Monday, February 08, 2016

Enough To Do Anything

I don't like the idea of hereditary privilege. Warren Buffett describes it as selecting the Olympic sprint team based on the times of their parents. He says a rich person should leave their kids 'enough to do anything, but not enough to do nothing'. The question lies in how much is enough?

Hereditary privilege used to, and in many place does, extend to non-financial authority and responsibility. Leadership of a group of people. This also rankles. Surely there should be a meritocratic approach? Surely the best leaders should lead?

When something is hereditary, the game changes. The planning horizon changes. When you look after your day to day needs, living hand to mouth, it is difficult to think beyond the needs of those immediately around you. Storing some up provides breathing space. You can start to think further ahead. Eventually, perhaps you can put enough aside and get it working so that it can work instead of you. You can build a muse that frees your time. If you add transfers to the next generation, you can start to build a muse that frees up the time of those who follow you. This is incredibly powerful.

The most powerful investment tool there is, is time. If you build capital sustainably, i.e. more goes/grows in than you take out, it can reach a point where it can provide 'enough to do anything'. You are a custodian, not a consumer. Activity ceases to be constrained by whether or not it can make money. Other incentives drive what is done. 

Stripping away the ability to build for the next generation would put a restraint on the capacity to de-monetise incentives. The real issue is it doesn't seem fair. What about others? When there was hereditary title, those in charge would be thinking for a group as a whole. The good ones at least. The Benevolent DictatorsThey would be able to build towards creating societies with broader freed potential. They felt tied in to the system by blood, and so could think long term.

There are non-hereditary examples. Singapore has had one party in charge since 1959. This allows a long term planning horizon. Once a competent government is in place that people support strongly, they can start thinking far into the future. Singapore has free elections but a number of restraints on dissent. This authoritarian/democratic hybrid leaves the same liberal distaste as hereditary wealth and title. But it does offer a similar upside. It allows long term planning.

I like the idea of Sovereign Wealth Funds. These funds can do for large groups what rich families do for the family members. Everyone becomes a custodian. You don't consume. You build. In my Utopia, there would be several Global Citizen Wealth Funds generating a Universal Basic Income that provides the 'enough to do anything' to everyone.

It is difficult to justify the geographic and family lottery where some have enough to do anything, and others are held back from having any options at all. Enough is less than we think. We can get to the point where there is enough to go around. Enough for us to move on to more meaningful questions. Together.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Don't Bet Your Life

Most people I meet are remarkably confident considering how little we understand. In secret, I think we're overwhelmed by all the issues we have to take into account when we decide what to do. So we respond to confidence. Confident people get hired. We listen to confident people. We follow confident people. They seem to know more than we do. Adults. Teachers. Bosses. The Government. Surely they understand even if we don't? No.

Kathryn Schulz wrote a wonderful book on 'Being Wrong'. We don't know what it feels like to be wrong, because as soon as we realise we are wrong, we are in a different emotional space. We were wrong. We may feel embarrassed. We may defend ourselves. But we seldom move forward doing something we don't think we want to do. When we do stuff, we think we are right.

The question is, what do you do? How do you act when you know you don't understand all the knock on effects of what you do? What do you choose when you know you can't keep all the options you care about in your head?

I think part of the answer lies in bringing things back to basics. An acceptance of the way things are. Not because you don't think there are issues, but because things are the way they are. Things will change. We know that. The how is the question no one can answer. It is easier to change things from where they are, than to stare at a huge gap and wonder how to make the leap.

Once we have accepted things, we can make small tweaks. Lots of them. We can support the tweaks of others. We can learn from the trial and error of others. We can read. We can listen. We can spend time together. We can find mistakes and build resilience.

When you don't bet your life on the fact that you are right, being wrong is a learning opportunity. The realisation that you were wrong is something to celebrate as a new piece of knowledge.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

We Need Very Little

Tim Ferriss is a big fan of Seneca and the Stoics. By visualising (not wishing for) the worst case scenario, you become detached from the fear that it will happen. Once you accept the ability you have to cope, you can approach uncertainty as degrees above something that is acceptable. Freedom is not the ability to do anything, it is the ability to choose a different set of constraints. The ability to walk away. By finding something that you can cope with, that is very simple, you provide a foundation to which you can always retreat. We need very little.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Where the Culture Lives.

When an organisation is small, you don't need to worry about things like precedent. If everyone knows each other, and they know how other people know each other, decisions can take into account things that are difficult to communicate. Difficult to put in words. Impossible to put in numbers. The culture of the group can develop so there are unstated rules and expectations. Knowing each other provides both constraints and support. It isn't that things aren't messy, there is just more ability to deal with mess.

Mess at scale is tough because you lose the bonds that connect. You can work at a company for years without getting to know the boss. Different people in the company can be working on very different projects. The fact that they are in the same company may just be co-incidental. Executives will try and get round this by building up a culture. This is often cited as the one thing that keeps them up at night. Building a culture around a myth that has grown about what the company stood for when it was small. A myth that grows out of trying to put the difficult and impossible into words and numbers. 

One way that culture can be maintained in big companies is through story telling. Stories of how the founding members dealt with situations. Ideally stories that carry enough ambiguity that they can carry a bit of that founding member's soul to those that follow. That can allow them to face the problems that arise like that person would have done it. What would the founder do?

What dampens the story is that big organisations by their nature tend to move into Silos. Working in parallel next to each other. The projects that the bigger group are working on are too big for everyone to wrap their head around. So we focus. We don't know people outside our bubble. We don't know how other's know each other. We lose the subtlety. The stories lose relevance and we start comparing people by summary bits of information like years service, qualifications, hours worked, grades, gender, job title, age.

Focusing on Silos

Skill is only a fraction of what makes people succeed. A huge driver is the web of relationships within the group. Relationships are where the culture lives.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Infinity and Diamond Meritocracy

I once asked someone why the company they worked at was still so white, and so male. He was a white male. I am a white male. The new South Africa has past it's 21st birthday and should be finding it's way in the work world after all. In Actuarial terms, 21 is slap bang in the middle of the accident hump which occurs (mainly in males) from age 18-30 where you learn to drink and drive, and drink, and drive. You have to be careful.

The answer he gave me reminded me of lessons in infinity. Between any two points on a line, there are an infinite number of other points. Between any two excuses, there are an infinite number of excuses.

Faced with two candidates of equal calibre, the goal of transformation meant that the candidate who wasn't white would get the job. But*... If the white candidate was better, they would get the job because the company believed in Meritocracy. If the other candidate was better, there was an issue. These candidates are so attractive (Black Diamonds) that they tend to get poached. A really good candidate will likely move on. So the white dude would get the job. The thick plottens.

No two points are ever exactly next to each other. No two candidates are ever exactly the same. There is always wiggle room. Followed to its conclusion, Diamond Meritocracy will maintain the status quo of hiring people just like you. After two decades of such a situation, you should start feeling very queasy if you look around a table and the faces looking back reflect this situation.

No women on the board. Unfair work practices. A company culture you don't like.  At some point, it requires employees to simply get up and walk away. Go work somewhere else. Go do something else.

Meritocracy/Privilege = 1. Merit comes through investment. Merit comes through opportunity. Merit is cultivated.

*The Rule of I'm not X but clearly applies.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Releasing Our Creativity

The first step is having enough to eat. The second step is to have enough to eat for the next day. Then to use some of the time to think about something other than eating. To build something that can feed you. You can start to feed others. They can start to think about something other than eating. Eventually, together, you have built something that can feed everyone sustainably. Then you all have time. Time is priceless. When we are freed from the needs of our body, and are safe to explore, our creative spirits can be released.  

1. Move Beyond Hand to Mouth
2. Build a Buffer
3. Build a Muse
4. Be a Custodian

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Words to Life (with Brett)

Hey Trev, it feels like it's time we had another of these conversations. The thing that comes to mind is the idea of a Words to Life ratio. i believe words are important because they can help begin difficult conversations, they can make people aware, they can get wrestling started on necessary and important conversations. But the problem, as we can see fairly clearly in what has been termed online slacktivism, is that people can get stuck there. Jump onto the internet, have your say, click like or forward and job done. Do you have any thoughts about the kind of balance needed between writing words and changing the way you live, or at least making sure that the life you lead backs up the words you write?

The parable of the log in the eye springs to mind. One of the most powerful images I have seen was the picture of the current, and most recent Pope, sitting on their respective thrones. I don't agree with Pope Francis on heaps of things, as I don't agree with the Dalai Lama or Desmond Tutu on everything. These leaders earn the right to words through actions which give Moral Gravitas. A big part of those actions is sorting out your own stuff first. If you live a life of conspicuous consumption, or you don't think of situations in which you need to support others in their troubles (i.e. you only focus on your own issues), then words tend to ring hollow. Some of the most heat gets spent on higher order problems. There is a lot of agreement on some of the basic things that need doing. Rather than waiting for permission or a higher authority to force everyone to do something, we just need to crack on.

Spot the Difference

i agree with you there, although i do think words are important as well. i think action is probably the strongest way to draw other people into action, but for some people words are what start them thinking. Someone who is never going to engage with the action might be opened to it by having their mind massaged by words that help bring clarity, or invite wrestling. i think some people are also better at words and some at action, but think both should probably do a bit of both. But major in the area they are stronger in. Also, some people see to get stuck in the places where the words inhabit (like Social Media) and so it might take the words to help get them off of the chair, and out into the world where the action takes place. Needs to be a good relationship between the two. But agree with you on not waiting till we have it all together before we start doing something. We all need to be getting to the 'do something' as quickly as possible to start the momentum.

Yes, I can't exactly write blog posts every day and then claim that I am an anti-word advocate. We can constantly refine our thinking be reading the words of others and looking for better questions. I am just challenging some of the the 'advocacy' side of things, versus writing as a collective way of teasing out catalysts and appreciation. A lot of conversation is broadcast. I wish there was a different word for 'follower' for example. 'Friend' isn't an accurate reflection, but I think the idea is to engage people. Part of why this doesn't translate into action is we get very complicated. Far from where people are. We deal with huge ideas that often get very philosophical. Very aggressive. If we bring it right back to simple things like fighting absolute poverty, and providing access to words and conversation, then the bigger problems will slowly unwind. But we need to do it.

Simple things like fighting absolute poverty? i'd love to hear more how that is simple, unless you mean in concept. i agree with you on the 'Follower' vibe for sure as i imagine that gives people an increased sense of self-importance which is probably not all that helpful. Some kind of more neutral word perhaps. But getting back to the simplicity of fighting poverty, the word i would associate with poverty would more likely be 'overwhelming' especially in the South African context. It is just so huge and vast and deep that almost anything you do feels insignificant in terms of making any helpful contribution at all. Do you have a differing way of seeing it that you find helpful? Even the idea of 'I'm just doing my part' can be an excuse for a lot of people to not get more deeply involved, and it's certainly an expression of privilege that we get to choose how much we give to what causes, if we give at all. i have found that one of the best ways of transforming that dynamic is to bring the rich and the poor together. Once there is connection and relationship, then 'choosing to help' becomes so much more of an obvious decision and action.

There are some people doing some great work. ( sends money directly to the extreme poor. They have started in Uganda and Kenya and work with the communities to find those most in need of help. A bottom up approach. They started there because of the large populations living in extreme poverty, but with access to mobile payment systems. The transfers go directly to people's phones. I would love to see this extend to South Africa, but I also think the Global Context of looking how people everywhere are, is important. The colonial borders are random. Borders are random. Global Apartheid must fall. People will rise if we start to see them as part of us rather than someone else's problem. If we recognise what we can learn from them too. It isn't about the rich helping the poor. That is where building relationships helps. Sport helps. Stories help. Art helps. Words help. Just chipping away at the idea of them and us.

Absolutely. My wife works for an organisation called Common Change which is one such way to meet the needs of people through relationships. One of the things i like about the story of Common Change was their understanding that it's not that the rich don't like the poor, but that they don't know the poor. For the most part, giving has been reduced to a middle man mentality via church/ charity/ non-profit and the relationship suffered. It's sometimes easier or less commitment-inducing to toss a few coins into the plate. But one thing Common Change does is it brings giving back to relationship and so instead of just meeting needs, every time a gift happens, it is the idea of someone in your group committing themselves to walking on a journey with the person in need who is receiving the gift and where relationship already flourishes ( In the South African context, it is like a more directed version of the stokvel. Another idea that i really enjoy with CC is that it encourages collective wisdom - the idea of thinking together to come up with better solutions as opposed to necessarily just going for the obvious route which a lot of time is money. So time and resources and networks all get brought into that, and the generosity becomes a lot more communal, which benefits on so many other levels as well.

There is definitely something to consciously building more tangible communities that break us out of our bubbles. That put faces to some of the abstract challenges we otherwise outsource. It is tough though. Most of us struggle even to find time for our close friends and family. Most people I know in my bubble tend to cull relationships as life get in the way, rather than pushing themselves outside their comfort zones. They are in the fighting fires stage of life, so a few coins here or there is what they have to give. The challenge with purely financial gifts is that it creates a form of hierarchy in giving. Giver and Receiver. Most valuable exchanges are relational rather than financial. Bother parties learn from each other. Great teachers are always learning from students, ironing out their thinking. Parents continuously learn from children. They see their prejudices distilled and mirrored back when kids parrot them. I like the idea of finding ways to build respect for people. To remove obstacles, but not see one group as superior to others. People who are wealthy can learn a lot from people who are struggling financially about what the things are that really matter.

i love that last sentence. i think we have lots to learn from each other, which given what you just said about the time and the busyness suggest that each of us takes on one or two relationships and dive more deeply into them and a longer companionship of mutual generosity (finding different ways in which we can meet each others needs - one might be money, one might be wisdom, or time etc) rather than trying to meet all of the needs. Then alongside that would come the need to try and get one or two mates to do the same and hope for a kind of Pay It Forward or exponential increase vibe. I think sharing stories can become crucial here. It's a fine line between "Hey look at me! Look at what I did!" and "Hey, look at what I did - you can do the same" and I think we need to see more of those kinds of stories which is what I love about our blogs - spaces to share the kinds of stories that will hopefully motivate others to respond with, "Oh, that's so easy. I could do that." and then find their own two people and start journeying...

Apart from the need to turn words into action, I also think we need to appreciate the world as it is. We can get a little fixated on where we want things to be, and how to get there. The idea of progress. Of one state, age, place or time being superior to another. This sort of comparison to goals can stop us from really savouring the good stuff for its own sake. Building relationships outside or bubble isn't just a way of helping. It is a way of accessing flavour we haven't been able to savour. Our words and actions don't always have to be about moving things. They can be about recognising. About seeing. So we can start the journey, but do it so that each step matters as much as the destination.

Other conversations with Brett

Monday, February 01, 2016

Less Abstract Little Things

Minds and hearts have a capacity. At some point when stuff comes in, there just isn't space. We are constrained by our biology. There isn't enough time to listen, read, think about, digest, compare, criticize and develop on all the thoughts that humanity has collectively had. Even just chewing on a little bit of what is going on in the world is a challenge.

There seem to be two choices. Either you dive deep into a particular area and develop expertise that can then be shared with everyone else. I am scared of this option, because I think we end up being seduced by our success. Without being careful, we can end up pushing the boundaries of human thought, but being so close to the edge, no one understands us. We can end up being defined solely by our work.

The other choice is to try bring things right down to basics. Narrow your world, and leave the expertise up to others. Focus on being competent at life. Getting the simple things right. This still leaves space to choose a few things to go a little deeper into, but you need to accept that you will never be the one 'changing the world'. Instead you focus on a smaller world to change. The world of your family, friends and people in your community.

The issue I have with the second option is our communities are still bubbles. Our friends tend to be like us. Our comparisons are relative to what we see. With out the perspective of looking around the world, you can lose touch with reality. You can lose the ability to appreciate what you do have, because there will always be someone with more. There will be someone with less too, but we tend to look up rather than down.

Malcolm Gladwell, in the book The Tipping Point, talks about 'The Rule of 150'. He says, 'In order to create one contagious movement, you have to create many small movements.' When there are groups of people of 150, it is small enough for everyone to know everyone. It is also small enough to understand something of the dynamics of the other people. How they relate to each other. Once things get bigger than that, human biology kicks in. Our brains can't process it all, so we lose the nuance. We start thinking in stereotypes. Defining people by the subgroups they belong to. Putting processes in place that summarise people.

There are 7.4 billion people in the world. The problems get abstract. But if we could bring that number down to 150 that is representative of some of the demographics of the world, we can start bringing in the empathy and subtle understanding that puts the hum in humans. Each group would not cover everything, but each group would not be the same. 

Little things are less abstract. We are really good at the little things. At some point, as Gladwell says, the little things reach a tipping point and the world changes.