Back last summer, I finally got around to picking up the red-hot series by George R.R. Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire – a set of books most popularly known by the name used in its HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones.
Martin is a brilliant writer. For a person like me, who loves words and a rich character tapestry, the first books in the series were almost narcotic. I had picked the first one up casually, as a beachtime “well, it’s something to do.” Then, just a few chapters in, I became obsessed. It was one of those “read while you brush your teeth, read while you take out the trash, read while you should be cooking dinner” sorts of love affairs. I bought the second and drained it dry in a matter of days. Then the third. SLURP. Gone.
The fourth, I had to slow down. What had started as a bleak sort of story had gotten positively deadly. Everyone was betraying everyone else. Not a shred of hope in sight. My favorite characters, all expired. The hopeful plot threads? Extinguished. The main character’s family motto – Winter is Coming – well, YEAH. Holy hell. Winter is HERE, dude. Landed on your head.
I bought book five (in hardback, mind you!), because I hate giving up on a good writer. But I had to give it up completely only about 40 pages in. I realized I was sad and exhausted by what I was reading. The reading high I was getting before had turned into nothing but bad smack.
Welcome to dystopia.
Not familiar with the term? Dystopia is the opposite of utopia – a society characterized by human misery, where everything is as bad as it can be.
And George R. R. Martin isn’t the only guy presenting us with this stuff. Over the past 10 years, pretty much the entire culture of science fiction and fantasy has turned itself away from a positive future to a horrific, dystopic one – and that focus has begun bleeding into popular culture. Besides Game of Thrones, witness the popularity of The Hunger Games. I bet you can think of a dozen more books, shows, or movies you’ve seen in recent times that had a dark beginning and a darker ending, that left you feeling sad or scared or – dirtier – than when you started watching or reading them.
Is this a turn of our cultural psyche, in tandem with the tough period we’ve all been going through with our businesses and our jobs? Maybe. Heck, the guys in Congress can’t even pretend to be friends anymore. It feels like we’re all going to Hell in that metaphoric handbasket, only now we’ve got Game of Thrones and Hunger Games and fights on Reality TV as preview entertainment to show us the way. Whoopee!
What’s even worse – and what I only started realizing the other day – is this dystopic miasma is creeping into our personal and business language as well. It’s changing how we think about and talk to each other. And it’s negatively impacting the way we keep ourselves motivated, our families together, our staffs happy, and our clients satisfied.
When we talk about work, we say words like busy and stressed and overwhelmed. When we get together with our friends and clients, we talk about the disasters on the news (North Korea! Gas prices! Sequester!), the disasters on the sports field (did you SEE that awful NASCAR wreck?), and the disasters in our lives (dead car, dead dog, not enough money, and God knows what other crazy bad thing that happened this week). We Tweet and Facebook with righteous anger about the bad stuff going on all around us and mourn the devolution of our society. Then we go home and pop popcorn and watch the devolution of other fictional societies as if it’s supposed to make us all feel better about the one we’re living in.
This. Is. Not. Working.
Now, you and I are not going to fix the whole social order by refusing to buy into a dystopic worldview. There will still be plenty of people to watch and read and buy whatever the hot new “end of the world” saga may be. Congress is still going to fight, people are still going to do the wrong thing, and gas may be $10 per gallon by the end of the summer. I get it. And I fully admit that being a Pollyanna and pretending stuff ISN’T going wrong won’t work either.
But I CAN make some small changes to my thinking that will directly impact my outlook, and you can too. Maybe even more important, we can make changes that impact our ability to reach and help the people we live and work with every day.
While everyone else is focused on the fact that Winter is Coming, we can be Looking for Spring.
My friend Melinda Guillemette touched on this idea in her recent post The Upside of Self Centeredness. She’s 100% right. If we evaluate the media we’re taking into our psyches, the conversations we’re having, and frame them through the lens of “is this making me better? Is this making my relationships better? Is this elevating the people around me in any way?” we may stop a lot of trash thinking/trash talking before we even start.
There are some other things we can do, too, that I’ve seen work very effectively in recent days. Join me in trying one or all:
- Write a gratitude journal. Every day, at the end of the day, jot down five things/people/happenings in your life that you are grateful for.
- Write a gratitude journal at work. Before you shut off that PC for the day, write down five meaningful projects/interactions with clients/interactions with colleagues. Because it’s a narrower slice of our lives, this is harder. But it can also be intensely rewarding.
- Focus on the positive in conversations, especially with colleagues and clients. Sometimes the most positive you can be is “I hear you. We’re in this together.” But just that little statement in place of commiserating (creating co-misery!) can elevate a situation in surprising ways.
- Spread cheer. Just once a week, think of someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Send a note or a card (or an email, if it’s all you can manage) telling them they matter to you. In today’s raft of busy-ness, getting a card like that in the mail can be stunningly meaningful.
- Clean up. Your language, your work space, your car, your house. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and miserable in a messy space. And that includes your head space.
Little changes. Incremental progress. That’s all it takes to change us – and it might be the start of changing the world.