The Trust Quandary

I spend a lot of time in airports. If you look around the airport, endless dramas are playing out. People coming, going, hugging, saying goodbye sometimes forever, welcoming home friends and family gone who knows how long. When I look at so many strangers, I often wonder about the ideas that bond and separate us as co-inhabitants of cities, states, and our nation. That often leads me to think about our common ideas of trust.

Why trust at the airport? If you get on as many planes as I do, trust is implicit in the experience. I don’t know the pilots. I don’t know the state of the equipment I’m boarding. I don’t know who else is going to populate that airborne metal tube for the next several hours at 30,000 or more feet above sea level.

A few weeks ago my flight was delayed more than ten hours in a reasonably bad storm. It happened to be Election Day. When they finally let us board, I walked onto the plane and took my seat as quickly as I could. I looked out the window and saw a wet runway and dark sky hurling rain and wind. I didn’t ask to exit. I didn’t ask for reassurance that the crew was rested. I trusted everyone involved in the decision that it was safe to fly.

Since you’re reading this blog post, you can presume that wasn’t a fateful choice on my part. It surely could have been, but somehow trust in people I didn’t know, a company that employs them, and a government division assigned to oversee the activity carried the day. Other than thinking I wanted to write about it, I didn’t think much about it at all.

Is trust a form of absurdity or is some form of it necessary for us to share common spaces?

Perhaps it is both.

It isn’t a coincidence that I write this immediately following an election. Somehow over the past few elections, it has become vogue in certain circles to simply dismiss the reported, monitored, and validated results of an election as fraudulent. If one’s candidate loses an election, especially by a narrow margin, there is no easier way to declare victory than to declare a lack of trust in the voting process. It doesn’t even require evidence to attack the fairness of the vote count. We all can say what we want, and if we want to say our candidate lost because the election was compromised by fraud, we have the freedom to say that.

To summarize: I can trust the strangers controlling the jet airliner I’m going to fly with four hundred other strangers through a storm, but I can’t trust the civil servants whose job it is to count votes accurately. That one seems tough to reconcile.

Some say that democracy itself was on the last ballot, with the outstanding question of whether the tallied results would result in the winning candidates being lawfully seated. Again, just typing that sentence makes my fingers tremble. Democracy has been at the core of my personal values for as long as I can remember. I presume as a citizen of this nation I get to vote along with everyone else and the counted votes will direct an outcome. I don’t think about it any more than getting on the plane in the storm.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want expert monitors overseeing the transportation industry or our voting booths. If I can’t trust either one of those, I can’t fly and I can’t agree to follow laws passed by legislators. When we throw in the towel on trust, our ability to function in shared spaces is dramatically curtailed. Without some presumed notion of trust, I am not sure we can function at all.

Before you write to let me know what a mark I am likely to be for targeted scams, let me assure you my trust is not easily won. If you’ve worked with me, you know this emphatically. If you’ve ever sold me something of substance and been paid cash money for it, you know it even more. Even then I am wildly understating the difficulty to win my personal trust, but it can be won. If it can’t, we can’t do great things together. We can’t do anything at all.

Do I worry trust is abused? More than you can imagine. Baby boomers know a thing or two about trust. We were raised with the Vietnam War. We were raised with Kent State. We were raised with Richard Nixon. One of our most memorable anthems declared, “We won’t get fooled again.”

It sickens me when trust is blatantly abused.

It sickens me that people trusted FTX and its once-celebrated CEO to help them navigate the already shaky world of cryptocurrency. If you trusted FTX as an investment, you likely lost all your money.

It sickens me that people trusted a night out with friends at an LGBTQ dance club in Colorado Springs and five of them didn’t return home, with as many as 25 others injured in the semiautomatic weapon assault. If you were someone who put trust in diversity and acceptance that night, your trust was forever violated.

It sickens me that the federal government offered much-needed financial aid to individuals and small businesses through the CARES act, and billions of these dollars were diverted to fraudulent claims. If you needed Paycheck Protection Program dollars and didn’t get any when they ran out, there’s a good chance you trusted the custodians of these funds to be ahead of con artists, and they weren’t.

Does that mean we going to stop investing, going to clubs, or filing applications for government programs? It can’t, any more than we should consider not flying or accepting the results of certified elections.

Trust in some shape or form is always going to be violated, which is why we must continue to insist on as many reasonable safeguards against these violations as technical and process engineering can muster. I don’t know anyone in the FAA, but if I don’t trust that agency to do its job, or I don’t support proper legal action to correct its performance should it fail, my time at the airport is done.

If I don’t trust the vast majority of fellow citizens to behave civilly in public, I can no longer go out and presume I am coming home as healthy as I left.

If I don’t trust my doctor to perform a procedure when I am under anesthesia, I can’t have the procedure.

And if we can’t trust the certified results of a routine election, then we can’t have a democracy. We didn’t protest against all the attacks on civil liberties this past half century to give up our democracy. We did it to enhance and preserve this incomparable gift of sharing spaces, agreeing to disagree, and believing that if we didn’t get our choice in the last election, the next one will be coming soon. That next election has to be a certainty or the experiment is over. I’m calling the experiment alive if not perfectly well, but necessary and enduring.

There might be an absurdity underlying the notion of trust. If that kind of trust is what it takes to get me on the next scheduled flight, call me absurd. I’ll see you at the airport and at the ballot box.

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Photo: Pixabay

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Moments of Clarity

I just finished another trip around the sun (they seem to come annually for some reason), and to the extent it was a bit of a numerical milestone, it certainly got me thinking about things that matter.

I like living in this world, despite all its faults. When I am immersed in places like Yosemite Valley and looking up at Half Dome, I have less desire than ever to partake in meta. Learning how to navigate in this reality has never lost its appeal to me. Being an avatar in a virtual world has almost no appeal to me.

I find it deeply troubling that regardless of how technology has accelerated global interdependence, ruthless despots continue to pursue egomaniacal, territorial wars of vast destruction like we are seeing in Ukraine. I find it more troubling that in the 21st century, more humanitarian societies remain largely clueless about how to circumvent crises without accelerating conflict. I love our democracy, our nation, and the limitless opportunity this generational child of immigrants continues to experience, but the divisive politics of rhetoric and hyperbole leave me sleepless most nights and concerned about the reemergence of authoritarian populism.

I like our U.S. currency and monetary system. It is not flawless, but I understand it and trust it enough to park my assets in its floating value. I don’t have an interest in cryptocurrency, particularly those that began as jokes and trade in wide ranges on speculation. I am intrigued by blockchain technology and see its potential in future accounting systems, but I don’t think that has to be tied to flavor-of-the-day money brands. Similarly, I have no plans to purchase NFTs. Maybe if people like me sit out the NFT market, the price will be lower for others who see value here. Consider it our invisible gift to you.

I like trading equities on fundamentals. I like owning shares in companies that either generate earnings or are on a path to generate earnings. I want to understand traditional ratios and multiples that determine the price of stocks. I don’t care if a company has sextupled in current market value because “everyone” is buying it. I want to buy it at fair market value where I understand the valuation.

I also like companies that create products and services with a business model I understand, where technology is not just disruptive but improves process, where customer experience is highly valued, and where there is a path to future reinvention. I like leadership teams who are never satisfied with themselves. I don’t care if an IPO is oversubscribed because of hype if there is not a clear value proposition that is explicitly articulated. I am okay to miss out.

I believe in talent more than I ever have, that great things can happen when high-caliber people are assembled to address a meaningful and elusive task, but I have a very high bar when I think about what constitutes high-caliber talent. Part of my expectation in building a team has to do with a demonstrable track record of success, not just an energetic expression of possibility. Much has been written on the war for talent, and sometimes it is real, but excessive bidding wars to fill open positions in a company are not specifically nurturing or championing talent. Real talent in my mind is rare, precious, usually humble, collaborative, collegial, and views career trajectory over the long haul while building lasting relationships and selflessly mentoring others.

I think people need to read more. This has nothing to do with the fact that I work for a company that sells books (well, maybe it does). Reading helps develop minds. This cannot be substituted with truncated, silly videos, brief unpunctuated texts, misguided tweets, or pithy sound bites forwarded out of context. Reading is a gift, language can be a conduit of compassion, stories often reveal empathy, and books are forever our treasures.

I think excellence in the arts is exceptionally hard to achieve, and too often we confuse celebrity with extraordinary craftsmanship. Super-hero movies are fine for those who want to watch them, but the fact that they generate piles of money doesn’t increase my interest. If someone aspires to be a TikTok star that’s their choice, but that is not in the same class as being a brilliant playwright, painter, or musician.

I think climate change can never get enough attention, income inequality is a corrosive catastrophe we have no idea how to mitigate, and the ravages of woke mandates are shutting down dialogue rather than improving it.

I think working in a workplace rather than at home all the time is critical to collaboration, communication, and leadership development. I think in-person meetings when well planned improve human connection and help augment trust. I think phone calls should be returned politely and promptly.

I am feeling increasingly old-fashioned as I get older, largely because I have spent my life in technology and seen what helps us and what distracts us. I love innovation, I admire visionary change, I adore the notion of a Carousel of Progress. I’m also a lifelong skeptic and a fierce utilizer of a nose for bad-smelling dross. There are things I believe we can improve, things we can’t, and things that sound like we can even when we haven’t a real clue how. An idea pitched is not an idea proven. An idea proven can often be as subjective as it is objective.

And finally, to the extent anyone cares, as a result of the recently settled MLB lockout, I am okay with the universal designated hitter.

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Photo: The Author on His Birthday