I am not materialistic.
I am not fascinated with power.
I am not even that obsessed with technology (much).
But recently I got generously given a cellphone – a Samsung Note II. It was donated to me by someone who works in IT who has since upgraded his phone for a second time. But compared to my piece-of-junk phone it was incredible! The giant screen, the vivid display, the fast operating system. This might all seem trivial and nonsensical, but it was riveting... endearing... capturing.
I couldn't take my eyes off it. All I know is that with one generous act from another human being, I went from having a functional and useful phone to all of a sudden feeling empowered.
The world was at my fingertips.
It's now two weeks later. The shine has gone, the giant screen no longer a stranger, and I don't feel any power with it any more. Life has moved on, and this incredible advance in my life has suddenly become the norm.
It might sound sick and perverted, but the first thing I thought of when my adrenaline was peaking was, "I feel powerful". I was almost embarrassed to be associated with it, unwilling to bring it out in public; that felt so lame and trivial to say, but now without conscious reflection, those thoughts are gone.
I still cannot get over how an object that humans created could generate this feeling of power in me – and my unwillingness to let go of it. But it disappeared, and this thing that was such a thing of beauty has now become 'standard fare'.
This has got me pondering. Not necessarily about cellphones or technology... but rather, power.
An issue that has been in the media over the last couple of years has been to do with income inequality and the vast sum of money those CEOs and top executives get paid relative to the average population. This has led to discussions of discrepancies between rich and poor – not just within countries and regions, but even within workplaces.
So how does power link new cellphones and salaries?
We'll get to that in a minute, but I want to propose that we take a look at our attitude towards power – either we can try to keep hold of it for ourselves, or deliberately try to bring others along with us.
I have no issue with people being paid more than others; I have no issue with people receiving remuneration that matches a level of responsibility; but ultimately I think we all need to remember our other fellow humans. Remember 'love your neighbour as yourself'?
Do you want Celery with that?
Earlier this year it was reported that there are five executives at the Auckland International Airport being paid more than a million dollars – though it is a monopoly. This saddens and frustrates me, not just because the median income in New Zealand is $28,500. When I work with marginalised youth or see families struggling to make ends meet, I can't help but remember the powerlessness that some people feel they are stuck in, which only gets perpetuated when they hear how the top of the chain is being treated.
The common argument is that it is a competitive market, and if the companies do not pitch in this sort of money then they will not receive top executives of such great calibre – that they will always be tempted to leave for somewhere else.
While this theory doesn't seem to get tested practically (by CEOs reducing their own salaries for instance!), the money that CEOs receive lets me see similar patterns from receiving a new cellphone:
- At first there is a certain awe about its beauty which makes people feel powerful
- It captures people and what they think it will now be able to do for them
- Inevitably the shine wears off, it just becomes part of ordinary life
- What other people in their world possess will become the norm
- Often people don't want to let go of it, or they can't imagine going back to what they had previously
Both situations can be used for good or for badThe problem I have is that these salaries (and salary increases) are often not kept in relative proportion to the lowest paid job, i.e. the top of the ladder gets a significant increase compared to the rest of the rungs. Plus it's often senior executives at companies that can produce profit that get these increases – not our teachers, nurses or aged-care workers (for instance). Which begs the question: what do we value in society? Our people? Our money?
At the end of the day you get to choose who you want to be, but do you think you are going to be a CEO someday? A senior executive? A general manager? My wish is that you will never forget those who are at the bottom of the chain, and that you can use your power for good; you have the ability to empower others.
The good news?
You can start now.
Matt Browning is a storyteller and lover of ideas. He is currently setting up a social enterprise for youth unemployment in Rotorua, New Zealand – taking youth who are dropping out of high school or coming out of youth prison, and hiring them full time so that they can get the experience needed to be hired in the future.
Matt Browning's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/matt-browning.html