How to be an Alpha Person

Some years ago, I wrote a short essay on the providence of God.  Here is the scene with which that essay began.

Let’s imagine that each of us is on a team with a special skill and that the teams are distinguished by color.  There is a red team and a blue team and so on.  We’re all waiting, which is what we’re supposed to be doing.  While we are waiting, we are living our lives, earning income, raising families, and so on. A messenger comes through the door and yells, “Green.”  One eleventh of us, the green team, haul up to our feet and head out the door.  We have a job, apparently.  I’ve written a lot of essays about the guys on the green team, the guys who are “on.”  This essay is about everyone else.  What’s our job now?  Nothing.  Be ready.  Be at peace.  Repair yourself.  Your time will come.

The idea I was trying to get at is that everyone is doing the job that needs to be done.  The guys that get the current assignment are; the guys who wish them well and stay behind relaxing are.  Everyone is.  I’d like to use all those same guys again today and try something a little trickier with them.  I want to turn them into an A Team and a B Team.

Let’s imagine that the A Team and the B Team were chosen at random.  They were not like Alpha 3the Green team and the Red team in the example above, which, after all, have special skills that are going to be called upon.  You get a card that says A or B and when you turn it over, you find it says that some of you, the B Team, are going to be emotionally unstable and physically disabled and socially isolated.  That’s not your job; that’s your condition.  The job comes later. You get the A card and turn it over and you find that you will be healthy, wealthy, and wise (your condition) and will have the resources to make the lives of the B Team members substantially better (your job) than they would be without your help.

What happens now?  I mean right now.  Do you look at what is says on the back of the A card and say, “Rats!  Why didn’t I get to be the one with the emotional and physical and social disabilities and who gets all that attention from the A Team?”  That’s it?  That’s what you say?

Probably not.  Probably you turn your A card over and say, “That’s it?  I get to be healthy, wealthy, and wise and the only condition is that I have to invest myself in the lives of the people who got the B card?  That’s terrific!  I am so happy!”

Alpha 4Later, you learn that it isn’t exactly like that.  Close, but not exactly.  You got the A card because you were thought to be very likely to use those resources to help the B community.  That’s a whole new notion of “gift card,” isn’t it?   The people who dealt the cards are really serious about helping the people in the B community.  If you turn out to be as good at it as they thought you would be—as compassionate, as patient, as resourceful—then they are going to re-up your A card after the next shuffle.[1]  But that is only if you really turn out to be that goo  Maybe you really don’t take advantage of your opportunities the way they thought you would and after the next shuffle, the A card goes to someone else.[2]  In this way of looking at it, getting the resources where they are needed is the big thing; the people who get them there are not, themselves, what the project is about

So I’m the A card holder and I’m a good guy—most of the time.  I was ecstatically happy when I got my A card and it made all the sense in the world to share my resources—my happiness, my wealth, and my wisdom—with the B card holders.  And I spend a lot of time with the B community.  Early in this process, when I said “we,” I meant all the people who were in the room when the cards were distributed.  But the way things naturally fall out,  I spend more time with the other A card holders and I find I really have more in common with them.[3]  More and more, when I say “we,” I mean my fellow A card holders.  I’m really more “an A card kind of person” myself and, of course, so are they.

Alpha 7I hope you will agree with me that this slow transition to “association with people like me” is the most natural thing in the world.  I don’t even feel any blame for the people who, over time, begin to think of the A card, or “Alpha People,” as we come to say, as “we” and the B card, or “Beta People” as “they.”  “Perfectly natural,” I say to myself.

Two things remain problematic.  Here is the first.  I need to change the people who share the B condition from a community defined by their condition to a community defined by their value—and by “value,” I want to be sure to mean, “value to me.”  These people are really not very much like me (condition) and there is so little they can do (value).  I am, after all, healthy, wealthy, and wise.  They are, taken as a whole, unhealthy, poor, and…um…not very intellectually stimulating.

This is problematic because I was there when the cards were handed out.  I saw other people turn over the A cards and try immediately to mask their elation lest they offend the others.  I saw other people turn over the B cards and try to mask their disappointment lest they offend the others.  I did that myself with my A card.  I wasn’t proud of getting an A card.  What’s to be proud of?  I wasn’t deserving.  I didn’t deserve an A card any more than my buddy Tom deserved a B card.

So this is the first problem: I come to think of myself as “an Alpha person,” but I still remember when the cards were handed out.  There are solutions to this problem, of course.  Here is the first.  I can begin to think of what it was about those people that resulted in their getting B cards.  Surely there was something.  I’ll bet I could come up with something if I really put my mind to it.  And here is the second.  Getting the B card was entirely random at the beginning and being a Beta Person is a tough gig, but Tom isn’t handling it very well.  It’s one thing for Tom not to be healthy, wealthy, and wise the way we are (Alpha People), but does he need to be so focused on being sick and poor and uninteresting?  He could do better than that, I’m pretty sure.  The condition isn’t his fault, sure, but aren’t we all responsible for handling our conditions as well as we can?  Is that really the best he can?

Alpha 5You can see my struggling to get out from under the essential randomness of the A and B conditions.  I twist one way, then another.  Not very attractive, is it?  But that’s only the first problem.  The second problem is that I have known from the beginning that the principal purpose of my health, wealth, and wisdom—the reason I have those resources— is sharing it with my B colleagues.  There are things I can help them do because I am healthy and they are not; there are things I can help them afford because I am wealthy and they are not; there are things I can help them think through because I am wise and they are not.[4]  And at the beginning, when I got my A card, I was keenly aware that that was what these resources were for.

Now I struggle to remember that.  It is so pleasant to be healthy, wealthy, and wise—to have those traits—that I don’t always remember how pleasant it is to share them.  In the sharing, I remember that they are resources, not traits.  I remember that I have them for the purpose of sharing them, not for the purpose of “being them.”

The solution to this problem—not the problem I imagine I have, like the problem I “solved” in the prior case, but the problem I really have—is to take pleasure in the use of these resources.  If I take pleasure in sharing these resources, I will continue to do it and to enjoy it.  If I do not take pleasure in sharing them, but continue to share them only because “it is the right thing to do,” I will probably not continue to share them and I will certainly not continue to share them well.

Casting the alternatives as baldly as this is a little like stirring up a hornets nest just to see the action.  It’s not something I do as a rule; I have been stung too often to enjoy “the action.”  And I am quite aware that I could use the rest of the essay to buffer the conclusions and to make exceptions to the categories.  There would be nothing wrong with doing that.  Tomorrow, I may wish that I had done it.  I do have to get on with the Beta people, however.

Instead, I want to call up the prospect of what I called a “reshuffle.”  What does it do for me to know that there is going to be an accounting and right after that, a reshuffle?  First, it helps me remember that these traits are not “me,” nor are they, except in the loosest sense of the word, “mine.”  At the most, they are “me at this moment.”  They are not “me” after my heart attack or my stroke or my catastrophic accident.  The first great gift of the shuffle is to help me remember that.

Alpha 8The second is that I have a feeling that I got all these resources because I was a good bet to share them widely and deeply.  If Outcome 1—the thing that really needs to happen—is the amelioration of the conditions suffered by the B Community and my getting the A card is only a means to that end and if I really like having the A card, then I have every incentive to put my shoulder to the wheel and make sure that I do my part in achieving Outcome 1.  Let me say it more crudely: Outcome 1 is my meal ticket.  It is why I got the A card and why I will continue to have it in any proposed reshuffle.  If there is a back room anywhere where they take the A cards away from low performers and reassign them to potentially high performers—I’m not saying there is—then I want my performance to be really good.  I know that is not a good reason for wanting my performance to be good, but let’s deal with the performance first and worry about the motive later.

Understanding what my resources are for and using them well is “how to be an Alpha person.”  Being a Beta person is a little more complicated, but it is next.
[1] I’m not really going to deal with the notion of “reshuffling” in this post.  It would be a long and winding road.  All I really have in mind is something like the story Jesus tells in Matthew 25 about the master who dealt out a lot of money to his servants along with instructions to use it well.  One of the servants did not use it well, so it was taken away from him and given to investors who were more healthy, wealthy, and wise.  The amount of money he chose not to invest, by the way, was not pocket change.  It was 67 pounds of silver.  If you want a modern approximation, multiply that 67 by 16 and then by the value in dollars of an ounce of silver today.
[2] Don’t push me on what happens to the former A-Card holder.  I haven’t thought it out that far and really don’t want to.
[3] That is undoubtedly true.  The question is whether “traits in common” is the best way to sort the relationships.
[4] If these persistent references to being “wise” are starting to grate on you, you may begin to substitute demented where the ment- part derives from the Latin mentis, “mind” and the de- prefix indicates “away from.”  “Out of your mind” is a common approximation.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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