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He’s kind of crude at times, but his umbrage with the suburban paradigm is appropriate, I think. I wrote a couple years back on Brazen Careerist that the suburbs were an “abomination”, which came across as a little harsh. Charles Harohn, puts it more diplomatically in his piece “The American Suburbs are a Giant Ponzi Scheme”, writing:

We need to end our investments in the suburban pattern of development, along with the multitude of direct and indirect subsidies that make it all possible. Further, we need to intentionally return to our traditional pattern of development, one based on creating neighborhoods of value, scaled to actual people. When we do this, we will inevitably rediscover our traditional values of prudence and thrift as well as the value of community and place.

Nice Guys Finish First

David Brooks’ op-ed ‘Nice Guys Finish First' reviews a sampling of books and essays that are adding color and nuance to existing ideas around evolution and “survival of the fittest”. He highlights a trend towards acknowledging the survival advantages of cooperation, and how human beings might be wired for it.

The science of a given age tends to reflect the societal norms and structures of that age. This is true both in terms of which scientific inquiries are pursued, and the conclusions and narratives that are constructed around their results.

Darwinian theory, for example, was very much a product of its time, echoing the social theories of contemporaries such as Malthus, and the concerns of a second generation industrial middle class trying to justify its inherited opulence in the midst of staggering urban misery.

Business and economic theory have long been colored by the problematic rhetoric of “survival of the fittest” (and not incidentally, by poor understanding and application of Darwin’s actual theory).

We have lived these last past decades in the era of neo-liberal economics, which championed free, unregulated markets (while some of its staunchest advocates engaged in market rigging and cronyism) under this very banner.

The attitudes of early industrialist (who funded pseudo-science validating their treatment of labor), and to varying extents those that followed, mirror Darwin’s theory in its most reductionist articulation. Howard Rheingold sums up nicely the existing paradigm around competition and survival in business in his 2005 TED talk:

Biology is war in which only the fiercest survive. Businesses and nations succeed only by defeating, destroying and dominating competition.

There seems to be a movement in business thinking analogous to the one in evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and related fields, towards a paradigm in which cooperation can be a winning strategy.

Thinkers and doers the likes of John Seely Brown are talking about ecosystem strategy, knowledge sharing, co-creation etc… concepts which seem at odds at some level, with “survival of the fittest” as understood in the past. The emerging paradigm might be better stated as “survival of the most knowledge-networked”.

Silicon Valley seems to validate, in some regards, this school of thought. The phenomenon of tech companies investing in employees who they know will leave, and in educational institutions that don’t always yield direct returns in terms of R&D licensing, may be analogous to a broader conversation taking place in our society about investing in the infrastructure, literal and social, that allows us to thrive collectively.

Mercenary culture, such as we’ve seen play out on Wall Street and elsewhere in American life, corrodes the shared fiber (if you’ll excuse the pun) that allows for knowledge to flow and work to get done and maximum collective value to be realized.

This is all background to my main point here, which is that it’s really cool to see the co-evolution of societal norms and science, in a pretty clear way, in our time.

It seems like this article and many commenters are missing the point. We shouldn’t be thinking of academic fields or majors as direct corollaries to jobs or professions (with few exceptions). Rather, an academic course of study should engender useful skills, models, modes of thought (broadly construed) which allow an individual to engage with and navigate the zeitgeist in a way that produces value.

The Theater major’s study of Stanislavski’s System may make them a great actor, but could also make them an effective Interface Designer with deep UX insights (because it encourages them to ask the right questions about user motivation, objectives etc…). The Computer Science major’s mastery of a software development concepts may lead them to a career anonymously (or famously) hacking code, or they might make a career of translating the paradigm of the ‘platform’ into systems and practices for building political movements or enabling institutional transparency.

When I was in High School, Dan Pink told me (and a crowd of my peers) that the jobs we would work as adults, likely hadn’t been invented yet. It was a terrifying thought at the time because, how do you prepare for a job that hasn’t been invented yet? Looking back, that claim articulated immense opportunity even as it acknowledged the perils of our age. The peril lies in the fact that it’s not only hard to find a job because of a down economy, but because many categories of productive endeavor are being transformed by the disruptive forces of technology, globalization, changing cultural/generational paradigms etc… 

The opportunity lies in realizing that we live in an age of bricolage - the boundaries between disciplines are of necessity falling down, and the skills and subject matters that constituted the old jobs and professions are being reconstituted in new and remarkable ways. Those who are able to separate the impact they want to make on the world and the sorts of endeavors that bring them personal and professional satisfaction (what sort of work tasks, work settings, customers/constituents/colleagues, subject matter, recognition, compensation), from the jobs and professions (and even academic fields) of yesteryear, will win big.

Just two cents from a recent college grad living and working at the intersections.

On changing the world and not

Dear technology startup: It sends a chill down my spine when you say you’ll change the world. Hitler changed the world. The Koch brothers are having a “scalable impact”. I need you to be more specific. What is the magnitude of the change? Is it tectonic or incremental? What are its moral dimensions? Will the world be more or less just as a result? Build cool stuff, by all means, but don’t delude yourself. Lies of effusion are some of the most insidious.

Frank Chimero puts it brilliantly:

Revolutionary, disruptive, magical, wizards, and on and on—contemporary digital culture has co-opted the language of revolution and magic without the muscle, ethics, conviction, or imagination of either. And it’s not that those things aren’t possible, we just aren’t living up to their meaning and instead saturating ourselves with hyperbole. These are words you have to earn, and slinging them around strips the words of their powerful meaning. Can you take a real revolution seriously if you are bombarded with messaging that says your phone is revolutionary?

Affirmations

I often joke that my parents conspired to leave me and my siblings with delusions of grandeur. They gave us grand names and made clear the expectation that we would live up to them. They also had us vocalize lofty affirmations.

Every night for the first twelve or so years of my life, my mother would recite prayers (surahs from the Quran) and affirmations with me. I found the practice tiresome at the time, but I complied, repeating sheepishly after my mother:

I am Askia Tariq I am, I am one who commands his rightful place and brings for light out of darkness. I am loving and I am loved I am. I am giving I am, I am helpful I am, I am kind I am. I am respectful and I am respected I am. I am intelligent I am, I am courageous I am, I am able I am, I am powerful I am.

It was these affirmations, I think, that left me with a sense, even in the darker, more uncertain moments of my childhood, that I was meant for some great purpose; that I was to leave the world emphatically more just than I’d found it, and more colorful as well.

On my lowest, most desperate days, and on some more ordinary ones as well, I’ve found myself, eyes closed, head bowed, whispering these affirmations. Perhaps you’ve been there as well? Lying in bed at 7am, alarm blaring in the background, trying to collect yourself, trying to mount the courage to face the day, trying to access a certainty now elusive.

It’s increasingly difficult to get back to that place of renewal my mother used to guide me to. I feel like I’ve been party to so much staleness and mediocrity, my own and others’. I struggle these days to be lifted by good words spoken softly into myself.

When will the public cease to insult the teacher’s calling with empty flattery? When will men who would never for a moment encourage their own sons to enter the work of the public schools cease to tell us that education is the greatest and noblest of all human callings?
—  William C. Bagley
Lies of Effusion

Lies of effusion can be as insidious as those of omission; in fact they are corollaries to one another in the economy of attention. They are the sort of lies that come about when the degree of the perpetrators earnestness and expertise, or enthusiasm, puts dog shows, say, on the same footing as presidential debates. They give things more study and attention than they deserve, sometimes giving to the inane and insignificant that should be reserved for the profound and important, and other times lending incredible importance to things that are only somewhat important. This crystallized for me watching sports commentary the other day. We should be taken aback by the idea of “sports analysis” or “celebrity commentary” as sold to us by the networks, because they purport to mine the depths of things that are not that deep. Commentators lend themselves the gravitas of people who analyze things that are actually hugely complex and important, like national politics. And we are complicit in this.

Could it be that sports are critical to the illusion of common culture and purpose and destiny in this country? Perhaps they provide a common lexicon, a sort of “pidgin”, that mill workers and hedge fund bosses use to communicate across the divide? Just a thought. Anyway, wishing I knew more about sports.

Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.

—  David Brooks, It’s Not About You
I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately,
to front only the essential facts of life,
and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,
and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived.
—  Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I’m no scholar in this space, but it seems like an emphasis on the elusive “great teacher” in the triaging of a failing education system focuses too much on individuals. Well functioning bureaucracies take a range of talents, from somewhat sub-par to extraordinary, provide structure, process and resources, and consistently deliver quality results. Perhaps this is a poor analog, but I’m reminded of the idea laid out in this Quora answer about the quality of engineering talent at various technology firms.

Thank you for this thought provoking piece. My reaction is mixed. On the one hand I tend to agree that many of the benefits of college could be had by other means. This is especially true as knowledge repositories and forums for the exchange of ideas are digitized and democratized. On the other, the social and intellectual space of the university can provide some unique and extremely valuable experiences.

For instance, you suggest, “Instead of sitting and sitting and sitting, why not stand up, walk outside, and talk to people who are doing what you want to do?” As someone who went to college but didn’t go to “class” all that often in the traditional sense, this is exactly what college afforded me. When an idea seized me, I was surrounded by people who could help me explore it and flesh out my understanding - peers and professors and practitioners who formed the ecosystem of the university.

One particularly poignant example comes to mind - I was in a guest lecture on Design Thinking which touched on the idea of engineering public spaces that engender the development of shared values and social fabric in heterogeneous communities. The idea fascinated me. 

Later that day, (at an outdoor concert in White Plaza, a student space designed to engender personal/intellectual interaction) I ran into a number of people - an economist deeply interested in interfaith bridge-building, a jazz saxophone playing electrical engineer researching next-gen photovoltaics, an anthropologist interested in conservation and sustainability. We had an exchange of ideas, in turns idealistic and humorous and philosophical and technical, which touched on topics from vertical farm engineering to religious politics - all relating back, amazingly, to the original lecture takeaway about engineered public spaces. 

I realize that this encounter represents the university at its best and may not be typical. But I would point also to a couple of other important experiences that I suspect are more typical and are not provided for in many other spaces in American life. 

For instance, as a black kid raised by liberal parents of modest means in deeply segregated and blighted communities in DC, I was paired for three of my four years with conservative white and Indian roommates. It was one of the most valuable intellectual and personal experience of my life. I had my values and beliefs tested in ways that were often uncomfortable and which I might not have sought out. I learned powerful things about winter sports, social graces and financial literacy and privilege (my own and others’) that inform my personal and professional path.

Another opportunity that a college experience may afford is the space to test out ideas in the real world, but in a fairly low-risk and potentially high-reward way. Even as I explored broadly in the humanities, I was interning at tech companies and prototyping products and pitching ideas to peers and practitioners in industry, many times as part of class projects. This is an increasingly common model in higher education.

All of this is anecdotal, and I realize it represents a remarkably privileged and perhaps atypical college experience, but I do think it bears witness to some important underlying truths about the unique place and value of the university as a space intentionally structured and uniquely resourced to converge diverse ideas and people in ways uncomfortable and magical.

I would add to this, that any discussion of integrity, especially in the corporate context, should probably touch on the concept of bounded rationality (although I take this a little further, perhaps, than Herbert Simon meant it, in asserting that environmental/social signaling about what behaviors are appropriate constitute available information). 

We often see behaviors within a narrow context that would be abhorrent in a larger one. In corporate sub-cultures where actions are carried out in isolation from a wider values context (e.g. a team of type-a, male, energy traders that is collocated and enjoys a good deal of autonomy) and obscured from view of outsiders (whether by the inherent complexity of the activity or purposeful obfuscation). 

In these environments, ‘integrity’ is extremely bounded, and what people perceive to be good, honest behaviors are informed more sometimes by the shared sub-group understanding than the broader societal ethic. And words in a values statement don’t matter so much as management behaviors and incentives.

I remember, for instance, reading interviews with some mid-level Arthur Andersen/Enron kids who couldn’t even process at first that they’d been party to anything wrong. Their reaction seemed to be, “Oh, wait, that was wrong? Why didn’t anyone ever point that out before?” Because everybody was doing it.

Between 'Correct' and 'Politically Correct'

I hate it when people label things ‘politically correct’ when they are actually just ‘correct’. The term is insidious in its ability to undermine a stance by implying that we are only guarding delicate sensibilities, even in those cases where we are also, and more importantly, defending truth.

This piece in the NYT today left me uneasy. I don’t dispute Cohen’s claims that there is a lot of paranoia in the Middle-East, and that theories of conspiracy that wouldn’t seem plausible anywhere else seem valid in the minds of some Arabs. And further, that this paranoia seems inevitably to place Americans and Jews as the agents of conspiracy.

I do object, however, to how he dismisses the tendency of some Arabs towards paranoia as a bizarre cultural artifact without noting its historical roots. The peoples of the Middle-East have been subject to sinister conspiracies, from within and from outside powers through the colonial period, WWI/II, the Cold War and today. Maybe the cultural tendency towards paranoia comes of the historical fact of their “conspiratorial victimhood”. To suggest that they should/can just shake-off what history has taught them, is misguided.

This talk by @Stanford prof Priya Satia sheds light on the history that has no doubt contributed towards this cultural tendency. Satia might also have interesting things to say about the historical legacy of the term “The Captive Arab Mind”, in particular, how it echoes (almost word for word) the deeply racist and ill-informed policies of the British in the Middle-East. Further, Cohen’s statement,”Such fecklessness, and the endless conspiracy theories that go with it, suggest an Arab world still gripped by illusion," alludes to the same tradition of romantic racism originated by the British, in which Arabia is a land of illusion where nothing is knowable for certain and western moralities are irrelevant.

Jacob, like the children he would bear, was the very definition of a hard worker. The stereotype of immigrants putting in eighteen hours a day is one that, although it did not begin with him in mind, surely was to be kept alive by him and others like him. There is little doubt that he toiled, and sacrificed, and in the end there was a great payoff indeed.

His children all became moderately successful, at least comfortable-my grandfather would graduate from a prestigious university, Vanderbilt, in 1942-and the family liquor business (more about which later) would grow into something of a fixture in the Nashville, Tennessee, community that the Wise family would ultimately come to call home.

But lest we get carried away, perhaps it would do us all some good to remember a few things about Jacob Wise and his family. None of these things, it must be stressed, take away from the unshakable work ethic that was a defining feature of his character. But they do suggest that a work ethic is rarely, if ever, enough on its own to make the difference.

For after all, there had been millions of black folks with at least as good a work ethic as he; millions of peoples of color-black, brown, red, yellow, and all shades between-who had lived and toiled in this land, typically for far longer than he; and yet they, with few exceptions, could not say that within a mere decade they had become successful shop owners or that one of their sons had gone on to graduate from one of the nation’s finest colleges.

—  Tim Wise, White Like Me
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