Can We Talk?

Difficult topics, difficult times. It’s getting hotter out there. Is real conversation still possible?

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal got me thinking about that. It’s by Amanda Ripley, entitled: America, Meet America: Getting Past Our Toxic Partisanship (6/30/17). The author offers a powerful viewpoint on making peace with each other through interaction, in essence, the widened use of “exchange programs” like some of us experienced in high school or college. In many ways the premise is optimistic, even idealistic. People who have direct relationships with each other tend to be kinder to each other and less likely to be outright dismissive of ideological differences.

I don’t think it is impossible for us tolerate each other’s differences in the abstract. The problem I see comes with the common allocation of shared resources. When we all pool our dollars into a fund, especially when we are compelled to do so by a tax system, we are likely to have ardent disagreements about how those dollars should be used. That’s when personal philosophy becomes policy, and policy as a matter of democracy is less about consensus than it is about majority opinion. That as we know can be ugly, messy, and leave seeds of resentment, because legislative action transpires on current majorities, but policies once adopted can be difficult to unwind.

The problem with compromise is that it does not bridge values. If some people think universal healthcare is a civil right and some don’t, and we all have to pay for it, I don’t think there is a common worldview that bridges our differences. Same with a woman’s right to choose. That means we all become subject to prevailing law, like it or not, unless we wish to break the bounds of prevailing law, which inordinately few would ever consider reasonable. Again this is the sausage making of nightmares. No one stays happy for long, and bitterness has a compounding effect that is exacerbated by social media shorthand and abrupt defensiveness.

Where does that leave us? Pragmatism suggests we need coping mechanisms or we become frozen. I think that means we will find comfort in our own circles and collectives. We will begin to ignore rather than constantly confront our opponents and try to sweep hostility under the rug in tending to our lives. What it also means is that the rage is likely to fester, and while it may be convenient to leave well enough alone, it probably means lost opportunity in real unity. Does that mean the U.S will lose global leadership economically and in championing democracy? Yes, I think that’s inevitable. We can’t do big, important things together if we hate each other. We can visit each other and learn to tolerate each other, but commonality of purpose has to be built upon a majority of shared values. It has to be authentic. It can’t be feigned.

We are making this choice implicitly by agreeing that noble compromise on certain issues of shared resources is simply not honest or acceptable. We can share roads and bridges across red and blue lines until they crumble, and it will take all the statesmanship we have just to keep noncontroversial initiates functional. To think we can continue to do more than that is not terribly sensible. Thus we all lose together, which is probably the proper outcome of this dialectic.

We have been doing some work of late at The Good Men Project that is perhaps itself idealistic. Over the past six months we have expended our subscription service, also known as our premium membership program, to include telephone conference calls on difficult topics. We bring together people of varying opinions into what we call Social Interest Groups, assign a moderator, and allow people to engage across geographic, demographic, and ideological lines to learn from each other. The beta test has been so successful our staff is deploying an Indiegogo campaign to see if they can double or even triple the number of subject offerings and group leaders who are paid a nominal fee for planning the discussions and keeping them on track week to week.

I think the project is notable if for no other reason than it celebrates excellent conversation. I’ve suggested on more than one occasion to GMP CEO Lisa Hickey that I think conversation is one of the few high value products we lose over time that is remarkably difficult to commercialize. You remember good conversation, right? Oh, how we miss those long talks with friends and acquaintances about our favorite book, the reasons we go to war, and on wild tangents the meaning of life. What if those conversations could continue in our lives, with new topics and new participants, scheduled periodically for easy attendance, each episode self-contained but the connecting episodes serialized for those who have the time? We thought that might be an interesting way to bridge the divide. Maybe we are optimists at heart.

Lisa calls The Good Men Project a “participatory media company” because the content is written by the community and personal interaction within the community is what makes it distinct. We tend not to think of online commenting as the be-all and end-all of social interaction, particularly when it is anonymous. Rather we like the idea of people talking and listening about a complex subject, then thinking about it for a week and returning to talk about it some more. The participation is authentic, and while a certain amount of curation is imposed to maintain editorial standards, we are happiest when we are surprised by learning something we didn’t know before the participatory moment.

We also like to think that civility is best achieved through respect, which occurs less through the editorial funnel than it does from exemplary human behavior. Okay, so it can function as a sort of student exchange program. Maybe real dialogue is possible. Maybe inspirational conversation isn’t completely dead. I’d be going overboard if I suggested there might be a big idea here that could circumvent the festering rage that is destroying us, but hey, a good verbal chat each week certainly can’t hurt things.

The product is conversation. The value is a bit of connection and a bit of joy through sharing and compassion. I hope this experiment is a beginning. If we don’t find some way to talk to each other, the dark consequences seem as obvious as they are unavoidable.

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Everyday Innovation

You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be an innovator. Becoming a startup CEO may not be your thing, but changing the world is always within your reach.

There is a frenzy of late among those longing to lead business startups, and that is exciting. Entrepreneurs are a special breed, and while the successful ones are rare, no one really knows who is going to be successful in advance. Naysayers will tell you what you can’t do, and only you can prove them wrong.

When we talk about innovation, that undoubtedly points to entrepreneurs, but I’d like to think it not exclusive to them. Innovation is a process where creativity is harnessed, often galvanized through the building of momentum and the sharing of a vision. Often a new project or the reinvention of a product type begins with very few people involved, perhaps only one. The idea is refined and vetted, resources are added, more people get onboard, a consensus around a feature set emerges, and eventually it comes to be owned by a team. If you’ve ever been a part of this kind of team, you know how invigorating the process can be.

A subset of this process is the highly competitive world of funded startup companies, and that is a different beast entirely. In a quite insightful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the trials and tribulations of Uber, Andy Kessler recently noted the sometimes seething nature of a startup CEO who makes it through the hurdle of significant investment in their ambitions to excavate a gold mine:

Hubris becomes an asset. Startup CEOs are always saying the goal is to “suck the oxygen out of the room” of their competitors. Success requires a certain bravado. That should be encouraged, but most entrepreneurs have no idea when to turn it off.

There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, embracing ambition, and wanting to do the impossible. Does the goal of that have to be the annihilation of those who currently populate a market segment? Maybe because it’s the holidays, I wonder how that thinking aligns with Give Peace a Chance, but I think you can change the world without an ethos of leveling good chunks of it.

It is important to our economy and financial well-being that new companies are constantly born, that creative destruction replaces old opportunities with new ones. It is also limiting to evaluate innovation on this metric alone. If the only creativity that receives our highest praise is the moonshot IPO or breathtaking acquisition multiple, perhaps we send a difficult message to our colleagues and children that commercial success is the most important success. Do we really believe that it is somehow less noble to be part of reinvention that is not about clubbing a competitor over the head and walking away with his or her bounty?

Innovator's DilemmaMuch has been written around the concept of disruption, where traditional ways of doing things are derailed in almost unbelievably short periods of time. We saw it happen with music and video, where digital media disrupted the business model of selling and renting physical media. We’re seeing it happen with the news business, most recently evidenced at The New Republic, where the economics of professional journalism are colliding with the realities of recovering its cost. Disruptors are a very real force as author Clayton Christensen so clearly taught us in his landmark book The Innovator’s Dilemma, but is it an end unto itself? What if someone doesn’t want to be a war-declaring disruptor?

There are all kinds of ways to define admirable innovation. Truth be told, very few of us are going to draft a business plan and schlep from angel to venture to institutional investors with an all-or-nothing mentality. If that’s not you but you still feel a hunger to join the reinvention movement, here are seven concrete ways you can embrace innovation right now:

  1. Give Yourself a Stealth Performance Review: Secretly write down exactly how you think you are doing at work. Be as candid as possible. Conclude with a set of recommendations for improvement. Pick one. Do it.
  2. Ask Your Boss for a Problem: Walk in and say, “How can I take a burden off your back? Give me something on your to-do list that is important but you don’t have time to do. Let’s brainstorm it together.” Always remember that every problem is an opportunity.
  3. Clarify Your Brand Promise: If you don’t know what your company stands for, ask someone in senior management for some evangelism around your company’s brand. Then look at the work you are doing every day. Does it align with the brand promise? If not, what tweaks can you make to your daily tasks to bring you personally more in line with your company’s expressed mission?
  4. Help a Non-Profit: Find an organization near you whose values and mission you embrace. Contact someone there in a leadership capacity. Tell them you want to help and what skills you have to offer. Ask them what is on their plate that isn’t being addressed. Address it.
  5. Fix Your Personal Budget: Develop a formal income statement for yourself or your family. Write down all sources of revenue and expenses. Look for areas where money is leaking out that needn’t be. Plug the holes. Get your credit under control. If you have longer-term needs, create a formal plan for getting there.
  6. Get a Hobby: Right, you don’t have the time. Yet a hobby allows you to abstract so many of your daily thoughts and tie back that problem solving to your everyday responsibilities. Plant a garden, bake, follow a sports team, adopt a pet. Don’t think of it as a diversion, think of it as a commitment to lifelong learning and self-improvement. Push yourself to approach it slightly differently from those already doing it.
  7. Coach a Friend: Look around your circle of acquaintances for someone who might be struggling a little. Offer to be a coach or mentor for the next six to twelve months. Ask nothing in return. I promise you the ideas that will emerge from your discussions will be as valuable to your personal growth as they are to the friend. Ideas and energy compound when shared. You may forget who is coaching whom.

Startups can be cool, but all innovation does not require a startup environment. Creativity is a process that leads to all kinds of new stuff, and it also exhausts dead ends around stuff not worth doing or not ready to be done. Instead of making a hollow new year’s resolution, pick a path to one of the above suggestions or come up with your own idea for reinventing the world around you. Everyday Innovation is there for the taking. Go make change happen, and I’ll see you at the starting gate!

Not Just a Test

Maybe we have so many problems right now that we’re simply at overload, so much so that there is practically no bad news headline that can hold our attention for very long.  We don’t have enough jobs, we’re stuck in two wars, contractors are fleecing our government when they are supposed to be helping with the wars, we are at internal political gridlock, our tax code is horribly broken, our roads and bridges and pipes are giving out, home prices are going in the wrong direction and too many people are stuck underwater with bad mortgages, and mother nature has been serving up an unusual amount of natural disaster pounding.  That’s not all of it, but it’s a lot.  It’s a wonder we aren’t in a worse mood.

So when yet another negative headline comes at us, it is any wonder it’s a one day wonder, if that, and we just don’t have any appetite to deal with it?  No, human nature at a certain point just shuts down, so it’s understandable.  But I think this one is core, and we can’t let it go:

Last week we learned that U.S. SAT scores for reading and writing hit a new low, with math scores also declining.  Here’s a quick summary as noted in the Wall Street Journal:

The results from the college-entrance exam, taken by about 1.6 million students, also revealed that only 43% of students posted a score high enough to indicate they were ready to succeed in college, according to the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the exam. Students had to score a 1550 out of a possible 2400 to meet that benchmark, which would indicate a 65% chance of getting at least a B-minus average in the first year of college, the Board calculated.

Okay, so not everyone does great on tests, it’s an acquired skill, and not everyone is college bound.  What’s the big deal?  Quoting further:

“At the precise time the importance of a college degree is increasing, the ability of the U.S. to compete in a global economy is decreasing,” said Jim Montoya, vice president of the College Board. “We, as a nation, have to do a better job preparing our kids for college.”

Let’s go back to the litany of problems, starting with the one about which President Obama recently gave a special speech to a joint session of Congress and the American People.  In that speech, the President said that right now, Job #1 is Jobs.  Barring some untold natural or unnatural crisis on the horizon, I am guessing that Job #1 doesn’t change through the next Presidential election.  After that, Jobs will probably remain Job #1 until unemployment is below 7% or so, which could be a long, long time — and there is no guarantee that it will ever be corrected, we have no natural entitlement to Jobs.  We have to create them.

Is there not a little irony here?  Is it possible we are trying to solve a problem in the short-term that was created in the long-term and can only be solved in the long-term?  Do we not see a link between falling test scores and an inability to compete?  Perhaps it’s fair to say that’s a little abstract, even obtuse — we all know plenty of well-educated, intelligent people who are out of work, so maybe that’s not the problem.  But let’s try to roll the clock forward a generation or two, at which time it is likely yours truly and many of you will be but particles of dust and memories.  Is there anyone who believes if a lot more than 43% of our kids can’t do better than 1550 out of 2400 that we are going to be the first stop on the investment train?  I’m not talking goosing the scores through prep programs and gaming strategies, I’m talking read the paragraph and answer the question, add the numbers in a column, writing a few coherently linked sentences that make a point.  That can’t be too much to ask for a high majority of the citizens of the #1 economy in the world, unless that doesn’t matter to us anymore either.

How did we slip?  Well, just when we got a little too distracted by so many consumer options created by our magnificent economy, as Thomas L. Friedman told us, the World Got Flat.  Competition for jobs become global.  Demand for commodities became global.  The internet and telecom made easy information exchange global.  Industrial contracts are up for bid regardless of geography.  Lots more people are attending many more years of school in places like India and China — and they are taking school very seriously, as an opportunity and a privilege, a gift that lets them advance the way we thought about education when our middle class was emerging over 100 years ago.

If we don’t think of education as a gift but instead a legal mandate to be tolerated, how do we compete in a world that is flat?  If we don’t use the time we have to be here with each other to absorb the knowledge collective, how much of life have we missed?  If our kids don’t learn math and science and history and language, what kind of leaders will they fall prey to electing?  Learning is at the core of prosperity, fulfillment, and public safety.  Why aren’t we treating it that way?

We can’t afford to let this be just another piece of bad news, another negative headline that just goes by because we are overwhelmed.  If we want to fix the problem at its core, we need to think long-term.  This isn’t unemployment, this isn’t terrorism, this isn’t social security or Medicare, this isn’t the banking system, this isn’t GNP, this isn’t an emergency brought on by the ground shaking or the winds howling or the rivers flooding.  It isn’t even global warming or protecting our precious planet.  I get it, we have a lot of priorities, too much to fix and not enough dough to fix it all.

I would still make our education system our #1 priority — because if we don’t fix that, the other stuff is just going to stay broken.

It’s not just a test.  It’s an evaluation, a form of measurement, a benchmark, an early warning system.  We’re getting bad grades.  We need to do better.  Shame on us for letting it slip to this level.  We either get on it now, or we don’t.

I say hit the books — make that Job #1.