Managing Through Absurdity

I began 2020 by asking the question: Can Business Be Philosophical? Little did I know it was going to be a test.

As this very difficult year comes to an end, I’ve been mulling over any learning I can carry forward. I’ve been pondering the fundamental notion of quarantine, a strategy I’ve never before considered as a defense against an invisible assailant. I’ve even taken to religious texts for clues on interpreting the darkness. I’m not finding many answers to my perhaps impossible questions, but I do find myself zeroing in on a direction in thought that has guided me as a coping strategy in traversing shaky ground.

What are we supposed to learn from the year of pandemic? If there is no learning in crisis, then a repeat of the same crisis is inevitable. I don’t believe that because it ends the contest between fatalism and free will. We can’t throw in the towel that easily.

Understand the Malady

Might I suggest we have been living through a period of absurdity?

Covid-19 thus far taking the lives of more than a million and a half people globally and 300,000 Americans is absurdity.

The failure of our government to be in a state of readiness for this crisis is absurdity.

Conflicting policies between federal, state, and municipal restrictions is absurdity.

Misaligned interstate regulations in a nation where we travel freely is absurdity.

Hospitals with ICU wards beyond capacity is absurdity.

Categorical rejection by millions of a protective vaccine is absurdity.

Systemic racism is absurdity.

Failure to acknowledge and address systemic racism is absurdity.

Police brutality directed at people of color is absurdity.

Suffering wildfires and hurricanes while rejecting climate science is absurdity.

A president who lies endlessly for convenience as an alternative matter of style is absurdity.

A soundly defeated political candidate and his followers denying the legitimacy of validated democratic process is absurdity.

That’s a lot of absurdity. It can’t be tucked away in a vault. It can’t be explained away by any retroactive framework. Our ability to move on confidently hangs in the balance.

Maintain Integrity

I wonder, have we arrived exhausted at a place and time where all opinions are due equal consideration? If I say that the moon is made of cheese, is that just another point of view I get to insist is as valid as any other idea? Are we so proud of killing political correctness that we have forgotten the pernicious blurring effect of false equivalency?

Like all of us, this year I had to make a lot of hard decisions. Many of them impacted the lives of others. I worried at length about the easy draw of relativism and situational ethics.

By relativism, I mean the temptation to justify a decision I might not otherwise make because of the material circumstance of contemporary events.

By situational ethics, I mean the ability to justify a twist in the consistent application of values as warranted by endlessly deteriorating real-world conditions.

Neither of these is ever desirable, but faced with absurdity, it is easy to see how one could slide toward an argument that was de facto temporary and expirable.

Don’t Make It Worse

In times of turmoil, we must never cross our own lines of absolute right and wrong, but can we know for certain under extreme duress where those lines begin and end?

I suppose some might think the justification or compromise of authority in our pragmatic world is linked to intention. Is the outcome of a tense judgment call broadly beneficial or narrowly self-serving? If we do something we otherwise wouldn’t for a public purpose, for the greater good, is it okay to bend our own rules? If we don’t do it to benefit ourselves, can it be less highly scrutinized?

Those are all curious frameworks I’m sure many in leadership positions encountered this year. None of it worked for me. I chose instead to steer toward a path I could consider consistent. That was an early lesson in managing through absurdity. When faced with absurdity, the first mandate had to be not to compound the absurdity with more absurdity.

Remain Methodical

I thought I might call this post: “What I learned this year.” Then I decided I didn’t learn it this year. The learning has been cumulative. Socrates suggested that all learning is recollection (Socrates also believed in reincarnation, so of course all learning would be recollection).

This year I have been recalling the battles of previous crises: 9-11; the internet bubble; a corporate hostile takeover; a shareholder war; the CDO financial collapse. These were all instances of absurdity. We know that 2020 is not an isolated collection of discord; it’s recency might just make it feel that way.

Maybe that’s the key learning: absurdity can’t be suppressed. It can at best be navigated. Calm, thoughtful teamwork is a good place to start. Collective learning and brainstorming are usually more exponential in effect than individual edict or hunch.

That doesn’t mean we can allow absurdity to become our norm. Dysfunction has to be called out. Identifying dysfunction is often where healing begins. We will be tossed into absurdity again, and the choice will remain: dig in deeper or dig our way out. We’ve proven conclusively we can do both.

Not long ago I happened upon a streaming performance by Bill Irwin at The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. He enacted several passages from one of my favorite plays, Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s existential masterpiece is about absurdity, about inaction masquerading as action. It is a play of anxiety where nothing happens except for the characters’ recognition of their own circuitous fate. Are Didi and Gogo noble in trying to identify purpose when escape is beyond their ability to see past the proscenium? They may go nowhere, but they never give up hope. The unsettling themes of tedium and uncertainty seem incredibly apt for our times.

Learn to Learn Quickly

Yes, it’s been a hell of a year. Loss, fear, isolation, alienation, pressure, financial inequality, hardball rhetoric, political divisiveness, ceaseless conflict— it’s been a nasty witch’s brew of stress. Are we ready now to embrace empathy?

My ongoing observation in getting past this and getting on to that is that life is too short. I don’t mean that to be cerebral or pithy, but practical. We can’t learn stuff fast enough to put it to work. Just when we start to understand how things work we are old and retiring. If only we could learn it sooner, faster, how much better our work, our interactions, the whole of our lives might be. If only knowledge as recollection could be accelerated to a state of immediacy.

Sadly our journeys aren’t predictable that way. We know what we know when we know it. We can’t reach for answers we don’t have because absurdity comes calling. Our experience emerges and compounds at its own pace. We can no more control the amassing of experience than we can control the unfolding of absurdity.

We must take what we know, apply it the best we can when faced with turmoil, and remain true and consistent to the values we cherish. We will fail often, but the faster we fail, the faster we learn what not to do. That modest confession is my takeaway in managing through this morass.

That’s not absurdity. That’s reality.

I wish you a brilliant, healthy, revitalizing new year of recovery and inspiration.

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Photo: Pixabay

The Study of Philosophy

With all of the ways one could spend four years in college, why would anyone study philosophy?

It’s impractical.

It’s largely self-serving.

Given the vast syllabus of reading necessary to be even modestly well versed in both Eastern and Western thought, there is terribly little material one can cover in such a short amount of time.

It makes no sense to absorb oneself in such an esoteric endeavor with such thin coverage and so little quantifiable value.

It’s an expensive way to squander time, and even harder to explain to those helping pay for it.

Yet I did it, albeit about three and a half decades ago. Truth be told, I still spend unreasonable amounts of time delving into such curious texts as Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

Why?

Why Then and Why Now are two different things. Let me try to begin with a justification, and then tell you how it has helped me to be better in business, better in service, better in life.

Philosophy is mostly about reading literature, but not the fun stuff. It’s mostly non-fiction, and it’s mostly argued opinion, if not conjecture. There is some history and an occasional parable, but mostly it’s very dense expository in translation. Occasionally you get to drill into something quirky and theatrical like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but that’s a tangent, not core curriculum. I mostly focused on the Western canon, so that means works originally composed in Latin, Greek, German, French, and Russian. The translations are often as head-scratching as the source texts.

From the middle ages to the Renaissance in Western philosophy, there is little differentiation between theology and philosophy, so if you don’t want to read about God, this is probably not going to be your thing. You can reject faith later as is often the tradition in modern existentialism, but you have to read a lot about it to reject it comprehensively. Faith is a subject of mainstream devotion and much conflict in our culture. It’s worth learning about it, regardless of what you choose to believe.

The tension in philosophy between quantifying the physical world and attempting to explain metaphysics is persistent and unresolved. Logical argument as a discipline embraces mathematics until calculations outreach contemporary science, forcing abstraction onto problems that later generations will solve. Laws, ethics, psychological motivations, justification for conflict and its resolution, and even aesthetic judgment all prove evolutionary. What is certainty at one time is speculation in another.

Rejection, revision, and reform are the guiding constants of substantial ideas. It’s all quite messy, contradictory, and exhausting.

Philosophy for me as a young person became a passion of personal growth, self-realization, and academic inspiration. It was helpful to me that it was mostly non-emotional because I was also a student of the arts, which were emotional. I needed the balance. I needed the complementary discipline. I needed to be satisfied that hard questions were worth attempting to answer, even if those who answered them began by rejecting the last person who tried to reject them. Somehow that all seemed progressive and appealing to me.

I also managed to convince myself that the power of logic was broadly applicable in almost any field of inquiry. At the very least I would find the structure of articulating an idea useful in dramatic storytelling. While it might not have seemed obvious or even apparent to me how that could be put to use in purchasing food for consumption, I had faith I would figure it out at some point.

Ah, faith—it surfaces in the least likely of circumstances.

There was also this quintessential challenge from Socrates in Plato’s Apology:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.

Those words messed me up because I took them seriously. I even wrote and directed a short film in college specifically about the reincarnation of Socrates in modern times to make this point. It was called Apology. It was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t, but the dialogues of Plato became so ingrained in my consciousness that I had to give it a try.

Failure came early and often after that, but with much clearer reason.

That was Why Then. Let’s cut to Why Now. Yes, there actually is a timeliness to all this.

Our next presidential election is on the horizon. A lot of awful stuff has happened since our last presidential election. I’m upset. I’m more than upset. I’m baffled, befuddled, and out of sorts. Our nation may never heal. I doubt we will get over these scars in my lifetime.

Philosophy remains my comfort zone. It’s a place I go to make sense of things that do not, will not, and perhaps cannot make sense. I wrestle with this all the time. It does not immobilize me. I get things done. To my surprise, I have indeed learned how to apply logical argument to my work. I use it in storytelling and even find ways to wind ponderous floating into the plots of my novels. I also use logic to make arguments in business—in sales, in legal, in coaching. That’s become a byproduct of philosophical usefulness. The core practice is now about coming to terms with the absurd.

I’ve heard all the rhetoric about how our president got elected, about somehow appealing to a forgotten middle class. He has never acknowledged income inequality as one of the defining issues of our generation, never displayed any evidence of empathy or humility, yet he declared himself the champion of hard-working people authentically in need of a break. Those voters may have been duped, but he is an absurdity, as is their loyalty. Our embrace of ignorance and authoritarian mindlessness is absurdity. I use philosophy to live with the absurdity. As long as I am wrestling with difficult ideas, I am convinced the wrestling matters.

Where there are ideas, someday there will be solutions.

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Why are we here? Why is there consciousness?

To do this hard work.

To self-define in the name of combating the absurd.

To commit authentically to making that which is bad better.

Might there be such a thing as Applied Idealism? It’s a counterintuitive notion, difficult to contemplate certification, but spiritually tempting. Samantha Power grapples nobly with reaching for a more attainable abstract in her new book, The Education of an Idealist. It’s comforting to know we are not alone in our outlandish aspirations.

When I envision structures of evaluation, I often discover that the separation of thought and action is at best temporary, if not arbitrary. Logic does not exist outside a problem; it is embedded in the problem. Ethics aren’t distinct from rules and laws; they are expressed in the adoption of rules and laws. Pragmatism does not have to be isolated from hope. When I contemplate a model of assessment and apply it rigorously, I can be held in check by obstruction, but I can’t long be fooled.

As long as I can study, I can stay a fighter. As long as I can delve into the abstract, I will always have more stories to share with you. Once in a while I may even get you to chuckle. That’s when I know your mind is opening and perhaps ready to absorb something new.

In the end, is the study of philosophy a tragic waste of time? I guess for many that might be a fair conclusion. I’ll never see it that way. I see it as vital. I see it as necessary.

Stay tuned to this channel. There’s a lot more philosophy ahead. Considered yourself warned. Or alerted. Or ignited. Ideas are always free. What we do with them is seldom without cost.

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Image: Pixabay

Piercing the Bubble

Almost daily now I’m asked my opinion of whether we are in a stock market bubble. It’s a curious line of inquiry, and inevitably leads to any number of further ponderous meditations that follow:

“What do you think of that King Digital IPO; did Candy Crush get crushed for good?”

“Is Bitcoin for real, and is now the time to get in?”

“Does it look like Zynga is on the mend? Did they hit bottom and create a buying opportunity?”

“What happens to Yahoo’s price post Alibaba?”

“Box or Dropbox, which do I want to own?”

GodotI can almost imagine Didi and Gogo having this conversation in a contemporary reworking of Waiting for Godot. They’d go back and forth on each headline for a few minutes, and the resolving cadence would always be the same: “Nothing to be done.”

They’d probably be right. And wise. And existential. And of course they would be ignored, two bums with nothing but holes in their shoes, playing insufferable word games beside a dying tree.

And I’m probably the wrong person to ask. Crystal-ball predictions of dicey, professionally picked over offerings seem as wacky to me as hardworking people forking over portions of their paychecks to the state government for lottery tickets.

Speaking of which, there’s something even stranger afoot of late, a new pattern of dialogue running through the frenetic networking schmooze scene. It goes something like this:

“WhatsApp wasn’t worth $19 billion.”

“Agreed.”

“It was worth more.”

“You’re kidding. How do you figure?”

“Well, look at what Snapchat turned down at $3 billion. That app had 36 million users and would have gone for $92 per user.”

“Oh, I get it. And WhatsApp had 450 million users, so at $19 billion, that’s a mere $42 per user.”

“You’re right, what a steal. Facebook should have paid more. I bet they would have if WhatsApp had played coy.”

“What about Instagram?”

“I don’t know, what’s Instagram?”

In most discussions of relative valuation based on anything more complicated than revenue, EBITDA, growth rate, and some basic ratios like price/earnings, my head starts to hurt. Ignore all fundamentals, project abstract strategy on modeling unknown monetization value, and you lose me.

That doesn’t mean I’m right, it just means I know when it’s the right time for me to sit out a dance. It’s kind of like someone asking me which is the surer thing in Vegas: poker, blackjack, craps, or roulette. My answer: If you can’t afford to lose, don’t play; and if you can, what does it matter—pick the game that’s the most fun for you and knock yourself out. Someone will take home a mountain of cash every day, because a casino only works if there are winners. Most people will leave their bounty behind, not only to pay the winners but to pay the house for brokering the trade and serving subsidized cocktails—plus the gigantic water fountain out front of the brightly lit, air-conditioned cement tower in the middle of the desert.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in investing. Most everything I have earned working over the years has more than doubled in value over time because of investing—really boring diversified asset allocation in various index-like vehicles, bolstered consistently over time through saving and dollar-cost averaging. Yes, I have speculated on occasion, and I have even had a winner or two, but even then I looked at the core financial analysis when I bet, and those numbers always had growing dollar signs in front of them.

Now I’m hearing young entrepreneurs echoing the exit lingo. “If we can just get 500 million users of our app, how can we not get bought for $20 billion? That’s a massive discount! And we only need to raise another $65K to make it through beta with a minimum viable product. For another $20K we can stress test the server, too. That’s less than $100K investment for a decent front end and the return of a lifetime. Do you prefer the term sheet via email or text?”

This is a different kind of Gold Rush, with its own beguiling logic and normalized ethos, plus many sideline winners selling new-age picks and axes. Should the notion of Built to Last cross your lips in any public gathering, you are likely to be met with curious stares at best, and more often ostracising scorn. Free salty snacks will not be replenished in the small paper bowl you hold. This is not a discussion of how value is created by serving customer needs with wondrous products scaling in gross margin and the brand extensions that follow. This is a discussion of filling the strategic needs of an acquirer that has slipped into low organic gear and is sitting atop a stockpile of cash, the war chest itself a creation of optimism, inflated promises, and dare I say it, Irrational Exuberance. It’s a party and a playground. Fundamentals are for losers. Job experience is the enemy. Don’t be a downer.

As the JOBS Act begins to open the doors democratically to a new set of speculation-based investors—equity crowdfunding is the freshly cleared frontier—I hope they will do the hard work of learning to assess valuation before they write checks equal to 5% of their net worth or annual income. You’ll hear lots of stories about the next killer app, or the next levitating brick, and you may be lucky enough to be in the room with the next undiscovered wunderkind. But if the story that wunderkind is telling you has lots of math but no defensible revenue and profit realization, ask yourself, Where did he or she learn this math? Is it sustainable? Why hasn’t someone else with a lot more disposable income or risk capital taken this deal off the table if it is so good you can’t say no to it?

There’s always a bubble, and there’s always a bottom. The good news is that once you get past the moonshots, no one has yet figured out where the sky ends in its entirety. Boom and bust. Bust and boom. If you draw a trend line through a lifetime’s worth of data, pacing the erratic market highs and lows, the slope is still northbound.

I like that line a lot. That line protects me from worrying too much about a bubble.

What Are You Waiting For?

The Journey is the Reward
by Ken Goldstein
Tenth in a Series of Ten

Here are some phrases in various shapes and flavors that I hear much too often:

“If I just get through this test, it will be smooth sailing to the end of the semester.”

“If I just get this promotion, I will have the authority and title needed to do my job.”

“If I just get through the budget, the rest of the fiscal year will be a breeze.”

“If I just survive until my boss fires my arch nemesis, all of the stupid conflict in my day will be eliminated.”

“If I just hold on until the stock hits 100, I will have enough coin to blow out of this asylum and ditch these losers.”

Each one of these statements has the same element in common: Delusion.  Yes, these are delusional declarations.  They seem so credible when we think them, and so laughable in hindsight.

This tenth hard lesson learned in the series is the hardest of all to accept.  Learn it young and you can spare yourself a good deal of needless angst.  Suspend your wishful thinking now and understand the pure and existential truth of career making, perhaps life making:

There is no such thing as “If I just…”

If you just get over the hill ahead of you, I promise you almost without exception there is another hill that begins where that one ends, and in all likelihood it will be steeper causing you to sweat more.  If you just get through the performance review next week, I promise you almost without exception there is another one next year, and that next boss will probably not be any easier on you.  If you just get promoted to Director, I promise you almost without exception you will immediately set your sights on Senior Director, then VP, then Senior VP, then Executive VP, then Division President, and then you will feel empty until you move into the holding pattern awaiting to be ordained C-Level.

If you long for a game changer, you are likely Waiting for Godot.  No matter what you achieve in the here, there will always be a there, and another there behind it.  The solution is all too simple: stop deceiving yourself into believing today’s milestone somehow miraculously is The One that Solves The Problem.  It’s not.  It never is.  My apologies, but the system is designed that way.  It wants you to think there is a short-term fix to the long-term problem, but that’s just so you will work even harder at breaking the back of the short-term fix, which is what the system wants you to do, because it needs the short-term fix more than you do, and your motivation is a conduit to the short-term fix.  That’s the dangling carrot in front of the carriage, but you know, if the horse gets the carrot, there’s no reason for it to keep pulling the carriage.  Business is much better designed than the carriage, much more complex and enduring, not often second guessed in rapid succession.

Try this instead of projecting the fanciful: run a search and replace in your vocabulary for “If I just…” with “Because it’s now…”  Instead of “If I just get over this hill…” think in terms of “Because it’s now, I am going to observe everything I can on the way up this hill to see what is around me.”  Instead of “If I just get this promotion…” think in terms of “Because it’s now, I have the opportunity and ability to show my boss and peers my creativity in the otherwise crushing task I don’t know why I accepted.”  Instead of “If I just hold onto the stock a while longer…” think in terms of “Because it’s now I have ownership in a great company where my talents can add value to the mix every day.”  You get the idea, all you are doing is reframing the context of the exact same challenge you are taking on, but instead of seeing it as an exit strategy, you begin to see it as a continuum.

There is a very good reason this is more than semantics, more than some guru espousing the power of positive thinking (author’s sidebar: if you know me, you know I am not that guy).  Almost all of leadership stems from the ability to inspire and motivate.  If you can’t inspire and motivate yourself, your chance of helping others in this capacity is really quite low.  And I am understating how low that low can be.

There really is only one truly important career-making question I think we need to answer on a regular basis to keep climbing hill after hill as a journey rather than a series of destinations, a marathon instead of a series of sprints.  Try asking yourself at the end of each day, “What did I learn today?”  If you don’t have a good answer, try again tomorrow.  If a week or a month goes by and you still don’t have an answer, you are likely in a dire situation.  While you might be awaiting an “If I just…” moment, the people around you might be getting better at what they do, possibly at your expense.  In a flourishing environment, everyone learns together, that is The Journey.  If the environment is not flourishing, you may have a bigger problem than you think, it might be time to tackle that.  If you are in a flourishing environment and you are not flourishing, it probably is time to hear the words, “Because it’s now…”  Trust me on this, you don’t have much time, and any time you lose, you aren’t getting back.

When we enter the work force we think it is about what we get in compensation, perks, awards, and acknowledgment.  Each time those carrots get a little tastier, we realize that extrinsic rewards are soon supplanted and eventually replaced by intrinsic satisfaction.  That is when we come to understand that The Journey itself is why we set out on this path, not for what is at the end of the path, we don’t have a clue when or where that is.  The Journey itself is The Reward, because it constantly opens our eyes, teaches us, surprises us, allows us to see what was always there, and make better decisions to help others get down the trail with less deception and more learning.  With that Journey will certainly come material bounty, all facets of the “If I just…” mode of thinking.  Yet if you’re not seeing The Journey as its own Reward, you aren’t only missing the most important motivation of all, you might be stuck in the lobby for the whole show.

Every day will not bring party time, we all know that, and truth be told, setbacks will always outnumber successes, the math makes it so.  To revel only in successes is to allow ourselves to be consumed by the setbacks.  “Because it’s now…” makes all setbacks part of success.  That to me seems like an easier hill to climb, especially because we now understand, the hill we are climbing only trends upward for a reason — to see who figures it out, and what they do with that knowledge when they discover it.

Earn Each Moment.