Tao of the Zentropist

June 26, 2013

Welcome to Surveillance Society

Governments and private industry have a vested interest in knowing what we are all about – should this come as a surprise to anyone in this age? The fact that Edward Snowden has publicly leaked information about the scope and substance of at least some (and perhaps not all) of the U.S. government’s ongoing programs will perhaps spur some much needed debate on the subject, but for those who find this revelatory, I would point to the public disclosure of ECHELON more than a decade ago as indicative of what direction the world is heading. Quite frankly, my own personal operating assumption has been that digital channels as well as voice communications have been subject to intercept and monitoring for a long time now; the only question was, how often was this capability actually used? It’s pretty disturbing that the default setting appears to be to capture and archive everything, in effect establishing the boundaries of the “haystack” before searching for “the needle.” And with questionable oversight and accountability, the potential for abuse is staggering, even as we are told that sprawling data collection is necessary to “keep us safe.”

BIG DATA AND ALL ITS IMPLICATIONS

These days, it seems that if you don’t have a substantial digital footprint, you don’t exist, and while privacy advocates might relish this, given the convenience as well as outright necessity in some instances of maintaining an online presence it’s increasingly hard to do. For example, business networking and simple prudence tend to enforce the notion that a professional profile on LinkedIn is a necessity to find or maintain employment. If you don’t have a profile, you risk being seen as hopelessly outdated or “out of touch,” and even if happily employed (and this includes owning your own business), many customers and more importantly, prospective customers expect to be able to find relevant information about you without expending too much effort. Public profiles are in part seen as a means of validation and possible future recruitment (and prospecting for those selling goods and services), as well as a tool for networking and business intelligence gathering.

As consumers, we tend to enjoy the benefits of data analysis and relevancy; the recommendation engines of leading commerce sites are based not only on our past purchase history but our browsing activity, comments, and even the profiles of other people suspected of harboring similar interests and habits online.  While this is arguably a convenience when we are in shopping and a way to introduce us to products that we might otherwise miss mode (as well as a great way for companies to encourage spur-of-the-moment consumption to boost their bottom line), this data trail follows us and can quickly start to define us.

ONCE YOU’RE IN THE SYSTEM, YOU’RE IN FOR LIFE

Another issue to consider is that once we have deliberately or inadvertently established certain patterns and behavioral attributes online, deviation from these norms could very well trigger algorithms which flag us for closer investigation. For example, if an individual goes from very active and robust use of email, social media and other online activity, and then abruptly trails off, who is to say that this doesn’t trigger certain surveillance tripwires? While an abrupt curtailing or termination of such activity might have very innocent explanations, it could also signal more serious concerns from the perspective of a government or corporation. From the corporate point of view, has this consumer lost interest in their offerings? Maybe it’s time to send coupons or other promotional material to re-spark interest. From the government point of view, is this individual now incapacitated, deceased or going to ground for perhaps more nefarious purposes? Would it be prudent to inquire into the individual’s health records, financial institutions or credit card providers to see what recent activity (or lack thereof) is revealed?

It has been observed that as surveillance grows and becomes more acceptable (or even palatable) to the populace, it has a corrosive effect on liberty. Robust access to behavioral data is a sure path to predictive profiling, and the potential for misuse or worse, misinterpretation of the data must give one pause, not to mention the ramifications of theft of such data by hackers or unscrupulous parties acting from not only outside the system, but possibly within it.

HOW DOES THIS BODE FOR AUTHENTICITY?

In social media and marketing, “authenticity” has become a buzzword du jour, used to convey the sense of “keeping it real” in one’s interactions with the outside world. I’ve historically felt that for those who feel the need to constantly harp on this subject, it raises into question how much of their authenticity is genuine and how much is manufactured, sort of like the illusion that is “reality TV.” Perhaps more insidiously, the more that one reveals to the world at large, the more this data can be mined, aggregated and analyzed not only in an effort to manipulate the individual’s consumer choices, but even to influence and to some degree control behavior and attitudes as well. While some might see this as paranoid or alarmist, social media accounts are a treasure trove of information which people voluntarily populate, requiring data collection and analysis, and perhaps occasional phishing attacks and social engineering to further exploit.

Ultimately, technology has enabled the Pandora’s Box of mythology to become reality, and like all things, has brought both welcome progress as well as arguably less beneficial developments to our world. We are fast learning, even in countries with democratically elected governments, that whether or not the political elite truly represent the “will of the people” is open to debate, and furthermore, that the vast bureaucracies and sprawling public and private apparatus established to enable modern societies is subject to exploitation from both within and without. Any thinking person who is not at least a little bit unsettled by the state of things deserves to realize that the new boss is exactly the same as the old boss…

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July 24, 2012

Inauthentic Authenticity

Image courtesy of StockFreeImages.com

There seems to be quite a bit of chatter and advice on the topic of “authenticity” as it applies to social media. For all the talk that people, as well as brands (and many like to emphasize that individuals are now “brands” too) need to be authentic to connect with their intended audience, there’s something rather disingenuous about all of the attention focused on this subject. Perhaps like “non-scripted television,” a.k.a. “Reality TV,” what is presented to us in social media behaviors is more often than not artifice, until proven otherwise. And it’s the “until proven otherwise” part that is of greatest interest…

WHAT IS AUTHENTICITY ANYWAY?

No one likes to be played for a sucker. Surely this is not a controversial or debatable point. And while social media presents the opportunity to reveal a lot about an individual’s personality, passions and beliefs, it is also not immune from manipulation. For example, some celebrities have massive Twitter followings in part because those connecting to them believe on some level that they are now part of this person’s “inner circle.”  I guess the allure of 140-character tidbits leads some to believe they now have a “relationship” with the other party, but if that’s what passes for meaningful connection, it’s a rather shallow and contrived arrangement. Being authentic is not necessarily about “being on message” and “building a brand” but rather, remaining true and constant to the core values and beliefs that one holds. The moment that a conscious decision is made to “spin” a message or behave in a proscribed manner is the moment in which “authenticity” is lost and play-acting begins.

KEEPING IT REAL

For those who want to present the world with a “window into their life,” social media can certainly be a useful tool, but there’s a fine line between genuine behavior, whether learned or instinctual, and performance. We may strive to uphold a certain ideal, and present to the world a certain image, but if we truly don’t embody the phantasm which we’re selling, inconsistencies start to quickly emerge.

Trying to cover up mistakes, errors in judgment, or past shortcomings is about rewriting history and does not preserve authenticity. It actually undermines it. Arguably, it’s easier to respect someone who is striving to evolve and attain certain far-reaching and ambitious accomplishments, and who may encounter failures and setbacks along the way, than those who claim flawless results each time they go to bat or squabble over the lowest hanging fruit.

One is reminded of the wise and perceptive words of Marcus Aurelius who stated, “The measure of a man is the worth of the things he cares about.” One can learn a great deal about someone by the subjects, triggers and stimuli which provoke a response while they are busy engaging with others on the Internet. It’s not difficult to be brave and combative when sitting behind a computer or tapping into a smartphone or tablet when one is not facing another party; consequently, social filters often come off and reveal what someone really thinks and their true nature.

HOW TO TELL A GENUINE FAKE

Image courtesy of StockFreeImages.com

So how do we avoid the frauds and schemers and delusional self-promoters? Can it be done? Should it be done? Ultimately, one has to look for consistency, because over time, it’s hard to maintain a false face without cracks appearing in the veneer. I find people’s off the cuff remarks, comments and answers to often be far more revealing than what might be posted in a blog, or a profile, or even a discussion thread which are more subject to editing and even ghostwriting. Emotional responses to another party’s question or posting or tweet which are triggered without much forethought may give greater clues to a person’s character and psychological makeup than more measured and considered responses delivered after a longer delay.

Most people struggle to reconcile the person who they wish to be, and want to portray themselves to be to others, with who they actually are in the moment. I don’t believe that people can remain static indefinitely; they need to evolve and change or they will find themselves relegated to a category of either caricature or irrelevance. I personally subscribe to the notion that, “Action reveals character,” and all pontification aside, it is how people behave, particularly in times of stress, when quick response is demanded, or when they think that they are unobserved, which truly reveals who they actually are. All the rest is measured commentary.

You cannot manufacture authenticity, and slapping a label on something doesn’t make it so. We simply are who we are until we change; whether that change is conscious and deliberate, or forced upon us by circumstance, is simply the mechanism and should not be mistaken for the result…

February 16, 2012

The Cult of “Me”

The Digital Age has brought us many benefits, including a near ubiquitous mode of communication, and with those benefits, it has also unleashed the floodgates. Never before in the recorded history of humanity have so many had so much to say, yet amid the ensuing cacophony and din, one can’t help but observe that many, and perhaps most, have nothing original to say, opinions (informed or otherwise) masquerade as fact, and few take the time and effort to listen.

Ours perhaps is not the First Age of Shameless Self-Promotion, but it may very well be the most far reaching, and the narcissists among us cannot help but bend their knee or even throw themselves prostrate as they worship for all to see before the Cult of Me.

IN A WORLD OF EXPERTS…

Modern life in industrialized societies moves at a blistering pace, and few of us have to be told that competition among even the well skilled and qualified for desirable jobs and clients can be quite fierce. Social media outlets such as LinkedIn have created new channels of connection and networking, and even a cursory review of user profiles will also reveal a proliferation of individuals who boast of impressive accomplishments and skills, yet if you start to scratch beneath the surface, the substance and even veracity starts to come into question.

Photo courtesy of iStock

The Internet seems to encourage and foster the notion that we live in a world of experts, yet somehow conveniently overlooked is that many of these experts are self-proclaimed, and therefore suspect. Malcolm Gladwell has famously commented upon the “10,000 Hour Rule” which suggests that one becomes an expert at a task by practicing it for 10,000 hours. There’s likely some element of truth to this, although a corollary which should not be overlooked is that one must practice well and thoroughly for those “10,000 hours” and ideally is receiving real-world feedback, particularly from those more adept at the given task. For example, as Chief Instructor Eyal Yanilov of Krav Maga Global once remarked to me when we were discussing the process of mastery in the martial arts, there’s a big difference between the practitioner who trains hard, consistently and constantly for 20 years, and the one who has flitted from one thing to the next for 20 years. They both may have been “at it” for 20 years, but one is arguably an expert while the other is generally at best partially trained and at worst a dilettante.

LEADERS BEWARE

Those in leadership positions, particularly when the individuals are in actuality far more “managerial” in nature  and capability (i.e. those who delegate and more often than not cannot execute) than “visionary” and “inspiring” can be especially susceptible to self-aggrandizement and over-confidence, particularly when it is not warranted. The ranks of Corporate America and even start-up environments are filled with people convinced of their own brilliance and aptitude, or doing their best to convey this image to others. Sometimes those in positions of responsibility mistake success and/or competency in one particular endeavor to convey upon them universal wisdom and knowledge and therefore fail to actually listen to or learn from others, particularly if they feel somehow challenged or threatened by colleagues, particularly subordinates.

We’ve all seen people try to “fake it” and be something, or someone, they simply are not. It’s instructional to witness, for example, an individual with an inflated title, and an unjustifiably high opinion of his own capabilities and worth, pose questions (which reveal striking ignorance and lack of resourcefulness) to colleagues which readily could have been answered with a Google search on the computer within comfortable reach. The fact that this individual wasn’t embarrassed to be doing so was remarkable.

IF I AM NOT FOR MYSELF…

Perhaps the observations above brook the question, “If self-promotion is wrong, am I to remain modest and potentially invisible?” I would counter that this is a false dichotomy, and the answer comes back to the hoary old (yet demonstrably true) axiom, “Action reveals character.”

We are defined in life but what we do (or fail to do) and there is no escaping this at times inconvenient truth. And eventually the illusion spun through misdirection, refusal of accountability and unwillingness to take the occasional bruising for mistakes and omissions catches up to the posers. With focused effort one can change who one is to address deficiencies and weaknesses, but ultimately, one can never hide from who one is.

Many people may be familiar with the Jewish philosopher Hillel’s rhetorical quote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Yet, interestingly, some of these very same people seem blissfully unaware that this statement is part of a couplet, and the oft-omitted second part of this adage is quite revealing: “And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

What makes this particularly interesting is that in the second phrase, the question posed is not “Who am I?” but rather, “What am I?” This choice of wording is unquestionably deliberate and suggests that those who are selfishly only invested in their own ego and satisfaction of their wants at the expense of everything and everyone else sacrifice the essence of their own humanity, and are therefore no longer considered a person, but a thing.

So remember, as wise and accomplished as you may perceive yourself to be, do not blind yourself to the realities of your own limitations, and most certainly, don’t fall for the mistake of believing the hype created by sycophants, especially if the chief among them dwells within your own being…

November 28, 2009

The Zentropist Now Appearing on Inqbation

Filed under: General Business,networking,Uncategorized,writing — zentropist @ 7:50 pm
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While we’re long overdue for some updates to the Tao of the Zentropist (which will be remedied soon), the first in my series of planned regular contributions to Blake Newman’s inQbation blog have been recently published. Feel free to check out the postings below:

“Learning from Failure”

“The Power of Imagination”

“How and When to Hire a Consultant”

As always, your comments are welcome…

July 8, 2009

On the Nature of Energy

While it may seem esoteric at first, when you think about it, we spend our lives dealing with the “energy” present in both living and inanimate objects. Since interpersonal and communication skills are vital in business, understanding how we can address energy when we encounter it is crucial to identifying the appropriate response to a given situation.

Essentially, we have four choices available to us when we encounter an opposing energy: we can seek to absorb it; we can meet it with force and seek to block it; we can deflect/redirect and release it; or we can “go with the flow” and not resist the opposing energy, but simply channel it to create a favorable outcome.

Those with a martial arts background may appreciate the physical expression of this “energy channeling,” although in our verbal and written dealings with others we must ultimately be conscious of the energy that we are facing and can apply the same basic principles that we would “out on the mat,” in the training hall, or “in the street.” So let’s briefly examine the options that we have and translate these to common business dealings to understand the ramifications of our actions.

Oftentimes, “absorbing” energy is a byproduct of being caught unawares, or having our first option fail. While it is possible to train the body, for example, to physically absorb to one extent or another various strikes delivered by an unarmed opponent, most would agree that the notion of deliberately “absorbing” the energy of a projectile (i.e. bullet, arrow, dart, etc.) or an edged or blunt trauma weapon is an awful idea. The same is often true in our dealings with others, which even if not physically violent or threatening to our person, can have detrimental effect to our emotional and psychological state.

Clients, customers or vendors that attempt to get their way through verbal bullying and other tactics may very well expect you to simply “roll with the punches” and concede to their demands, no matter how unreasonable or outlandish, especially if they feel that they have significant leverage over you. Such leverage may take the form of threats of non-payment (or delayed payment of bills), taking their business elsewhere, or trying to wrangle additional work or products without having to pay for them. The obvious downside in “absorbing” such energy as expressed in these examples is that you run the risk of being made a doormat, and always “giving away the store” in business dealings. While compromise is a necessity in business, and we need to be flexible and allow a certain amount of “give and take,” it’s simply bad business to allow yourself to be outmaneuvered.

Meeting force with opposing force can be a viable strategy as well as a tactic, but suffers from one serious weakness; if the energy which you project is not stronger than the opposing force, your defense will be compromised and you may very well wind up absorbing the energy that you had initially hoped to block. Within the world of martial arts, many systems rely on hard blocks with arms and legs to meet incoming strikes, which leads to a tremendous “clashing” of energies and perhaps some physical pain as well to both attacker and defender. In social dealings, an example of this might be raising one’s voice and verbally escalating a heated conversation, attempting to shout down, drown out or intimidate the other party. Again, this carries certain risks, because it can add “fuel to the fire” in an already tense situation and may backfire if the other party refuses to back down.

Many traditional “internal arts” such as Tai Chi Chuan, Ba Gua, and Aikido, along with a number of others which blend both internal and external responses (such as a number of Chinese styles including Wing Chun) understand that a more sophisticated approach to managing energy is to deflect or redirect incoming energy so it is safely released, which in turn sets up an appropriate counter, which often has the added desirable effect of leaving the opponent off balance or vulnerable. In business, this can be an excellent response for dealing with an opposing party that is seeking to be confrontational or uncooperative; by carefully channeling their focus to other things, or finding common ground or deal points that both parties can agree upon, a tense situation can be defused and a more equitable compromise or solution may be found. This might involve psychological ploys such as using flattery or otherwise stroking the other party’s ego, but does not have to involve outright fabrication or even “lies of omission.”

Our final option is one that Aikido practitioners refer to as “blending,” or channeling the energy of the opposing force by flowing with it, and simply allowing it to travel in the direction that it is heading, albeit perhaps with some additional assistance in the form of joint locks or throws. By yielding to the energy that is projected, yet guiding it in a manner which is conducive to one’s own objectives, there is no need to expend much energy in the defense. From a social standpoint, this approach can be employed by making concessions on issues which are of lesser importance, making the other party feel that it has won a victory, in order to secure concessions or favorable terms on the issues which really matter.

Learning how to direct energy, both one’s own as well as that of another party, using the appropriate method at the appropriate time, is a skill that is innate in some, and requires focused work for many. Yet it is a skill that once developed, can make one’s relationships on a business, social and personal level far more rewarding and even less stressful.

Why not give it a try?

April 30, 2009

5 Critical Factors for Building Meaningful Business Relationships

Business relationships, like personal and romantic ones, are fundamental to our lives, whether we are freelancers or employees (I especially urge the latter group to understand that in this day and age, unless they belong to a union or have an employment contract, they have little more security or assurances than the former category). While all of these relationships share some commonalities, and all require constant nurturing, a key differentiator is “financial consideration,” a.k.a. “money.”

Don’t kid yourself — money does change everything, and failure to acknowledge and respect this fact can lead to disastrous results. Disputes over money can destroy friendships and marriages, so it is certainly understandable that in any form of business relationship, sensitivity towards one’s economic future, earning ability, cash flow or the continued viability of a venture is very high.

There are 5 critical factors that can go a long way in helping to identify, form and cultivate over time business relationships which have real value and substance for the involved parties. This goes beyond mere “networking,” which when awkwardly approached is transparently insincere and self-serving. Ultimately, if you wish to be successful, you need to invest very real time and energy into the process of building these business relationships, and you must honestly care about the outcome.

So here are the Zentropist’s 5 Critical Factors for Building Meaningful Business Relationships:

  1. Open Communication
  2. Trust
  3. Synergy
  4. Aligned Ethics & Values
  5. Reciprocity

Let’s briefly comment upon each of these.

Open Communication. I strongly believe that inability or failure to clearly communicate what each party wants out of a business alliance or partnership up front, or during the course of the relationship, is a leading cause for dissatisfaction and dissolution. It is vitally important to set expectations early, and to be frank and forthcoming about what the parties each bring to the table, and how they might positively influence each other. It is understood that businesses exist to earn money, and to be profitable they must earn more than they spend, so there is no shame in couching discussions in potential return on investment (ROI) or “How can we each make money by working together in some capacity?” But with that being said, remember that businesses, much like nation states, don’t have “friends” but rather have “interests,” and where these are in agreement and not mutually exclusive, opportunity exists to work together as allies.

Trust. Trust is essential to any form of relationship and in my opinion, is generally earned over time. Trust can take a long time to build, yet can be destroyed in an instant. Fundamentally, however, I do not believe that you can have a meaningful business relationship with a person or entity that you simply do not trust. At best, you may have some form of “understanding” or “relationship of convenience,” but such constructs are fleeting. You must be open to the notion of allowing another party to earn your trust, but not so giving as to be taken by the charlatans that will abuse this generosity of spirit. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Be willing to trust, but verify.”

Synergy. This is a term that often pops up in discussions of strategic partnerships. Rather than being a trite expression, it actually has very real meaning, predicated on the very definition of the word (the Greek syn-ergos, or “working together”). Situations in which two or more entities mutually cooperate in order to facilitate an advantageous outcome can be described as “synergistic.” Synergy can be derived from offering services which complement each other; from shared methodologies or approaches; from offering solutions which address different aspects of the value chain, etc. At the end of the day, every business should be looking at initiatives and deals in one of two ways: is this something that allows us to make more money, or to save money? As a product or service provider, part of your sales process is to convince the prospective customer that your offering addresses this need. In a business partnership, you not only must analyze this from the prospective of the working relationship with the partner, but if mutually closing a prospect together, how your joint offering will be perceived by the would-be buyer.

Aligned Ethics and Values. It is my contention that a business cannot successfully maintain a relationship with another that does not fundamentally value the same things or view the world from a similar ethical construct. Like oil and water, inconsistencies in theory and especially in practice simply do not mix. During the course of my professional career, I have been involved with entities that, diplomatically speaking, had a far more loose definition of what is ethical and right behavior. Whether that is organizations that value the sale more than the honest fulfillment of the agreement (and devote their energies and resources accordingly), or those that believe in delivering only to the level of the client’s sophistication (“good enough” versus doing your best for each and every client), I’ve witnessed it all. Far too many people and organizations pay lip service to ethics or claim to embrace certain values, and then betray this in their actions. If a prospective or existing business partner does not “walk the talk” in this regard, I believe it is incumbent to disengage. If they are willing to cheat or short change a customer, or to misrepresent themselves or their capabilities and accomplishments, there is little reason to believe they will be (or have been) straight with you. Trust matters.

Reciprocity. Business relationships, like other types, can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. By this I mean that the balance of power and capabilities may be evenly distributed in a bi-lateral arrangement (i.e. “symmetrical”), or may be weighed in favor of one party (i.e. “asymmetrical”). In either case, the willingness to reciprocate is extremely important, although it takes on even more meaning when the more powerful entity treats the junior party with respect and consideration. It is not enough to ask, “What’s in it for me?” but rather, you must ask, “How can I bring value to this relationship and benefit the other party?” Because in doing so, you are essentially building “equity” in the relationship, and if the other party is honorable, trustworthy and committed, you will be directly or indirectly enriching your business either now or in the future. Hence the necessity of ensuring that the other four factors are present; if they are not, it is unlikely that good faith efforts will be reciprocated, and you cannot define the relationship as “meaningful.”

Black Rock Consulting is always willing to explore meaningful relationships with like-minded business owners. Give us a call or send us an email and let’s see where the rubber meets the road. It could be the start of a beautiful relationship…

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