Building Bridges in a Divided Age

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Lost trust in institutions? We’re all part of the system. This story explores personal experiences and offers a call to action for individual change and rebuilding trust through human connection and collective action.

In today’s world, finding companies, governments, and institutions that we can trust is becoming increasingly difficult. The abundance of information, fragmentation, automation, constant change, global geo-political uncertainty, financial pressures, the erosion of infrastructure, and changing social norms all contribute to a sense of disconnect and disillusionment. None of these factors happened overnight or are the result of one person or one action and they are all interconnected. This article explores the far-reaching effects on corporations, governments, societies, and the individuals who depend on these institutions in a broader context. When systems fail and humanity is stripped away, we go into survival mode, and the only way out is for individuals to band together and own the outcome they desire. 

In the corporate world

In the corporate world, once-revered institutions now focus on the bottom line over human values. Employees are now cogs in a vast machine who feel their voices silenced and their concerns unheard. A generation either resigns one year with the great resignation or holds on for dear life, putting no skin in the game the following year. Roles that once had autonomy, authority, and pride of ownership have been replaced by automation, outsourcing, and systems that leave customers and employees bewildered. Consumers watch with slickly produced campaigns that include performative and superficial promises while levels of service and quality that once defined a company disintegrate right before our eyes. Customers spend more and get less daily, suspecting every smile as a calculated marketing ploy. 

American Airlines, once famous for its slogan “We’re American Airlines, something special in the air,” has implemented cost-cutting measures and outsourced many of its services. The result is a basic flying experience with limited food, entertainment, and beverage options. Their once popular In-flight magazine, “The American Way,” is no longer provided, reflecting the airline’s loss of direction. Flight attendants seem less enthusiastic, making an experience far from “special.” American Airlines, which has the potential to inspire national pride, is flying aimlessly, much like the country it represents.

In our governments

Like American Airlines, our governments are operating similarly. Just look at our crumbling infrastructure in America. The cracks in America’s infrastructure aren’t just cosmetic flaws; we’ve become adept at prioritizing the flashy, the immediate. A new school building trumps bridge repairs, and a tax cut overshadows the creaking water pipes beneath our feet. We patch potholes, not roads, and tinker with outdated systems instead of overhauling them. Every election cycle, promises of infrastructure renewal flood the airwaves, only to evaporate in the face of more “pressing” concerns. 

In startups

Beyond governments and big corporations, even the idealistic startup world squanders trust. Startups drown us in micro-solutions like the dozens of meditation apps, cluttering our lives instead of tackling broader problems. Despite what appears to be an intention to help us relax and rejuvenate, they lure us in with hidden cancellation traps and deceptive offers, leaving us stuck with unwanted subscriptions, so much so that there are apps that you can pay for to unsubscribe and cancel other apps. Once acquired by big players, their initial spark flickers out, replaced by a ruthless pursuit of profit and shareholder value. Once a sustainability champion, Dollar Shave Club now churns out plastic disposables under Unilever’s ownership. This relentless focus on profit, deceptive tactics, and a lack of holistic solutions leave consumers jaded and create a landscape overflowing with digital and physical waste. While consumers like the idea of altruistic brands, many who try to build up these brands aren’t able to realize the dream or vision they once had in an attempt to scale. 

With a mission to combat big tobacco, JUUL, born in 2015, offers a sleek e-cigarette designed as a “harm-reduction alternative for adult smokers.” Two Stanford students designed its initial vision to replace cigarettes with a less harmful option. However, success brought unforeseen dangers when the founders lost control of JUUL’s marketing, and it attracted underage users because the people hired to market the company used the same playbook as big tobacco. Eventually, this led to criticism, regulatory scrutiny, and, ultimately, the acquisition of Juul by a major tobacco company. This shift betrayed the founders’ vision and betrayed many innocent people who were exposed to the dangers of tobacco and bubbles in their lungs, exposing the complexities of disrupting an industry while facing regulatory hurdles and unexpected ownership changes.

Our environment 

In a parallel story, the costs of keeping our environment safe are falling by the wayside as companies feel increased pressure to cut costs and achieve quarter-over-quarter profitability. According to the Wall Street Journal, Companies like Coca-Cola are quietly erasing the term ESG, opting for blander descriptions like “responsible business” – a convenient escape from the rigorous demands of environmental and social responsibility. But consumers aren’t blind. While influencers advocate for organic cotton and “sustainable fashion,” hashtags clog social media, overflowing landfills, and choked oceans tell a different story. The stark gap between eco-friendly pronouncements leaves many consumers disillusioned and demanding genuine action. 

Government, Startups, and larger institutions built on shaky foundations crumble when the cracks are exposed, leaving investors, employees, citizens, and customers duped.

The Ugly Symptoms of a Diseased System

These aren’t isolated incidents. They’re the toxic symptoms of a systemic disease that’s been festering for decades. Years of prioritizing wealth accumulation over human well-being and short-term gain over long-term sustainability have woven a tangled web of inequality and hardship that is affecting everyone- and people who you wouldn’t think are suffering are making choices they thought they would never have to make. This has consequences not just for the environment but for the very sustainability of our lives.

We each need to ask ourselves: is my life sustainable? Do my daily choices lead to a healthy existence, or am I just stuck in a hamster wheel? Can I afford the lifestyle I’m chasing, or am I simply keeping up with a pressure-fueled game of one-upmanship? Do I like the people I work with, or do I have to put on a fake smile every time I show up to work? Do I trust? Understanding the societal and individual factors that drive our actions is crucial. We need to reconcile our roles in this system and grasp the true impact of our short-term choices on ourselves, our families, our communities, and even the companies we work for.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth: ordinary people like you and me build these big, faceless institutions. The company that screws you over? It’s staffed by hardworking individuals skipping lunch breaks to answer emails, barely clinging to stagnant wages despite tireless efforts. Is the politician making empty promises? They probably fold laundry evenings just like you. Maybe the trust crisis isn’t about some shadowy monster out there; it’s about staring in the mirror and realizing we’re all part of it.

So, if hard work isn’t the sole answer, what is? The key lies in systems thinking. This approach acknowledges that individuals are not isolated cogs but interconnected pieces within a complex system. It’s this very system that dictates the true impact of our actions. Over the years, I have coached individuals drowning in dysfunctional systems, stressed cogs in rusty organizational gears. When you are one cog in a vast system, the structures grinding down morale and efficiency – remain untouched. There is not much you can do and why would you take your talents to do something nearly impossible when you are not in a position of authority? And even if you are in a position of authority, restructuring workflows, investing in resources, and fostering supportive cultures will not lead to results if the values are defined, promises are made, and all players are playing in good faith on the same team. 

Internet Brands, a Los Angeles-based corporation that owns several digital publications and services, including WebMD, faced criticism recently for its poorly produced and out of touch video demanding that it’s employees come back to the office. The video “demanded” that employees return to the El Segundo office after years of remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The video features CEO Bob Brisco, who, a minute-and-a-half into the video says: “We aren’t asking or negotiating at this point, or informing of how we need to work together going forward.” The video depicts working in a traditional office setting as fun and exciting, complete with dancing and colorful tropical shirts. Brisco argues that great companies are great when great people work together and see each other eye-to-eye while tackling big tasks. The video has been widely criticized. I wonder if the executives met with their teams and collaborated to understand what’s important to them for productivity truly and treated them with respect, if the company had been in this situation. 

Systems thinking isn’t about individual blame but about shared responsibility. It’s about understanding the interconnectedness of the system we’ve built and working together to redesign it for the good of everyone. When we see ourselves as part of the solution, not just the problem, we can truly unlock the potential of a sustainable future. This systematic shift will create a ripple effect of benefits. Individuals will feel empowered to communicate seamlessly, and frustration will give way to focused productivity. This newfound agility will allow us to respond to challenges swiftly and seize opportunities, ultimately boosting collective performance and leaving the sustainability crisis in the dust.

My story of embracing my authentic self 

My story might be different – privileged enough to be called “upper-middle class,” with kids who face adversity with ADHD, Dyslexia, and Autism—a failed marriage, sure, but underpinned by the fiercest resolve to do right by my family. Yet, even as a well-educated middle-aged man who seems to be making all the right moves, I feel the crushing weight of this collective squeeze. Gravity shifted, pulling us all down, regardless of class or origin.

And I see it reflected in my kids, their unique needs demanding resources and support that the current system, where some doctors no longer take insurance. Every specialist looks at the problem from their perspective, and no one can weave together an answer to get beyond their expertise.  I once went to a genealogist to learn more about my son’s genetic composition to try and get to the root cause of his struggles and was told his brain is unique, and he will put it in the database, and if we find something, we will let you know. I haven’t heard back from them, and I will likely never. 

My son’s school gives me hope. 

But then there is the story of my son’s school. The Quad School is a testament to the power of empathy and understanding in the face of systemic inadequacy. It began ten years ago, sparked by a mother who worked in the psychology department at NYU Hospital—driven to help her son with ADD and other complexities who didn’t fit the rigid mold of any public or private school that existed at the time.  Her colleague said to her after she did a robust Neuropsych on her son, that she would “need to figure it out,” and she did –she started the school with two students in a basement.  Now, ten years later,  they cater to over 130 students in primary and secondary schools. 

The Quad School isn’t just bricks and mortar; it’s a thriving community pulsating with shared journeys. Every student and teacher carries the whispers of similar struggles, of being twice-exceptional – gifted yet misunderstood, brilliant yet ostracized. Here, those whispers become anthems of acceptance, their differences celebrated, their challenges recognized as strengths. Witnessing my son bloom within these walls, surrounded by peers who genuinely see him, restores my faith in a world often choked by indifference. The Quad School, born from one mother’s struggle, has become a refuge for him and countless others. It’s a reminder that amidst the darkness, even the smallest act of empathy can blossom, offering hope and proving that when we truly see each other, we can weave a future where every child and every individual can make a difference and every individual, despite their adversity, deserves an opportunity to thrive. This school is $92k, and it is worth every penny. I am responsible for half of it and half of my daughter’s school for her dyslexia and ADD, which she so desperately needs. I have to lay out the money upfront and wait as much as a year for my reimbursement,  but it still buries me financially. 

The Bronx Gives Me Hope 

I gave up my place in Manhattan’s luxurious Upper East Side to move to the Bronx because my rent had increased by 65%. Although it was a difficult decision, I prefer living in the Bronx since I feel more sincerity from my neighbors and have made more connections. My children also find it easier to make friends in this “working-class” neighborhood where everyone cares for each other. The level of honesty, sincerity, and vulnerability in this community is something I had not experienced in years and appears to be similar to what my parents described about growing up in the 50s and 60s.

Currently, I am feeling unwell and resting in bed. I know my neighbors are stepping up for my kids and me, and I will continue to do the same for them. My neighbors have shown me sincere and genuine kindness, which I am genuinely grateful for. When I was in Manhattan, it was a flurry of expensive and transient activities. Every year, my neighbors moved in and out of the expensive rental buildings, making it difficult to make friends, and they lacked warmth and vulnerability that transcended from superficial friendships to authentic vulnerability like I am experiencing in the Bronx.

It’s time to be a master of change 

I am reading the book Master of Change by Brad Stulberg at the recommendation of Doug Busk, a friend I made from the industry who grew up in Corporate America and was told in an interview that it is improbable to ever return to corporate again because he has outgrown it! It was a nice compliment, but that meant that Doug needed to think about himself and what he was doing and not doing. He is a successful entrepreneur and consultant working on meaningful change at large organizations. He went from corporate America to academia and consulting. 

A key theme of the book is the management of expectations. Let’s remember that all predictability crumbled under the weight of the pandemic. The virus widened inequality, revealing the stark vulnerability of specific communities and the inadequacy of current support structures. We lost millions of people, family, friends, and people who we loved and depended on, and it is not over.  The pandemic forced us to re-evaluate what truly matters – our health, relationships, and connection to the environment. This reshuffled our priorities, making values like compassion, adaptability, and community more prominent. But with each passing day we treat the pandemic, the compassion we feel is a distant memory. 

But the pandemic is not the only upheaval we are dealing with. Research shows that, on average, we experience 36 so-called “disorder events” during adulthood; some examples include: 

  1. Unexpected setback after progress
  2. Chronic pain or illness
  3. Loss of a loved one
  4. Career transition or upheaval
  5. Relationship challenges
  6. Loss of identity or purpose
  7. Financial hardship or crisis
  8. Creative block or mental fatigue
  9. Existential crisis or questioning of meaning
  10.  Loss of physical abilities or health

These days, Every 18 months, life throws us a curveball. I am currently experiencing at least half of these struggles head on and countless of my friends and family, whether they admit it or not, are too; in my lifetime, you and I have likely experienced 9/11, hurricanes, societal upheavals, and economic meltdowns. Change feels constant, uncontrollable, and always different from what happened before. This is not how I remember it as a kid. 

From Buddhist acceptance to Stoic resilience, ancient traditions have long known that change is not the enemy. Modern psychology and neuroscience echo this sentiment, revealing that no change causes our suffering. Still, our resistance to it is Stulberg’s book and his practice’s theme.

But there is an answer and a methodology that Brad Stulburg proposes to help! He calls it “rugged flexibility” – the active embrace of the ebb and flow of life. By letting go of our resistance and actively embracing the ever-changing landscape, we unlock a hidden strength – the “rugged flexibility” to ride life’s waves with resilience and joy.

Locus of control

The answer lies not in clinging to what was but in embracing the transformative power of a growth mindset. We must embrace change and reflect on ourselves as agile architects of the future. We must become lifelong learners, unafraid to experiment and explore uncharted territories. We need to shed the fixed past and embrace the fluid future. We will survive and flourish beyond our wildest dreams by embracing a growth mindset. But it won’t be easy, and it is not for the faint of heart.

The tipping point for you, for me, and the world

We’ve reached a tipping point. Now, we embrace the opportunity to use this change as fuel for personal growth and reinvention. We yearn for something more – for brands that stand for something, leaders who lead with empathy, and businesses that put people before profit. For employees to adapt and define lives and careers beyond forces you can’t control. 

People crave genuine connections and meaningful experiences. People are looking for stability, consistency, and reliability; they want trust and loyalty rather than always being in a state of flux and uncertainty. Our institutions – healthcare, education, work – also need reinvention. They must adapt to the new realities exposed by the pandemic, prioritizing well-being, sustainability, and equitable access. This transformation won’t happen overnight, but it’s time to start imagining and building the frameworks we need for a better future.

The decision to leave corporate America was more than a career shift for me. It was a commitment to a deeper, more meaningful approach to my life and career.  Marketing is my love, but it isn’t easy being a marketer these days; whether you are looking for a simple corporate job or a freelance startup, marketers are often viewed as manipulative individuals employing psychological tactics to influence behavior and as prioritizing style over substance, using appealing visuals and catchy slogans. Additionally, some associate marketers with unethical practices, overemphasizing sales, lacking authenticity, and constantly chasing trends instead of adopting sustainable approaches. By and large, I have realized that most people don’t respect marketing, and I have decided that my life, career, and legacy must be more significant than marketing!

So, I transitioned into roles where my impact could resonate more profoundly – as a consultant, author, and professor. At the heart of this new chapter was the creation of my consultancy, Your Brand Coach, which bridges individuals and companies to lead to authenticity, and the authoring of the book “Brand Strategy In Three Steps” which documents my company’s approach.  My approach to building meaningful and authentic brands emphasizes the importance of human connections built on memorable and meaningful promises to each other.

My life today is full of unexpected lessons taught by autistic hugs in living rooms, academic debates in lecture halls, and the gut-wrenching sting of betrayal. As a divorced father of two, professor, and entrepreneur, each experience chipped away at the false self I sometimes crafted over the first 40 years, revealing the power of embracing my quirks and aspirations. The harsh reality of a fractured marriage exposed the shadow side of the human experience, a toxic landscape I will never tolerate again. These tribulations taught me a fundamental truth: success is measured not by fitting in but by forging genuine connections with those who celebrate your authentic self. You can do the same!

So, what are we going to do?

If you value your career, have professional pride, and are tired of playing by dated black-and-white rules that you don’t buy into, and want to engage with people and institutions you trust, then you are invited to apply for Membership. If you want to be known as more than just a cog in the wheel and believe you, as an individual, have the power to make meaningful change in the world, then join us.

Together, we have the power to rewrite this narrative and change the systems that have crippled us for years. Every conscious choice we make, every voice we raise in dissent, and every demand for accountability chips away at the foundations of this crumbling system. We can reclaim our communities, rebuild our institutions based on empathy and responsibility, and create a world where thriving isn’t just for the privileged few.

This reinvention demands collective action, demanding change, and working together to build institutions that reflect our shared values and aspirations. Remember that your voice matters. By expressing your frustration and advocating for change, you’re not just speaking for yourself but for countless others who share your concerns. 

The marketing world needs a revolution, not a rinse and repeat. Forget the marketing gurus peddling one-size-fits-all formulas. We need more Thunbergs of the trade, not echo-chamber clones. But here’s the twist: these Thunbergs won’t just be teenagers railing against climate inaction. They’ll be diverse, neurodivergent, and fiercely passionate about something beyond the bottom line.

Last modified: February 28, 2024