Six Reactions That Mean You Have A Column

In an interesting interview he did with Khan Academy‘s Salman Khan, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman gave the six reactions that mean you have a column:

1. Hm, I didn’t know that.

2. Huh, I never looked at it that way.

3. You said exactly what I felt but didn’t know how to say.

4. I wanna kill you dead-you and all your offspring.

5. You made me laugh. OR You made me cry.

6. You challenged me. (Columnist challenges his own readers.)

He also talks about his extensive experiences as a journalist in the Middle East and how his childhood affected his eventful journey through life. Watch the interview here:

Three Traits That Beget Success

T and the H

A thoroughly inspiring read. Highly recommended.

I was recently reading a very enlightening article on the subject of “model minorities” and why they’re considered as such. Furthermore, it addressed the three key traits that make them more successful. Rather than attempting to debunk the myth of certain such groups or discount their superiority in achieving a certain type of success, it was a simple analysis of the facts and their catalysts. The article also made mention that these traits weren’t so much a genetic advantage (although those never hurt) but rather a culture that pervades a certain group. These groups are simply more affect and active in fostering a certain mindset.

The good fortune of any one group may come and go after a certain period of time. WASPs, for example, have experienced declining overall wealth for a number of years. The traits are affective but by no means a right. It is up to each generation to perpetuate the success for itself. Here, I want to look at these three characteristics outside the context of minorities, in a broader sense that we can all appreciate and benefit from.

The first thing we must possess is a sense of higher purpose. This can come in many different forms which can influence the type of success it breeds. Perhaps one of the more obvious sources of purpose is religion. Just as with any motive, the result depends very much on the attitude that accompanies it. Over-zealousness can bread fanaticism which isn’t beneficial for any parties involved. Promulgated with a motive of love, however, and it can be the most positive force known to mankind.

Others gain a sense of higher purpose through charity and altruism. Some of the most affective and impactful solutions in progress today are of this ilk. People like Bill Gates immediately spring to mind. The last type of purpose is the most broad but also the one that most people seek after. It is a sense of confident entitlement that causes them to go forth and seize what they considered theirs for the taking. The word entitlement brings with it negative connotations of a brash and overaggressive jackass who is either unaware or unconcerned with the feelings of others. Taken in the correct dosage, however, and a healthy sense of confidence and purpose in our actions can lead to success in whatever manner, monetary or otherwise.

The second trait we must possess, paradoxically, is an ever present feeling of insecurity. This might seem contradictory but it’s not. As everyone knows, those who keep working, keep innovating are the most successful. It is a constant feeling of insecurity about who we are and what we’ve done (or haven’t done) that should keep us moving. Once, while giving a talk at Harvard University, billionaire Les Wexner was asked what drove him to succeed, especially in the beginning. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a desire for money but rather a deep fear of failure. The thoughts of failure drove him to ever greater heights. Framed a slightly different way, Rebecca Van Dyck admonishes us to “be curious. And slightly paranoid. ‘What opportunity are you missing?’” It is insecurity that balances the sense of entitlement. We should be confident in our purpose but unsatisfied with what we’ve already accomplished.

To complete the triumvirate we must possess impulse control. This can manifest itself in both small and large decisions. It is relevant in how we elect to spend our time, money, and ability. Focusing our energy and talents on a long term goal can be difficult but ultimately reaps the greatest rewards. Similarly, smart use of resources results in greater returns down the road. The ability to stand firm in a society that increasingly demands, and falls victim to, instant fulfillment is rare. This is precisely what makes it so valuable. Channel the proverbial tortoise, rock those blinders, and get going. The world awaits- all it requires is you summon your inner diffident high school cheerleader, concealed by the confident façade of a high school jock, all wrapped up in the wisdom and foresight of an investment banker. Good luck…

America’s Future: Economic Hub or Hermit Kingdom?

Cole_Thomas_The_Consummation_The_Course_of_the_Empire_1836

The Consummation of Empire from Thomas Cole’s five-part series The Course of Empire

When we study some of the great civilizations of the past, we are treated to a retrospective view of their successes and failures, their assent to greatness and then their eventual decline. It makes me wonder where we are in our arc of power and influence. We undoubtedly rank amongst the most powerful nations in the history of human civilizations.

Our style of world leadership has been a unique blend, much of it borrowed from the Romans and even the United Kingdom. A unique difference, I think, is how much the world has changed since the founding of this nation. There were huge advancements in engineering and science in the past but nothing compares to the type of growth and evolution the United States has seen.

Another thing that sets us apart is the different way acquisition of wealth occurs. Gone are the days where legions of armed men invade a country and lay hold of its land and resources. While countries still invest (sometimes quite forcefully) in regions like Africa and the Middle East for their oil, earth elements, and precious metals and gems, the days of all out conquering are past. Diplomacy is more necessary than it was before. There is no longer one dominant society that rules among a rabble of barbarians. The playing field is becoming more equalized.

Part of this is due to the technological advancement we were talking about. Even countries that aren’t major players on the world scene have the ability to obliterate a large portion of the planet. The development of the atomic bomb during World War II is one of the large suspects. The ascending problem seems to be hacking and an increasingly connected world. Hackers in China have shut down major news sites, tampered with nuclear plants, and stolen technology from some of the biggest American countries, all from an ocean away. This has, in a sense, led to more checks and balances. It has also led to an obligatory sense of responsibility. The cards that can be played are part of an ultra-high stakes game.

All of this means that countries are all more or less boxed in geographically. Mass land conquests are no longer on the table, baring drastic circumstances. This means that the traditional problem of overextension is not as much of an issue. Instead, I see economics being the main issue. Monetary overextension is still very much on the table and the consequences are equally high. When the United States created the bubble that burst in 2008, the ripples were felt around the world.

We are still dealing with a lackluster economy and we are now saddled with the debt of multiple wars fought abroad. Unlike the World Wars, the wars since then have not resulted in economic benefit for the country. They have resulted, instead, in colossal mounds of debt and a negative attitude towards military action. We must turn our attention now to strengthening our monetary foundation through smarter spending and a stronger export economy.

It is the unknown result of these factors that has me curious. What will the United States look like in 10 to 15 years? By necessity I think we will become more concerned about domestic issues and less involved in foreign conflicts. I wonder, though, whether we will become the Hermit Kingdom or something else?

Given the dynamics of the world today, I’m not sure that seclusion is a viable option. Economies are more linked than ever. We can no longer live within our own bubble. Our fate and the fates of nearly every other region in the world are interdependent.

It seems that military threats are also becoming more globalized. When governments rise and fall, their information and weapons hang in the balance and the weapons at stake can affect the United States and its allies. It would be irresponsible and unrealistic to think that we can withdraw all of our military presence and not suffer for it. The type of instability left in the wake of an action like that has been abundantly clear in Fallujah.

The bottom line is that some of the emerging countries like China and Russia must shoulder more responsibility. It’s only fair that those partaking in the benefits of relative stability would contribute to sustaining it. The question is, can the United States learn to be comfortable with that? And perhaps more importantly, should we be more comfortable with that?

The J-Curve And How It Relates To China’s Future

Ian_Bremmer

Ian Bremmer, founder of The Eurasia Group

During the last few weeks I’ve enjoyed listening to a few conversations with the political scientist Ian Bremmer. A Stanford graduate, Bremmer is the founder of the Eurasia Group and specializes in subjects like US foreign policy, countries or entities in a transitional phase, and political risk. I’ve found his words to be insightful and approachable.

The concept of Eurasia Group, the consulting company he started, is an interesting one. In the realm of consulting I typically think of powerhouses like the Boston Consulting Group who provide fairly typical business solutions. The Eurasia Group is geared more toward advising clients based on the insight they get from people they have on the ground in the region. As Bremmer’s specialties might indicate, they provide consultation from a political standpoint. By having experts on  in regions around the globe they are able to give their clients a sense of what it’s like to operate in those regions. They are also able to comment on the health and stability of countries and their governments. I suppose I find this more appealing than a more traditional consulting approach because it requires a broader scope (in some ways) and an awareness of country’s dynamics and history.

While reading about Bremmer’s background and ideas there was one concept that struck me as especially interesting. It is a graphical presentation of the correlation between a country’s openness and stability called the J-Curve. What results is a thought provoking theorem that is extremely relevant to the increasingly globalized world we live in today. It is especially edifying in the context of the Middle East and the Arab Spring. I want to explore this concept with you in more depth so, for the sake of an even footing, here is my three sentence summary of the J-Curve:J_Curve

The most stable countries are the most open. The graph is steeper on the left side because it’s easier (and quicker) for a country’s leader to rapidly isolate it than to build reliable infrastructure and state institutions. There is a very dangerous section in the first third of the graph where stability is almost nil due to a lack of openness that falls short of near absolute isolation.

From my observation, this third sentence is the reason for most of the strife in the Middle East. We see countries that have repressive governments but that are not isolated to the extent of Cuba or North Korea. What results are situations of sustained instability like we’re seeing in Syria, Egypt, and Libya.

What I’m really fascinated to see, however, is how this affects a country like China. With a huge population, a large stake in international trade, and a burgeoning middle class, the country is becoming more than just cheap labor for countries like the US. The Communist Party, however, remains firmly in control. What I’m wondering is, for how long?

When the country was split predominantly between a ruling elite class and poor working class this system of quasi-capitalism seemed more plausible. A growing middle class means an educated sector of the population which has increasing economic clout. They create jobs and fortify the country’s economy through their consumption. China’s middle class is what’s going to help them evolve into more than just an export economy. All this is happening, however, as the Communist Party attempts to tighten its control. They dictate much of the industry in the country, as well as its cash flow. In this way, they are in a very secure position of power.

I think the middle class might be the unstoppable force that ushers in large scale reform, albeit in a relatively extended time frame. If China wants to belong, in the full sense, on the global scale they’re going to have to make concessions. I believe unfettered access to information and increased transparency in government are items that a world power must eventual embrace. The United States, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Israel all operate on a relatively transparent level. How will China and those in power there adapt to their increasingly important role in the world?

I think another Bremmer concept is relevant here. He looks at state capitalism as an emerging alternative to a free market economy. This certainly seems to be the case in China. It’s been the almost absolute government authority that has facilitated the artificial growth rates we’ve seen coming out of the country. Only a government could hedge so much widespread debt. They’ve succeeded in growing their economy at an incredibly rapid rate but at what cost? It’s this and the emerging presence of a middle class that has me wondering what China will look like in 10 years. Will they start to look economically like Taiwan or will their authoritarian social and monetary presence serve as a viable long term arrangement? It is certainly a development we should be following given the intertwined fates of China and the US.

Rethink Your Reality: What You Know Is Incomplete

When observing the world and its myriad dynamics, I believe it’s both enlightening and necessary to update our sense of perspective. On occasion our perception(s) can be forcibly changed by an event thrown into our orbit. An event like this compels us to rethink a viewpoint or our awareness in a very personal way. Once we’ve been enlightened we can never go back because our new found truth nags at us if we fail to acknowledge it. Life is full of these types of occurrences. They are how we mature.

It is also possible, however, to consciously and actively seek a more complete vantage point. This is an action of the wise, I believe. To always be questioning what you think you know strips away the mental weeds and fosters new growth. This is as true in business as it is in intellectual pursuits or any other form of mental task. The dynamics of the world are vast and every changing and so our work in this capacity is never complete. I find this an exciting fact.

This introduction leads me to the main topic of this piece which has two central points. The first is related to the reading I’ve been doing. As I mentioned before, Truman has been featuring on a regular basis in my daily reading. This account deals with, as would be expected, many facets of the man’s life and the world he was playing a part in. It is through all of these examples that I’ve been able to draw an astounding number of close similarities between his world and ours. There often seems to be this sense that everything is headed towards impending doom. This is about to collapse. That is in a slump. The other is at levels never seen before. But what it comes down to is that mankind generally faces the same issues throughout the decades, and centuries, and millennia. The parallels are especially evident when we look at different periods in the same general era; in our case here, the modern era.

When the United States returned to a state of peace after the conclusion of World War II, Truman faced two big domestic issues. The first was that of labor unions. These organizations that had been so patriotically productive during the war suddenly started making demands on a large scale. Everything from trains to steel mills were suddenly at stake. They wanted large raises in their compensation and they wanted them immediately. The strikes were massive and widespread. At one point there were only a handful of trains running in the country. People were stranded, the flow of fuel and food throughout the country ceased, the country came to a grinding halt. Truman drafted legislation that decreed all striking workers would be drafted into the armed forces. The rail workers relented. It reminded me of the issues we currently face in manufacturing as a result of the unions. We certainly aren’t facing an uprising on this scale but we are most definitely dealing with the effects of unionized labor. The issue is nothing new.

We have also been hearing about stagnancy in the Republican Party just as the country did after the surprise upset by Truman in the 1948 presidential election. The loss of Dewey in the election, said ousted House Speaker Joe Martin, was the fault of the Republican Party “which had ‘digressed’ too far from the people.” According to others, “they had ‘muffed’ their best chance in sixteen years to win the presidency and keep control of Congress.” These sentiments struck me as amusingly similar to opinions I’ve heard expressed recently.

Even the cries of suspicion regarding communists in government following the Second World War remind me of more modern accusations of socialism. If we take a step back and re-frame our awareness, it sheds light on the current situations we face. We see things in a larger context. I think it helps us analyze the present more accurately and composed manner.
So we’ve looked at some of the more negative realities in terms of history. There’s more to this story, though.

Recently I was watching a conversation journalist Charlie Rose had with philanthropist Bill Gates regarding world poverty. I was struck by the underlying message Gates was trying to share. He said that by pretty much every measure we have, humankind is doing better than we ever have. Many of the doomsday statistics we hear about overpopulation, famine and starvation, a widening gap between the rich and the poor are not as starkly grim as often portrayed. His mission as of late has been to spread the word regarding certain almost dogmatic perceptions the general public has. He said that with a strong continued effort poverty could be widely eradicated by 2035. That’s in 20 years. This seems preposterous given what we all “know”. He’s doing his best to re-inform the public of the true dynamics of the situation. Otherwise, he said, our continued ignorance of the situation (it’s better than we think, not worse) could lead to complacency in accomplishing this goal. His view is that only bad news makes the late-breaking headlines while good news is often times much more the result of slow, steady growth and is generally far less interesting.

I found it fascinating and encouraging that we are on the cusp (and in the process) of major positive change. It’s a great example of how, by reframing, we can get a better sense of what the realities really are. There will, undoubtedly, still be many challenges for us to face. Hunger, AIDS, and polio, for example, are replaced by obesity, diabetes, and other diseases as a large group of the population moves into a middle class. And there will, of course, always be the issue of keeping the wealth healthily distributed once we’ve reached a point of relative equilibrium. The bottom line is that we can take heart in the fact that many seemingly immovable problems are being moved in a very real way. We just have to change our vantage point to see this.

Things I’m Thinking…

Here we go:

Life is a beautiful struggle. It’s easy to fall into a way of thinking where you mourn what you lack. Money, status, even friendship. The grind helps us appreciate the small things that we do have. It also augments the joy of success and happiness once attained. Perhaps this is a well-worn sentiment but I’m doing my best to live by it. I know that success is coming; it’s up to me to enjoy the journey.

Freedom can be found in limitations. In other words, sometimes the best way to free ourselves is to limit ourselves. I’m finding this especially true creatively. Doing the work can seem daunting. Where to start? By limiting the scope or scale of what we set out to do creatively in the short term, we release ourselves from the sense of overwhelming and daunting possibilities which then leads to greater production in the long term. Limiting the number of words I set out to write, my goal of writing a whole, coherent piece becomes clear and attainable. I was recently watching the White Stripes’ concert film Under Great Northern Lights and was intrigued by something the singer/guitarist Jack White said in response to a review written by a music critic. The critic said he was surprised that the Stripes were still making unique, innovative music after six albums and 10 years together despite the fact that there were only two people in the band (Jack- vocals/guitar, Meg- percussion). Jack said the fact that there are only two people in the band helps them dig deep and explore all the options within the limitations. It forces a high level of involvement and creativity. It also leads to a result that is raw and true, without any extraneous weight.

The most interesting people are the interested ones. I find it frustrating and a bit mind boggling when people have no curiosity. It’s not just their lack of knowledge and awareness but their complete inactivity. It’s like trying to talk to a rock; there is a sense of stifling two dimensionality in my conversations with them. The world is so full of interesting people to meet, experiences to have, things to learn. I really appreciate it when I meet someone who is an active sponge. According to my observation many of the most successful people are like this. And I don’t just mean in their own area of expertise. They are very knowledgeable about the world that surrounds them and are passionate about acquiring new knowledge. Innovation comes through connecting the dots of seemingly disparate subjects. The more you know, the more you connect, the more you innovate.

Sticking to your guns is very important. There will always be people trying to give you advice and push you in a certain direction. Some of this may be manipulation but the vast majority of it is well-intentioned. Just know what nuggets to pull out and then discard the rest. Nobody knows you at a fundamental level better than yourself. Follow your instincts. Sometimes the feeling is very strong while at other times it feels weak. It’s all about having the courage, fortitude, and self-awareness to make the micro-adjustments that will keep you on course. Sticking to your guns feels great, even when mingled with the moments of self-doubt. In the end, it just feels right.

Teaching what you’re learning is the best way to learn. You can substitute the word teaching with sharing, as well. Explaining what we’ve learned is a good way to cement it. It’s also great because it allows us to further explore the implications of what we’ve learned. It gives the experience and knowledge soil to grow roots in. Conversations are my favorite way to show what I’ve learned and hopefully gain new insight in return. Write about it, talk about it, enjoy the benefits.

Why You Shouldn’t Be Surprised If Big Brother Is Snooping

SnoopingThree revelations in the news have me thinking more pointedly about privacy as of late. It is clearly an issue that is troubling the public at large as well as law makers and governments. Simultaneously, however, it seems to be largely out-of-sight, out-of- mind. The prying eyes aren’t something we have a direct awareness of and so don’t actively consider. This is something entirely unique to the modern age (though not unique to the internet).

I recall watching movies like Braveheart, shows about the Roman Empire, and even books like Pillars of the Earth and imagining what it would be like to be a serf or a poor farmer. You’re living season to season, day to day, surviving on the land. You would be completely at the mercy of the seemingly colossal powers that be, of whom you probably knew very little about. There was most likely very little opportunity for upward mobility and your fate was almost entirely in the hands of those few elites. At any time you could be relieved of your land through an act of malice or just as an incident of collateral damage of a conflict which you didn’t have any meaningful stake in.

This thought frightened me because it gave me a sense of complete helplessness. Out in the open, largely isolated, I was at the mercy of the weather and my fellow man. Contrast this with the situation we face here in middle class America. We are almost entirely free to pursue greater wealth and wellbeing and, for the most part, there is solid enough infrastructure to help us retain these fruits. We are blest to live in one of the most just and egalitarian societies in the history of the world. And yet, we face the some of the biggest technological, moral, and governing dilemmas we as the human race have ever known. The higher our technological advancement takes us, the farther we have to fall. There is, after all, an equal and opposite reaction (or consequence) for every action (or benefit) we take.

Ours fears are no longer always tangible and readily evident but hidden and seemingly undetectable. This is where two of the aforementioned new stories come into play. The first isn’t more than two days old. It was recently written by a handful of major new organizations that the Ukrainian government started using the GPS tracking present in all smartphones to track and intimidate protesters there in a very invasive and personal way. While the protests started as predominantly peaceful exercises of free speech, they have turned violent in recent weeks as the government has employed aggressive dispersion tactics. It has now turned to unwarranted gathering of GPS data to send targeted messages of intimidation to protesters through their phones.

We are all aware of the fact that our phones make our whereabouts traceable at all times but don’t have evidence to suggest that knowledge is being used without our consent for illicit reasons. The actions of the Ukrainian government, however, are a frightening and sobering premonition of how this type of information can be (and is) abused. As revelations about the NSA have pervaded the media it is evident just how much covert data mining the government does. The situation in Ukraine shows us the next step in what is already a troubling trend of unlawful surveillance by large corporations and government bodies.

So we’re somewhat aware of the inherent privacy risks in technologies that incorporate some form of connectivity, but what about technologies that allow even unconnected devices to be spied upon? This hypothetical is now a reality with recent revelations about C.I.A. technology indicating that they now have the ability to spy using radio waves. Provided they can insert a USB drive or other form of connection into the computer in question, the C.I.A. can gather information by receiving and sending radio waves from the transmitting device from up to six miles away. The bottom line is that unconnected no longer means unhackable. This is a frightening revelation in itself and I’m sadly confident that this technology will only advance in its sophistication. Tech companies have been building backdoors into the safety measures of their software for years at the behest of the government and it’s not unthinkable that this trend could extend into the realm of hardware as well.

J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover

With these revelations in mind, I’d like to bring in the third which is quite an exposé. Over 40 years ago on the night of March 8, 1971 a handful of burglars broke into a F.B.I. office and took with them boxes of documentation revealing a small part of what would turn out to be a lengthy history of illicit spying and dirty trick intimidation and coercion. They released the documents to news outlets and the information became a catalyst for widespread revelations and reforms in the F.B.I.

These less than savory methods started during the reign of longtime F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover. A perniciously vindictive and obsessively secretive man, Hoover had been running almost unfettered surveillance operations and intimidation campaigns against activists, politicians, celebrities, and other civilians for decades. Surprisingly, the vast majority of people had no idea that activity of this kind was present in society in such a very real, deep, and invasive way.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that the identities of the men and women responsible for the leaks were revealed. They managed to evade discovery until now, over four decades later, in a time when their deeds are primarily viewed as laudable rather than criminal.

The timing, I believe, is very important for two reasons. First, it reminds us that this is not the first time that abuse of power in terms of information collection has occurred. The only difference now is that the access and volume of information readily available to large governmental bodies has grown exponentially. Spying methods like wire taping are starting to pale in comparison to other techniques.

Second, it reminds us that these relatively faceless organizations are populated by individuals with the same human flaws and weaknesses as the rest of us. In other words, it means they collect information that don’t have permission to, for reasons they shouldn’t, and they sure as hell aren’t going to be the ones to reveal this. Furthermore, we have to seriously consider how much we value a government that is truly by the people, for the people and not one that is merely in place to monitor and manipulate. Do we really want to rely on the illicit (but undeniably beneficial) tell-all actions of a handful of information thieves (e.g. Edwards Snowden) to facilitate an argument for institutional transparency?

I think not. Not unless we want to experience that age old saying “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” in a very real way. Freedom, after all, isn’t free.

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