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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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Uncategorized

Convenience, Community, or Both?

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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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Business & Biology

The Noncompetitive Advantage

hunter_hunted

Have you ever been chased by a bear? Heart racing, adrenaline pumping, looking for the nearest tree to climb to avoid almost certain death? Yeah, me neither. And that fact—that lack of being chased or having natural predators or competition—is precisely why humans have such long lifespans, and why some companies dramatically outlive their peers.

For years, biologist have made the simple observations that “bigger animals live longer lives.” The idea is that the bigger an animal becomes the more efficient they become. It’s a fact of biology, which extends into the world of business, urban planning, and organizational ecology. As theoretical physicist, Geoffrey West, puts it, “This might also explain the drive for corporations to merge. Small may be beautiful but it is more efficient to be big.” As with all rules, however, there are exceptions. But before we discuss the anomalies, let’s examine our options for survival.

There are three main strategies for small animals, organizations, businesses, cities, or powerless individuals to survive in the world of Big: (1.) direct competition, (2.) indirect competition, and (3.) noncompetition.

Direct competition is the easiest to understand, but is also the least effective (lowest survival). This is like turning toward that grizzly we talked about earlier and fighting back. There’s a chance of survival, but it’s not great. And at what cost? In business, small companies that use this strategy are labeled sustaining entrants. They compete in an established market against powerful incumbents by making some improvement to mainstream products.

As Clayton Christensen noted when developing the theory of disruptive innovation back in 1995, in the case of “the disk drive industry, only 6% of sustaining entrants managed to succeed.” And this makes sense, right? To directly compete for high-end or mainstream customers in an established market is going to draw attention from much more established players who have the ability to either defend (kill us) or acquire (eat us). Either way, survival and longevity are limited.

Indirect competition is a different game. We can view this as the dog eating food scraps that have fallen from the dinner table. While direct competition between small, young entrants and large, established incumbents is inherently unfair, indirect competition serves customers that are of little interest to large incumbents. Young firms appeal to low-value customers by providing lower quality products outside the mainstream market. This type of business calls less attention to itself, because it serves customers that would be a “waste of time” to larger incumbents.

Noncompetition is the anomaly in our discussion. This strategy is exactly what it sounds like—not competing. It’s finding or creating a niche that insulates us from hazards and outside competition. In business, as you might have guessed, noncompetition is rare.

In biology, it’s extremely rare for small animals to live for long periods, but birds and bats seem to break all the rules when it comes to life expectancy. Despite being small and having rapid metabolic rates—both significant indicators of short lifespan—birds and bats live 3-3.5x longer than animals of a similar size. In a world where corporate life expectancy is decreasing, many in business would be happy with a three-fold increase in survival.

For birds and bats, it’s a matter of flying. They’ve taken themselves out of the terrestrial equation, out of reach of countless potential predators and hazards. They’ve developed a mechanism to explore the sky, a niche above us land-based creatures. Their competitive advantage is simply not competing. They just fly away.

When we look at businesses that have defied the odds of survival, our view turns east toward Japan, where a handful of companies are over 1,000 years old. Just as flying has insulated birds and bats from harm below, older Japanese companies benefit from insulation. They are often small, primarily serve Japanese markets, run on values beyond profit-at-all-costs, and operate in a culture where acquisitions and mergers are avoided (compared to the West’s seeming love of M&As). Thousand-year-old Japanese enterprises are much different than the S&P 500, like the difference between earth and sky or mammals and birds.

Google, Amazon, Apple—These are the big game animals, the predators, the bears chasing us up a tree. Perhaps we (and our businesses) can thrive for decades without becoming or competing with giants. Humans transcended the law of the jungle; birds and bats transcended the limitations of land. In order to be exceptional, we must strive to be an exception, no matter how small. Rather than competing head-on in an unfair fight, why not learn to fly?

Christensen, Clayton M., Michael E. Raynor, and Rory McDonald. “Disruptive Innovation.” Harvard Business Review 93.12 (2015): 44-53. (Source)

Daepp, Madeleine I.G., et al. “The Mortality of Companies.” Journal of The Royal Society Interface 12.106 (2015): 20150120. (Source)

Munshi-South, Jason, and Gerald S. Wilkinson. “Bats and Birds: Exceptional Longevity Despite High Metabolic Rates.” Ageing Research Reviews 9.1 (2010): 12-19. (Source)

West, Geoffrey B., and James H. Brown. “Life’s Universal Scaling Laws.” Physics Today 57.9 (2004): 36-42. (Source)

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Uncategorized

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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Too Smart for Your Own Good

Beliefs (or lack thereof)

fairy-stareWhat is religion? It’s community, history, cultural identity; it’s a way to make sense of the world. Some of us use religion as our primary source of answers; others use mysticism; others: science; and still others use a combination of methods. This is not an argument for one way over the others, but rather a look at beliefs through several different lenses:

We all try to make sense of the world. Our methods may differ, but we are all seeking to understand the same universe:

People find themselves in a mysterious and mysteriously ordered universe. They find themselves equipped with sort of intense moral instincts.  They have religious experiences, and they develop systems that explain those.

—Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religionspeaking on Real Time with Bill Maher (2012)

Religion plays a comforting role for some people:

[P]eople who lose personal control take comfort in religion, because it suggests to them that the world is under God’s control and, therefore, predictable and nonrandom.

—Zuckerman et al., “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity” (2013)

But the comfort of belief is not confined to religious doctrine:

Human beings are believing animals, period. […] Even secular liberals have their [beliefs…] What is the idea of universal human rights if not a metaphysical principle? Can you find universal human rights under a microscope? Is it in the laws of physics?”

—Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion, speaking on Real Time with Bill Maher (2012)

It is becoming more difficult to understand a world defined by modern technology:

The modern technologies of the day are a bit of a black box for the average person. […] the average person I meet on the street doesn’t feel any kind of connection to the technologies that are defining their world and shaping the fabric of society.

—Steve Jurveston, billionaire tech investor, “Acclerating Rich-Poor Gap,” Solve for X (2013)

But humans are resilient creatures: Make the world incomprehensible, and they will find a way to comprehend it:

The explosion in communication technologies over the past decades has re-oriented society and put more psychological strain on us all to find our identities and meaning. For some people, the way to ease this strain is to actually reject complexity  and ambiguity for absolutist beliefs and traditional ideals.

—Mark Manson, author, “The Rise of Fundamentalist Belief” (2013)

While we are getting better at adapting to the ever-changing world…:

“The rate at which we can adapt is increasing,” said Teller. “A thousand years ago, it probably would have taken two or three generations to adapt to something new.” By 1900, the time it took to adapt got down to one generation. “We might be so adaptable now,” said Teller, “that it only takes ten to fifteen years to get used to something new.”

—Thomas Friedman quoting Astro Teller, CEO of Google’s X Research & Development Laboratory

…the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate:

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).

—Ray Kurzwell, computer scientist,“The Law of Accelerating Returns” (2001)

Technology may soon make everyone feel as if they’ve lost control:

“If the technology platform for society can now turn over in five to seven years, but it takes ten to fifteen years to adapt to it,” Teller explained, “we will all feel out of control, because we can’t adapt to the world as fast as its changing.
—Astro Teller, CEO of Google X, quoted in Thank You for Being Late (2016)
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And while some people think the world is still divided into those who “understand” and those who don’t…:

[Disconnection from technology is] a different kind of estrangement. It’s almost like a cognitive separation—those who know and those who don’t know about the world they live in.

—Steve Jurveston, billionaire tech investor, “Acclerating Rich-Poor Gap,” Solve for X (2013)

…technological advancement will eventually humble even our brightest minds:

“None of us have the capacity to deeply comprehend more than one of these fields [genomic cloning, medical robotics, artificial intelligence]—the sum of human knowledge has far outstripped any individual’s capacity to learn—and even experts in these fields can’t predict what will happen in the next decade or century.”

—Astro Teller, CEO of Google X, quoted in Thank You for Being Late (2016)

For, at the end of the day, we are all humans (no matter how intelligent). And that is the thesis of this entire “Too Smart for Your Own Good” series:

You are never too smart to be humble.

Intelligence does not make a person immune to faulty logicinsensitivity, poor timing, or technological change. There are biological limitations to being human. However we choose to make sense of the world—whatever strategies for life we employ—we are making a personal choice. So remember: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”


Additional Reading:

Urban, Tim. “Religion for the Nonreligious.” waitbutwhy.com (2014): (Source)

Sharov, Alexei A., and Richard Gordon. “Life before earth.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1304.3381 (2013). (Source) (Summary)

Zuckerman, Miron, Jordan Silberman, and Judith A. Hall. “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A meta-analysis and some proposed explanations.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 17.4 (2013): 325-354. (Source)

This is the fifth installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.

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