I’ve seen this statement retweeted numerous times. In a profile piece on The New York Times, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is quoted as saying “I don’t have anything in common with people who stand on escalators.”
Given the lifestyle of the man in question – billionaire philanthropist, media mogul, former major of the Big Apple – you could say he doesn’t have anything in common with many people. However, as the meaning of his statement is that he has no time to waste (which he clarifies, as if it weren’t already clear), even when “coasting” is possible, coasting isn’t in his DNA.
That’s all well and good, and I smiled when I read the quote, nodding and understanding. Well, understanding to the extent that I can, given that Mr. Bloomberg and I have little in common except both being born in Massachusetts, and maybe an I Love New York tee-shirt tucked in a drawer.
So let’s consider what Mr. Bloomberg is up to. As The Times puts it:
Mr. Bloomberg, 72, has vowed to give away his $32.8 billion fortune before he dies. In doing so, he hopes to sharply reduce high smoking rates in Turkey, Indonesia and other countries; bring down obesity levels in Mexico; reduce traffic in Rio de Janeiro (and Istanbul); improve road safety in India and Kenya; prevent deaths at childbirth to mothers in Tanzania; and organize cities worldwide to become more environmentally friendly and efficient in delivering services.
Okay. Impressive. Wait. Make that mind-boggling.
Still, the third time I saw the escalator reference on Twitter, I was irked. I don’t pretend to be the World’s Greatest Anything, but I’m hardly a slacker, and I doubt you are either. And somehow, reading between the lines, I felt put down by riding down rather than running down a moving staircase.
So here’s the thing. I can think of two dozen reasons why I might be standing on an escalator along with any number of vital, energetic, creative, contributing, caring and otherwise “successful” people – regardless of the number of zeroes to the left of the decimal on our personal balance sheets.
What annoys me are the assumptions in a line that is, admittedly, catchy. Here’s what occurs to me, by way of illustration.
- What if I’ve pulled two all-nighters to finish a client deliverable and still show up for my child’s tennis match? Am I entitled to catch my breath as I glide from an office on one floor down to the lobby below?
- If I’ve flown across the Atlantic straight into meetings and back three days later (in Coach, mind you) just in time to see my kid pick up an award at school, can I set my bags down on the upper stair as I descend (in a stupor) to the airport parking garage?
- What if I only slept two hours after a night with my elderly mother-in-law, holding a cool cloth to her forehead because she’s ill? What if I still show up to make school lunches, see children off on the bus, and myself to my place of employment? Then can I catch my breath on an escalator?
- And if I have a medical condition or an injury, a migraine or a toothache, or if I’m just plain beat – then what? Might that explain why I’m not trotting down the stairs and why I don’t care for assumptions about my ambitions, my dreams, or my presumed (lazy) lifestyle?
I know, I know. I’ve got a bee under my Bostonian bonnet. This isn’t about whether or not the “rich” are like the rest of us, but it is about judgment and lack of empathy, both of which run rampant these days.
The more distant we are from Real World Problems – even “first world” Real World Problems – the less empathetic we become and the easier it is to make statements that are clever at first glance, but tinged with disapproval. And lest I be accused of assumptions and judgments myself, with regard to a man I don’t know, let me say that I think what Michael Bloomberg is doing is admirable, helpful, astonishing, and yes of course, self-interested. There’s nothing wrong with that. The desire for a legacy is an essential ingredient in accomplishing Big Things.
But the next time I’m on an escalator, I will watch my own impatience if I’m hurrying past a leaner, a stander, or even a full-width squatter. And I will nix my assumptions about their stillness, their absent-mindedness or their inertia. Because if I’m on a moving staircase and not rushing like an idiot, for me, that’s a win.
What am I doing while not charging ahead?
I’m ticking through a checklist in my mind. I’m generating taglines for a client. I’m composing a better headline. Maybe, like a child, I’m daydreaming, just a little. Idling – and productively idling at that. In my business, that is my business, at least in part.
Besides, even if it weren’t, I’d be better off with those few moments of rest. We would all be better off with a few moments of rest – coasting a little more, dashing a little less.
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