. Later, we may be able to use this knowledge to help tackle these problems that we observed as they were beginning.  In our continuing struggle with difficult problems, having valuable knowledge about sources and roots is an important way to add value.


In his novel Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett writes “To be buried in lava and not turn a hair, it is then a man shows what he is made of.” Lucky for us, being buried in lava is not the only way for learning “what we are made of.”  It is when we struggle with problems that matter to us, those we have not seen before, and those that seem beyond our capabilities, that we are able to take the giant steps that lead us to a greater understanding of our strengths and weaknesses.   At the end of the movie Islands in the Stream,  adapted from Hemingway’s  posthumous novel, the protagonist, facing impossible odds, and pushed  far beyond his abilities was overwhelmed with how much he was learning about himself.  ”My God,” he said,  ”I was learning fast there at the end.   I know now that there’s no one thing that is true.  It’s all true.”

 After that harrowing experience with his first patient, Jerome Groopman became acutely aware that in spite of  he had learned in medical school, he had a serious problem:  He knew next to nothing about taking care of real patients in real time, especially when they were facing a life-threatening crisis.  His intense experience in his Swamp of Incompetency opened up a problem he had been unaware of  until that moment.

Mark Twain once observed that “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”  Struggling and grappling  with difficult and complicated issues in a swamp is very much like carrying a cat by the tail: As we struggle, opportunities  open up to us to learn not only about our inadequacies and incompetencies, but also about our strengths and capabilities, lessons that cannot be learned  any other way.

In my opinion, no one has captured more clearly the significance of the self- knowledge that can be gained while spending time in a swamp than the French writer Albert Camus:

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

Dig, Dig, Dig

Struggling with the challenges to be found in a swamp not only offers us a chance to increase our store of self-knowledge, but also offers us a bonus: The opportuntiy to learn a great deal about other people, about the wide array of potential problems that can occur in a relationship, a family,  a team or  an organization.  How can we take advantage of this?  Mindfulness is first: We can stay in touch, stay connected, refuse to hide our eyes, turn our back, or stay on the surface.  And then we can dig and drill down into the depths of whatever is happening.  We can ask questions, listen to answers, and organize what we are learning into stories that we can return to later and, with the help of others expand and enrich into a meaningful narrative. What kind of stories?  Ones that describe us as we struggle under unbearable stress, stories  about others, about relationships, about work, about the nature of swamps, and about the strategies can help us  to survive and flourish.  And  all of this can enable us in learning a great deal the nature of problems themselves.


In an important book published in 1970, Economist Albert Hirschman identified three ways to respond to “decline in firms, organizations and states:”  Exit, Voice and Loyalty.  His basic argument was that when things are getting off track, when one finds oneself getting mired in a swamp, a person can either choose to be Loyal – stay and hope for the best – give Voice to one’s concerns and hope to influence things for the better, or find the nearest Exit and leave.”.

When in a swamp, Loyalty may be a useful response, but often things have moved beyond that possibility.   Voice – speaking out and hoping to make things better – is also problematic since in the midst of chaos and confusion, few people are ready to listen.  That leaves Exit – getting out of the swamp.

Exit decisions, always involve knowledge and timing, as Kenny Rogers elaborates in these well-known lyrics:

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run.

Should one stay at the table? Or should one walk away?  Or run?
To make things even complicated, before one can actually “fold ‘em and walk away,” two questions need to be examined:  Can you leave? and Should you leave?

Can you leave?   If  the  the swamp is the result of economic, social, or political forces that are beyond the control of any one individual, then you may have no choice.  Making a choice to leave may not be possible.   During the Recession that began in 2008, many people would have liked to leave, but had no means to make that happen.  The only option available may be to hunker down, stay out of trouble, and wait for changes to occur.  As Abraham Lincoln was fond of saying during the Civil War, “This too shall pass away.”

Should you leave? If it is possible to get out, then you may have a specific decision to make:  Should you quit your job?  Drop out of law school? Get a divorce? Join the Army? Move to Bolivia?  Any decision must be framed by at least two issues: Is this the right time to move?  And what will be the consequences for oneself and for others?

Choosing to leave the swamp is a judgment call, one that will be influenced by timing.  Is this the right time? Too early?  Too late?  ”Timing is all” said Hamlet as he was facing the prospects of being killed in a duel.  How does one know if it is the right time?  Unfortunately, there is no way to be sure.  Timing is almost always determined by the consequences that follow the decision. The timing was right if it turns out well, and it was wrong if it doesn’t.

The consequences for oneself and for others are equally complicated.  Who will gain?  Who will suffer?  What about those who may be left behind in the swamp?  Are there promises and obligations that need to be examined and renegotiated?

In this kind of discussion, there are many questions and few answers.

Here are some of the questions that are central in any decision to leave:

  • Am I ready to leave?
  • Have I learned all that I can learn?
  • Have I made every effort to work things out and make them better?
  • Are there ethical or moral issues involved?
  • Are there obligations and promises that I made in good faith and that others are relying upon?

From Despair to Making Cheese:  Craig Ramini, a 57-year-old software consultant, was successful, well-regarded, financially secure – and miserable, depressed and frustrated.  Finding himself in that well-known swamp that goes by the name of  ”Mid-Life Crisis” he knew he had to get out.  Here is his story.

He took a year off, and spent it reading and reflecting on when he was happy and why. For six months he listed his passions on hundreds of Post-its and pasted them up on the wall in his dining room.  Finally, after spending time considering each one, keeping some and discarding others, he narrowed them down to five:

  • Being around animals;
  • Working outdoors;
  • Being involved with food;
  • Doing something unique;
  • Being an entrepreneur.

“When he laid them out on the table,” his wife said later, “they spelled cheese.”  But not just any cheese.  If he were to be true to his principle of uniqueness, it had to be a special kind of cheese.  So, more searching, more exploring, more including, more discarding until finally he came to his answer:  Mozzarella di bufala.

Never mind that when he started he had never milked a cow,  knew nothing about making cheese, let alone mozzarella.  And never mind that in order make mozzarella cheese of the highest quality, he would have to use the milk from the water buffalo.  ”Coaxing an unaccommodating, 1,500-pound, nearly feral water buffalo into giving milk and then coagulating the watery fluid into ambrosial balls of cheese,” reported the New York Times, “…was a challenge that could make a fledging farmer weep.”  In 2012 the New York Times Magazine described Ramini as “the latest American adventurer hell-bent on making fresh buffalo mozzarella – one of the very few people in the United States currently brave enough or foolish enough to do so.”

And yet Ramini made it work.  In 2014, he milked a herd of 41 buffalos, most named for venerable rock stars, and produced about 65 pounds of cheese a week which sold for $30 a pound in California under the Ramini label.

Ten Principles for Surviving the Swamp

- Never forget: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

- Accept that you are in a swamp. Pretending that it is something else doesn’t help.

- Embrace the swamp, Live it fully.  It is as real as life ever gets.

- Avoid saying: “Ain’t it awful!” or “Why me?”  Statements like these sound like whining, never a good idea.

- Say Instead: “This is important.  This may be my only chance to learn something really important.  I will pay attention.”

- Find other people you can rely on.  Make a posse: Search, examine, learn, drill down. Protect and support each other.

- Find a Stance that allows you to see the action with a different lens, yet doesn’t distort what is going on.

- Collect data about future problems that will be useful later, when the situation improves.

- Find a project to work on, preferably one that connects to your most important passions.

- If you can’t leave, hang on; if you can, make a careful decision about what is best for you and for others as well, and when is the best time to work your way out.

Pushing Back 

The  world pushes us around, and sometimes breaks us, but that need not be the end of the story.   Earlier I quoted Camus’ insight that came to him as he was being pushed around by the world:  ”..I found that there was, within me, an invincible  summer.”  The words that follow are equally important:  ”And that made me happy.  For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”






Wicked Problems at the Movies: II


February 2


“I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender…”

There is no agreement among movie critics on the most memorable lines ever spoken by an actor in a movie. But undoubtedly, the lines most often quoted  by people who are willing to share something personal about themselves come from the prize-winning film, On the Waterfront:  “I coulda had class,” says Terry Malloy to his brother Charlie,  ”I coulda been a contender.  I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”  Many of us have quoted these lines.  And most of us, at one time or another, have thought about what it takes to become a contender. 

Spoken by a washed-up ex-prizefighter who has become a mascot of the mob, these iconic lines capture his frustration and hint at his increasing despair. Terry not only sees himself as a bum, but is also treated as one by the mob that rules the Longshoremen’s Union on the New Jersey docks.  We all identify with Terry.  There is a deep need in us all to be seen as contenders, to be treated as if we were somebody.

Terry and Charlie are riding in a taxi when Terry says “I coulda been a contender”  to his bother.  Concerned that Terry is going “soft” and may be tempted to testify about the rampant corruption in the union, Johnny Friendly, the mob boss, has ordered Charlie to get rid of Terry.  And Friendly has reasons to be concerned.  Terry is beginning to see that his life has been a failure.  Influenced by Edie, the sister of  a friend of Terry’s who he inadvertently set up to be murdered, and by Father Berry, the local Catholic priest who is finally speaking out against the mob, Terry is beginning to have doubts about the ways he has been complicit with the mob in the past.

In the taxi, as they move closer to the moment when Charlie is supposed to kill his brother, Charlie tries to remind Terry that he was once a promising fighter who had a great future:

Charlie:  Look kid, I – how much you weigh, son.  When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful.  You coulda been another Billy Conn, and the skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.  

Terry:  It wasn’t him, Charlie, it was you.  Remember that night in the Garden when you came down to the dressing room and you said, ‘Kid, this ain’t your night.  We’re going for the price on Wilson.’  You remember that?  ’This ain’t your night.’  My night!  I coulda taken Wilson apart.  So what happens?  He gets the title shot outdoors in the ballpark and what do I get?  A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville.  You was my brother, Charlie, you shoulda looked after me a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.  

Charlie:  Oh, I had some bets down for you.  You saw some money.

Terry:  You don’t understand.  I coulda had class.  I coulda been a contender.  I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.  It was you Charlie.

Charlie, influenced by his brother’s words,  decides not to kill his brother, and is himself killed by the mob.  Charlie’s murder is the last straw for Terry, and it pushes him into testifying against Friendly and the mob to the Crime Commission.

Abandoned by his former friends and supporters in the mob and threatened with death if he ever shows up down on the docks, Terry finally decides that it is time to face up to the problems that have overtaken his life, time go down to the docks and confront the mob.  He decides that it is time to be a contender,  time to become “somebody.”

As Terry arrives on the docks, he is attacked by the union “muscle,” savagely beaten and left for dead.  The longshoremen, who have for years been intimidated by the threat of violence from the mob, are now inspired by Terry’s courage.  When ordered to go to work, they confront the mob in their own way:  They refuse to  move unless Terry leads them.  Battered, bleeding, and hardly able to walk,  Terry staggers across the dock and leads the men in.  As the movie ends, we see that Terry has in fact become “somebody.”  He is no longer able to contend for a boxing title, but through his courage and sacrifice, he has become a contender to lead the union members in remaking their union, as well as a contender for becoming a decent human being worthy of respect and admiration.

All Are Faced With Wicked Problems

All  the main figures in the movie are faced with difficult, complex, wicked problems:

Charlie:  An insider in the Mafia mob that rules the waterfront, Charlie still loves his brother and wants to support and protect him.  When he is ordered by his boss to get rid of Terry, he is put in an impossible situation.

Father Barry:  The priest of the neighborhood Catholic Church is hesitant to get involved, believing that his ministry is to preach to those faithful members who come to  church. When Edie confronts him with his reluctance to take a stand against the evil outside  the church, he finds himself uncertain as how to be a faithful servant of Christ.    He is worried about what could happen to the church, to the members and to himself.

Edie:  When her brother is killed by the mob, Edie leaves her school in upstate New York and comes home to find out who killed him.  She challenges both Father Barry and Terry for not standing up to the mob.  Her father wants her to go back to school and not get involved, but she refuses and becomes even more involved by speaking out against the corruption.  As she grows fond of Terry, she struggles with the prospects of a closer relationship with someone so different from herself and her protected background.

Terry:  Seen by the longshoremen as a corrupt “insider” in the mob, Terry is conflicted over how he is treated by the union members.  They despise him for having sold out.  He is aware of the evil and corruption of the mob that robs the union members of their livelihood as well as their dignity, but is not willing, at first, to do anything to help them.  When he meets Edie, and begins to fall in love with her, his confusion and uncertainty increase. Edie is determined to learn who is responsible for killing her brother and Terry is worried that she will find out that he was involved.  He strongly disagrees with way the mob bosses treat Father Barry who “goes down to the docks” to confront the evil that is there.  When Terry begins to protect him, the mob bosses begin to see him as a possible “rat” and make moves to eliminate him.

Terry’s most difficult decision is to break the unwritten code of the docks and agree to testify against Johnny Friendly.  ”Ratting” to the authorities was, on the docks,  the most unforgivable act of all.

Finally, after Terry is almost beaten to death, he has to get back on his feet  and, broken and bloodied,  accept the challenge of becoming the new leader of the Longshoremen’s Union.

Becoming a Contender

Much of the power of the movie lies in our identification with Terry.  He faces huge obstacles, and so do we.  We admire his courage when he stands up to them and, however dangerous, goes down to the docks to confront the mob.  We also aspire to face our challenges with courage and conviction.

Terry wanted to be seen as worthwhile person in his own right, and to be treated with dignity and respect.  And so do we.

Terry wanted to be a contender – and so do we.

As a boxer, Terry believed he had the talent and the strength to contend for the middle-weight title, but because of  his brother’s betrayal he never had the chance.  We also want to be contenders for the opportunities and advantages that life has to offer and for which we feel ready and prepared.  We want to be contenders for getting into good schools and landing a good job.  We want to be contenders for being seen as responsible citizens, valuable friends, effective workers and leaders, and helpful companions.  We want to be good spouses to our companions and helpful parents to our children.

But becoming contenders in a competitive world is no easy walk in the park.  None of the “goods” that life offers us are free.   They have to be earned.  And they have to be earned in the same way that Terry earned them:  By “going down to the docks” and confronting the obstacles that stand in our way.

Like most movies, On the Waterfront offers us an opportunity to enter into a different world.  In On the Waterfront, we become participants/observers in a world of conflict and corruption that is, for most of us, light years away from the lives we lead.   As in all great art, there is much here for us to learn. This is why the experience can be so valuable.  As we enter into Terry’s, and Edie’s and Father Barry’s, world, we watch their struggles from two perspectives:  an immediate and emotional one, where we feel deeply involved ;  and a second one, removed from the immediacy and heat of the action where we able to watch the actors live their lives within the larger and more complex perspectives of family, belief, community, corruption, justice, and courage.

From both perspectives there is much for us to learn about wicked problems and how they can be dealt with.  From the beginning to the end, neither Edie nor Father Berry knew what to do or how to do it, yet they knew that they had to do something.  Sustained by their values and beliefs, they “went down to the docks” to do what they could.

Terry’s challenges were more complicated.  If he was to find his way out of the “swamp” in which he found himself,  things had to get worse before they could get better.  In order to move away from the corruption and criminality that had shaped his life, toward becoming “somebody” worthy of admiration and respect by people he was coming to care about, he had to make a clean break.  He had turn his back on his previous life, give up most of the values and beliefs that had sustained him up to that point,  and then begin the arduous and frightening journey toward finding new ones.  In order to go all the way, he had to abandon his previous friends and associates.  And finally,  in the film’s final scenes, he had to put his life on the line.  After he testified in court against Friendly and the mob, he was told that if he ever showed up again on the docks, he would be killed.  And yet, in order to finally come to grips with this most wicked of problems,  he chose to”go down to the docks” and see it through to the end.

“What a great movie” we say when it is over!  And yet,  it is more than that.  Through the skills of the screenwriter, the director, and the actors, we are offered a view of life being lived by people struggling, as we all do, with difficult questions that have no answers, and intractable problems that have no solutions.  We watch them as they struggle, make difficult decisions, make mistakes, then move on to make them right, face up to danger and, finally,  because of their persistent, sustained and courageous efforts, we see them triumph in the end.  By paying attention, we can learn lessons from their struggles that can help us with our own.