Tao of the Zentropist

March 27, 2009

When Faced with Adversity… “Keep Going”

We are living in tumultuous times these days, and many people who have formerly known at least relative comfort and prosperity are having their fundamental assumptions challenged due to job loss (or the impending threat of this happening), rising costs and all too often declining earnings, the devastation of the financial system, etc. While it’s true that most of us are pretty fortunate when compared to those truly suffering, or when contrasted with prior generations, this can be cold comfort when a crisis hits home and the world suddenly feels like it’s caving in.

No matter who we are, no matter how great or small our real or perceived accomplishments, we all face adversity at some point in our lives. This may take many forms, and it may come in cycles, and it may even be highly relative (i.e. one person’s adversity is another’s opportunity), but ultimately, it is part of the Yin and Yang that underlies life.

There is a wonderful Lakota writer (whose blurb bills him as an “historian, educator, motivational speaker and Lakota craftsman,” to which I would add “philosopher”) named Joseph Marshall III whose work I believe deserves to be widely known. While his fiction and non-fiction books are firmly rooted in the oral storytelling traditions and values of his own culture, the messages are universal and eternal, and are further evidence of the common threads underlying many philosophical and wisdom traditions in both the East and West.

In 2006 Mr. Marshall published a slim volume (just 125 pages, but its impact far belies the efficiency of the message) entitled “Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance” which is one of the books that I keep close at hand for inspiration and comfort. The book contains a brief prose statement of a grandfather speaking to his grandson as they sit beneath a cottonwood tree to mourn the premature death of the boy’s father. As the boy struggles to understand why life can seem so capricious and difficult at times, the grandfather gently explains the meaning behind his words, and provides the comfort that age and experience, translated into wisdom, can provide when we are receptive to hearing it.

I would like to quote a brief excerpt from the preface, in which Grandfather addresses his grandson, which also serves as a bookend to tie the lesson together:

“…You did not ask to be born, but you are here. You have weakness as well as strengths. You have both because in life there is two of everything. Within you is the will to win, as well as the willingness to lose. Within you is the heart to feel compassion as well as the smallness to be arrogant. Within you is the way to face life as well as the fear to turn away from it.”

If you ask me, this is a rather powerful and concise summation of the human condition. I cannot do justice to Mr. Marshall’s own interpretation of this work, but will simply offer a few of my own observations on the passage above.

“You have weakness as well as strengths.” As self-evident as this may seem, I have learned from years of dedicated martial arts practice that within weakness lies a potential source of strength, and within strength lays exploitable weakness. For example, in Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu, we are taught not to oppose strength with strength, even if we are physically stronger than the opponent, but rather, to release or re-direct that force so that the opponent’s energy is used against him or her. Do we not often see how strength can breed arrogance or over-confidence, otherwise known as “hubris,” and that this has often led to the downfall of those exhibiting it?

“You have both because in life there is two of everything.” Is this not yet another acknowledgement of the concept of Yin and Yang, of equal and opposing dynamic forces that contain traces of each other and cannot exist independently of each other?

“Within you is the will to win, as well as the willingness to lose.” Quite frankly, this is deserving of a posting on its own. Suffice it to say for now, the implication is that winning and losing are choices that we make, consciously or not, and that while the path to victory may be convoluted and torturous, it is incumbent for us to realize that no matter how dire the circumstances, we can still pull through.

“Within you is the heart to feel compassion as well as the smallness to be arrogant” How easy it is, especially when operating from a position of power, to feel arrogant or otherwise entitled to our current lofty status, whether it was well and truly “earned” through hard work and perseverance, or simply handed to us by another. It is in these times especially that we should feel compassion and count our good fortune and do what we can to inspire, encourage and help others, for one day our positions might be reversed, and we will be grateful to receive the compassion of another.

“Within you is the way to face life as well as the fear to turn away from it.” As the Latin says, res ipsa loquitur. It speaks for itself.

Whenever the night seems darkest, the dawn is about to break. Whenever you feel that you lack the strength to take another step forward, place one foot in front of the other and take that step. Keep in mind that, “This too shall pass” and that, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

Above all, just keep going…

P.S. I received an e-mail from Mr. Marshall informing me that a short video for “Keep Going” was recently posted to YouTube. Please check it out!

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March 23, 2009

Why Integrity Matters

Last week I commented upon the importance of having a clear ethical framework from which to operate, which is essential not only from a professional standpoint but also for one’s personal conduct. In this technology obsessed age in which information can be disseminated widely in a matter of seconds, minutes or hours (forget days, weeks or years!), one’s conduct can be backtracked and analyzed rather easily by savvy parties, and “old school” differentiations and firewalls between “personal” and “business” behavior are rapidly eroding.

There have been numerous examples reported in the media about people that have damaged their credibility and hiring prospects through comments, photos or other material posted on social networks or mass communication services like Twitter. Once information is “out there,” controlling it becomes increasingly challenging, especially if it is lurid, controversial, or generally considered “inappropriate,” which naturally tends to increase its likelihood of becoming the next big Internet viral sensation!

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “integrity” as follows:

  1. : firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values
  2. : an unimpaired condition
  3. : the quality or state of being complete or undivided

Let’s briefly examine these definitions from the Zentropist point of view to reinforce the notion that integrity is one part of the necessary equation to live the ideals that we have previously worked to define as the Seven Primary Attributes of the Zentropist.

“Firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” At its heart, the ideas which I have advanced as crucial to cultivating a Zentropist outlook in one’s personal and professional life (which quite frankly, are usually intertwined despite efforts by some to deny this) are all drawn from “universal truths” encountered in existing philosophical traditions. It is my belief that many of the problems that we face today are largely due to a lack of ethics, or the application of “moral relativism” or “situational ethics” to provide justification for self-serving or inappropriate behaviors which we pursue more often than not for short-term gain. You see, having a code of ethics is far different than actually living and abiding by these rules, and we often see the hypocrisy of those that claim to embrace such thinking in theory, but in practice continuously act in a manner which gives lie to their alleged commitment.

Having integrity means that sometimes we must set aside personal gain or convenience so that our actions reflect our purported values. There’s little point in proclaiming one set of values when one’s behavior suggests these values are not truly held. In business, this is commonly observed by the lip service that many firms and individuals will give to “transparency” or “best efforts” or other supposed competitive differentiators often found in their marketing collateral and reiterated during the sales cycle, yet when the rubber meets the road, these individuals and institutions do not act in a manner consistent with the client’s best interests, but place profits first. I’ve never quite understood why some believe that operating with integrity and living one’s values and honoring commitments in both the letter and spirit in which they are made must in due course be sacrificed on the altar of profitability. Is there some unwritten law which states that you cannot be profitable, perhaps even highly so, while still engaging in “right behavior?”

The second definition of integrity as, “An unimpaired condition” is quite revealing. As I see it, those that lack integrity actually display “impairment” in the moral sense, and perhaps even the psychological one. I have previously heard “character” defined as the, “Way in which someone behaves when they think no one else is watching” and that’s arguably a pretty compelling illustration of integrity as well. If acting with integrity carries the connotation of being “true to form,” we must accept the notion that those with integrity will reflect the values and ideals which they publicly or privately ascribe to regardless of the size or composition of the audience which may be watching. For example, some people seem to feel the need to “cheat the system” or “bend the rules” whenever they feel they can get away with it, sometimes for reasons which seem almost pathological rather than carefully considered. Now we might accept that ultimately, they are only “cheating themselves” by betraying their supposed values, but such behavior does have very real repercussions on others. These days it seems that a number of firms and individuals in the financial sector (the current whipping boy of choice for the media, although we can find examples in every conceivable sector) are routinely exhibiting an appalling lack of integrity, either due to a complete absence of values or an unwillingness to actually behave accordingly.

The third and final definition, stating that integrity is, “The quality or state of being complete or undivided” carries interesting connotations of both structure and purpose. From the Zentropist point of view, we cannot be complete or reach our full potential without integrity, for the lack of this essential ingredient renders all of our other achievements or qualities quite moot in application. If we consistently state that we believe in a certain value or set of values, yet we fail to “practice what we preach,” then the lesson is not learned and we are doing a disservice to ourselves and those whose lives we touch.

Marketing messages, mission/value statements and sales pitches are meaningless if we don’t back up our words with deeds. As the creative writing adage has it, “Action reveals character.”

It’s not enough to say that you believe in noble goals, or truths or behavior. You must set the example and light the path for others that will walk beside you or follow. This “echoes through time” far more than the material things which we may accumulate in pursuit of the Tao of the Zentropist.

Seek “completion.”

You just may find that temporal and spiritual enlightenment follows…

March 18, 2009

Will Karma Catch Up With AIG Bonus Recipients?

Like many people, I am disgusted with the avarice, greed and lack of common decency and propriety which seems to infest many people that have found a home on Wall Street, although the same can be said for other potentially high risk / high reward sectors such as the Media and Entertainment world. We are now seeing, as many of us sadly suspected, that the government is simply pouring money into entities like AIG with little control over  how money is spent, and that the corruption (in the moral sense, if not the legal one) which has contributed to the global financial crisis still lives on in the hearts of many.

We are currently hearing that AIG Chairman Edward Liddy is “afraid” to divulge names of bonus recipients due to alleged death threats received by them and directed at not only their own persons, but their families. Obviously, such threats are deplorable, and must be taken seriously by law enforcement; as heinous as the malfeasance and/or ineptitude of these people may be, no one should be contemplating taking the law into their own hands to punish them.

However, there perhaps is a certain Karmic justice to this all. For those twisted and pathetic souls that do not understand that their “bonuses” are unwarranted given the present circumstances, and cannot bring themselves to do the right thing in refusing them (which some I suspect will do given the public outcry, although I suspect few would have done so through their own conscience), perhaps they can contribute to the economy in another way. I have no doubt that attorneys will be making money off of lawsuits arising from this mess for years to come, and perhaps the need to provide private security for themselves and their families 24/7 will convince the thieves (for that’s what they are, in my opinion) that the ill-gotten gains simply weren’t worth it.

So long as the bonus money isn’t spent on vacation homes, luxury goods, or other rewards which should come from honest and productive work, there is some justice in the world. Hopefully, much like those Nazis that escaped earthly justice, the architects, proponents and witting participants in the fraudulent and irresponsible dealings that continue to come to light will have to look over their shoulders the remainder of their days, wondering when their butcher’s bill will come due…

March 17, 2009

Why Ethics Matter

Do ethics matter? You’re damn right they do.

Given all of the press coverage of the financial sector over the past year especially, as well as the tendency for media to focus on the negativity and general “bad behavior” of many people that are in the public eye (or seek such attention), one might conclude that American society in particular is suffering from a serious lapse of ethics. Perhaps in our feverish desire to realize the “American Dream,” which in this day and age is not only the accumulation of material wealth but also the development of “celebrity capital” (i.e. the realization of Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” via our pervasive media and the belief that “being famous” somehow validates one’s existence as a human being), many people are willing to take shortcuts and act in a manner which rationalizes that any action that achieves a desired result is warranted, no matter the impact on others.

You can call it selfishness, or “looking out for number one,” but at its heart, such behavior is an outgrowth of a lack of an ethical framework and the moral fiber to live up to the challenges inherent in such a system, even as one may repeatedly fall short. Even so, it is my belief that most people do want to behave in an ethical and just manner, even if they are tempted to stray from the path from time to time. This is one of the fundamental challenges and internal battles that we all must struggle with, and how we prosecute this internal campaign reveals a great deal about who we are.

Black Elk, a Lakota Medicine Man whose wisdom has fortunately been preserved outside of his own people through John G. Heihardt’s translation of their discussions entitled Black Elk Speaks, clearly acknowledged this when he said:

“It is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among the shadows men get lost.”

In my efforts to begin to codify the Tao of the Zentropist and cultivate what I perceive as universal truths and commonalities encoded in both Eastern and Western traditions, I have clearly discerned what I believe is a meaningful ethical framework that can be applied to both professional and personal development. I have made no claim to having discovered something new, or a body of “secret” knowledge, but rather, I am seeking to collect, distill and synthesize what I believe to be a body of knowledge and wisdom whose constant application will allow us to grow as individuals as well as collectively, and perhaps in doing so,  improve the human condition.

Whether or not others choose to embrace, or contribute to this nominal notion of Zentropism is really not the point. I can personally lay no claim to any great wisdom or “keys to success” which will unlock the fetters which bind the individual. Truthfully, it is my view that we all innately possess the necessary tools to unlock and unleash our potential, if only we are willing to embark upon the journey of discovery. It is only when we have traveled this road for some time that we discover that ultimately, it is without end (for even death is seen by many as but a transitional phase), and while it will contain moments of sheer joy and exultation, it will also have its share of pain and hardship.

For me, development of the Tao of the Zentropist seems to be part of my own journey and resonates at a deeply personal level as I seek a greater understanding of myself and the world around me.  If my writings eventually help or otherwise positively influence someone else, then this is an additional victory.

There are those who feel that we have reached a crossroads, and that the challenges that humanity is facing on a global scale are but a possible prelude to a “nasty, brutish and short” future if we do not make adjustments to our current course. While such apocalyptic statements tend to be delivered in the context of strong religious viewpoints on the matter, study of various world cultures, including many indigenous ones, seems to hint at cyclic periods of destruction, or as Zentropism would have it, failure to acknowledge and address the entropy which leaches energy and put it to constructive and positive use.

Marcus Aurelius, the wise Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher, observed in his Meditations that, “The measure of a man is the worth of the things that he cares about.”

It is a time for us to collectively examine the “things we care about” and to pay heed to the idea that how we obtain certain things in life is even more important than simply obtaining them…

March 9, 2009

The Fundamentals of Strategic Planning: Key Issues Decoded

Today we’ll examine the concept of “strategic planning,” which is (or should be) an integral part of any business operation, regardless of its current size, scope, or industry vertical. In this “flattened” and highly competitive world, a business cannot take for granted that past successes will continue to be replicated, or that its competition is limited to a particular geographic boundary. We live in a world in which businesses, and the leadership and workers that staff them, must be constantly evolving and adapting to new realities, market pressures, opportunities and the like.

Strategic planning all too often tends to either be ignored or devolves into an abstract, academic exercise in which a company (or even an individual), in a furious burst of energy and attentiveness, and often with the expenditure of not insignificant amounts of capital, generates some fine ideals and theories, but fails to follow through and actually put into practice the information gleaned from such effort. This is wasteful and yet another example of the creative entropy which the Zentropist must re-focus and put to constructive use.

Over the past few years, I have found that many clients and prospects, regardless of the stage/maturity of the business, struggle with the definition of 9 key components that are necessary to either update an existing Business or Strategic Plan (not to mention other related collateral) or to create one for the first time. I’d like to briefly explore these issues, offer some suggestions, and hopefully provide some clarity on how this process can be managed in an efficient fashion.

Although I sometimes prepare a Strategic Brief as a prelude to development of a full-blow Business Plan or Strategic Plan, I have also found this exercise to be extremely helpful and revealing as a “reality check” when working with an existing business. For example, I will assign key stakeholders in the business a worksheet which they are to fill out without consulting with their colleagues in an effort to determine if everyone’s vision or understanding of the business is aligned or not. More often than not, I find discrepancies, sometimes fairly significant ones, which signal to me that the business needs to improve its internal communication protocols and to re-align or otherwise define core fundamentals if it hopes to improve performance.

The nine (9) key issues that we focus on are:

  1. SWOT Analysis
  2. Management Vision
  3. Mission Statement
  4. Corporate Values
  5. Business Objectives
  6. Primary Goals
  7. Secondary Goals
  8. Key Strategies
  9. Strategic Action Items

In addressing the issues above, a company is forced to define and decide mission-critical, substantive concerns that directly impact its ability to coherently and efficiently operate, much less execute any sort of plan.

SWOT Analysis: This concept should be familiar to many, as it is shorthand for evaluating the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats facing a business or individual. As part of this exercise, it is useful to try to settle into as objective and non-emotional a mindset as possible, and to be completely honest in your assessment. Also remember that according to the Yin/Yang principle underlying all things, depending on perspective, a “strength” can also be exploited by another and turned into a “weakness,” and today’s “weakness” can be addressed and transformed into a strength. Furthermore, today’s “strength” may become tomorrow’s “weakness” due to its failure to change with the times or lack of dedicated practice and effort to build upon its foundation. Likewise, the window to exploit “opportunities” can fast close, and may or may not come again. And while some “threats” are obvious, some perhaps are less so, and it is a wise idea to explore how your own “strengths” and “weaknesses” might be turned against your business by a clever competitor.

Management Vision: Truthfully, companies can get hung up on differentiating between a “Vision Statement” and a “Mission Statement,” and sometimes this distracts them from the real concerns of operating the business. Still, if management cannot clearly articulate why the businesses exists and what the “big picture” dream or purpose is for putting in the blood, sweat, tears and capital, there is something fundamentally wrong with the corporate leadership.

Mission Statement: Many pundits will state that a mission statement clearly needs to articulate the following: the purpose of the organization; who its clients and other stakeholders are; the responsibilities that the organization has to clients and stakeholders; and finally, an explanation of the products and/or services offered. This isn’t bad advice by any means, but it can lead to long, rambling and unfocused statements that really do not resonate with those charged with carrying out the mission. In my opinion, the best mission statements clearly define why the business exists, what it does, and who it does it for in as concise a manner as possible.

Corporate Values: Organizations have values, even if they are never articulated, because these are expressed everyday in the actions and behaviors of both its rank and file and management. If you care about the image that your organization conveys, or truly want to stand out from competitors, it is well worth your time to not only define what your values are, but to put these into practice in all of your interactions.

Business Objectives: Generally speaking, in the for-profit world it’s understood that your business exists in theory to make a lot of money for its stakeholders (unfortunately, in this day and age this sometimes conflicts with the interests of all stakeholders, more often than not sacrificing those outside of management’s hallowed halls or even public shareholders for the benefit of management despite fiduciary duties). However, some businesses actually have more noble objectives as well, and articulating these and ensuring that they are met (while hopefully generating profits in an ethical manner) is very rewarding.

Primary and Secondary Goals: In order to measure the achievement of your stated objectives, you need to set quantifiable goals (ideally ranked in order of importance, which may change over time) against which your progress can be gauged. It is equally important to be able to differentiate between goals which are of primary concern, and those that are of lesser importance in the “grand scheme of things.”

Key Strategies: Once you have clearly stated your objectives (based on the vision, mission statement, values and SWOT analysis) and classified goals according to relative importance, you are in a position to actually determine possible strategies to achieve the desired results. Strategies cannot be developed in a vacuum, and should not be inflexible, and the tactics used in pursuit of these strategies must be carefully considered and malleable, because in my experience, if the defined strategy or strategies are legitimate and truly achievable, it is the tactics which first require adaptation before completely jettisoning the strategy as “unworkable” or no longer relevant.

Strategic Action Items: Ultimately, when you complete the Strategic Brief, you should be able to develop a list of actionable items that will enable your business to transform theory and conjecture into practice. This could range from developing certain written deliverables to reducing or increasing internal meetings or revamping internal processes to hiring an outside party to help you achieve the results that you need.

In summarizing all of the points above, we can begin to identify such jargon-laced concepts as your company’s  “unique selling proposition” (USP) which are the darlings of MBA’s everywhere (and certainly important to understand), but often neglected or painfully unclear to any but those reading the company’s internal strategic literature.

In closing, I should also point out that planning is an ongoing process and no plan should ever be viewed as “locked in stone” or otherwise rigid. Circumstances change, and plans must adapt. Trying to implement a plan today based on yesterday’s invalid assumptions is foolish, and thinking that it will be any more effective tomorrow based on outdated data or realities is disrespectful of both the human and financial capital which must be invested in its pursuit.

A Zentropist must be respectful, even as he or she is tearing down or discarding false assumptions, outmoded ways of thinking or channeling the energies that heretofore have remained unfocused.

If you would like to receive a free, no-obligation copy of Black Rock Consulting’s “Strategic Brief Worksheet,with helpful instructions for developing a Strategic Brief, please contact us via email or phone.

March 5, 2009

“The Tyranny of Dead Ideas” Reprise

Continuing on from this week’s earlier posting regarding Matt Miller’s new book, “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas,” I thought that I would comment upon the seven ideas that Mr. Miller advances to be “tomorrow’s destined ideas.” Again, I need to make it clear that I have not as of yet read the book in full, but have heard Mr. Miller present his thoughts to a business audience, so the opinions expressed below need to be understood to be my own musings on the validity of his thesis and may not reflect nor agree with his actual views.

Without further adieu then:

“Only Government Can Save Business” – Given the global financial crisis which has paralyzed credit markets and is continuing to cause a lot of pain and suffering in both developed and less fortunate nations, Mr. Miller seems to fall into the camp that argues that a lot of our current problems can be traced back to de-regulation and lack of oversight. In other words, if left unsupervised, capitalism behaves in a similar fashion to a teenager given a case of beer and the keys to a sports car; there’s a lot of initial enthusiasm and a good time is had by all until the car is wrapped around a tree or slams into a concrete abutment. If the government doesn’t step in and bail out business (especially those “too big to fail”), then our financial system essentially collapses as the man on the street realizes that a staggeringly large amount of financial activity is little more than phantom transactions and the appearance of building wealth, rather than the creation of something with tangible value. My problem with this approach is that I see little accountability being assigned to this capital infusion, far too little punishment of the guilty parties that knowingly engaged in fraudulent and/or unethical behaviors, and we’re still entrusting the very parties that failed in their fiduciary and oversight responsibilities to begin with to now get on the straight and narrow and perform their duties. If I’m not mistaken, Einstein once remarked something to the effect that the definition of insanity is performing the same action over and over and expecting different results each time.  Why is it that government can’t seem to get this basic premise right?

“Only Business Can Save Liberalism” – Mr. Miller did make it clear in his discussion at the Milken Institute last week that “liberalism” in this context refers to the social welfare programs, often now referred to as “entitlements” due to the mentality that is bred in many recipients of this largesse, that exist in our system. Let me be perfectly clear that I believe that any society that is just and remotely “compassionate” needs to have in place systems to help those that cannot do for themselves, or that have fallen on hard times. However, government is not always the best provider of such services for a variety of reasons, and I strongly feel we must distinguish between those that need / deserve some form of temporary help, and those that need lifetime or long-term continuing assistance. I do not think that it can be disputed that a subset of our population, again for a variety of reasons too lengthy to explore now, simply refuses to work because it is easier to reach into the public trough then to develop marketable skills or perform even unskilled manual labor as a stepping stone to other work.  Nobody is owed a living. Perhaps you shouldn’t starve to death, but you should not be able to enjoy a standard of living commensurate with or above those that do get up and go through a daily grind, perhaps performing menial or underappreciated tasks for minimal compensation, if you aren’t willing to put forth any effort yourself.

“Only Higher Taxes Can Save the Economy (and the Planet)” – This is definitely a statement that makes me personally cringe. You see, I for one am of the viewpoint that in the U.S., most of us pay a fairly significant amount of taxes as it is, and if government was held more accountable for how the existing tax revenues are spent, we’d reduce a lot of waste (including some which directly impacts the environment) and unnecessary budgetary pork. So before we penalize even more those who work hard to be productive members of society, how about we utilize technology and transparency to account for how money is spent, eliminate the corrupting influence of lobbyists in America, and stop allowing politicians to grossly misappropriate funds for projects with little or no redeeming value or that clearly go beyond the scope of what the government ought to be concerning itself with?

“Only the (Lower) Upper Class Can Save Us from Inequality” – I’m in full agreement with Mr. Miller on this one. In short, because the notion of the “middle class” is so amorphous, we’re talking about those that are reasonably educated and skilled that have grown accustomed to, or expect, a certain standard of living, to have a very real stake in fixing a system that has abruptly pulled the rug from underneath them. You see, if you reduce things to those who have and those that do not, the aspirational class with a taste of the good life (even if it has been secured to date on credit and phantom wealth) that believes in even the possibility of upward economic mobility serve as a buffer. Eliminate that buffer, and you have all of the necessary tinder for revolution, peaceful or not. The would be oligarchs and feudal lords of America need to understand that eventually, if there’s only a tiny fraction of “super-rich” that are insulated from cash flow concerns and everyone else is struggling to one degree or another, that the resentment will likely boil over into rage. This is not about re-distribution of wealth, but ensuring a level playing field in which opportunity for advancement is real and not completely illusory.

“Only Better Living Can Save Sagging Paychecks” – True. At least for the next few years, most people will need to make do with less. Rather than focus purely on material rewards, this is a time to pursue personal growth and development, to build upon our relationships with friends and family, and to seek to do what we can to the best of our ability to leave this world a better place than when we found it. And while we’re at it, we can collectively get out and exercise more, spend time in nature, and not look for quick-fix solutions to problems that in part are caused by our own poor choices or behavior. You don’t need to belong to a gym or health club to get in shape, or even to invest in expensive equipment. In virtually every environment, with a little clever thought, you can challenge yourself to improve your physical condition, which can improve your spirits, mood and even sharpen thinking.

“Only a Dose of ‘Nationalization’ Can Save Local Schools” – As discussed in this week’s earlier posting, our primary and secondary educational systems in the U.S. leave a lot to be desired, and are in dire need of improvement if we are to remain competitive in the “flat world” that Thomas Friedman has so famously described. While efforts like “No Child Left Behind” may have started with good intentions, in practice many kids are still woefully lacking the critical reasoning and fundamental thinking skills that will give them any chance of securing a future that is not dependent upon “mule work” or can be readily done by machine. Clearly we need to implement some meaningful standards that reflect the skills necessary to compete in the world of not only today, but tomorrow, and we need to ensure that kids are learning during the 12 to 15 years they typically spend in school before going to college or entering the workforce.

“Only Lessons From Abroad Can Save American Ideals” – I agree with Mr. Miller’s contention that it is rather myopic and short-sighted of us as Americans to not look to the world at large to find examples of other cultures and countries implementing solutions that are compatible with our values, and where appropriate, seek to model our own initiatives on successful efforts. Why reinvent the wheel if we don’t have to?

In closing, I again am encouraged by Mr. Miller’s willingness to engage in what I term “Zentropist” thinking, even if he and I might draw different conclusions from the process at times, or disagree on specifics in some instances. America, and the world, needs more people to embrace such a challenge, and to seek to find solutions to the most pressing problems which left unchecked, will likely lead to unnecessary human suffering, misery, and perhaps even the demise of our species, not to mention many others…

March 3, 2009

Matt Miller’s “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas”

This past Thursday, February 26th, I had the opportunity to hear Matt Miller, a former Clinton staffer, political commentator and the host of NPR’s “Left, Right, and Center” speak about his new book, “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity” at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, California. I was certainly impressed by Mr. Miller’s approach, which is a great example of the Zentropist philosophy in action (and I doubt that Mr. Miller is yet aware of this!).  I have not yet had the chance to read the book, so I must refrain from rendering an opinion on the conclusions that Mr. Miller has drawn, although I do feel it instructive to comment on the 6 ideas that Mr. Miller opines are “dead,” as well as the 7 ideas he offers as “destined” for the paradigm shift which we are apparently undergoing.

So to be perfectly clear, the brief thoughts and comments below, aside from the quotation of the idea in question, are my own interpretation of the “dead” idea advanced by Mr. Miller.

The ideas which the book suggests are “dead” and must be discarded include:

“The Kids Will Earn More Than We Do” – Sadly, Mr. Miller is probably right about this one. The notion that upward mobility in America as all but guaranteed if you work hard is a phantasm at this point. A lot of folks will probably struggle, or work harder than their parents, to maintain some semblance of the material trappings that were assumed to be a “birthright.”

“Free Trade is ‘Good’ (No Matter How Many People Get Hurt)” – For all of the buzz about the “world being flat,” it is very apparent that now more than ever, most of us are in competition with peers internationally, rather than locally, regionally or even nationally, since in a “service based” or “knowledge” economy, a lot of work can be performed from virtually anywhere. And clearly there are both winners and losers in this global balancing act; I cannot begrudge those in other countries seeking to find a better standard of living for themselves and their families, but when this is used to justify downward pressure on wages, it has very real ramifications.  It ought to be interesting as more white collar service jobs such as law (after all, the vast majority of American lawyers practice transactional law which in theory, could be performed by anyone that is qualified to pass the bar in a particular state, no matter where they reside unless residency requirements were imposed to prevent this) get this treatment, rather than those engaged in “blue collar” occupations or less regulated service jobs.

“Your Company Should Take Care of You” – Without question this is DOA, although the manner in which the implied “social contract” has been broken is pretty damn egregious. Loyalty is a two-way street, and it’s ironic how many corporations seem to view employees as “depreciating assets” which can be discarded regardless of their utility in order to produce short-term results for shareholders or boost executive compensation. I realize that many employees simply “punch in, go through the motions, and punch out” without becoming invested in the company’s success, but many more do not. Sadly, I think one of the future financial storms on the horizon is when it is revealed that many of the pension plans (mostly applicable to Baby Boomers) have been under-funded, which will cause further pain to those seeking a secure retirement and the rest of us in the working world that will end up being expected to bail them out through government initiatives.

“Taxes Hurt the Economy (and They’re Always Too High)” – For me, this one is a bit of a red flag, as Mr. Miller clearly feels that many Americans need to pay more in taxes. The problem is, where do we draw the line? It’s easy to say that we should “tax the rich more,” but how do we define rich? What about our overly complex tax system which apparently gets gamed anyway, as we see from a slew of  President Obama’s Cabinet Nominees that conveniently made “tax errors” that most shockingly, were not in the government’s favor but rather their own. According to 2006 IRS data, the top 1 percent of wage earners, with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $388,806 or greater, paid just shy of 39.9 percent of all federal income taxes. When you include the top 10 percent (with an AGI of at least $108,904), that figure increases to nearly 71 percent, and if you include the top 25 percent (AGI of $64,702, which is still considered a respectable income in most parts of the U.S.), you are accounting for more than 86 percent of all federal income taxes collected.  It seems to me, that if we want to talk about new ways of doing things, that we need to transition our tax system to one that perhaps penalizes consumption of all but necessities, rewards savings, and perhaps applies some form of tiered flat tax which does not unduly punish those who work hard and generate income every year (rather than living off of capital gains from inherited wealth, for example, and thus “stimulating the economy” through their consistent productivity).

“Schools are a Local Matter” – Since Mr. Miller talked about this at some length during his presentation, I feel more comfortable stating that I’m largely in agreement with his position, namely that for too long we’ve left testing standards and fund-raising for public primary and secondary schools to the local level, which has resulted in wildly divergent budgets and standards, and that the more recent “No Child Left Behind” program is not necessarily improving educational standards, but rather forcing schools to teach just enough to get kids to pass the test. Although this may make me unpopular in some quarters, teacher unions must bear some culpability for making it difficult to dismiss teachers that are dismal failures in the classroom or simply biding their time until retirement, while criticizing the notion of merit or performance based pay. Yes, we understand that teachers in economically under-privileged areas face an additional obstacle to get kids to perform in the classroom, which is why we need to create incentives to get “the best and brightest” to be willing to tackle such difficult assignments. Most importantly, we must present education which is relevant and provides the capability for life-long learning; too many people in this country are functionally illiterate or incapable of critical thought and analysis, and at best can simply regurgitate whatever has stuck in their short-term memory. As Americans fail to learn the skills necessary to compete in our “flat world,” we are going to continue our “downward glide slope” or worse, enter into an unrecoverable spiral.

“Money Follows Merit” – True enough that this was a wonderful fantasy to maintain, especially when it may have been true. Working hard or pursuing higher education simply does not guarantee a certain standard of living, no matter what you’ve been told. But that being said, not continuing to pursue both formal and experiential education, expanding one’s skill set or making an effort to stand out from the crowd are surefire recipes for eventual disaster.

That concludes the “dead ideas” that Mr. Miller has highlighted in his book. In the next day or two, I’ll address Mr. Miller’s proposed “destined ideas” and weigh in on those…

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