January 26th, 2011 — business, design, economics, philosophy, software, trends
David Lee Roth
“He who knows how will always work for he who knows why.”
- David Lee Roth
There are 168 hours in a week and you must decide how to spend them. You’ll probably want to spend some sleeping and eating. What will you do with the rest?
Many people that work with technology pride themselves on knowing how to do things the best way, with the best tools. In fact, the history of technology and its evolution is all about “how” and finding new, better ways to do things.
But in some important ways, “How” is the enemy of “Why.” Why should you do one thing instead of another thing? Why is it sometimes important to choose one technology over another? Some technologists would argue that it’s important to choose the better technology. Better for what?
After about age 15, I have always bristled when people called me a “tech guy.” And I wasn’t sure why. While I may be (on the best days) intelligent enough to pay attention to and use technology well, and maybe to have read a thing or two about algorithms and software, I always felt offended by the label. It was as if people were saying that I knew “how” to do things, but that I didn’t know why.
But I do know why. I’ve read enough philosophy, literature, and scripture to have a sense of what we should be doing on this earth. So calling me a “tech guy” feels wrong. I’m as much of a “why” guy as I am a “how” guy. They’re not mutually exclusive.
People who really know “why” often end up with real power and wealth. To save time, the “why” progeny formed a tribe. They go to the right schools and give each other important-sounding jobs. And they control many people who know “how” (but who may not yet know why.) Too often, though, the offspring of powerful people don’t really know “why.” They took a shortcut and there is none.
I spend a lot of time with tech people; in tech conferences; in the tech community. And many of those people know how to do a great many things. Fewer know “why.” Some have yet to realize it’s worth knowing. That’s OK, because learning why takes time.
It’s troubling to hear good, smart tech people get into the minutiae of a “how” question that doesn’t matter. (For me, home media usually falls into this category.) When I was younger, I might have had time to figure out the details of streaming movies to three televisions. Now I just don’t care. This is why Apple is making a fortune on its products. They generally deliver good results without requiring people to waste time on the details. (Steve Jobs knows both “why” and “how.”)
Here’s a challenge, tech people: learn “why.” And understand that “how” sometimes comes at the expense of “why.” You need to balance your priorities between both and choose how you’re going to spend your time each week. If you know only “how”, and never take the time to know “why,” rest assured you’ll be working for someone else who does.
As a tech-aware person you have a head start, because today it’s not enough to know only “why.” Someone who may know why but excludes technological study from their life can’t understand the world properly today because technology shifts so quickly. Sometimes things that once were important simply become obsolete.
Sometimes I talk to tech people who think they don’t have any real power because they are not part of the old-school power-tribe. But nothing is further from the truth, for inherited power is not real power.
No one has more power than someone who knows both “how” and “why.” Become that person and you change the world.
May 16th, 2010 — baltimore, business, design, economics, geography, philosophy, politics, trends
The American educational system deadens the soul and fuels suburban sprawl. It is designed as a linear progression, which means most people’s experience runs something like this:
- Proceed through grades K-12; which is mostly boring and a waste of time.
- Attend four years of college; optionally attend graduate/law/med school.
- Get a job; live in the city; party.
- Marry someone you met in college or at your job.
- Have a kid; promptly freak out about safety and schools.
- Move to a soulless place in the suburbs; send your kids to a shitty public school.
- Live a life of quiet desperation, commuting at least 45 minutes/day to a job you hate, in expectation of advancement.
- Retire; dispose of any remaining savings.
- Die — expensively.
Hate to put it so starkly, but this is what we’ve got going on, and it’s time we address it head-on.
This pattern, which if you are honest with yourself, you will recognize as entirely accurate, is a byproduct of the design of our educational system.
The unrelenting message is, “If you don’t go to college, you won’t be successful.” Sometimes this is offered as the empirical argument, “College graduates earn more.” Check out this bogus piece of propaganda:
But what if those earnings are not caused by being a college graduate, but are merely a symptom of being the sort of person (socioeconomically speaking) who went to college? People who come from successful socioeconomic backgrounds are simply more likely to earn more in life than those who do not.
There’s no doubt that everyone is different; not everyone is suited for the same kind of work — thankfully. But western society has perverted that simple beautiful fact — and the questions it prompts about college education — into “Not everyone is cut out for college,” as though college was the pinnacle of achievement, and everybody else has to work on Diesel engines or be a blacksmith. Because mechanics and artists are valuable too.
That line of thinking is the most cynical, evil load of horse-shit to ever fall out of our educational system. Real-life learning is not linear. It can be cyclical and progressive and it takes side-trips, U-turns, mistakes, and apprenticeships to experience everything our humanity offers us.
The notion that a college education is a safety net that people must have in order to avoid a life of destitution, that “it makes it more likely that you will always have a job” is also utterly cynical, and uses fear to scare people into not relying on themselves. Young people should be confident and self-reliant, not told that they will fail.
And for far too many students, college is actually spent doing work that should have been done in high school — remedial math and writing. So, the dire warnings about the need for college actually become self-fulfilling: Johnny and Daniqua truly can’t get a job if they can’t read and write and do math. See? You need college.
An Education Thought Experiment
I do not pretend to have “solutions” for all that ails our educational system. But as a design thinker, I do believe that if our current educational system produces the pattern of living I noted above, then a different educational system could produce very different patterns of living — ones which are more likely to lead to individual happiness and self-actualization.
If we had an educational system based on apprenticeship, then more people could learn skills and ideas from actual practitioners in the real world. If we gave educational credit to people who start businesses or non-profit organizations, and connected them to mentors who could help them make those businesses successful, then we would spread real-world knowledge about how to affect the world through entrepreneurship.
If more people were comfortable with entrepreneurship, then they would be more apt to find market opportunities, which can effect social change and generate wealth. If education was more about empowering people with ideas and best practices, instead of giving them the paper credentials needed to appear qualified for a particular job, it would celebrate sharing ideas, rather than minimizing the effort required to get the degree. (My least favorite question: “Will that be on the test?”)
Ideally, the whole idea of “the degree” should fade into the background. Self-actualized people are defined by their accomplishments. A degree should be nothing more than an indication that you have earned a certain number credits in a particular area of study.
If the educational system were to be re-made along these lines, the whole focus on “job” as the endgame would shift.
“A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance, 1841
And so if the focus comes to be on living, as Emerson suggested it should be, and not simply on obtaining the job (on the back of the dubious credential of the degree), then the single family home in the suburb becomes unworkable, for the mortgage and the routine of the car commute go hand-in-hand with the job. They are isolating and brittle, and do not offer the self-actualized entrepreneur the opportunity to meet people, try new ideas, and affect the world around them.
The job holder becomes accustomed to the idea that the world is static and cannot be changed through their own action; their stance is reactive. The city is broken, therefore I will live in the suburbs. The property taxes in the suburbs are lower, so I will choose the less expensive option.
Entrepreneurial people believe the world is plastic and can be changed — creating wealth in the process. But our current system does not produce entrepreneurial people.
Break Out of What’s “Normal”
It may be a while before we can develop new educational systems that produce new kinds of life patterns.
But you can break out now. You’ve had that power all along. I’m not suggesting you drop out.
But I will say this: in my own case, I grew up in the suburbs, went to an expensive suburban private high-school — which I hated — where I got good grades and was voted most likely to succeed.
I started a retail computer store and mail order company in eleventh grade. I went to Johns Hopkins at 17, while still operating my retail business. Again, I did well in classes, but had to struggle to succeed. And no one in the entire Hopkins universe could make sense of my entrepreneurial aspirations. It was an aberration.
I dropped out of college as a sophomore, focused on my business, pivoted to become an Internet service provider in 1995, and managed to attend enough night liberal arts classes at Hopkins to graduate with a liberal arts degree in 1996. This shut my parents up and checked off a box.
I also learned a lot. About science. About math. About philosophy, literature, and art. And I cherish that knowledge to this day.
But I ask: why did it have to be so painful and waste so much of my time? Why was there no way to incorporate that kind of learning into my development as an entrepreneur? Why was there no way to combine classical learning with an entrepreneurial worldview?
Because university culture is not entrepreneurial. And I’m sorry, universities can talk about entrepreneurship and changing the world all they like, but it is incoherent to have a tenured professor teaching someone about entrepreneurship. Sorry, just doesn’t add up for me. Dress it up in a rabbit suit and make it part of any kind of MBA program you like; it’s a farce. Entrepreneurship education is experiential.
I had kids in my mid-twenties and now have moved from the suburbs to the city because it’s bike-able and time efficient. And I want to show my kids, now ten and twelve, that change is possible in cities. I believe deeply in the competitive advantage our cities provide, and I intend, with your help, to make Baltimore a shining example of that advantage.
I don’t suggest that I did everything right or recommend you do the same things. But I did choose to break out of the pattern. And you can too.
Maybe if enough people do, we can build the new educational approaches that we most certainly need in the 21st century. This world requires that we unlock all available genius.
October 24th, 2009 — art, business, design, economics, philosophy, software, trends
One of the disturbing things we notice as children is that paper money has no inherent value. Why is it that green pieces of paper are accepted in exchange for all manner of goods and services? Because we have all agreed that it should be so.
Mostly, it is because the various sovereign governments whose soil we inhabit have stated that they will accept payment of tax only in these currencies. So we had best have some of it. This demand creates motivation for all of us to work to get at least a minimum amount of it, and many of us would like to have more than a little.
So, we accept this “green lie” as a fact of life. Money makes the world go around, and we’re all playing this game under penalty of deprivation, or incarceration at the worst case.
Just like Neo, we are called to “wake up” and recognize the nature of this system. Socialist-capitalist world governments are a reality that we impose on ourselves; if we can look up and see beyond it, a whole new world opens up.
Currency Is Different from “Money”
Currency, the worthless bits of paper and metal we trade for handy things like food, beer, and fuel works pretty well and we can rest reasonably sure in our ability to use it to survive.
But what about your 401(k)? It’s an illusion. The financial system is engineered to compel you to shuffle the majority of your wealth into ledger accounts that exist only in your mind. And these “account balances” cause you to make all kinds of decisions — whether to eat out tonight, whether to buy a car or a house, whether to overthrow the government — in particular ways. Your behavior is, in a very real way, controlled by how much “money wealth” you perceive you have.
Glitches In The Matrix
When global financial bubbles jitter as they have done in the last 18 months, home values and 401(k) balances can be badly hurt. These downturns in perceived fortune, in a very real way, cause people to modify their behavior. Maybe you won’t eat out, maybe you won’t take that trip, maybe you won’t start a business. Why do you change your behavior when none of this is real?
Historically, governments are overthrown when unemployment reaches a sustained 15-20%. Current Keynesian fiscal policy adopted by the Fed is aimed at having a variety of control mechanisms to stimulate the economy (lower interest rates; bank lending; TARP mechanisms) when unemployment gets out of control.
But, as we have seen, these market interventions usually lead to unintended consequences. It’s been widely stated that the bank and insurance bailouts were “gifts” to firms like Goldman Sachs who disproportionately benefited from “loopholes” in the regulatory climate. You and your children will certainly pay for these mistakes in the form of devalued currency and sustained taxation.
My point here is to emphasize that monetary policy is an instrument of the state which is used to keep the populace in-line. The debates between the left and right over tax policy are pointless when fiat money allows the Federal Reserve to tweak the knobs of reality at will. And as long as you are motivated by money, you are under the control of this system — and the debates of left and right are just distractions to keep the masses busy. Bush? Obama? Who cares. It probably doesn’t matter to your bottom line. If it doesn’t matter to your personal security, why worry about it?
Finding Inherent Value
Do you ever wish you had a real skill? I don’t mean manipulating ideas or paper, but something tangible? Doctors can trade their services for food. Builders could trade their services for future return of garden produce.
What if your 401(k) was simply gone tomorrow? I don’t mean badly eroded, but gone. What would your future look like? What would be left for you if the monetary system — and all of our current economic system — went bust? What would you have left?
I’d argue you have more than you might imagine. You have family, friends, some basic skills, and an ability to trade effort for necessities. Because everyone would be in the same boat, this would be easier than you might imagine (though it would certainly be chaos).
Current social network tools allow you to start building an economy in the form of interpersonal relationships; by sorting people by shared interests and shared inherent motivations, these tools allow people who find meaning in the same things to find each other. And meaning is at the heart of interpersonal exchange.
Do Important Things
If you endeavor to do things that matter — things that help others, things that change the world, things that have meaning — you will accrue amazing awards in interpersonal relationships. People respect leaders. People respect those who make sacrifices for others. If you’re only in it for yourself and your ability to extract imaginary cash from the system, where will you be when the system fails?
“The System’s Gonna Fail”
In the 1972 film Deliverance, Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds) makes a case that “the system’s gonna fail.”
Burt Reynolds: “Machines are gonna fail, and the system’s gonna fail… then…”
Jon Voight: “And then what.”
Reynolds: “Then, survival — who has the ability to survive. That’s the game… survival.”
Voight: “And you can’t wait for it to happen, can ya? You can’t wait for it… Well, the system’s done all right by me.”
Reynolds: “Oh, yeah… You got a nice job, got a nice house, a nice wife, a nice kid.”
Voight: “You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis.”
He may be slightly exaggerating the situation, but when you read books like Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (Charles Mackay, 1842 – yes, 1842!) you start to realize that the financial system we have now is only different from those in the past in that we don’t yet know how this one will fail.
That’s right: we just don’t know how this ends, but it will most assuredly end.
Cash as a Symptom of Good Work
If you spend your days creating real change, the distribution platform for your ideas and your work is larger and less expensive than ever before. Do something original and the entire world is your audience. Do something great and the world will want to reward you.
You can accrue massive “whuffie” in interpersonal relationships, but you’ll also very likely accrue a lot of cash if you do work that is both original and inherently valuable.
And since there’s no way of knowing when the system’s gonna fail, it’s best to simply do good work and build strong relationships. Then you’re covered no matter what happens.
You can only master the matrix when you stop playing by its rules. Wake up, Neo.
January 2nd, 2009 — business, design, economics, trends
Yesterday at my parents’ house I stumbled across a small black 3″ x 4″ leather-covered notepad with the word “THINK” on it in gold, and my grandfather’s initials (V. G. TROY) embossed in gold in the lower right corner.
This was an original IBM Think Pad.
Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, famously instructed his employees to “THINK” and had emblazoned the word all over the company’s offices; each employee carried a “THINK” notepad. And it seems they gave out various similarly-themed promotional material: my grandfather was a prospective customer to IBM, as he managed the automation of the New York State Insurance Fund in the early 1960′s. My wife recalls that her great-grandfather, an accountant, had a large “THINK” sign over his desk, presumably encouraging his supplicants to refine their queries.
I got to considering what it says about a company (arguably a society’s largest and most successful company) that is so fanatical about a single word like THINK. And what does it say about a company (and a society) that abandons that slogan?
THINK, in all caps and repeated like a mantra, says a lot. It implies that as individuals we are capable of logical contemplation that will result in conclusions that are universally true; that there is in fact one truth that all of us can visualize if we simply utilize our intellect and the tools of logic. What a view of the world (and of business) this is: there is only truth, there is only competitive advantage, there is only logic. If you want to succeed, all you have to do is find the truth.
Somewhere in the last 40 years, American business became unglued from truth.
Success in business became a kind of alternate-reality game, with a billion realities competing against one another, and perception trumping reality. No wonder a word like THINK seems obsolete and quaint now: it ignores the reality of Wall Street and all the complexity that comes when you’re painting a different picture for customers, employees, and shareholders.
If we were to choose a word that sums up the current business ethos, it might be something like “POSTURE” or “PROFIT”. But it’s surely not THINK; thinking has been out of fashion for some time, and it may just be that as we dismantle this fake, Bernie Madoff economy, we discover that if we want to achieve real economic success again we could do worse than to adopt Mr. Watson’s old mantra.