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Winter of discontent

February 27, 2015

The origins of do-it-yourself are the in origins of our species. No yellow pages, no fast food drive-thru, no accountants or doctors or dentists or even lawyers to call. There’s something appealing about that, to be sure. You want a T-Rex burger for dinner? Pick up your club and go get it. Got a toothache? Use a smaller club. You want justice… or injustice? Again, grab a club. This is the real picture of “standing your ground”. But remember. You’ve got to do it yourself.

With population increasing over the millennia, people developed and demonstrated greater proficiency at particular tasks and became the ‘go-to’ specialists for other cave-dwellers. The number of specialties and sub-specialties we now have at our disposal is astronomical. The good of this is access to a wide variety of goods and services. The bad of it is that we’re trained to do little for ourselves. I have a friend who lives in the United Arab Emirates who laughs when he tells me that he doesn’t even change the burned out light bulbs in his home.

Nowadays, we have lineups of ready and willing people to organize our closets, our calendars, and our exercise routines (I have one of those). There is no shortage of people and agencies eager to organize and regulate every aspect of our lives.

Here’s the thing… when those we lean on for specialty and sub-specialty goods and services leave us unfulfilled, a little voice inside calls out to us, “do it yourself!” Repeated often enough, this call is rightly answered by a series of questions. Why can’t they do what I’m paying them to do? Is it so difficult? Can I do it myself? How well and how fast can I do it? Where do I begin? And at what cost?

[side note: See Warren Berger’s “A More Beautiful Question” for an excellent study of how our education system has us trained from Kindergarten to sit down, shut up, and stop asking questions. Of particular interest is the notion that we shouldn’t grade students by the quality of regurgitated answers they provide but rather by the quality of questions they ask.]

At Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘tipping point’ between apathy and action, we breathe deeply, lift ourselves out of the rocker-recliner, and begin the search for self-sufficiency. The message to service providers is not just, “do the job well or I’ll give it to someone else.” With enhancements in: available time; access to materials; technology; and personal motivation, the message morphs into, “do it right or I’ll do it myself.” In some manner, isn’t this revolution defined? To any governing body, “do it right or we’ll figure out how to do it for ourselves”. Note the change in number here from singular to plural. I’m no Ayn Rand apologist – quite the opposite.

As hockey season draws to a close, just such a revolution may be at work. Here’s why, and I should add, this is a cautionary tale. Ours is a league of 150 weekend warriors, supposedly aged 19 and over. Full protective equipment, but no contact allowed… to be understood as ‘no purposeful hitting’. The age span in this league is more than 40 years. On one end are a few speedy youngsters slipped into the mix, but not quite 19. At the other end is, well, that would be me. This explains my increasingly brittle focus on ‘no purposeful hitting’. This Winter, I’ve spent more on physio- and massage-therapy, not to mention Advil and Aleve, than I have on fees for playing hockey.

Apparently, I’m not alone. As the season wore on, so did our bodies. Unfettered by inattentive referees, a few players took too many liberties with their elbows, shoulders, hips, and sticks, not to mention the notorious slew foot (google that one if you don’t play hockey – it’s really quite frightening).

Here’s where the tipping point of revolution kicks in.

About forty players, mostly from this league, have opted not to register for the Summer season. Led by a fellow named Craig (kudos to Craig), we’re in the midst of creating our own do-it-yourself experience. Four teams of ten players each will play each other in what we hope to materialize as a true ‘no contact’ season of 20+ games. Small enough in number, everyone can know everyone else. Socializing across team boundaries after games will be encouraged to promote a sense of shared purpose and community. People don’t hit their friends… well, not much. Another bonus is that it will cost less than one-half of what we’re now paying for someone else to organize the league for us.

It’s not a game of shinny, where teams are created ad hoc each week. There will be team competition. At the same time, Craig anticipates softening the edge of competition a bit by the trading of goalies halfway through the game. As well, he notes, “if one team is up by 5 or more goals at the half, captains will make a trade to balance out the rest of the game.” No officials – no formal governing body. No whistle stoppage to eat up precious ice time. Without officials, we’ll need to regulate our own behaviour. There’s something to be said for self-regulation. My feeling is that head injuries in the NHL were less common before helmets became mandatory. With that introduction of governance, players now feel more free to apply dirty hits that would have been rare fifty years ago. In this respect, players in the old days governed themselves and their behaviour better, looking out (at least to some extent) for the well-being of opposing players.

Self-regulation is a popular notion in the markets today. The difference is in the size of the playing field. In a small group of forty people, all of whom know each other, this might just work. Time alone will tell. The key will be found in a capacity to understand that our individual success (enjoying the game) is dependent on matching success for 39 other people. If you don’t play fairly, people won’t play with you. Our success as individual teams will also depend on sustained success for each of the other three teams. In the event of complete blowouts, people on the receiving end of a repeated beating won’t stick around for another season. We’re not playing for the Stanley Cup here. It’s just a game of pick-up elevated slightly by loosely structured teams.

Will this proposed format create a revolution that destroys organized ‘beer league’ hockey as we know it? It will not. At the same time, I hope that the organizers of league play will take notice and see the flaws of inadequate governance. We need regulation. We just need it to be done well. Do the job or we, the collective, will do it for ourselves.

I use the word ‘collective’ here just to make sure you understand that I’m not invoking Ayn Rand. As I say, quite the opposite. The individual is not, as she argued, paramount. Nor is the collective. It’s an interdependent blend of the two that works best. Neither works to the exclusion of the other. Be the best that you can be as an individual, but do it so that you can make a greater contribution to the whole. In the end, this should be the measure of our lives. In spite of what some will tell you, there is a significant distinction between wealth creation and wealth accumulation.

As my friend Steve Piltch said in this month’s letter to The Shipley School community (Bryn Mawr, PA), “…relationships are at the root of all we do.” I couldn’t agree more. If human life were as simple as rational self-interest suggests, we would have died out with the T-Rex burger. We survive, not only because we look out for our own self-interest, but also because we see value in looking out for the interest of others. We live in families, bands, villages, and nations so as to protect and promote our interests, both individual and collective, and despite what Randians will have you believe, these two are inseparable.

Those among us who repeatedly push others to the toothy end of the T-Rex will eventually find ourselves alone and hungry. Nobody will hunt with us anymore. Or rather… nobody will be left alive to hunt with us. This is where it all breaks down. In the absence of collaborative relationships, survival of the fittest leads only to extinction. The tag line for my friends at Southridge School (Surrey, B.C.) is “Southridge, We are ALL ONE”. Again, I couldn’t agree more.

Rand-worshippers will protest that rational self-interest does not give permission to pursue one’s interest at the expense of others. A nice sentiment, but in an environment that quickly devolves into a zero-sum game, that’s easier said than done. What’s more, even if 99% of the people are willing and able to appropriately govern their own behaviour, the whole system can be brought down by the one percenters . With the wrong cooks (however you spell it) in the kitchen, great numbers of people will find themselves facing the toothy end of the beast. Unregulated competition ultimately leads to no competition.

The argument for self-regulation holds only when every individual in the game plays by the same rules. Informal regulation by the collective can work, through peer review, peer pressure, and ultimately peer expulsion from the game or league… or market. Formal regulation by the collective, also known as ‘government’ is still a form of self-regulation, as long as the government remains ‘ours’. In the selective absence of integrity, there is an important role for government. When government falls under the influence of special interests (especially those lacking in values congruent with the whole), however, it is no longer our government. Self-regulation ceases to exist. Carried to the extreme, the natural outcome of such failure has small but growing numbers leaving the league and creating their own new government. A tipping point is achieved and revolution is at hand.

Will our do-it-yourself Summer hockey experience be successful enough to supplant the more formally organized, but poorly executed, Winter league? Here’s hoping yes, at least for our group of forty… or maybe fifty or sixty!

Will we, or our children, or maybe our children’s children ever come to witness what may be described as a liberating Western Spring? Or are we doomed to be forever held captive in a cold Winter of discontent?

As I say, time judges all.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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