Post 1: We Need New Metaphors
Nascar Owner Felix Sabates set off a firestorm with his incendiary comments about Michigan and Detroit. I won't repeat his comments in full here; frankly I find his comments to be particularly cruel, given the current economic situation in the state. His efforts at humor were about as funny as putting a blind person in a strange room, taking away their cane and dog, and then breaking both of their legs as you leave the room. Not funny at all. My own attempt in explaining Mr. Sabates' comments would properly be categorized as a metaphor.
Metaphors serve as a symbolic linkage of one concept to another in an effort to describe or illuminate the primary concept through the description of the second. That’s some fancy talk for saying that metaphors are shorthand ways of talking about things that help us understand those things. I’d like to talk about some of the metaphors we have for the region and whether those metaphors are helpful. I’d then like to propose a new metaphor; one which will hopefully resonate with you, dear reader, and offer a basis for the region to move forward.
Metaphor: Michigan and/or Detroit is Dead
This is in essence what Mr. Sabates was saying. When you stop and think about the whole notion of the region being 'dead' you'll realize that this is a metaphor. A city or region can't be 'dead' since it can't in any real sense be said to be 'alive'. Plants, animals, humans - these things are alive. Cities and regions are geographic objects and not alive. 'Michigan is Dead' is therefore a metaphor, but is it a useful one? Does it provide us with any big insight or understanding? The plain answer is no. Dead things aren't part of our ongoing narrative. When we say something is dead, we usually mean it in that 'and gone' construct of dead. Dead things no longer contribute. Dead things are soon forgotten. And if the region is really 'dead' we may as well pack it up and move. But if we're not moving anytime soon, then the metaphor of death is pretty damned useless.
Metaphor: The Region is Alive and Kicking
Right next to the 'Michigan is Dead' metaphor, my least favorite metaphor is 'Michigan is Alive!' This metaphor really doesn’t work for me because it ignores the very real challenges and problems the region faces. Yes, there is vitality and strength here, and we're still not out for the count, but all is not well here, and blind rallying cries of "The Region is Awesome" or declarations of cool city-ness just encourage people to stick their heads in the sand.
Other Metaphors along the Life and Death Spectrum
I've heard people talk about the 'rebirth' of the region. This also gets obfuscated under the 'renaissance' metaphor. You’ll also hear about the 'resurrection' of the region. I’d like to propose taking all of these metaphors down to the hopefully soon to be decommissioned incinerator and burned up.
These metaphors simply hold out false hope that if we somehow hang in there, we'll be restored to our former glory or even worse, a new glory that will outshine our former glory. This simply isn't going to happen. And hoping for it to happen causes us to look for signs of resurrection, and fight anything that doesn't appear to be paving the way for rebirth. The destructive aspect of this metaphor rears its ugly head in resistance to right-size the infrastructure of Detroit and the region. It's as if we expect a flood of people to come charging back into the area and need to keep the infrastructure in its present state for when they do.
It also shows up in the overemphasis on job creation when it comes to entrepreneurial efforts in the region. Want to get some help getting resources into your enterprise - you need to speak in terms of jobs created, not in terms of innovation, resourcefulness, and creativity. To stretch my own metaphor here - expecting 'resurrection' puts us in a mindset of expecting miracles - and believing that miraculously every unemployed autoworker is going to quickly find a job of comparable pay and benefits in constructing windmills, homeland defense, green autos, or whatever the savior idea of the moment happens to be. It's simply not realistic to expect that to happen. And the sooner we abandon the expectation that it will happen, the sooner we can get on with the heavy work that it will take us to move forward. Don't get me wrong – I'm not trying to kill hope. Rather, I'm saying we need to quit expecting miracles and a cure from outside of ourselves. The hope and answers we need lie within ourselves.
And with that, I'd like to introduce a new metaphor for the region.
Metaphor: The Region is like a 45-year-old overweight middle manager with three kids and a mortgage who just got laid off; let's call him 'Larry'.
I believe Larry is a much better metaphor for the region. Larry's got a lot of problems. He's got debt to pay and people to take care of. Larry's 45 and overweight - and try as he might, he's never going to be 25 again. He's not going to be able to 'resurrect', 'rebirth' or 'renaissance' himself into something other than what he is. Larry's not dead, and while he's still alive, it's a rough life and road ahead of him. But Larry's got skills, he's got some resources, and Larry's going to wake up tomorrow with the whole rest of his life ahead of him and have no choice but to move forward. I offer this as a metaphor for a lot of reasons. First, a lot of us know a guy like Larry or are a guy like Larry (even if your name is really Debbie). Second, when you're a Larry, you soon realize that the only person who can help you is you, Larry. And there's power in this realization. The power to endure and the power to adapt and move forward.
The Way Forward For Larry
Let me end this by saying a couple of things about the words I've used in here. I've talked a lot about the region. Let me say, right here, right now, that I don't believe in "the region". "The region" is a non-entity. It can't do anything. It can't create, it can't plan, it can't dream, it can't hope and it most certainly can't do. Doing, thinking, planning, dreaming - these are strictly human endeavors and are undertaken by individuals. It is only through our individual actions that any real change can occur. When we talk about changing the region, improving the region, or doing any other number of things to 'the region', we’re shifting power and responsibility to something external to ourselves. That power, that responsibility, lies firmly with each of us as individuals - and it is our duty to exercise that power and responsibility on an individual level to improve ourselves. In other words, fix yourself and the region will be fixed.
In my next couple of installments, I'll propose ways that you can use an entrepreneurial mindset to adapt and innovate. In other words, to be the best damned Larry you can be.