I caught the Fareed Zakaria interview with David Books this past Sunday. Zakaria is a terrific writer, and an equally effective interviewer. David Books is… well, he’s David Brooks. The “conservative/right of center” columnist for the New York Times, author of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (which I presented way back at the July, 2000 First Friday Book Synopsis), his new book is The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. It is in my “to read” list, and I have read through the free sample portion from iBooks on my iPad. There were some real gems in the interview. (You can read the transcript here). Here are some excerpts:
• On creativity and innovation – Brooks:
…that’s actually what creativity and innovation is, merging two things to create a third thing.
• On traits of the most financially successful people – Brooks:
The average self — the self-made millionaire in this country had an average collegiate GPA of 2.7, a C plus. The A students can get into law school or something and they have secure roots to decent affluence, but the ones who really take risks are the ones who are sort of down below and they’re more risk takers and they don’t fit into the cookie cutter model of education. But they have commonly several traits. And there’s no one formula for success. But they tend not to be too charismatic often, but they tend to be — and they have done studies on this. The charismatic types, you get occasion, Jack Welch, somebody like that. But — but most tend to be ordered, disciplined execution. They tend to do the same thing over and over again in a very reliable, predictable way. And so they’re really into detail, execution and order.
Those are the sorts of personality that more often than not lead to business success. Not flashiness, but just doing the thing and having a compulsive need to get it right. And then an awareness of how to work in groups, groups are smarter than individuals. Groups that meet face to face are a lot smarter than groups that communicate electronically. And so some people have a compulsive need to soak up information from people around them.
• On individualism and optimism – Brooks:
But I would say it’s first individualism does encourage the sense I can rise ferocious — a sense — if you tell people these two things, the future can be better than the present and I have control over my future, those are two powerful ideas that not all cultures are born with and those are powerful ideas that motivate people to change.
• On President Obama:
ZAKARIA: — politically. Is he (President Obama) a social animal?
BROOKS: Yes. He’s multiple animals. You know, I would say we’re all — we all have multiple personalities. My psychobabble description of him is he’s a very complicated person who has many different selves, all of them authentic, but they come out in different contexts. And he is — has always has the ability to look at other parts of himself from a distance, and so it means he has great power to self correct and I think it gives him power to see himself. It means that he rarely is all in. You know, President Bush didn’t have as much — many multiple selves, so when he made a decision he was all in, he was just going to be there. But as I think President Obama is much more cautious, because he’s a man of many pieces and many parts and not all of which I understand or I think anybody understands. But it may — it leads to that caution that we see time and time again and almost a self distancing I see.
• on the “soft” (think “soft skills”) – Brooks:
My argument is the soft leads to the hard. So if you want to really do well in business, say, make a lot of money, you really have to understand people and it’s through the emotions you do that.
• On morality and fairness – Brooks:
…we have a folk wisdom that we think through principles and come up with right or wrong, but that’s not actually how morality works. Morality is more like taste. You instantaneously know whether something is fair. Nobody needs to tell a 2-year-old what’s fair or not.
• On honest self-evaluation – Brooks:
So 96 percent of college professors think they’re above average teachers. And 94 percent of college students think they have above average leadership skills. We tend to overvalue ourselves, so — and this is particularly a male trait. Men drown at twice the rate of women because men think they can swim across that lake and women know they can’t. And so — but building boot straps for yourself to prevent yourself from acting on that overconfidence is tremendously important.
The lessons (my list — from the interview):
• To be creative and innovative, we have to learn to merge two things to make a third thing.
• Groups that meet face to face are the most effective.
• Disciplined execution is all about doing the same thing over and over again in a reliable, predictable way. People who are good at this are “really into detail, execution, order.”
• Morality is about simple fairness – and you know if you are being fair, or not. (at least, you certainly should know!)
• The soft (think soft skills) matters greatly!
• Be authentic – and master the discipline of self-correction.
• Cultivate individualism – and, be genuinely optimistic (The future can be better!), while taking control of your own future.
• But, be honest and realistic in your self-evaluation.
• And, keep learning! (“soak up information” from those around you).
There’s a lot more in Brooks’ best-selling book, but this interview offered much!
I have posted often on a couple of themes: where will the jobs be?, and what kind of economy will we have – a real economy, or a fantasy economy? (Traders vs. Builders, to use Richard Florida’s terminology. Read especially this earlier post: “Traders” vs. “Builders – the “Fantasy Economy” vs. the “Real Economy”).
These themes are closely connected, and today in the New York Times, David Brooks adds greatly to this conversation. He quotes from the popular e-book by Tyler Cowen, The Great Stagnation (which I have not read, but is now on my list).
The comments responding to this article reveal the great political divide in this country. Conversation – intelligent conversation – seems increasingly endangered.
But this was not a political column. And many of those who left comments miss the underlying problem, in my opinion. I have bolded what I think is the most important section below. Brooks’ entire column, The Experience Economy, is worth reading. But note especially these excerpts:
Cowen’s core point is that up until sometime around 1974, the American economy was able to experience awesome growth by harvesting low-hanging fruit. There was cheap land to be exploited. There was the tremendous increase in education levels during the postwar world. There were technological revolutions occasioned by the spread of electricity, plastics and the car.
But that low-hanging fruit is exhausted, Cowen continues, and since 1974, the United States has experienced slower growth, slower increases in median income, slower job creation, slower productivity gains, slower life-expectancy improvements and slower rates of technological change.
Cowen’s data on these slowdowns are compelling and have withstood the scrutiny of the online reviewers. He argues that our society, for the moment, has hit a technological plateau…
As Cowen notes in his book, the automobile industry produced millions of jobs, but Facebook employs about 2,000, Twitter 300 and eBay about 17,000. It takes only 14,000 employees to make and sell iPods, but that device also eliminates jobs for those people who make and distribute CDs, potentially leading to net job losses.
In other words, as Cowen makes clear, many of this era’s technological breakthroughs produce enormous happiness gains, but surprisingly little additional economic activity.
This column is a great example of “this is what the problem is, but I don’t know the solution” thinking. I don’t fault Brooks, or Cowen – I don’t know the solution either.
But I think that all the blame, aimed at President Obama, or Congress, or the Republicans, or the Democrats, is misplaced. I think the technological discoveries and innovations of the era really have created an economy which provides fewer jobs. A lot fewer jobs! — especially for the “physical workers” among us – a number which is not going down. The national average is that 25% of those entering high school do not finish high school. What jobs will be available for these people, and the others who do not finish college? Through the years, the United States has always had jobs for such people. Those kinds of jobs are increasingly rare.
In the term used by those who discuss these ideas, we are in the midst of a structural realignment, not just a cyclical problem. But, if there is a realignment, it implies that there is a working/workable other side. It would be nice to know what that will be…soon.
It has been a while since a book has sparked such interest, such controversy, such applause and disdain, and almost furor, as Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale Professor, and mother, Amy Chua (currently #5 on the overall list of bestsellers on Amazon). If you haven’t heard about it, you really must be living in a cave… Here’s a paragraph from the review by Janet Maslin from the New York Times:
Ms. Chua was not about to raise prizeless slackers. She wanted prodigies, even if it meant nonstop, punishing labor. So “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” chronicles its author’s constant demanding, wheedling, scolding and screaming. It describes seemingly endless piano and violin sessions that Ms. Chua supervised. (Her own schedule of teaching, traveling, writing and dealing with her students goes mostly unmentioned — and would require her to put in a 50-hour workday.) And it enforces a single guiding principle that is more reasonable than all the yelling suggests: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”
Amy Chua, and discussions of her book, have been everywhere – I’ve heard her on NPR, read about her in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, yesterday in Points in the Dallas Morning News.
I’ve got three observations/reflections about this whole discussion.
#1 – I think I probably (ok, make that definitely) could have been more disciplined – make that, demanded more discipline – in raising our two sons.
#2 – After all the angst and disagreement and argument over her specific approach, I think she is simply saying this – it takes time, lots and lots of time, to get good at anything, and to get children to put in that kind of time, the parent has to put in that kind of time. I think she is saying that to learn to master anything can develop the ability to master other things in life.
I thought of a woman I know. She heard me present my synopsis of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and she was intrigued by the 10,000 hour rule — the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to get really, world-class good at anything (Gladwell did not “develop/discover” it – he is always the great popularizer. Dr. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University is apparently the one who came up with the concept, after his extensive study of expertise). This woman earned her Ph.D. in some field of Business, and teaches at the graduate level. But in her “first life,” she was an accomplished pianist, playing at the top level. She told me that she did a quick back-of-the-napkin calculation after my presentation, and figured out that she put in well over 10,000 hours on the piano, and now puts in the same kind of time in her business research and writing.
In other words, the discipline of discipline, once learned and mastered, carries over into additional endeavors.
#3 – I remembered a story from a book by David Halberstam. The book, The Reckoning, tells of the rise and fall of Ford, and the rise of Nissan (up to the point the book was written – it came out in 1986). It is a terrific read. In the book (my apology, my copy is in storage – so this is from memory), he described a conversation he had with a man in Japan who worked at Nissan. He described how in America, life had gotten “easy,” and the people had lost the hunger that drives the discipline needed to be the best. He observed that this hunger (almost a sense of desperation) led to Nissan’s ascendancy. But, then a warning – he had already seen this hunger begin to lessen in Japan, and he saw it “transferring” over to Korea. The formula – hunger leads to discipline leads to success – is one that I remember vividly. I think this Tiger Mother may have captured a piece of that.
I have not yet read the book. But I think that it points us to a fear – a fear that we simply lack the discipline needed to get good at anything, and then later to get good at other things. And I suspect that a whole lot of people are reading this book feeling just a little bit scared.
Yes, I did read David Brooks column, Amy Chua is a Wimp. I think it’s cute. I really like Brooks, but in this case, I think he may be off-target. There are a whole lot of people who excel at sleepovers who never excelled, and may never excel, at much of anything else…
“Think like artists and activists…”
It feels like another lifetime ago (I presented this book at the First Friday Book Synopsis way back in July, 2000), but here are two quotes, with brief comment, from David Brooks from his book Bobos (Bourgeois Bohemians) in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.
Benjamin Franklin celebrated wholesome ambition. The central goal of life, he seemed to imply, is to improve yourself and thereby improve your station in life. Franklin celebrated a characteristically bourgeois set of virtues: frugality, honesty, order, moderation, prudence, industry, perseverance, temperance, chastity, cleanliness, tranquility, punctuality, and humility. These are not heroic values.
Constant improvement – but not just in “innovation,” or “job skills,” but in true, actual life skills – life skills that matter on a deeper level. Becoming a more disciplined person, a person with genuine high aspirations — this is the perpetual challenge.
Bobo capitalism in a nutshell: college, learning, growth, travel, climbing, self-discovery. It’s all there. And it’s all punctuated with that little word “I.” The Organization Man is turned upside down. Whyte described a social ethos that put the group first. The current ethos puts “me” first. Work thus becomes a vocation, a calling, a metier. And the weird thing is that when employees start thinking like artists and activists, they actually work harder for the company. In the 1960’s most social theorists assumed that as we got richer, we would work less and less. But if work is a form of self-expression or a social mission, then you never want to stop. You are driven by a relentless urge to grow, to learn, to feel more alive.
Companies learned that Bobos will knock themselves out if they think they are doing it for their spiritual selves, for their intellectual development. Don’t dare call it a sweatshop. It’s a sandbox! This isn’t business. This is play!
“Think like artists and activists.” In other words, fulfillment, meaning, innovation, play – these all matter for a person’s wellbeing, and then they can result in better days for the company or organization. What’s good for me can be good for us.
There may be dark sides to some of this – but these are not bad quotes to consider this year or any year.
“Huge numbers of Harvard grads poured into finance during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but all that’s changing now…”
Richard Florida, The Great Reset
I have commented often that there are some rather obvious themes that crop up, often enough, from enough divergent voices, that one begins to think that they represent truth. In Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, two journalists, confirm this idea with the language of their discipline. They are writing specifically about the rise of “Womenomics,” but the underlying truth is “pay attention to rising themes shared by many.” Here’s the quote:
As journalists, when we start to read successive reports that come up with similar conclusions, we call it a story. When the results are this conclusive and this notable we may even call it a headline.
So – here is the theme that I am now ready to put in the category of “this really is a story!” We have too many college graduates, and other workers, choosing disciplines that do not build our “Real Economy.”
I posted about this a while back with The Rise and Fall of Finance and the End of the Society of Organizations (a little “serious reading”), quoting from The Rise and Fall of Finance and the End of the Society of Organizations by Gerald F. Davis; and recently with “Traders” vs. “Builders” – the “Fantasy Economy” vs. the “Real Economy.” And the theme is cropping up seemingly everywhere. For example, here are some excerpts from a recent column by David Brooks, The Genteel Nation:
After decades of affluence, the U.S. has drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.
The shift is evident at all levels of society. First, the elites. America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.
It would be embarrassing or at least countercultural for an Ivy League grad to go to Akron and work for a small manufacturing company. By contrast, in 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard graduates and 43 percent of female graduates went into finance and consulting.
Then there’s the middle class. The emergence of a service economy created a large population of junior and midlevel office workers. These white-collar workers absorbed their lifestyle standards from the Huxtable family of “The Cosby Show,” not the Kramden family of “The Honeymooners.” As these information workers tried to build lifestyles that fit their station, consumption and debt levels soared. The trade deficit exploded. The economy adjusted to meet their demand — underinvesting in manufacturing and tradable goods and overinvesting in retail and housing.
These office workers did not want their children regressing back to the working class, so you saw an explosion of communications majors and a shortage of high-skill technical workers. One of the perversities of this recession is that as the unemployment rate has risen, the job vacancy rate has risen, too. Manufacturing firms can’t find skilled machinists. Narayana Kocherlakota of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank calculates that if we had a normal match between the skills workers possess and the skills employers require, then the unemployment rate would be 6.5 percent, not 9.6 percent.
There are several factors contributing to this mismatch (people are finding it hard to sell their homes and move to new opportunities), but one problem is that we have too many mortgage brokers and not enough mechanics.
Where people work really matters. Not the company, but the industry — the end product. When our smartest people built things that were tangible, usable, exportable, it really mattered. And it can again.
We’ve got a story here (to use the language of the journalists). And the bad news is that we can’t fix this by tomorrow afternoon. It will take a while. We have to champion and applaud jobs that represent and build the real economy. We have to reward people who go into such work. And it will take a few years of graduates shifting their plans and dreams to pull this off.
The Brooks article, and the Florida book, reveal that the movement away from “finance” has already started. But it has not yet created movement into the jobs that build the “real economy.”
I’ll end with this, another cautionary paragraph from Brooks:
The shift away from commercial values has been expressed well by Michelle Obama in a series of speeches. “Don’t go into corporate America,” she told a group of women in Ohio. “You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. … Make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry.” As talented people adopt those priorities, America may become more humane, but it will be less prosperous.
(William Baldwin): “What is one big mistake that you’ve made in your life and what did you do to make it right?”
(Miss Philippines, Maria Venus Raj): “…There is nothing major, major, I mean problem that I have done in my life…”
(at the 2010 Miss Universe Pageant)
There is one theme that crops up again and again– in business books, in newspaper columns, even in the Miss Universe Pageant. Here is the theme: people do not know (or understand, or grasp, or “face”) their own weakness(es).
I first grasped the depth of this problem in reading Peter Senge years ago. He worded it this way:
“People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, and their growth areas.”
And in a recent revisiting of the great book Encouraging the Heart: A Leaders Guide to Rewarding and Encouraging Others by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Pozner, I read of it again:
We saw, over and over again, that leadership doesn’t depend on mystical qualities or inborn gifts but rather on the capacity of individuals to know themselves, their strengths, and their weaknesses, and to learn from the feedback they get in their daily lives – in short, their capacity for self-improvement.
Leadership development is self-development… To know what to change in our lives, we need to understand what we’re doing that is getting the results we want and what we’re doing that is not.
And now, again this week, David Brooks, in his NY Times column A Case of Mental Courage, has these paragraphs (excerpted):
In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Occasionally you surf around the Web and find someone who takes mental limitations seriously. For example, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.” He and others list our natural weaknesses: We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.
But, in general, the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness. Today’s culture is better in most ways, but in this way it is worse.
To use a fancy word, there’s a metacognition deficit. Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate. A few people I interview do this regularly (in fact, Larry Summers is one). But it is rare. The rigors of combat discourage it.
Of the problems that afflict the country, this is the underlying one.
Here are my reflections:
#1 – You do have deficiencies. There is some error, some mistake, some incompleteness in the way you think, act, work. If you think you are perfect, then I hate to tell you, but people will not trust you, you will not be as successful as you could be at helping others grow and develop, and you will not win the Miss Universe crown.
#2 – Spotting your weakness(es) takes great courage. Good luck.
#3 – Spotting your weakness(es), and then working to correct it/them, is the best thing you can do for the next chapter of your business and personal life.
#4 – And, I hate to tell you this, but when you spot that next weakness, there will be another one to tackle after that, and then another, and still another….
And, yes, this post is, of course, written to me also.