The Start-Up of Vines


IMG_3877 Trust me–there is a house under there

This week, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times followed up the Labor Department's most recent jobs report with a semi-fatuous column titled "The Start-Up of You."

Friedman's answer for an economy that is producing no jobs, three and a half years after the start of recession?  We American workers are all going to have to be more entrepreneurial in future.

Here is a sample:

Indeed, what is most striking when you talk to employers today is how many of them have used the pressure of the recession to become even more productive by deploying more automation technologies, software, outsourcing, robotics — anything they can use to make better products with reduced head count and health care and pension liabilities. That is not going to change. And while many of them are hiring, they are increasingly picky. They are all looking for the same kind of people — people who not only have the critical thinking skills to do the value-adding jobs that technology can’t, but also people who can invent, adapt and reinvent their jobs every day, in a market that changes faster than ever.

Oh yes, we need to become more inventive.  This is the right prescription for the country, because we Americans have all been such unimaginative slackers in the past!

Friedman neglects to consider the larger problems in an economy that seems to define "adaptability" in its workers as a readiness to be outsourced, downsized, and foreclosed out of the house.

As far as resilience is concerned–Friedman recommends strengthening "the muscles of resilience," wherever those are located–the best example of resilience I know is my sister-in-law, who has been out of work in Silicon Valley for two years and whose unemployment checks are running out–and yet still manages to keep looking for her next opportunity, stay cheerful, garden, and dance.

Don't get me wrong: Entrepreneurs are great.  But the idea that all of us should be entrepreneurs is total nonsense.

We cannot all afford to live in a constant state of risk, not if we want happy kids who can count on going to the same school tomorrow as they go to today.

Some of us are never going to have cash thrown at us by VCs. 

We can't all make our own jobs–especially if our neighbors are all broke, too. 

None of us is entirely self-sufficient, and most of us need to rely on a healthy economy that makes jobs for us. We are not all Olympian characters.  And even if some of us could be Olympian characters, well, it's not always nice for the spouse and offspring to tag along behind our more grandiose dreams.

Does Friedman know this?  I doubt it.  He clearly moves in a world in which every character fancies him- or herself Olympian. Read Friedman's interminable bio on his website, and you get the distinct sense that it has been a very long time since financial worry or job insecurity prevented his doing anything he wants…and possibly these were never a factor in his life.  He seems to have no imagination for such problems. And isn't this exactly what's wrong with our economy?  A failure of our leaders to imagine the problems of the small? 

I'd no more take employment advice from somebody like this than I'd take marital advice from a eunuch.

Meanwhile, the Great Recession has made me more adaptable, more keenly aware of the things that differentiate me in the marketplace, more willing to chuck the best-laid plans in favor of changing market conditions. 

Not in my work.  I've always been those things there.  But in my gardening style.  I can't afford to have the house painted or the porch fixed or a new foundation installed under the garage, so I am stepping back and allowing the vines to take over.  I have roses and clematis around my front stoop, a volunteer Boston ivy climbing the bay window, a variegated Virginia creeper snaking its way up an obsolete cinder block chimney, and grapes and honeysuckle erasing my carriage house.

My house is beginning to look like a tree house. You can barely see the crumbling Victorian woodwork behind all the vigorous plants twining around it, clinging to it with tiny cuplike appendages or wicked thorns, sending out large leaves and small tendrils, and ascending the architectural summits as if there will be no stopping them until they are waving at Zeus and Hera on high.

My house looks like the place where somebody wise lives.  Somebody who knows that economic trauma comes and goes, but the power of the sun and the vine is eternal.


  1. Has Thomas Friedman gone over to the dark side (Republicans)? Enjoyed your commentary and I admire your writing skills.

  2. Friedman is right about the need for critical thinking in a world that is technology heavy. Critical thinking is a human skill. I took college classes at a major land grant university for the past 3 years and I was amazed at how this skill seemed to be missing from my young classmates (i am 50).

    Lots of good stuff in your post. Thanks.

  3. Good post. I myself gave up on Friedman years ago. I don’t live in his world. But I do live in the world of nature and the garden and your house does look beautiful What a wise woman.

  4. Wow, I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Everyone here, however, is silent about the dark side of what’s happening. My friends and co-workers don’t talk about it.

    My employer silently laid off six people on June 30th. One person had worked there 25 years. They were given absolutely no notice. No one said anything. I was shocked. It’s as if they never existed.

    I doubt these folks can re-invent themselves at 50. (Most were 50 or older.) They were part of my family and NO ONE says anything??? Nothing. And the silent thought occurs that maybe one of us is next?

    I applaud the vines. Perhaps Friedman will walk by your house and one of your vines will reach out and strangle him. Just a thought. 🙂

  5. I went to a couple seminars by an extremely successful serial entrepreneur. When asked by the audience where normal people are supposed to get the money to start a business, he said 100% serious:

    1) all your friends and family
    2) credit cards

  6. Michele. Michele. All those vines attaching themselves to your already old house will only makes repairs harder when you do get to them. They will keep more moisture closer to the wood causing faster rot. Clinging tendrils and roots are a nightmare when you peel them off. They leave all kinds of bits stuck to the wood.

    But the way things are going economically, a long slow decline, a house well wrapped in vines just might hold together long after it should have collapsed. Kind of like what the a-holes in Washington are doing for the economy, wrapping things up in duct tape and twine and hoping for a miracle.

  7. At first I thought it was a rose climbing in the country. Just turned out to be a clematis covering a concrete wall In the city.
    Clemantine flora plena.

  8. I don’t like Friedman, so don’t go thinking I’m a fanboy. But he’s not saying for everyone to go out and start their own company. From the column: “Therefore you should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business.”

    So he’s saying you should always be looking for options in case they’re needed, opportunities to make yourself more valuable and desirable, and you need to make sure everyone knows how awesome you are. You can’t just lock on the cruise control until retirement. It’s not bad advice, it’s just poorly packaged by Friedman.

    It’s also a gross oversimplification, because you can’t take an entrepreneurial approach to jobs that aren’t there or that are so low-skilled that your replacement can be trained in 30 minutes. At least it’s a potentially useful discussion for someone.

    And no, I don’t have Friedman’s Ivory Tower comfort – I got laid off with a day’s notice in the summer of ’08 and have fought hard to be where I am.

  9. I guess if we are having a tough time here, we should all go spend some time in our place in the south of france, until the recession blows over.

    Not everyone has the skills or the smarts to be a Master of the Universe. But they are also Americans, and it is time our “government’
    saw to their needs!

  10. I like our federal gov’t. They sure know how to look out for Joe Sixpack (sorry) and not their own interests. I want a government job. I was recently laid off from university teaching and am self publishing a garden essay book and trying to start a native plant garden coaching business. But as you say, who’s hiring garden coaches? (Who’s buying books?) Jobs create jobs create jobs, and it ain’t happening because of no investment in green / sustainable tech to lead the world in as we did on other things post WWII. And we aren’t approaching a double dip recession either, we never left the first one. Stupid. I’m so angry now. I’m going to go get all entrepreneurial on something.

  11. I agree completely. And that looks like one of my faves I’ll never be able to grow on your porch, C. purpurea plena elegans. I stopped taking Friedman seriously when his columns agitated for the Iraq war, but he still gets my goat occasionally with his blithe economic prescriptions. (And just to get really catty, I’ve read he married into extreme wealth.)

  12. Absolutely loved your book, Michele, and came to your blog, and then I found this post and knew I was at the right place. In the same category as Friedman I’d place the personal finance pundits who offer advice like saving money by not buying lattes … as if that would ever amount to enough to buy health insurance or send your kid to college. Anyway – mentioning your book on my blog today; can’t thank you enough for writing it!

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