Struggle

Honest love is born from the struggle / it’s lived in the valley as much as the hill

Mark Stone

I saw a young man driving a supercar in Vancouver – he was too young, I thought, to have earned it – and I thought “poor guy.”

In giving him the world on the plate, I realised, his parents had rendered his life weightless: too light winning makes the prize light. His wealth had robbed him of something priceless.

This raises all sorts of questions about the good starts, leg-ups and help we give to others.* Looking back, how much struggle would you have chosen? How much would have been good for you?

*Education and training, community development and parenting are the first three areas that spring to mind.

Riches: second best coffee press

I broke the glass on our cafetiere / coffee press this morning.

You’re rich when you react to the breaking of the glass by saying, “Never mind – we’ll get some new glass.”

You’re really rich when you can add, “And in the meantime, we’ll use our second-best best coffee press.”

We live near the top of a vast, thousands-of-years-in-the-making pyramid of social and economic development that makes possible not simply the glass, steel, plastic and design knowledge required for the minutiae of our daily lives but the sheer abundance of these which allows us to use things that were once so scarce and precious for something as trivial as a coffee pot.

One type of rich…

… is when you have multiple solutions to everyday problems comfortably within your grasp.

The journey to “What will my family eat?” from “Will my family eat?” is the journey from poverty to prosperity.

The additional step – to “What would each member of my family most like to eat?” is a transition to a world of abundance unimaginable to most people in most places for most of history.

Same goes for clothes to wear and places to sleep.

And yet…

We find ourselves stressed and unable to decide; we find ourselves feeling poor and resentful.

It’s mostly to do with what we notice.

Goldilocks

I’ve made yogurt a couple of times a week for the last two years, and quickly reached the conclusion that it’s not rocket science.**

I use powdered milk (much easier in Jakarta), get the temperature of the water roughly right, put both it into the (unwashed) container that held the old yogurt, put that in an insulated box and pow, seven hours later you’ve got yogurt.

Near perfect results with minimal variation. Twice weekly, every week, for two years. It’s Easy, yo.

Except this week.

Now it’s the rainy season. It’s raining in a way that it hasn’t done for a couple of years, and suddenly it’s cool at night (well, 27 degrees instead of 31), and I’ve discovered that the last hundred or so good results have had more to do with me happening to live at an ideal temperature for making yogurt than my expertise.*** What worked effortlessly before, and produced good results, suddenly just produces sour milk, or curds and whey.

The context – which I’d never really even noticed – has changed, and if I still want yogurt, I’m going to need to do things differently.

Goldilocks

In the same way, the success of our organisations (impact, culture) is always to some extent dependent on factors that are beyond our control. This is simply how life works – and responding to these conditions is part of what will make us successful.

The danger comes when we forget that there is a context, and that it can change. We fail to realise that we’re living in a Goldilocks moment****, and base our (charitable) business models on assumptions that will no longer work for us when conditions (including our users) change.

We need to keep an eye on the future, and do our best to understand what’s changing and why, and respond accordingly.

Just as importantly, we need to base our models on things that change more slowly, or not at all. Fundamentals like staying focused on a clear vision and deeper goals, integrity, an attitude of service and investing in people, showing up and getting things done, communicating well, having a good handle on the money, and even being prepared to close things down when the time comes.

It’s also worth spending time thinking about the ecosystem that you’re part of, and how you can build assets that you can control that will create the factors you need to succeed. At the centre of your assets will be a history of excellent work that helps others to flourish, founded on relationships of trust and affection. These assets will stand you in good stead when Goldilocks moves on.

** I mean, how much did people know about rockets when they started making yogurt?

*** It’s still pretty easy, just not effortless

**** the current burst of interest in and funding for literacy education in Indonesia might be an example of this

Technology: ubiquity changes everything

The fiercest critics of technology still focus on the ephemeral have-and-have-not divide, but that flimsy border is a distraction. The significant threshold of technological development lies at the boundary between commonplace and ubiquity, between the “have-laters” and the “all have.”

When critics asked us champions of the internet what we were going to do about the digital divide and I said “nothing,” I added a challenge: “If you want to worry about something, don’t worry about the folks who are currently offline. They’ll stampede on faster than you think. Instead you should worry about what we are going to do when everyone is online. When the internet has six billion people, and they are all e-mailing at once, when no one is disconnected and always on day and night, when everything is digital and nothing offline, when the internet is ubiquitous. That will produce unintended consequences worth worrying about.”

Kevin KellyWhat Technology Wants

.

Some questions around ubiquity:

What happens when everyone can read?

When everyone is living longer?

When everyone consumes like I do?

When everyone uses google/facebook/UBER/airbnb?

When everyone moves to the city?

If everyone acts this way?**

A caveat

The caveat is that everyone never means everyone.

What happens to those last people who aren’t connected – the ones who desperately want to be, and those who desperately don’t?

What happens to the people left behind?

If everyone is – is it okay if you’re not?

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** Hat-tip: Immanuel Kant ***

*** with special thanks to WordPress’s autocorrect for suggesting “Semi-Annual Kant” as an alternative.

Feedback (positive)

When I was a kid, my cousin had a tape-recorder just like this one – it had a microphone with a yellow sponge. Putting the microphone in a nearby (empty) pot produced this wonderful echoey noise that grew to a delightful – to my ears – whining whistle.

The whine grew slowly at first, but the louder it got, the faster it grew before maxing out, ending when you took mic back out (you could hold it constant by holding the mic just at the mouth of the pot) or when an irritated parent had had enough.

Here’s a diagram of what’s happening:

(wikipedia)

There a lot of ways this happens in the rest of life too, for good and bad:

  • The virtuous circle of a team doing better work, getting better customers, who ask them to do better work, leading to more opportunities…
  • Technological innovation
  • Investment, reinvestment and compound interest
  • Population growth
  • Environmental destruction
  • Cattle stampedes
  • Bad sleep, leading to bad decisions and more work, leading to worse sleep…

Feedback loops come with a caveat:

Positive feedback tends to cause system instability. When the loop gain is positive and above 1, there will typically be exponential growth, increasing oscillationschaotic behavior or other divergences from equilibrium. System parameters will typically accelerate towards extreme values, which may damage or destroy the system, or may end with the system latched into a new stable state.

Wikipedia

Progressive. Conservative.

We all have change that we’d like to see in the world.

There are things we’d like to abolish. There are things we’d like to see start or grow, and take their rightful place in our culture.

We’re all progressive – maybe even radicals.

And we’re all conservatives too.

There are things we want to protect, changes we want to prevent, or reverse.

It’s a shame that we can’t agree on what these things are. That is to say, it’s a shame that other people don’t agree with what I think those things are.

You know, the right things.

Family and community, taking care of people, responsibility, freedom, goodness.

Things like that.

Today’s status quo

On the other hand, doing something a particular way because that’s what everyone else does – or because it’s how it’s always been done – is a recipe for stagnation and frustration.

And if you’re doing it for a place in today’s status quo, you might be heading for disappointment: tomorrow, the status quo will have moved on, and what you did might not mean what you thought it did.

Here’s Seth Godin:

Are you making these choices simply because of today’s status quo, knowing that tomorrow the status quo won’t even be what it is today?

Seth Godin – Akimbo – The Wedding Industrial Complex

Conservatism and the status quo

Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek make good arguments for leaning towards conservatism (small c).

For all its problems, the relatively stable equilibrium we live in is a blessing. It depends on a lot of intertwingled factors. It wasn’t planned or made: it evolved and accrued.

The faster the world changes, the more valuable stable touchstones of culture, family, relationship become.

Which parts are of the social structure are held up by the piece you’re pulling away at? Is it a keystone?

Who else depends on the type of person you’re disrupting? Are they a keystone species?

Look before you leap.

** Russ Roberts‘ Econtalk is a great place to go to hear a well-intentioned person working from this point of view.

Anything yet: the hockey stick

Sustainable growth?

I was going to call this ‘the exponential function’, but I didn’t want to put you off.

This is a key force behind much of Anything Yet: if things grow steadily (say, at the rate of few percent per year) and continue to grow at that rate, it doesn’t take long for that growth to become enormous – we might say overwhelming, and we should also say all-consuming.

The classic line about this is from Dr Albert Bartlett,  Manhattan Project alumni and all-round interesting guy:

The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as that, but he makes an important point. Here are a couple of great introductions to the idea.

The first is from Chris Martenson’Crash Course:

I might come back to The Crash Course – the Incidental Economist a review expressing some caveats I have about it here.

The second is Albert Bartlett himself with a more involved but really helpful explanation: