It was in 1961 that a young strapping President named John F. Kennedy stated what would become the defining words of his presidency, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. They are words that ring as prescient now as they were then. It was the proclamation of an altruistic and civil society defined by its dedication to the commonalities that bring us all together and the expression of the greater good.
Three years of life in rural Panama have blessed me with a perception that I didn’t have before. I now understand and can imagine how life was lived 40 or 50 years back when your reputation was made one handshake and promise at a time. Soiling your name was an offence that your sons would hardly pay the full fare for and reputation followed along with your name wherever you went in life.
That legacy was nearly drowned in our mass-produced American pop culture of the 50’s and beyond. First the faceless radio announcer made his way into our living room with his promises of life changing experiences and thrills, and then his friends from TV came in behind him with the vivid depictions of what paradise and harmony ought to look like. Intercontinental travel on a whim brought us into contact with more people that we could ever imagine keeping tabs on. Our capacity to filter based on reputation was stretched to its maximum capacity.
My three years in the US Peace Corps have brought me to understand the true meaning of those words and the fullness of Kennedy’s intent and his legacy. I feel the green shoots of his legacy’s resurgence through these career search seminars that I am attending. They are the green shoots of that civil society that Kennedy visualized for us resurging through the collaborative networks of America.
Thanks to the internet, we can now keep tabs on people like our Grandparents and Great Grandparents once did. We can populate virtual communities and self police them based on our mutually accepted values. And a bad reputation can follow someone as they trot across the globe. So when I heard Paul Anderson, career coach and founder of Prolango Consulting, shout to us “It’s not about you!” I could not help but be reminded of President Kennedy’s words and to then to imagine them one iteration further, “It’s not about what your network can do for you; it’s about what you can do for your network.” It’s a phrase that could be coined as Kennedy 2.0, updated for the cyberspace he helped blast us in to.
Finding things to do for our network is hard work, but so is being part of civil society. We have to work hard to actively pay attention, look for clues and to solve the issues that people might not even know about or may not want to tell us about, be it of mistrust or pride. That’s true value. That’s really asking and living the “What can I do for you” mantra, and not it some cursory, introductory, ceremonial, throwing-it-out-there-so-I-can-hurry-up-and-sell-you-my-solution kind of way. It’s a holistic understanding and respect for the other person in front of you and their needs. Once we get there, I believe, we take networking to a whole new level and begin to redefine civil society around us.
For those who want to go further in the deeper into the rabbit hole, pick up the book The Moral Animal. In it, Robert Wright details a game theory experiment where competing computer programs look to consolidate the most resources in a pre defined environment with a fixed amount of resources. The winning program was called ‘tit for tat’ and its modus operandi was extremely basic; always give a resource when asked for the first time and then remember those who did not reciprocate when a resource was needed and commit to never share with them again once snubbed. The program was the clear and absolute winner of the intensive gaming, even coming out on top when several variables were adjusted, and it gave the contest’s designers some insight into winning attitudes in life. It’s a great read but a slog as it is very empirical. If nothing more, remember that in this connected world we can’t act as mercenaries out there looking to usurp resources in far flung lands for the benefit of the motherland. We’re all in it together now. So what can you do for your network?