Hubris

photo of yellow light bulb
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Elizabeth Holmes has been featured in an episode of 20/20 and in an HBO documentary. A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence is in the works as well. Her story is rather amazing. She founded a company at the age of 19 that at one time had an estimated worth of billions of dollars. She was a young woman with a vivid imagination who graced the covers of magazines. Her ideas began to unfold when she was still a child drawing detailed diagrams of a time machine, and other flights of fancy. As a freshman at Stanford University she came up with an idea for a patch that would be able to detect an infection and then administer a dose of antibiotics. She applied for a patent for her idea but sadly such a mechanism was entirely infeasible and came to naught. She moved on the the big invention that would make her one of the youngest CEOs and billionaires in the country.

Elizabeth wanted to create a simple way of testing blood for disease. She hated the way blood is drawn with needles and multiple tubes. She wanted to create a machine that would be able to perform all of the necessary tests from only a pen prick of blood. She imagined a way of getting the blood and then testing it in a machine so small that it might be carried into a battlefield. She was so proud of her idea that she called it” the Edison” in honor of the famous inventor who had inspired her from the time she was a child. She called her company “Theranos”, an amalgam of the words therapy and diagnosis. She saw her invention as a revolutionary way of delivering diagnoses that would change medicine all over the world. Her backers were so excited by the possibilities that they gave her hundreds of millions of dollars without securing any evidence that she was indeed capable of creating the needed technology.

Elizabeth hired a team of experts and filled her board of directors with some of the biggest names in the world. She built a magnificent headquarters in the heart of Silicon Valley and staffed it with brilliant and  innovative young minds. She fashioned herself as a new Steve Jobs dressing all in black and creating advertisements for her company that were sleek and exciting. Unfortunately even after years her idea did not work. In spite of all of the assertions that she was on the cusp of a whole new world, she was chasing after a dream that was probably never going to happen. After an journalistic expose revealed that “the Edison” did not work her company began to collapse. In the end it was worth less than zero.

When I heard about Elizabeth Holmes I wondered how she was able to muster the confidence to scam people with little more than an idea and nothing to prove that the technology would be effective and reliable. A bit of research into her background gave me some insights into the workings of her mind, or at least provided me with some theories about what made her tick.

Elizabeth was the granddaughter of a physician who founded a hospital and enjoyed a notable and productive career, so there is little doubt in my mind that she is a highly intelligent woman who came from intelligent stock. Her genetic background as well as her education seem to prove that Elizabeth had great potential. She lived for a time in my city, Houston, while her father was a vice president at Enron, a company that was built on smoke and mirrors that ultimately collapsed. She attended St. John’s School, an elite institution with a long waiting list that only the best, brightest and wealthiest children are able to attend. The school exists in  a rarified atmosphere of influence and power. It would be easy to see Elizabeth developing an exalted opinion of herself from being one of the chosen few able to go to such a prestigious place. Being accepted to the Engineering program at Stanford University would have reinforced her feelings about her self worth.

Elizabeth must have seen herself as someone who was going to change the world, and she was in a big hurry to do so. Her professors realized that she was brilliant and even one of the top students that they had ever met, but for some of them she was annoying in her insistence that she knew more than they did. She sought them out as mentors and then ignored them whenever they honestly critiqued her ideas. She often spoke of how Thomas Edison had to make ten thousand mistakes before some of his inventions worked. She truly believed that she was able to see the world more clearly than even her more experienced teachers.

She parlayed her connections and her confidence into a business that fooled even brilliant people like Bill Clinton who was one of her admirers. It’s possible that she believed her own press for a time, but at some point she had to realize that her company was little more than a scam much like Enron where her father had once worked. If she did continue to believe that she was on to something big, then she was quite deluded because it was clear to many of the employees that nothing was working as it should even as she advertised untruths. Evidence seems to indicate that she knew exactly what was happening and did her best to cover for the lack of progress by instituting an atmosphere of secrecy.

Most children have fantastical ideas. Some even make those ideas become reality. My brother dreamed of sending humans to the moon. The work of thousands of talented scientists and engineers made it happen. We need people who think out of the box and take us into uncharted territory, but they have to be honest about what they are actually achieving. Elizabeth Holmes was not. She lied again and again perhaps to keep the funds rolling in because she really did think that one day a eureka moment would occur, or maybe she was just hiding her failures. Sadly her actions hurt every person who attempts to find support for a reasonable idea.

I know some young men who worked very hard to find backers for what might have been an amazing tech company. I have rooted for a man who wants to make wind power a reality for anyone who wants to install his equipment in the backyard. Most people provide evidence that their inventions will actually work before they ask for funding. To make untrue claims in the hopes that they will one day come true is a fraud.

Elizabeth Holmes is a fascinating young woman, but also someone who seems to have little concern for all of the people that she scammed. That is the definition of a sociopath. While her idea was grounded in good intentions she was unwilling to do all of the hard work that is usually required of anyone who wants to change the world for the better. Perhaps her grandiose opinion of herself along with a great deal of immaturity lead her to her ultimate failure. Somewhere along the way she might have done the right thing by admitting that she was stumped. Instead she lied and even sent faulty test results to patients who were grievously harmed. She has yet to admit her responsibility for a fiasco. Her hubris is a tragedy not just for her but for everyone who believed in her. She has cast a shadow of doubt on anyone who is attempting to launch the next truly great idea. Who will now believe?

Advertisements

When the Rich Get Richer

antique bills business cash
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m livid about the college admissions scandal that is rocking the nation with its accusations of cheating by moneyed parents in order to obtain spots for their children. As an educator I am appalled but not really surprised by the idea that wealthy families are buying their way into prestigious universities. The whole affair speaks to monumental problems with the way things work in the acceptance process for schools and it addresses the pressures that our college bound students are facing, particularly when they lack influence or financial backing. As far as I am concerned this story reveals only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg and a societal problem that we have generally refused to discuss openly. There is something very wrong with the way things presently work and it is hurting everyone of us.

Right now suicides and attempts at suicide are at an all time high among high school and college age students. It’s a complex issue with so many facets that narrowing it down to just one thing is ludicrous. Nonetheless we have to consider the pressures to attend the top universities as one of the reasons that our kids are so anxious. The almighty class ranks and test scores are dominating their teen years. High schools are no longer ranked just by the number of graduates but also by the number of students taking advanced placement classes, the scores of students on the various tests, the number of students being accepted into universities and the supposed quality of the university admissions.

To get to the pinnacle of their high school careers students are carrying almost impossible study loads and being urged to compliment their academic achievements with participation in sports, extra curricular activities, and community service. Our kids are leaving their homes before dawn, arriving back home after dark and studying into the wee hours of the night so that they might receive acceptance letters from the most coveted schools. They are continually challenged  and ranked and asked to perform better and better. The idea of personal bests pushes them to the point of exhaustion and steals away time with their families. Little wonder that so many are crashing and burning. Few adults work as many hours without relaxation as so many of our high school students presently do just so they will rank high enough, score high enough  and perform well enough to one day gain admittance to one to a top university.

We’ve always known that wealthy families buy buildings, support athletic programs and serve on collegiate boards expecting payback in the form of special treatment for their children. I suppose I don’t have to mention the names of famous people who graduated from Ivy League universities without seeming to have had the intellect to do so. Money has always talked, but the new schemes are particularly egregious. How many worthy students have languished on a waiting list while a less qualified but rich son or daughter of a scion has been welcomed to a big name school with open arms?

Given the revelations of cheating what are we to tell the students who are genuinely attempting to demonstrate their worth? How do we convince them that the deck isn’t stacked against them before they even try? Furthermore, why are we as a society so convinced that the diplomas from the more highly regarded schools are worth more than others?

I’m a graduate of the University of Houston and quite proud of the education that I received there. I had the grades and the chops to attend the more elite schools but as the child of a single parent I did not have the resources or connections to be able to afford attending such places. I happily commuted from home each day and learned from some incredible professors who worked hard to inspire me. I was a Summa Cum Laude graduate who had won several academic honors. I quickly learned after landing my first job that what counted most was the quality of my work. No body ever again wanted to know where I had earned my degree, what my GPA had been, or whether or not I had earned honors. As far as my employers were concerned my performance each day was of the most importance, and I worked hard to earn their respect. That was all that really mattered.

There have always been individuals whose lives were set for success even before they went to school. The influence of their families has been their key to getting and staying in high paying jobs. The rest of us have to work our way to the top, but I wonder if starting that grind too early can have devastating effects on the overall development of our young. There is a time and a season for everything and if we join the rat race too soon we will eventually burn out. We have to learn how to find balance in our lives, so why are we pushing our students to levels of dedication that are unhealthy both physically and mentally? Do we not understand that wide scale cheating is a symptom that should tell us that something is very wrong?

I recall conversations with high school teachers about preparing students for college and beyond. What few high school educators note is that university students are not stuck in a classroom for seven to eight hours a day and then given enormous amounts of homework, research projects, and papers to write in the hours when they are at home. In college there may be three or four hours of class time each day with many more hours to complete course requirements. If the students wants to participate in extra curricular activities they can, but that is not forced on them. In other words, college presents a far easier schedule than most of today’s high schools do.

It’s time that we adults speak up for our young, and speak out against the practices of testing companies, admission policies, grading systems, continual ranking and other processes that are wreaking havoc with our teens. Learning should be our focus, not competition. The experience should be joyful and meaningful, not a source of stress. Until we repair the damage that has been done we no doubt will continue to see greedy individuals taking advantage of the gaming nature of the system. So far fifty people have been implicated in the latest scandal. Something tells me that the real number is in the thousands or perhaps the hundred thousands. We are sending our young a horrible message and we have to change that now. 

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

img_7493

My father read to me from the time that I was very young. He repeated the lilting phrases of classic poems and shared the words of fairytales and fables. He told me that there were lessons to be learned from literature, and that in olden times the stories were used to teach children. So it was with the tale of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. I was fascinated by the young shepherd boy who amused himself by pretending that wolves were attacking his flock. Each time he yelled, “Wolf, wolf!” the townspeople would run to his aide only to find him laughing at them. When a real wolf actually appeared and he cried out for help nobody came because they no longer believed a thing that he said. My father cautioned me to always be truthful and to use my words carefully lest I be viewed as someone who lies. Even in my very young state of mind I understood what he was saying.

Over the years I have done my best to be an honest person, but along the way I have met those who speak falsehoods. Sometimes those folks have actually gotten by with their half truths and exaggerations and it has infuriated me. I’ve wanted to reveal their fabrications and leave them looking like the hurtful individuals that they were. Most of the time though I simply cut them out of my little world, walking away glad I that I learned of their deceit early enough to save myself. Of late I am teetering a bit because I am discovering more and more secrets about people that I might have heretofore trusted. My caution and cynicism is growing by leaps and bounds as even the press and people once thought to be role models are outed as liars. I chide myself for forgetting my father’s cautionary words and getting caught being made a fool.

I don’t know if the present state of the world is really any different than it always has been, but with all of the information that we have I can’t decide if we know too much or too little. Maybe my nativity and ignorance was actually bliss, or maybe it fooled me in potentially dangerous ways. Whichever is the case I now find just a bit of that bliss being threatened by my unwillingness to quickly accept all of the stories that I hear as fact. I have grown wary and suspicious which may be to my benefit, but also feels a bit cranky.

Even the most unknown person now has many vehicles by which he or she may become instantly famous. A viral tweet or Instagram photo has the power of reaching the entire world. We take bits and pieces of information and form instant opinions about people and situations that we do not truly know. Many times the very ideas that we support are being held together by exaggerations if not outright lies. We become pawns in a game that can turn dangerous if we are too ready to believe. We have seen many such examples in the news, and yet we too often remain gullible, particularly when the person or persons speaking have points of view that reflect our own. We fall for propaganda without enough thought or attempts to seek the truth.

I don’t know anything about Jussie Smollett. I have never watched Empire and I might never have even heard his name before he reported that a hate crime had been perpetrated against him. At first I paid little attention to the affair other than to feel a bit sad that anyone had been as cruel to him as he asserted they had been. Of course the story did not end there. We soon learned that Mr. Smollett had manufactured the entire scenario in a crazed plan to gain attention and perhaps become a more popular and well known figure. Now even folks like me know a bit more about him, and sadly he is more infamous than famous. He will be remembered as someone who lied about a very serious situation.

There are truly hateful acts being played out all around us. We indeed need to find the evil doers who would espouse violence against anyone for reasons of race, religion, sexual orientation, or politics. They need to be punished for their transgressions and made examples of how not to act. When someone like Jussie Smollett deliberately lies about such serious matters he hurts anyone who has ever attempted to right the wrongs of hate crimes. He diminishes the chances that victims will be believed and evil doers will receive justice. He becomes one more boy who cried wolf and lessens the possibility that we will pay attention to cries for help in the future. When the members of the press run with his story without vetting it, the issue becomes even worse. We have all forgotten the idea of waiting for evidence before forming opinions, making it easier for someone like Mr. Smollett to connive to fool us.

We’ll soon forget Mr. Smollett. He will become but a blip on our radar, but the memories of his falsehoods will tinge our sense of trust. Those who are truly hateful and who would actually hurt people with whom they do not agree will celebrate a seeming victory without realizing that we all came out losers in this affair. Once again we showed how divided we are and how unwilling to give even an inch we have become. All we have seen is indignation rather than a willingness to look inside our own hearts. The press and the pundits are using this story to bolster their already formed opinions rather than reflecting on how they are in many ways the very people who are driving such acts of desperation.

The story of the boy who cried wolf would not have lasted as long as it has if it did not somehow speak universally to our human natures. We seem to have ignored its message of late and forgotten ideas like searching for facts before accepting tales as truth. We are routinely favoring and indicting individuals and groups without taking the time to search for truth. It is definitely time to be more wary.  

When Me Too Hits Close To Home

multicolored broken mirror decor
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

I have been brave in my writing. I attempt to tell truths that may be uncomfortable to others, and there is much tragedy and grief in my story and those of each human that has the potential to make us squirm. As people we often prefer to avoid reality because it is so difficult to face. Whenever I write or speak about mental illness I feel the discomfort that ensues. I know that my readers want to be uplifted and so I balance such stories with lighthearted tales of puppies and travel. Still, I know that there are times when it is my duty to be honest about challenging topics.

We are presently in the throes of the Me Too Movement. So many women are stepping forward with stories of sexual abuse that it sometimes feels as though there is a kind of hysteria washing over the world. Surely, we think, there must be a certain level of exaggeration when it comes to the numbers of accusations that are suddenly condemning men of all stripes, including priests. We wonder and worry if there is just a kind of mass paranoia that is behind all of the revelations, at least until we hear of a case that is close to home.

Earlier this week a woman who was a year behind me in high school posted a shocking essay on Facebook in which she outlined the horrors of her own encounter with sexual abuse from one of her high school teachers, a priest. It was stunning in its detail and honesty, and I might have simply disregarded it as being too fantastical to be true had it not been for the fact that I knew this priest and had felt oddly uncomfortable around him when I was in high school.

Being a single parent my mom taught me how to be exceedingly careful around men. I thought that she was overly worried that someone might take advantage of me sexually. Her constant lectures on how to comport myself and how to avoid sticky situations seemed paranoid, and in keeping with her mental illness. Her instructions also made me unduly wary of every male that I knew. Nonetheless, there were times when I sensed trouble because of her admonitions and as a result I have sailed through life having had some highly suggestive encounters, but never any actual physical attempts to take advantage of me. I ran like a deer at the first sign of innuendo.

So it was with the very priest that one of my fellow students described as her abuser. He had shown an undue interest in me and often asked me if I was dating. I was still a wall flower of the highest order at that time and I didn’t like discussing my lack of a social life with anyone save for my closest female friends, so I never engaged in his inquisitions. One afternoon at the end of the school day I encountered him in the school hallway and he grabbed me from behind and locked me in a hug in which he held me with my back being held tightly against his chest. My instinct was to kick him and run away, but he  was a priest and one who lifted weights at that. I was a very small girl who was taught to be respectful, but in that moment I was also conflicted as I thought of my mother’s instructions to follow my instincts and run from any situation that felt wrong. I remember willing myself to become as rigid as stone as he held me for what felt like an eternity.

While we stood there he wanted to know if I had been invited to the prom. I had not, and it was a great disappointment to me. I was a senior and as far as I knew virtually every girl in my class was going. I mumbled a quick answer hoping that he would loose his grip, but he persisted in his conversation by telling me that if he were my age and not a priest he would have been proud to take me to the prom. He said that in his mind I was one of the more attractive girls in the school. In fact, he rambled on, he thought that I was a real catch. As my mind raced at what felt oddly inappropriate I did some quick thinking and told him that my mom was waiting for me outside and I had to go. He let me go immediately, and from that point forward I treated him as though he was a carrier of a deadly plague, In other words, heeding my mother’s advice I made certain that I would never again find myself alone with him. I moved on and so did he.

Years passed but I always recalled how uncomfortable he had made me. I vacillated between thinking that he had indeed been targeting me for something unnatural or that I had simply been a school girl with a big imagination. He eventually moved away, left the priesthood and married. I assumed that I had made a mountain out of a molehill in my teenage mind, and then I read the expose from the woman who had borne the full effect of his attentions. With each revelation of the pain that she had endured over a lifetime I felt a pit in my stomach because my own brush with danger felt more real than ever. Her accusations might have been unbelievable given how egregious they were had I not felt so uncomfortable with this same man. Somehow I knew that her sordid tale was true, and I was sickened. 

But for my mother’s admonitions I might have been the person telling a story of deep abuse. I shudder to think how it may have changed my life as it did the woman who so endured the pain and the fear that is almost always associated with such horrors. The priest who abused her is long dead, but what he did to her will live with her forever and those of us who Knew and trusted him. The greater sin in her tragedy is that she eventually came forward with her story and virtually nothing was done to rectify the terror that should never have been inflicted on her. Her abuse was filed away as though it never happened.

It’s time for the Catholic Church to change dramatically and quit protecting bad priests from the full impact of the law. They have to listen to victims and be transparent with parishioners. In the meantime we must instruct our sons and daughters to assert themselves when vile acts are being forced on them and to speak up regardless of who is the perpetrator.We must honor those courageous enough to tell us about these incidents and ferret out those who would take advantage of innocents. I suppose that I will be eternally grateful that my mom took the time to be open and honest about such issues and to make me aware of the evil that lurks in this world. Her wisdom has protected me throughout my life. Not everyone has been so fortunate. 

Complacency Is Our Enemy

building dark lights perspective
Photo by Antonio Esteo on Pexels.com

I’ve always been drawn to books and television programs that feature true crime cases. I regularly record Dateline, Forty Eight Hours, and 20/20. I don’t watch them until I am performing some tedious task around the house like ironing. Then I fill the boredom with mysteries of murder and intrigue. Most of the episodes are somewhat similar in nature, and I have learned how to use my detective skills to put together the clues and determine whodunit. Once in a great while one of the features is different in nature, and it pulls on my emotions to the point of tears. Such was a recent Forty Eight Hours that told of a young man named Blaze Bernstein who was viciously stabbed to death.

Blaze was a happy and incredibly talented young man who lived in southern California with this loving and devoted parents. He was considered to be brilliant by both his teachers and his friends. His talents ran the gamut but it was writing that truly showcased his creativity. He also enjoyed cooking and being with and helping people. He was one of those young people who seemed to be heading for greatness when his life was so viciously ended.

At the same time that Blaze was impressing everyone that he met with his goodness and his potential, another young man was following a different path. He went to the same high school as Blaze but that is where the similarities end. This boy was filled with anger and hate. He became known for racist remarks that included vandalizing a copy of Raisin In the Sun with scribbles of the “N” word throughout. He drew pictures of guns and war, and made his classmates so uncomfortable that they whispered that he had the markings of a school shooter. Unfortunately nobody felt comfortable voicing any of their discomfort aloud. Eventually the hateful kid transferred to a different school, but everyone remembered the fear that he had engendered in them.

Blaze went on the an ivy league college where he was almost immediately a stand out student. After his first semester he returned home for the winter break, and all seemed well. Blaze of course was Jewish, and he had come out as gay, but none of that mattered to those who loved him, and they were many. During the break he got a message from the disturbed young man who had once been a fellow classmate. Without telling anyone where he was going, Blaze agreed to a meeting in a local park. He never came home.

Were it not for an unusually strong rainfall Blaze’s body might never have been found. He was buried under a tree in the park and a passerby noticed a muddy mound that seemed unnatural. Blaze’s body showed evidence of a raging knife attack. In the meantime, Blaze’s parents had done a bit of sleuthing and found a message on his computer indicating his intent to meet the former classmate in the park. When detectives descended on the suspect’s home they found a bloody knife with Blaze’s blood still on it, as well as blood in the perpetrator’s car.

The murder alone was so horrific that I cried several times during the episode, but even more frightening was that the killer had been a member of a neo-Nazi group called Atom Waffen that has chapters all over the United States. The goal of this organization is to literally destroy the United States of America. They celebrated Blaze’s death as a glorious victory with the double benefit of eliminating both a Jew and a gay man. The members are so violent that they consider the Alt Right to be a group of cowards who are not willing to bring about the level of anarchy needed to cleanse the world of all sorts of people who are undesirable in their minds. Most troubling is that they are gaining traction particularly with young white male teens who feel part of something important for the first time in their lives in joining ranks.

We all need to be fully aware that such groups exist, and we need to do our best to find ways to eliminate them. Nonetheless, Blaze’s parents have embarked on a positive and loving pathway to bringing tolerance into more hearts. They have established a foundation called Blaze It Forward in honor of their son. The goal is to encourage people to perform acts of kindness and to donate to causes that help people. They have been able to provide college scholarships and work with young people who feel disengaged. They have channeled their sorrow into love, and in the process have brought great meaning to Blaze’s short life in spite of his death.

I sobbed when I witnessed the courage and grace of Blaze’s parents, and found myself thinking once again of the importance of each of us working systematically to stoke the fires of compassion, acceptance and goodness in every corner of the world. We need to continually model the behaviors that we wish to see, and be on the watch for the wounded souls among us. I suspect that Blaze was such a good person that he may have agreed to meet his killer in the hopes of somehow changing his murder’s tortured soul. It was just the sort of thing that he was prone to do. His parents have followed his lead and focus their healing on good works. It’s something that we should all consider doing. At the same time we must speak out against hate groups and make everyone aware of their dangerous agendas. Complacency is one of our worst enemies that will only lead to more violence.