Friday, December 19, 2008

Lessons from Dickens

With dire economic news all around, I find myself looking for lessons in all of the bad news. After becoming thoroughly depressed with CNBC, I switched over to NPR for something a little more positive. Even if the news itself wasn't positive, I find the calm, soothing tones of their broadcasters somewhat reassuring. On Monday I stumbled across Diane Rehm's Interview with Les Staniford, a biographer of Charles Dickens, with a new book out, The Man Who Invented Christmas.

What I heard were tremendous parallels to today's tough times, examples of tenacity and ingenuity to come out ahead and some warnings of how now to fall victim to Dickensian plight.

Firstly, Dickens was the way he was ("Debbie Downer," to quote my college-aged babysitter) because he was the only member of his family to not go to debtor's prison. Even though his father had a good job as a Navy Clerk, he spent more than he earned and the whole family was jailed because they owed the baker. The lesson? Live within your means, no matter what those means are. In modern times we may not go to debtor's prison but the shackles of credit card debt are enough to bear.

Secondly, in tough times - just when you think your career is kaput- your greatest accomplishment might be lurking. Dickens wrote a Christmas Carol when he was broke during the "Hungry (18)40s," after a disastrous trip to America, just when he thought he might have to go back to his day job. Down in the dumps and debt-ridden, seemingly destined to repeat the sins of his father, Dickens wrote a story he thought would keep creditors at bay. This story is credited with creating the modern interpretation of Christmas. The lesson here is that sometimes our greatest accomplishments come out of the worst circumstances.

Lastly, with tough times come desperate measures. Dickens wrote this story in the age before copyrighting and he was quickly ripped off. A rival copied this story and sold it for many dollars in the U.S.; Dickens never got rich from his greatest work. The lesson here is that in tough times, folks are looking out for themselves. Whether it's a colleague stealing credit for your work amidst pending layoffs or something more nefarious, dire economic straits can bring out the worst in some people. Maybe they just need a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future.

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