cartoons

The Modern Woman

PrioritiesWhat’s do you see? What comes to mind when looking at the image above? Is it a celebration of the modern woman’s accomplishments—breaking down gender barriers while juggling life’s many tasks? Or perhaps it’s an example of mansplaining—a message from yet another male critic of the “feminist agenda”? Does the image endorse multitasking or condemn it? Liberal or conservative? Sexist or feminist? An attack on contemporary activism, consumerism, and technology or a recognition of the modern world?

Yep.

Last week the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced that she was pregnant. Her first child will be born during her first year in office. News outlets had a field day. Social media immediately flooded with opinions. And I… well… I drew a cartoon.

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Merry Christmas! (from the Southern Hemisphere)

Santa Hammock

It’s warm here in New Zealand—a Christmas experience I’m certainly not accustomed. Growing up in the American Heartland, we often enjoyed a traditional white Christmas—chill in the air, snowmen on the front lawn, festive decorations with vibrant light displays. Now that we’ve moved to the other side of the world, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas. But I can’t complain.

Warm weather in December has it’s benefits (outdoor barbecues, swimming at the beach, and going on hiking trips, to name a few).  That being said, living in a different country can be a mind-bending experience. Every day is Opposite Day.

There are the more obvious differences between the United States and New Zealand: The seasons are reversed so summer is winter, spring is autumn, and so on; the people drive on the left side of the road rather than the right; they speak English (or what seems to be English) with an accent; and the timezone change means it’s tomorrow, today. But there are also some less obvious distinctions.

In New Zealand, light switches flick up and down, but down is “on” and up is “off.” The moon’s surface has craters, but there’s no illusion of a man’s face from this angle. Appetizers are called entrees, and entrees are called mains. Circumcision for baby boys is the exception not the rule. Pick up a jar of “mayonnaise” from the supermarket and you might find a sweet, gloopy sauce made without eggs. And when comparing political parties to the U.S., New Zealand conservatives are liberal, and their liberals are, well, even more liberal.

It’s a world of small differences—differences that add up to create a largely different experience. This holiday season, as families celebrate Christmas across the globe, they do so in different ways. We may agree on the name for this season, but the details can get a bit a hazy.

Does Santa get milk and cookies or biscuits and bourbon? Is it Santa, Saint Nicholas, or actually an old witch named Befana? Real tree, synthetic tree, or no tree at all? Stockings or shoes? Christmas ham, lamb, or deep-fried caterpillar?

Whether celebrating at home, traveling to visit friends and family, or moving halfway around the world, I hope you enjoy what makes your Christmas different—what makes it special to you. Happy Holidays!

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Being A Follower Is Hard Work

follow the leader

Most organizations assume that leadership has to be taught but that everyone knows how to follow. This assumption is based on three faulty premises:
(1) that leaders are more important than followers,
(2) that following is simply doing what you are told to do, and
(3) that followers inevitably draw their energy and aims, even their talent, from the leader.

—Robert Kelly, “In Praise of Followers” (1988)

Life is a balance between doing and observing. Leaders generally preoccupy themselves with the former, while followers tend to err on the side of the latter. But whichever role we find ourselves, both taking action and stopping to listen are required for success. That being said, being a follower is hard work. Despite the common misconception that following is a passive, submissive process, effective following is an active and demanding challenge. In fact, being a good follower is arguably more difficult than being a good leader for at least three reasons:

1.) There is far less glory in the role of a follower. Take movie awards for instance: Each year the Academy Awards honors the best and brightest of film with twenty-four categories. An overwhelming emphasis is placed on individual participants—actors, directors, composers. And even second tier awards (categories like “Best Visual Effects”) are received by only a few people representing a team of hundreds. This is not to mention the financial disparity between follower roles like special effect teams and leader roles like individual directors.

Our culture celebrates the individual, the star, the hero, relegating the many hands behind the scenes to tiny, scrolling names after the audience has already left the theatre. However true the phrase, “Behind every great leader you will find a great team,” followers are not adequately recognized for their efforts. We must instead take pride in what was accomplish overall, not the acclaim we received in the process.

2.) Also, being an effective follower may require more energy than being a leader. In the world of unmanned flight, drone aircraft often fly in groups with one drone leading the rest. These unmanned aerial vehicles expend various amount of fuel (energy) depending on their position within the group. A problem with managing these groups is that follower drones burn more fuel, especially during quick maneuvering, than the aircraft they follow.

Not only do followers have to spend time and energy performing their own duties, they must be constantly monitoring their team and proactively assess what’s next. As followers, we must preempt and adapt to the changes our leaders make. The more influence someone else has on our lives, the more likely our efforts will be duplicated, changed mid-project, or scrapped altogether.

3.) Followers also run the risk of becoming overly dependent. Unlike leaders who often act independently, followers have the dangerous opportunity to abdicate responsibility and opinion. This can lead to unhealthy dependence on outside leadership. Unfortunately, lack of agency can cause feelings of apathy, resentment, powerlessness, and depression, which followers must mange accordingly.

Over-dependence can also leave us directionless in times of change—aimlessly wandering when we are without something to follow. There are times when who or what we follow (be it our children, spouse, career, religious leaders, etc.) disappear suddenly (empty nesters, widows, retirement, scandals, and so on). Some of these drastic changes are inevitable patterns of life, but some changes are unexpected. And whether we’re anticipating a change or taken by surprise, we need to have a plan. We need an opinion and a direction we’d like to take.

Followers must constantly fight the urge to defer our opinions and decisions to whoever’s in charge. Simply due to the nature of the role, it is more difficult as followers to take responsibility and decide the direction of our lives than it is for the leaders who influence them.

So why would anyone be a follower? If being a follower provides fewer rewards for our efforts, requires more energy, and puts us at risk of apathy, resentment, and aimlessness, then why would we choose to follow? Why not look to lead instead?

Well for one, we do it for love. We allow our children, our spouses, our desire to change the world outweigh our personal gain. We follow because we must, because there’s no other choice. No person has the capacity to lead every moment of every aspect of his life (nor would it be healthy). And most important, we follow, because when it comes down to it, there’s really no such thing as followers and leaders; there are only arbitrary labels and titles that we assign one another.

Each of us vacillates between following and leading, sometimes switching from one role to the next in an instant. A dirty diaper leads us to the changing table, after which we lead an infant to the park or the grocer or a bike ride. A boss gives us an assignment, in which hours later, we find ourselves “managing up”— guiding them through a proposal.

Every relationship we have, every goal we’re trying to accomplish, is a constant give and take. We must find a balance between totalitarian rule and total apathy, between doing and observing. We may not be the lead dancer at any given moment, but we also cannot go limp—dead weight for our partner to lug around the dance floor. No matter which role we find ourselves—whether leading or following—life is not a passive process.

Kelley, Robert E. “In Praise of Followers.” Harvard Business Review. (November 1988) 142-148. (Source 1) (Source 2)

Dubner, Stephen J. “No Hollywood Ending for the Visual-Effects Industry.” Audio podcast. Freakanomics Radio. freakanomics.com, 22 February 2017. (Source)

Choi, Jongug, and Yudan Kim. “Fuel efficient three dimensional controller for leader-follower UAV formation flight.” International Conference on Control, Automation and Systems, Seoul, Korea, 2007. (Source)

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cartoons

Diversity

diversity

This is not an essay. I started writing an essay; it was on cultural differences, what makes us the same or different, the difficulty of defining ethnicity/diversity/race/culture and how they relate to conflict, Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences,” the American melting pot, and various other ideas along those lines. But with so much written on these topics, they are still ambiguous concepts that change with time. Rather than failing to convey my thoughts clearly with an essay, I’ve elected for a simple cartoon—a three panel summary.

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If We Were Like Trees

Tree TabooIf trees could read, would they? Or would the fact that books have been printed on mulched up tree guts for centuries be a barrier to literary exploration? And while books may last for years, what would trees think of magazines? As silly as personification is, this line of questioning leads us to the real topic of today’s discussion: If we were like trees, would we live our lives differently?

Most of who we are is invisible. Humans are visual creatures with as much as two-thirds of our brains associated with vision. We use this ability to observe our three dimensional world, yet there’s a fourth dimension—time—that makes up the majority of who we are. Our experiences, our long years of life—the more diverse these are, the larger we “grow.” But it can be difficult to sense the enormity of a large life.

If we were like trees, we could stand in awe of the expansive lives of one another. We could marvel at the large trunks and broad canopies of our elders. We could see one another—our branching, our scars, our history carved into the physical embodiment of our years.

As much as we try, the material world does not provide an accurate representations of who we are. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the jobs we have, the photos we post—these are poor substitutions for the real thing. Even our bodies don’t tell the whole story. Wrinkles, blemishes, thinning hair—these might give away our age, but to accurately tell our life story? Impossible.

Unable to directly observe the experiences of others, we settle for sensing the shape of a person’s life through indirect measures—their demeanor, their stories, their stuff. Material wealth is often (mistakenly) used as a proxy for life worth. If we were like trees—if our bodies were a physical representation of our experiences—there would be less need for ancillary metrics. Just by looking, we would see the complexity and worthiness of even the poorest among us.

Also, unlike humans who reach a mature size a fifth of the way into our lives, trees continually grow larger over time. And not only that, they actually accelerate their growth as they age, meaning older trees are better at being trees (i.e. removing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). Imagine a life where your years of “peak performance” are always ahead of you, a life where you’re always getting better.

As humans age, our bodies become frail, small, and insignificant. There is no visual representation of all that a person has accomplished, all the people they’ve influenced, loved, and touched. The vastness of their experience is easily overlooked and under-appreciated. Yet the lives of our aged population are like the trees—enormous amounts of time and energy to be marveled.

We must be careful not to under-appreciate our elders—those people we call parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. We may not be able to see the immensity of their time here on earth, but we should be able to sense the scale of their lives and what they provide us.

When an old tree dies in the woods, it falls to the ground. It lies there like a giant among new growth, leaving a large space for smaller trees to fill. It decomposes providing nutrients for the next generation. That’s the circle of life. And the larger a tree’s life—the larger, physically, that tree was—the more it provides after death. To quote Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Perhaps humans too can embody the grand scale of a long life. We cannot see it directly, but it is still there, like the massive size of a fallen tree.

Many of us fear death, because it represents the end. We are afraid of regret, afraid of not having done or experienced enough. But what if we were like trees? Perhaps death would be seen as just the beginning—our large lives giving back to the small, the young, the future.

Stephenson, Nathan, et al. “Rate of Tree Carbon Accumulation Increases Continuously with Tree Size.” Nature 507.7490 (2014): 90-93. (Source)

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Meditations

teva fashionista

Recently, personal matters have replaced doing research for my essays. But I’ve still been pondering about the world we live in and want to share those thoughts. Instead of a full essay this week, the following are four short musings/questions to get us thinking:

FASHION: Now that it’s summer, Teva sandals are everywhere. The terrible ’90s fashion statement is back in full force, but how are they still a thing? It’s like a hippie scourge on the community—an ancient fashion statement with modern velcro amenities. And don’t even get me started on wearing socks with sandals. It all begs the question: What’s the point of keeping up with fashion trends if nothing really changes for thousands of years?

BUSINESS: “…but how do they monetize it?” This was the only piece of a conversation I heard between two gentlemen in suits walking downtown. And what a question—a question that sums up so much of our current age. First, there’s how the question is asked. It’s at once a valid question and concocted jargon. Using the word “monetize” feels like contemporary boasting, like spitting out questions on ROI, A/B testing, or running lean—valid yet trite buzzwords to show that we “get” it, that we’re business savvy, that we ask the right questions in the right ways. In a strange way, it has become trendy to use pretentious business-speak. Second, there’s the economic dilemma of the question. In a world of “free” online content—a digital sharing glut—there seems to be this underlying (maybe unconscious) feeling that if we get enough users or followers, tap into the network effect like Zuckerberg did, then we make it rich. Simple. Except there’s still that nagging detail of how to grow a money tree from a foundation of nonpaying consumers. Google, a company notorious for asking tough interview questions, is cited as asking interviewees, “If ads were removed from YouTube, how would you monetize it?” And that’s really hitting the nail on the head, isn’t it? The business challenge of our era is that we, as customers, expect things to be free, but we, as businesspeople, do not know how “free” can sustainably make money (sorry, “be monetized”).

LANGUAGE: Horny is the word for feeling sexual arousal, but it’s hormones that cause the feeling. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say “hormy”?

HISTORY: Let’s assume Elon Musk’s vision of technologically-advanced humans plays out in the way he wants. We all become enhanced cyborgs living in a world of robots and super intelligent A.I. Who then will be the legends of today—the heroes that go down in the history books? If “history is written by the victors,” as Winston Churchill allegedly said, then will the superstars of our current era be remembered not as the Steve Jobs and the Elon Musks, but as the digital tools they created? It is not the climbing gear that gets the glory of being the first to climb Mt. Everest; it is the climber (but only because we are the victors—the tellers of the story). In Elon’s future, are modern humans merely the tools that machines will use to accomplish their historic feats? Will it be the implanted Neuralink brain chips of influential people that are remembered as the important historic figures rather than the people themselves?

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Convenience, Community, or Both?

droning on and on.jpg

Every week, I get my groceries delivered. Perched up high on the twenty-eighth floor of a high-rise in downtown Chicago, grocery delivery is a practical choice. But it’s also a laughable luxury. Is it really too hard to patronize one of the four grocers in a four block radius surrounding our building? Is it too much to ask to walk the aisles of food rather than scroll through online images? Is it such a burden to walk down the street with “heavy” groceries using our able-bodies?

We are so far removed from the sources of our food that without the slightest hesitation we can click a few icons on a screen at home and the next day a man (yes, it’s always been a man) knocks on our door with bags of fruits, vegetables, and meat. There is no dirt under our fingernails, no long range weather forecast in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, no acknowledgement of nutrient cycles from livestock waste to crop fertilizer. But lamenting the down and dirty of the family farm is hardly relevant. Long gone are the days of tilling the fields and harvesting the season.

Today there is not even the friendly interaction with the cashier as we check out at the grocer; there is no shared space in the aisles of what feels like an outdated warehouse experience; there is no harmless banter at the delicatessen counter; nor is there the tactile and fragrant sensation of choosing our own produce. We are, as the below quote states, traveling in boxes (our homes, our cars, our offices, etc.) and “going from one box to another” without the faintest connection to the fundamentals of life.

This week I came across a book from 1935 titled Five Acres and Independence: A Practical Guide to the Selection and Management of the Small Farm. What strikes the modern reader is not the level of detail used or the pragmatic nature of the text, but how foreign its contents. Topics like water, soil, crops, and sewage—the essential fabrics of sustaining our everyday lives—are described in terms that, although meant to be familiar, are lost on contemporary urbanites. Loam, humus, baffle boards, pistillate, strawberry runners—my lack of recognition is almost embarrassing. Yet why would we recognize these? Many of us live in a world of concrete and steel, where “agriculture” is performed in far-away places stigmatized as “backward.” The word “landscape” is usually followed by “architecture” or “photography,” rather than reports of water drainage and nitrate levels. We are estranged from the physical world that humans are adapted to inhabit.

Our modern experience has found itself balancing convenience with community. Not always (but often), these two C’s are pitted against one another—progress on one side and connection on the other. They are not mutually exclusive, but intertwined. Like all things, there are trade-offs to our choices, and as history teaches, societal trends ebb and flow from extremes. Perhaps our path to convenience is reaching a pivot point back to community. Or perhaps there is a third way—one that harmoniously blends human interaction with digital conveniences. Regardless, here is one take that summarized this idea more clearly than I have:

Technology, even really the most rudimentary technologies, are a double-edged sword. And so the sense of community that we had by going to the grocer more often, by being outside on our front porch because we didn’t have A/C inside the house—that sense of connectedness with our community and our neighborhoods just doesn’t exist anymore. Everybody’s inside their boxes, and they’re going from one box to another.

What I believe the cultural shift that’s happening is a reach back to that sense of community. I think the younger generations are realizing that owning more stuff didn’t lead to more happiness; their parents aren’t happier, because they had more stuff or more space. But being connected to people [is different], especially now that you have the tease of having social media making you feel connected but not really.

—Stonly Baptiste, Co-founder & Partner at Urban Us venture fund, TechCrunch Disrupt Conference (2017)

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Why Football?

go bucksTeam loyalty is kind of a hard thing to justify in the end. You know? I love the Giants, but when you think about it, who are the Giants? You know what I mean? I mean it’s different guys. Every year it’s different guys, right? The team will move from city to city.

You’re rooting for clothes when you get right down to it. […] I want my team’s clothes to beat the clothes from another city. […] Laundry. We’re rooting, we’re screaming about laundry here.

People will love a guy. You know what I mean? Then the guy will get traded. He’ll come back on another team. They hate him now. […] This is the same human being in a different shirt. “Boo! Get! We hate him now!” Different shirt […] “Boooooo!”

—Jerry Seinfeld, Late Show with David Letterman (1994)

We love football. In a country of over 320 million people, over one third of the population of United States watches the Super Bowl each year. That’s over 110 million Americans tuning in to a single game on single day. To put this in perspective, there were only 40 million viewers of the second most watched sporting event last year. It was game seven of the 2016 World Series—a storybook ending between two underdogs, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, fighting hard to claim a long-awaited title. It didn’t matter; it wasn’t football.

Of course, not everyone watches football. Two-thirds of the country miss the Super Bowl each year. And not everyone has the same reasons for watching. But then, what are the reasons? Why do so many of us care about this gridiron game? In short, it’s because football is an extremely efficient use of our time (seriously).

American football fulfills more human needs than nearly any other pastime; it checks more boxes at once than other forms of entertainment. Imagine you’re at a sports bar with friends, family, and fellow fans cheering on your favorite team as they majestically win a close game against their most hated rival. Everyone is cheering; you’re swept up in the excitement. Community, belonging, family time, self worth, gloating, escapism, positive stress, stress release, celebration, novelty, and awe-inspiring athleticism—all of this happening in just over three hours. And we’re just getting started.

Football also provides us a safe topic of conversation like entertainment news or the weather. Yet, in football, these conversations can become quite elaborate between people of differing opinions (unlike politics, which often leads to yelling, tears, and general destruction). Why? Because discussing coaching decisions or game strategy can be incredibly involved, but the speculation doesn’t change our lives. Whether you would have gone for two or kicked the extra point doesn’t matter. “It’s just a game,” we tell ourselves. Sure, the emotions are real; the devastation is real; the excitement and joy and comradery are real. But there are no lasting repercussions.

The paradox of football is that it is totally meaningless and incredibly meaningful at the same time. With our deep community ties, sense of self worth wrapped up in our favorite teams, and significant emotional investment spent year after year, it’s no wonder football is such a powerful force. But that could be said about any sport. What is it that makes football so unique?

For starters, our favorite football teams play only once per week. This is a stark contrast between baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey. The mid-week dry spell creates a level of anticipation with an almost Pavlovian response once the weekend comes around. Also, the shorter schedule means every game counts. In college, one fluke upset can mean a lost chance at the national title. And as fans know, a blocked field goal run back for a touchdown by an unranked opponent does happen.

Also, American football is unique in that it’s, well, American. We embrace our American exceptionalism with a national pastime that is rarely played outside of the country. It’s a game of territory that developed on the heels of westward expansion; a game where, unlike soccer, players line up as they march down the field, making it clear how much land has been claimed, never looking back. It’s an American story, unique to the United States, with ever-changing rules and regulations mimicking our innovative spirit. Football is America’s game because it embodies our history, our unique values, and our culture. It stands atop the pile of major global sports (above soccer), because it’s unique to who we are as a nation. We are unique, and therefore, we should have a unique pastime.

On some level, humans are rational creatures looking for efficient ways to spend our most valuable resource—time. Watching football is a way to spend time with friends and family; it’s a way to feel connected to something larger than ourselves, to feel included in a community, to talk with strangers without worrying that we will offend them. Football is an outlet to escape a reality that’s too stressful, too serious, too easy or hard or soft. It’s a sport of graceful human ability and athleticism where every game matters and anticipation builds up throughout the week. It is this broad appeal that makes it popular. We may intellectually agree with Jerry Seinfeld’s clothing comments, but deep down even Seinfeld knows that our teams are so much more than just laundry.

Hirt, Edward R., and Joshua J. Clarkson. “The Psychology of Fandom: Understanding the Etiology, Motives, and Implications of Fanship.” Consumer Behavior Knowledge for Effective Sports and Event Marketing (2011): 59-85. (Source)

Paolantonio, Sal. How football explains America. Triumph Books, 2015.


*This essay is a paraphrased excerpt from a book I’m writing about my love/hate relationship with American football. The project is currently on pause.

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The Global Schoolhouse

Globalization University: Time to Pack Our Bags

moving up?

People can have several layers of loyalty. You can be loyal to your family and your community and your nation. So why can’t you also be loyal to humankind as a whole? Of course, there are occasions when it becomes difficult—what to put first—but, you know, life is difficult; handle it.

—Yuval Noah Harari, “Nationalism vs. Globalism: The New Political Divide” (2017)

The world is changing. It’s moving from a patchwork of individual nations to a collective mix of nations, corporations, and power brokers. It’s moving from nationalization to globalization. People may argue that this shift has been going on for decades, which it has, but now the excitement has worn off and the reality of change—that daunting task that underlies any big move—is setting in. We’re graduating from The Global Schoolhouse of the 20th Century and enrolling in the Globalization University of the 21st.

For some this transition is fraught with anxiety. Others see it as an exciting time full of opportunity and a better future. Regardless of our feelings, the actual transition can be painful. There are costs to change.

Think of the last time you moved: There was the time-consuming packing process, where we boxed everything up; the moving process, which left our backs sore and our muscles achy; followed by the unpacking process, which felt like deja vu after packing in the first place. Where do the boxes go? Where does the stuff inside the boxes go? Why do we have so much crap?! But possibly the hardest part of the whole moving process is the initial step: We must first decide what stays and what goes.

From my vantage point, this is where humanity finds itself today. We are trying to determine what to keep and what to throw out. This is an extremely difficult task for a world where we’ve accumulated enormous amounts of “stuff”—various different languages, religions, and cultural identities; unique customs, clothing, and holidays; separate currencies, laws, and governing bodies; and often differing political wills, motivations, and priorities. A global world requires that some of these historical accumulations are thrown out, some are kept, and most (if not all) are restructured, repurposed, and relocated.

The world is moving house. We’re going away to college. We’re moving into a crowded dorm with all sorts of people from all around the world. This is Globalization University, where navigating our own national heritage is just as awkward and messy as 18-year-old co-eds trying to “find themselves” at a Freshman kegger.

It is certainly an exciting time to be alive, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy time. We’re merely in the packing process—just getting started—and already there is global backlash. Much of this outcry comes from a combination of what psychologists call the endowment effect and loss aversion. Respectively, we put more value on things that are ours simply because they’re ours (endowment effect). And consequently, we perceive a more significant loss when our stuff is taken away. This includes ownership of concrete entities like factories and jobs becoming “redundant,” as well as abstract ownership like specific ways of life or cultural identity. When our way is in jeopardy, emotions run high, objections flow freely, and we fight like hell not to avoid loss.

It’s important to remember, however, that while packing and moving are difficult, we’re not alone. When we show up to Globalization University on move-in day and look around at all the other students unpacking in front of our dorm, we should remember that all those fresh faces went through the same process. They’re going through it now. Our global peers are struggling with this move too. Whatever nation we come from, global dorm life is something none of us have ever experienced. It’s not nations that solely cause globalization; technology stretches beyond political and geographic borders. We’re in this together (for better or for worse).

Harari, Yuval Noah. “Nationalism vs. Globalism: The New Political Divide.” TED. Feb. 2017. Lecture. (Source)

*This essay is a follow up to the series, “The Global Schoolhouse,” originally published on December 2016. You can read Part 1 here.

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Business & Biology

Between Growth & Maintenance

time_to_drankImagine a city with an infrastructure problem (I know, it’s hard to imagine). The problem is this: Roads are breaking down faster than they can be repaired. As the city’s population grows, road workers cannot work fast enough to compensate for the additional traffic. Each road closure for repairs means more traffic on alternative routes and, therefore, even faster decline. Eventually, the few alternative routes that are open no longer connect to one another; construction crews can no longer get to the roads that need to be repaired; and ultimately, the system shuts down. Death by growth.

This is the basic idea behind the classic S-curve of growth (below), which is said to be so ubiquitous. From cities to cellular biology to Fortune 500 companies, most systems follow a similar pattern. They must balance between growth and maintenance.

Understanding which phase we’re in—whether high-growth, high-maintenance, or transition—can be advantageous. It can help extend the life cycle of our products, businesses, bodies, personal lives, and relationships. But when we refuse to acknowledge this shift, that’s when problems arise.

In business, this refusal is called the denial phase. As one Harvard Business Review article puts it, “[R]etailers often go through a long, painful period of denial before they acknowledge that growth has ended and it’s time to switch strategies. […] Consequently, they keep expanding until their chains begin to collapse under their own weight.” The article is referring to a study of 37 U.S. retailers—all with over $1 billion in revenue, all with top-line growth rates slowed to single digits. But while several of these historic giants were collapsing “under their own weight,” many had found a solution to the stagnation.

Companies like Macy’s, Home Depot, and McDonald’s have extended their lifespans by focusing on the maintenance phase. They thrive by creating efficiencies in their existing stores rather than opening new ones. In other words, they transitioned from a strategy for rapid growth to one of maintaining their large size.

This is not to say that growth is negative. Pure growth and pure maintenance are not what creates life. It is the in-between where we exist. As the Harvard Business Review authors explain, “this is a low-growth, not a no-growth, strategy.” Where the successful companies grew was in bottom-line revenue rather than top—shifting their focus, in order to achieve life-bringing growth.

But when growth goes unchecked, it can be devastating. We call it cancer in the body. And before we can prescribe treatment, we must have a diagnosis. Whether we label it a midlife crisis, a corporate denial phase, or an infrastructure problem, we must acknowledge mismatched reality, in order to move forward. Otherwise, misalignment can accelerate decline.

With our imaginary city, it’s a balance between population growth and infrastructure maintenance; with our bodies, it’s a balance between biologic insults and cellular repair; in life, we shift from a growth-heavy childhood to a maintenance-heavy adulthood, including more doctors visits, taxes, and responsibility. It’s this transition from growth to maintenance that creates the S-shape of life, and it’s a delicate balance—easily misunderstood and mismanaged.

It may seem simplistic to minimize the life cycle of so many different topics into only two sides of the same coin. In fact, it is simplistic. While simple sometimes means limited understanding, it also can serve as a practical model for an exceedingly complex world. So take a moment and think: Am I spending too much time in growth phase? What about maintenance? Is this a transition? Where are we?

growth-maintenance graph

Fisher, Marshall, Vishal Gaur, and Herb Kleinberger. “Curing the Addiction to Growth.” Harvard Business Review 95.1 (2017): 66-74. (Source)

Evans, David S. “Tests of Alternative Theories of Firm Growth.” Journal of Political Economy 95.4 (1987): 657-674. (Source)

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