Category Archives: Philosophy

The Fallacy of Stock Price and Other Disturbing Things

“When you have some spare time, read this.” [piece in the Harvard Business Review]  That was May of 2017 and the request was from… a VIP-  I should have responded sooner.  25 revisions later the topic is still stuck in my head.

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Broad Themes

A few themes of the piece (editorialized by me):
-Stock price is a grossly overweighted indicator of success, and many large companies now make shortsighted decisions to gain favor in some aspect of the market.
-Capitalism is good at comparing the prices of goods & services and at valuing risk. It is bad at assessing the value to people (both employees and society), especially over time.
-The dominant financial system disproportionally rewards anonymous investors, but that anonymity throttles the information that investors might want to use to represent their interests in the market.
-That same anonymity creates a slippery slope of moral hazards that neither investors or managers are well suited to navigate. Some cultural norms have made it even harder for individuals as investors, or as actors in corporations, to make clear judgements about ethical behavior.
-Laws are poor substitutes for good judgement and ethical behavior.
-Corporate personhood as we currently have it, fails to account for the difference in lifespan and in needs that actual people have. Corporations can live forever so long as they can excrete profit.
-Real leadership requires a unique blend of passion, moxie, and humility that isn’t easily taught in your local MBA program.

Broader Responses

The most important role of corporations in society is to make incredible things happen. Corporations enable leaps forward in technology (and subsequently quality of life) to which no other paths exist.  We remember Ford for interchangeable parts, and Google for making the internet useful. Corporations ostensibly bring people and knowledge together to solve really hard problems and share the rewards (somewhat) in proportion to their labors. This can be a great thing, but many improvements are needed to properly account for the associated social and environmental costs (among others) and ensure equitable renumeration. We, as non-corporate people, also have to understand that that markets will never be perfect, and that government (or society at large) has some role in assigning costs that cannot otherwise be assessed. It’s easy to miss the range of functions that corporations perform simultaneously. If nothing else re-prioritizing some of the more societal functions will make organizations more attractive to talent.

As an engineer, I tend to focus more on the technical specifics of what a business does. My dominant view is that “the product” is the most important aspect of a business.  Most of this article got me thinking about how different running a business is from just doing cool stuff that people want to buy. You can’t do cool stuff if you don’t have any capital, aren’t making any money, or don’t have structures in place to organize the effort.

This piece did not especially help me understand a different question I’ve been thinking about since I stopped doing manual labor for a living: “why do we get paid what we get paid for what we do?*”  Modern capitalism perpetuates some bizarre inequalities between occupations that don’t make sense to me. Many occupations that are highly compensated return low value to society- and many functions that provide essential social value are poorly compensated (like teachers). I’ll keep looking for this one…

I can’t read this article and not think about leadership on an intensely personal level. We follow the people because we believe in the vision they see- to the top of a mountain, or the top of an earnings statement. The responsibility in following someone lies on each of us to make sure that those leaders can actually get us there. Do they have knowledge and experience and some scars to inform that vision? Or do they just talk louder, promise bigger, and blame someone else when it goes wrong? We follow leaders because we’ve seen them take a little more share of the blame and a little less of the credit than they deserve**.

I spent most of the summer reading “Basic Economics” by Thomas Sowell. It’s an excellent explanation of how pure capitalism is supposed to work. Supply vs demand, price signals, invisible hand… helpful to understand, but fails to tell the whole story.  Particularly now, as stock prices have already recovered from a bear market but millions of people and businesses are insolvent, it is clear that shareholder value does not tell the whole story. As we consider other looming “major disruptors” like climate change or unprecedented wealth inequality, the rest of the story is yet to be told.  It’s clear to me that the societal functions & impacts of corporation decision-making need a lot more consideration.

Standout Quotes

If you don’t read the piece, these are the direct quotes that stood out to me.

“…and that many chief financial officers are willing to forgo investments in projects expected to be profitable in the longer term in order to meet analysts’ quarterly earnings estimates. According to surveys by the Aspen Institute, many business school graduates regard maximizing shareholder value as their top responsibility.”

“As a result, managers are under increasing pressure to deliver ever faster and more predictable returns and to curtail riskier investments aimed at meeting future needs and finding creative solutions to the problems facing people around the world.”

“Moreover, the fact that they can hedge or immediately sell their shares and avoid exposure to the longer-term effects of that vote makes it difficult to regard them as proprietors of the company in any customary sense.”

“In a well-ordered economy, rights and responsibilities go together. ”

“prioritizing high returns on invested capital for initiatives at GrowthCo, and introducing more shareholder-­friendly governance, including tighter alignment between executive compensation and returns to shareholders. The plan would effectively dismantle DuPont and cap its future in return for an anticipated doubling in share price.” (I think this is called killing the golden goose)

“Such a model would start by recognizing that corporations are independent entities endowed by law with the potential for indefinite life. With the right leadership, they can be managed to serve markets and society over long periods of time.”

——

*One of my favorites from working in Missoula and not making a lot of money
**not my line. Credit to Seth Godin, I believe.

2019: Intention

My lovely step-dad once showed me a little of his spine. “If you want to change your life, just change it. If you know you need to change, don’t wait for some date or time. Just do it.” One day, I’ll get there. Grateful to have just had a really nice Christmas with him in Chicago. Somehow it’s still useful to have a blank slate to reset my intentions. 01/01 is a day worth paying attention to. Change is hard- it takes persistence and encouragement. Regular re-commitment to the goal. Regular practice, and a willingness to fail- often repeatedly.

Resolutions:

-Communicate conflict without aggression. Same passion, same rigor, same intention. Less tension, less aggression.
-Write more than I did in 2018. 12 blog posts minimum.
-Learn to knit.

Some other gentle reminders:

-More Headspace. Less Instagram.
-More climbing, less “training.”
-Less judgement, more observation.
-Less hesitation, more taking things all the way through.
-More working at my very limit. Not just “hard enough”

2018 you were amazing. Welcome 2019, I’m ready for more.


Welcome to the Workplace

Stop thinking you are going to be a “leader” when you walk in the door.

I’ve enjoyed serving as a mentor for the Washington State Opportunity Scholars program over the past few years. I drafted this post a while back, but sitting on some recent interviews and recruiting events prompted me to finish some reflections on what I’ve learned from the really awesome team of young employees I work with.

The typical narrative for emerging professionals is “be a leader!” Every university magazine touts the institution’s ability to train leaders. LinkedIn articles and business magazines buzz with advice about “entrepreneurship” and “innovation.

It makes me want to gag.

The most impressive and effective young professionals I work with encompass a description I learned on a NOLS course: “active followership”. They have found a leader whom they trust, and figured out how to support them really well. Their job hasn’t been leadership.  My department head is the leader- leading is their job, and the best way to support them is being a person that will reliably get stuff done. Sometimes it means leading other employees, but most of the time, it means getting stuff done.  This is active followership.  Here is what I see them doing (and what I enjoy learning to do better):

  • Ask great questions, and don’t be shy about it.
  • Clarify the commitments and expectations being asked of you. Be certain of what you are trying to do, before you go try to do it.
  • Be as knowledgable and focused about the outcome of your assignment as your boss is.
  • Figure out how to run tasks to ground- so that you leave nothing un-done.
  • Make your work as concise, thorough, and on message as it can possibly be.
  • Solicit the opinions of other people in your office (and outside your project team) to provide feedback and input (something your boss might not have time to do).
  • They pay attention to their peers, and actively look to learn from them. They also share what they know without hesitation.
  • They have engineering “moxie”- a willingness, and interest in doing a great job.

This is not traditional leadership. As an entry level employee- or anyone working as an individual contributor, the job is only mildly about delegation, or brainstorming, or innovating. It’s about making things happen.  As I slowly move into a position of delegating more, these lessons remain just as important to set others up for success.

 

Postscript:

A note on “moxie”- it’s the thing that really sets people apart, and deserves more explanation.
>Find something you are passionate about and think that you want to become an expert in. Realize that your time in entry level positions is the bread and butter of your experience- the foundation of your expertise. Get as gritty about it as you can- learn every part. For me in HVAC, that was drafting and installing, not just ideation and calculation. The earliest investments pay the biggest dividends- but they only pay if you stick with it for a long time. If you are trying out different things, do them as fully and deeply as you can- if they aren’t for you, the process will still benefit you when you finally find the thing you are supposed to do. I started my career in this field, but it took me the first 8 years to really feel passionate and invested in it. Had I been more intentional in thinking about the field as a craft and trade, and then more intentional about investing deeply, I would have done much better,  much more quickly.

Stick the Feeling. Now. Forever.

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This one, now, forever.
On October 21, I asked Abigail to marry me and she said yes.

As an engineer, I like to plan, I like to know how things are going to go. I like to understand and reason out the effort. The theme of this blog has always been about getting the feeling of something that I can’t reason with to stick well enough to do something special.

Abigail was committed before I was- and in these matters, she trusts that feeling more than I do. Her certainty in us made asking the big question much easier. A quick review of a feeling worth trusting:

 

 

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From a more recent note to a friend, discussing the corollary of climbing commitment:
“Marriage remains a leap, truly of faith… …That climbing helps me realize this is an obvious corollary- the difference between testing the crux moves, and the moment of full bore irreversible action, while may only appear to involve a slight change in physical position- is dramatically different in mental position. That is the leap. That is the commitment.”

That real love though, the stuff that scares you with it’s durability and it’s repose, that love isn’t going to wait. It isn’t going to let you “slide into it” because it’s convenient. That real love, demands a leap. A lot like climbing, it is worth getting out of your comfort zone for, and you can’t just hang out under the crux forever. I popped the question when I accepted the joyful inevitability of her partnership with me. When I accepted that I was never going to be perfect for this relationship, and that perfection wasn’t necessary for it to be right for us.

Every crux that has demanded my full commitment, has been scary and hard. Every crux has required humility and the right partner.  And every single one, has been worth it. I’ve been climbing with the right partner for a while now, and it is nothing short of glorious to pull through this crux together.

 

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School

I admit- I smile when people ask me where I went to college. Northwestern University. The pedigree, the reputation, my ego swells. Ask me though, how I really felt about it and I’ll get smug and tell you I hated it. My professors came in two groups- conservative, arrogant, and unconcerned for the world, or perhaps liberal, arrogant, and willing to see me for the washed out music major wannabe that I was rather than who I would eventually become. I needed more hand holding than they were willing to offer, and I was too proud to get help or cheat like other struggling classmates.  I wasn’t smart enough to cut it there, and I still might not be. The raw math and fundamental concepts never came that easily to me. Instead of stepping up to the challenge, I cursed and complained. I graduated half out of spite, with bold aspirations to earn my living in the mountains, or some other way. To forget my pedigree, to forsake my intellectual inheritance.

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Showing Abigail and Michael around campus today though, I have a deep connection to this place. I’m proud of my time here, and the deep marks on my hide that remain from the struggle. Ask me now and I have an unbridled passion for engineering. The more technical, the better. Northwestern may have put the chip on my shoulder, but now I’m willing to consider that was exactly what it was supposed to do. I’m a better engineer because the experience was so damn harsh. This place has evolved too, and I see more of what I hoped it had evolved into. The friendships I built because of this place still stand- the wedding I’m in town for is proof. The projects I did then still feel cool, the lessons I learned still serve.

 

Maybe it’s time to bury the hatchet.

To Truly Dance

Dear Mom,
You died on Saturday, April 1, 2017. It was a surprise. I was skiing in Whistler, British Columbia, as likely of a place as I was to be as anywhere.  I’m grateful there weren’t many things I still needed to say to you. In the time since, I’ve told our story so many times: after dad died- I grew up close to you, close to the church. We grew apart, bitterly on my behalf, when I left the church and moved west.  I found my own truth and we pieced it back together slowly, like the beautiful blankets you made for Soren and I. The last few years of your life held some of our most honest and loving conversations. The most recent lesson: that feeling the same faith is less important than feeling each others humanity.

A few more favorites:

The air smelled thick of cut grass and the quiet, high-ceilinged church- I was 9, and stood up for the first time to give a testimony in Wednesday night church. I was just back from summer church camp full of newfound confidence. The cicadas chirped outside in the sticky midwestern summer. I shared a short truth about overcoming my fears at summer camp, you beamed. My faith is different now, but no less strong- you made faith cool.

I was 13 when you were finally able to tell me about my half-brother in Australia- he was half a world away, wondering who I was. I was so mad at you- his existence seemed to refute the moralist foundation you raised me with. Ultimately, welcoming him openly into our family inspired us all to a greater sense of compassion and honesty. I can only hope to learn so much from my own indignities.

At 17 you let me drive your new car and two friends 1500 miles to spend two weeks on our own in the Wind River mountains. When we got out, you flew to Jackson to shuttle us back to the car, feed us, and send us off on the drive home. You experienced the mountains differently than I do, but loved them no less. You refused to let the fears of the world darken the light of your experience, or mine.

We were eating at Lulu’s Noodles during the spring of my freshman year at Northwestern. I was terrified, because I had met you for lunch to tell you I was dropping out of music school. To my surprise, you took it in stride and cheered for me to enjoy a more relaxed version of college. That’s when I learned your dreams for me were nothing less than exactly my own.

I skipped my graduation from Northwestern to go on a NOLS course in Alaska. Instead, you sent 5 dozen cookies up to our expedition because I was part of a winning team in my college design competition. it seemed out of place at the time, but I realize now it was the sweetest way that you could say you were proud of me. You always knew how to celebrate the important things.

Last Christmas we went out for deep dish, the whole family of us. Over the years I had always ducked the opportunity to pick up the check at a family dinner but in 2016 I was glad not to skip the chance. You always lived with the assumption of having enough to do the right thing- whether you had a lot or not. There was always enough.

And that is the point- we had less time than we all hoped, but it was enough. I’m still learning how much you cared for us, how great of a mom you were. I think you’re proud of me- I hope you know how proud we are of you.

“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”   (Kahlil Gibran)

Climb on, mom.

You can enjoy some of my mom’s ideas through her lecturing and writing work for the Church of Christ, Scientist- her most recent piece is particularly excellent. Our family is deeply grateful for your compassion, however there will be no service. You can honor Lois most meaningfully through a donation to her church or to Mountain Home Montana

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Blossoms

My mom loves cherry blossoms. Last night I went for a leisurely run from my house down to University of Washington and just took a few pictures on the way. Yes, it was crappy light, so I touched up the light and color on a few of them. Regardless it’s a good season in Seattle. This one is for my mom.

“Allow. That’s most of what we have to do, is just allow it. We may not understand now, or ever, but we will feel it, we will feel our lives.” (Andrew Given)

All of Us

Here we are now, after the election, all of us in the same boat. Some are stunned that their unlikely candidate won. Others are stunned that they could be so blind, or so arrogant in their confidence. Being in the second group, I vacillate between fury and despair.

In traffic for work last Tuesday, the mid-90s, 1/2 ton pick-up in front of me taunted me with a variety of conservative bumper stickers. One stood out in particular: “Visualize No Liberals.”

This is about all of us. Visualize all you want, but you will never wake up and find yourself transported to a world conveniently devoid of people who are different than you. The world around us is the way it is precisely because those different people shared ideas, tried things out, got it wrong and still had enough tolerance for each other to try something else. People who value the same things that you do have good and bad ideas, just like people who value different things. It’s not a perfect world but by almost every objective measure- it is the best it has ever been.

The bumper sticker pissed me off because it seemed this person would much rather entertain a fantasy than take responsibility for getting to know the other half of the citizenry their government represents. A fantasy I’ve also let myself entertain on occasion, and that has never proven useful.

Strangely, I am thankful the election has forced me to reconsider my thread in the fabric of society. What do I want to stand for as an engaged citizen? Why do I (usually) cheer for the left side of the aisle?  What are my fundamental political priorities? I wanted to get a short list on the record (in no particular order):

  • Public policy rooted in real science that is peer-reviewed, transparently documented, and repeatable
  • Fundamentally equal treatment of all people by the government
  • A clean, safe, and healthy environment for people and wildlife
  • Infrastructure development that promotes urban density, defends farmlands & wildlands, and accommodates long term economic and population growth
  • Publicly-funded education that reflects and encourages the exchange of ideas amongst diverse groups of students.
  • High quality, accessible, and affordable healthcare for everyone
  • Proponents of rational and balanced foreign policy that minimizes military action at every opportunity
  • Maintain a capitalist market place, focused on upholding enforceable contracts, with subsides carefully considered as warranted for true public well being
  • Maintain a basic social safety net that supports disadvantaged people getting back into the workforce
  • Balance the federal budget, every damn year
  • Political discourse that is thoughtful, respectful, and remains focused on stuff that government actually does

In 2016 this seems like too much to ask of our government, but if no one asks- it always will be.

This is not a post about the silver lining. I’m still angry that America was foolish enough to elect an inexperienced misogynist. I’m more angry that just less than a quarter of eligible voters were able to take a fat, wet shit on 40 years of progress towards pretty much everything I care about. The responsibility I have to give a voice to these priorities just got heavier, and the weight is scary.

I have been trying to have more conversations with people outside of my bubble- and no one is arguing “yeah, I want dirtier air to breathe and worse schools for my kids!” Neither have I spoken with anyone that has said “I just wanted to vote for racism.” More often than it seems, we want the same things, but the method is different. I won’t ever tolerate bigotry, but I also won’t visualize a world without conservatives- their perspective is too essential in getting a true majority of people closer to what we all collectively want.

 

If You Loved Me

Sometimes you have to leave the things you love the most.

It’s my last night in Missoula. The house is cleaned, the truck is packed. I’m tired from driving back from my climbing trip, but have a few more miles to go. I don’t have the energy to type out all of the emotion coursing through my veins.

I’m grateful to be with some of my closest friends as I cast off, but leaving them is a double edged sword. I’m excited to work again, to explore a new place, to embrace the hustle and bustle of the city. And I’m scared. Of the bigness. Of losing the familiar smallness, of forging new friends, and breaking all of my patterns.

Scared of leaving this place that has felt more like home than any place that I have been so far.

Four years ago, I was in a very similar place. In the cycles of life, tipping past midnight will never be comfortable. And it is always necessary.

Uhaul truck, loaded truck, moving truck,

Keeping growing. Especially when it hurts.