Before exceptionalism comes can-do-ism
Patrick Mannion - April 4, 2012
Two questions came up at the recent DESIGN West conference in San Jose: How do we rebuild America, and why did I come here? The first question arose during a panel comprising UBM Electronics editorial directors, including myself, and moderated by Karen Field, our boss and UBM Electronics’ vice president of content. The point of the panel was to discuss and answer questions from attendees on major technology and trends in the electronics industry.
As you might expect, topics quickly went from technology and engineering to jobs, education, and politics in about 2.3 microseconds, with about a nanosecond somewhere in between on social media’s usefulness. The chat finished with a discussion on how we can go about rebuilding America, which is the subject of an editorial series led by my colleague Junko Yoshida, editor-in-chief of our sister publication, EE Times.
I’ll provide my own take on rebuilding America by answering the second question: Why did I come here? This one comes up a lot because I am an immigrant. It’s hard to answer this question when it arises in a dinner setting, as it did at DESIGN West, when all anyone wants to hear is a funny story, meanwhile my head’s alight with both the personal and the economic dynamics of the situation that were going on when I left for the United States.
On the face of it, I had no real reason to leave Ireland. I was 22, had a great job in Dublin, and was generally having fun. It seemed as though I had it made, until you define “great.” Great, at that time, meant my job was reliable, paid the bills, and left enough over for some weekend — and maybe some weekday — fun and decent vacations.
In reality, though, Ireland was a career dead end. In 1989, the year I left, it had an unemployment rate of 14.5% and seemed to be going nowhere (see graph of Ireland’s unemployment rate over three decades, right; also see related piece: “Ireland’s ‘brain drain’ worse than 1989 as unemployment continues to rise“).
Also, in my first year on the job, I got my first taste of unions, when a colleague said, “Take it easy; don’t work so hard.” Translation: “We have this whole company gamed; we all do a certain amount, so don’t rock the boat.” Ireland was rife with this and I didn’t want any part of it.
That said, some engineering colleagues there gave me great advice: “Travel now, son, while you’re young, or you’ll never get the chance again.” I looked at them, with the remorse of lost opportunity etched into every wrinkle of their faces, and my passport may as well have been already stamped.
The plan was … well, there was no real plan. Just start with New York for a few months and then go to California, Asia, Europe, and, maybe someday, back to Ireland again. My three months in New York turned into 22 years, a wife, two kids, and a dog.
How’d that happen, and what does it have to do with rebuilding America? For that answer, I have to change the question to “Why did I stay?” versus “Why did I come?”
Long before I heard and understood the term “American exceptionalism,” I knew and felt “American can-do-ism”: the sense that anything is possible that derives from a unique combination of optimism, confidence, freedom, work/reward ethic, self-reliance, and open markets. Coming from the dark into this kind of light was positively intoxicating.
Now, I know that not all people manage to fully partake in this mix and take full advantage of it. We all have our respective levels of success, but it’s the possibility of partaking in this mixture that keeps the light alive.
What has happened over the past few years, however, in part as a result of September 11 and the reflective, self-flagellating navel gazing that has ensued and in part because of microeconomic and macroeconomic factors that have forever changed the employment landscape, is a gathering sense of doom and gloom, bordering on fear. That kind of fear was not present in the America I came to, and that foundation is not the one upon which to build the next surge of American can-do-ism. Fear has no place here; nothing good can come of it.
Recognizing when fear rears its ugly head, staring it down, and acting upon the natural instincts toward rebirth, innovation, and renewal that are the hallmarks of our nation-and of many other nations that have since taken and adopted what we have learned-is what will rebuild the United States.
We have not yet determined how that rebuilding will take shape, that implies knowledge of the future. We don’t actually have to know the future, just being fearless, innovative, and confident in the present will bring about the changes necessary.