Uncategorized

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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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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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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Too Smart for Your Own Good

The Benefits of Doubt

big-head

This is a story of two brainiacs—both pioneers in their chosen fields, both knowingly intelligent, and both recipients of the Nobel Prize. Despite their similarities, the stories of William Shockley—and his eventual demise—and Daniel Kahneman’s ultimate redemption differ in each genius’s relationship with self-doubt. While doubt is often cast as the villain of our lives, this is a different tale, one where doubt is the protagonist, the saving grace. This is a story of two men whose success and failure hinged on the benefits of doubt.

William Shockley grew up in California during the 1920s, receiving a B.S. from California Institute of Technology in 1932. Quantum physics was still a fresh discovery, and Shockley reportedly, “absorbed most of it with astonishing ease.” In 1936, he earned his Ph.D. from M.I.T. and began his innovative career at Bell Laboratories, one of the most prolific R&D enterprises in the world. As a research director at Bell, Shockley helped invent the transistor (as in “transistor radio”), for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956—an achievement that would lead to his eventual undoing.

That same year, Shockley moved back to Mountain View, California to start Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the first technology company in what would become Silicon Valley. As a researcher and a manager, William Shockley was brilliant, innovative, but domineering. His arrogance at Shockley Labs was a point of contention among the employees and a problem that would only be exacerbated after the Nobel Prize. Winning the prize seemed to eradicate any residual self-doubt left from his youth. Shockley became deaf to outside opinion, blind to reason, and unforgivingly egotistical. In 1957, less than a year after becoming a Nobel Laureate, eight of Shockley’s best and brightest left the company to form Fairchild Semiconductor.

The Shockley schism was in large part due to William Shockley’s unwillingness to continue research into silicon-based semiconductors despite his employees’ belief that silicon would be the future. His hubris would be his end, as Shockley Labs never recovered from missing the silicon boom. The cohort who left would later create numerous technology firms in Silicon Valley (including the tech giant, Intel), giving birth to what has become one of the most innovative regions in the world.

William Shockley, himself, faded into obscurity, estranged from his children, his reputation tarnished after years of public touting of eugenics. Along with Henry Ford, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi, Time Magazine would name William Shockley as one of the “100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.” Yet he died bitter and disgraced in 1989, still headstrong, self-doubt still absent from his life. For Shockley, arrogance and intellect seemed to be inextricably linked; however, such a fate is not inevitable.

Daniel Kahneman’s story is different. It’s one where self-aware intellect meets a healthy dose of self-doubt. Born in 1936, Kahneman grew up a Jew in France during the Nazi occupation. His family was displaced several times and his experiences with Nazis would show him firsthand the complexities and peculiarities of the human mind—a foreshadowing of his illustrious career in psychology.

As an adolescent after World War II, Kahneman moved to Palestine where in eighth-grade he finally found like-minded friends. Acknowledging both his intellect and its dangers, he writes, “It was good for me not be exceptional anymore.” While Kahneman knew he was smart, he always saw his deficits (and sometimes to a fault). As Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Undoing Project, puts it, “Everything [Daniel Kahneman] thinks is interesting. He just doesn’t believe it.” And this self-doubt would lead directly to his success.

After getting degrees from Hebrew University and U.C. Berkley, Kahneman’s work in psychology would take off after his first collaboration with Amos Tversky. Between 1971 and 1981, Tversky and Kahneman would publish five journal articles that would be cited over 1,000 times. Their work in cognitive biases—largely fueled by the ability to doubt their own minds—has been instrumental in upending the long-standing belief that humans are purely rational creatures.

In 2002, Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for showing that even the brightest among us make mental mistakes everyday—prospect theory, cognitive biases and heuristics. Like William Shockley, winning the Nobel Prize would be a turning point in Kahneman’s life; unlike Shockley, the prize made Kahneman better not worse. Michael Lewis again comments, “[T]he person who we know post-Nobel Prize is entirely different from the person who got the Nobel Prize […] he is much less gloomy, much less consumed with doubts.” In a stroke of irony, it would take what is arguably the most prestigious award in the world to finally provide Kahneman with the validation that his thoughts on doubt are worthwhile.

Kahneman’s career has been largely focused on the benefits of doubt—the idea that humans may be mistaken in our confidence and intuition, and need to question our assuredness. While his legacy is still to be seen, Kahneman’s work may prove to change how humans think about thinking forever. His impact may even put him on Time’s list of “100 Most Important People of the 21st Century.”

The stories of Shockley and Kahneman serve as both a warning and a call to action. Doubt should not be seen as a curse, but rather a necessity—a blessing, even. It is when we are not in doubt that we should take notice. Arrogance at any level can blind us. We don’t have to be a savant to be egotistical or have a “big head” (yet the smartest among us are often guilty of this). Only through our doubts can we expect to learn from others, question our assumptions, and, ultimately, be successful long-term. As soon as we stop doubting, stop questioning, we stop growing.

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

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Too Smart for Your Own Good

The Problem with Logic

tug-o-war2There is an art to getting things done. The problem with logic is that it’s only half of the equation (and “half” is being generous). Logic can lead to a false sense of understanding. “This is the logical explanation,” we may say. There’s a logical choice, a logical path, a “right way.” But logical thinking often neglects to consider the other half of the equation—the emotional half. And emotions are a much more powerful force.

A considerable amount of what occurs in the world occurs because of emotion alone (without even the slightest consideration for reason). Forgetting about the emotional side can handicap us in the real world of “getting things done.” An idea may be the most logical, but that does not mean it will always triumph. The real world is not a meritocracy; just ask an economist.

In recent years, economists have recommended that NFL teams spend less resources trying to draft superstar athletes. Instead, they recommend trading top draft picks for multiple lower picks (spreading their risk of picking a top round dud). Despite showing that such changes would translate into more wins per season (about 1.5 more), team owners and general managers have generally ignored the advice. Why? Because there is more to life than logic. Teams are illogically overconfident that their picks are better than the competitions’ and owners enjoy having big name players on the roster. It’s not logical; it’s emotional. Historical precedent, personal ideologies, social allegiances—these are what constitute the illogical side of life, the emotional side. Economists work in the world of logical suggestions, but the real power lies in the hands of others.

My favorite definition of “power” is “the ability to get things done.” It avoids the negative connotations we have. There is no mention to coercion or corruption, no distinction between strong and weak, no manipulation tactics or financial sanctions. Power can just as easily relate to a healthy marriage as it can to a government regime. We are required to “get things done” everyday, and our ability to do so benefits not only us, but our friends, family, and colleagues. Power, therefore, is something we should wish on everyone.

To “empower” a person is to bestow them with the ability to help himself. We live in a world where emotions reign supreme. Events often happen on emotion alone (without logical consideration), but rarely the other way around. Logic, then, is the empowering piece of the puzzle; it is the prerequisite for significant improvement. But unlike the power of emotional whims, we cannot achieve with logic alone.

Good leadership, parenting, governance—they all require emotional intelligence, as well as critical thinking. This is the cornerstone underlying television shows like Hugh Laurie’s House M.D. and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock—the lone genius struggling in a world of social interaction and emotions, knowing these inevitabilities are as much a solution as they are a problem, a strength and a weakness. Destruction is easy with emotions alone, but building something meaningful requires both heart and mind.

Last week we discussed the frustrations of the workplace—the unspoken, sometimes unknowable rules (the emotional side). But more frustrating than office politics is actual politics. It can be ugly at times, but politics is the ultimate “art” of getting things done, where the complexities of social interactions far outweigh logical idealism or truth. People who vote with their heads struggle with this concept. They cannot understand voting with the heart. And that’s the classic downfall of a logic-heavy worldview: It leads to the dismissal of the human condition and the social/emotional sides to us all.

There’s an old journalism maxim, “if it bleeds, it leads,” which sums up the emotion-heavy side of society. Emotional hyperbole is popular; it sells news. We like stories about people (human interest pieces), and if there happens to be a murder involved, all the better! Humans are drawn to other humans, often in ways that defy reason. A string of bad relationship choices, the flock of rioting fans after a win—none of it makes logical sense, but it happens nonetheless. We must attempt to see the forest for the trees.

Understanding how society works, with all its human behavioral quirks, can buffer the logic problem. There is a scene in the 2000 historical epic, Gladiator, where Oliver Reed’s character—a wise, embattled ex-gladiator—gives some advice to the young warrior, Russell Crowe. He says to Crowe, “I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me.” Oliver Reed’s gladiator understood how the system actually worked, and that understanding (not his skill in the colosseum) is what set him apart. Logic is necessary to our success, but it must be balanced with the understanding, compassion, and social skills that human emotions provide. Such a balancing act is a real art form.

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

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The Global Schoolhouse

Part 2 of 3: The Global Schoolhouse

Last week we set up the metaphor of a global schoolhouse with nations acting more or less in the same manner as schoolchildren. The G20 was used as our analogous “Classroom G,” divided socially along economic lines—developing countries on one side, developed on the other. Next week we will discuss another group in the global schoolhouse—multinational corporations—and how organizations that transcend geographic boundaries may be the answer to the developed-developing divide. But for now, let’s move from the classroom to the schoolyard and discuss the psychology of cliques—the psychology of global discrimination.

As a social clique, the “Western Powers” have played on the schoolyard relatively unopposed for the past 100 years. They generally make their own rules and exclude most newcomers. Sure, the West may have included nations like Japan or Korea, but only because of economic parity—common developed status. Financial prowess is the basis for in-group membership.

Sociologist would call this discrimination “in-group favoritism“—the concept that people positively view their own group’s members while looking upon outsiders with contempt. In-group favoritism, social identity, stereotyping, system justification—these are what fuel discrimination at all levels, and discrimination has been a part of the global schoolyard for centuries.

Developing countries have many obstacles on the road to equality, let alone dominance. Not only do they struggle to improve their skills of the game (economics), they are often closed off from making the rules or even playing in the first place. The popular kids on the schoolyard may justify this exclusion by citing past support or inclusion of Eastern countries like Japan, but ultimately they will continue to exclude. This justification is called “moral licensing.”

Moral licensing is defined loosely as, “being good frees us to be bad” or more specifically, “past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic.” This principle is behind the justification for bad behavior occurring time and again throughout history. 

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized moral licensing  in the first episode of his podcast Revisionist History. In the episode, Gladwell recounts the story of the 19th century British painter, Elizabeth Thompson, who sought entry into the most elite group of English artists of the era—the prestigious Royal Academythought to be made up of the forty most preeminent artists of the time. The problem was that the Acadmey had never had a woman member.

While the 19th century Royal Academy felt a moral obligation to allow the most talented artists into their club, they didn’t want a woman to be such a person. Elizabeth Thompson’s fellowship was put to a vote shortly after her painting The Roll Call (1874) rose to fame, and Thompson narrowly lost the majority required for induction. But almost—the fact that she had been seriously considered (proven by the narrow margin)—was close enough to morally justify nearly 50 more years of male-only membership.

Much like the 19th century Royal Academy was largely shaped by historical precedent and pseudo-supremacy, so too are the “Western Powers” of today. China and other emerging markets are said to be symbols of the global shift in power from established G7 economies to rapidly developing nations; however, like Elizabeth Thompson’s denial of acceptance, social barriers still loom over the future of developing countries.

While this seems like a bleak reality for the majority of the world’s nations, perhaps social norms play only a small part in the success of a rising nation. For there’s another role to be played in this schoolhouse, a role that transcends traditional schoolyard games. As a relative newcomer in history, multinational corporations may be the answer to global discrimination—a new paradigm to counter the old. And that’s where we will leave off until Part 3 next week.

Merritt, Anna C., Daniel A. Effron, and Benoît Monin. “Moral self‐licensing: When being good frees us to be bad.” Social and personality psychology compass 4.5 (2010): 344-357.

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The Global Schoolhouse

Part 1 of 3: The Global Schoolhouse

Individual countries have always seemed like individual people to me. With their unique quirks, countries have all the idiosyncrasies of humans. They have distinct personalities, see themselves differently than outside observers, and judge their behavior based on intent while judging others based on action. Some countries are quiet, some loud, some big, some small, some fashionable, some plain (the comparisons continue).

To be clear, the collective “country” is distinct from the diverse collection of its citizens—the whole is different than the sum of its parts. That being said, countries are still like people, and what do all people want? Love and respect. Blatantly disrespect even the mousiest members of society and their blood will boil. Bullies are a product of overcompensation, self-image deficits, and lack of perceived respect. This universal need for respect helps explain much in global affairs.

As an obvious global bully, Russia simply wants the respect it feels it deserves. Seeing itself as a bastion of aerospace development, scientific research, military prowess, historical richness, Olympic champions, and cultural mainstays like art, ballet, and architecture, Russia may think, “We’re one of the greatest nations on earth. Why are we not given the relative level of respect that our status deserves? Let’s annex Crimea, then they’ll respect us!” Similar reasoning can be found in the seemingly antisocial behaviors of all sorts of global policies (not least, those of the United States). Self-centered, emotional, overly competitive, unaware, and simplistic—countries are not just like any people; they’re like school children.

There is one classroom that fits this metaphor well (although the teacher is nowhere to be found). The classroom is the G20—a group of the world’s twenty largest economies who get together to discuss global matters. Within “Classroom G,” as we’ll call it, there are all the features of a stereotypical schoolhouse. There are poorer kids, richer kids, extroverts, introverts, troublemakers, class clowns, slackers, bullies, brainiacs, and everyone in between. There are also social cliques (some even with labels).

Jocks, Preps, Nerds—these are unknown titles in Classroom G. Instead, the most well-known cliques go by other names (NATO, BRICS, G7, G4, and so on), but the most “popular” group is known historically as The Allies. The paradigm of World War I and II has continued for over 100 years and has evolved to roughly include an alliance between the world’s largest economies—the popular kids of the class (although, they are often not very popular with the rest of the students).

The in-group’s membership has changed many times throughout the decades. Where countries like Russia, China, Japan and Germany were once historical outsiders, they now have a seat at the table (but not officially in certain circles—the Group Seven or Permanent Five, for example).

There is an oversimplified explanation for this elite group of students: The trend-setting  group in Classroom G is a clique of develop-ed countries on the inside and develop-ing countries on the outside (with a few choice exceptions). Economics supersedes historical alliance. And as trite and ill-defined as the terms developing and developed may be, they serve as the arbitrary (but necessary) boundary in which our classroom creates a status quo.

It is important to point out, however, that Classroom G countries are not teachers, but peers. Their authority is social in nature, not hierarchical. Therefore, we could hypothesize that international relationships conform to the same social and psychologic theories that humans do…  But more on that next week.

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America’s Best Obsession

Why do we always want the best? I had to get a toothbrush the other day. Before I left my house, I searched “best toothbrush.” It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

As I typed in the searchbox, the auto-fill completed the thought immediately. I wasn’t alone in my toothbrush purchase insecurity. A flurry of articles came up with conflicting opinions and, for a moment, I felt stupid.

Every toothbrush I bought on a hunch has been fine. I’ve never been disappointed in a toothbrush. Why waste my time trying to find the best? Have you ever run into someone with no teeth and asked, “What happened?”

And they replied, “Bought the wrong toothbrush. Should have done more research.”

—Aziz Ansari, Dangerously Delicious (2012)

 

America is obsessed with rankings. Every year high school students (and even more so their parents) pour over the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges list. We cheer on our favorite sports teams and concern ourselves with the recent movement in the standings. And most ubiquitously of all, we compare ourselves with those around us. Every. Single. Day. After all, this is the nation to originate the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

Our love of rankings is fueled by what psychologist refer to as “extrinsic motivation”–our desire for external rewards like status, prestige, and validation. As a nation, America enjoys and celebrates (quite vocally) it’s status atop the global economic and military ladder. We share an unabashed feeling of national pride.

This is not necessarily negative. Although excessive arrogance has historically proven to be a poor strategy, external motivation can lift people beyond what they would have otherwise been able to accomplish. The bitter rivalry between Michelangelo and Da Vinci during the Renaissance elevated both artists to a level never before seen. It would be hard to achieve such greatness without the enhancing power of healthy competition. This competitive spirit is one of the primary “intangibles” that has led the recent boon of innovation and technologic progress in the United States. But what are the costs?

While researching for an upcoming book, I came across a 1999 study out of Murrary State University. Dr. Daniel Wann and his colleagues were attempting to uncover the motivations of athletes and sports fans. Their discussion on the difference between task oriented and ego oriented people proved the most illuminating.

A task oriented athlete is motivated to improve and master the sport—it’s the feeling of getting better that drives action. An ego oriented athlete, on the other hand,  is motivated by the desire to be better than others. “Better,” “Best,” “Worst”—these are words inherent in our ranking obsessed culture. We want to know how things stack up. What are the best movies of the year? The best restaurants? The best schools? Collectively, America is an ego oriented society. As stated before, there are benefits to this type of thinking, but we need to recognize the downsides.

Wann and company point out that both task oriented and ego oriented athletes can take a healthy approach to sports. Both groups can have high intrinsic motivation, feel competent, demonstrate high levels of enjoyment, and believe that their athletic success is the result of effort. That all sounds pretty good, right? But there’s one caveat (and this is important):

“These desirable behaviors and attributes are […] indicative of ego oriented persons, but only if they are confident in their ability […] If ego oriented persons doubt their ability, they are likely to choose easy or impossible tasks, have a low level of intrinsic motivation, feel incompetent at the task, have a lower level of enjoyment, and believe that athletic success is the result of ability.”

In other words, in a rank-obsessed society, confidence is key. Without confidence, individuals suffer from lack of self worth. They may see the game—be it sports, business, or life—as a challenge to be the “best,” but without enough confidence, their fixed mindset  locks them into a downward spiral.

This is the reality of American culture. On the one hand, it promotes healthy competition, innovation, and elevation of the output of its citizens. On the other, those who lack the confidence to rise to the challenge yet still ascribe to the “If you ain’t first, you’re last” Ricky Bobby philosophy, those citizens get left behind. They have less enjoyment in what they do, less motivation to do better, and all the while feel incompetent doing it. Perhaps we should all consider how important the “best” really is.

Wann, Daniel, Michael Schrader, and Anthony Wilsen. “Sport fan motivation: Questionnaire validation, comparisons by sport, and relationship to athletic motivation.” Journal of Sport Behavior 22.1 (1999): 114.

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