A number that matters

I’m a math guy. This first drew me to engineering and then into the business world of finance. Math is basically an exercise in using and creating numbers. Numbers can provide answers or key insights but they are not limited in scope to just engineering or science or finance. You can be bad at math and still find usefulness in numbers such as:

“So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

There are 3 numbers related to our days, my days or your days to be specific. Two numbers are unique to me and the third is shared by us all:

  • The number of my days until today; my past
  • The number of my days from now until I pass from life; my future
  • One day; today
I summarize these points with the basic truth that God made us to be people of the present. I cannot change the past nor can I control the future; I live in today, this day. The wisdom of numbering my days teaches me that I can be too enamored or depressed about the past, neither of which is productive for I can do nothing to recapture it. This wisdom also teaches me that control of the future is an illusion that I cannot master nor guarantee. Therefore, live the day for all that it may bring. This principle is broadly intuitive; we even have the adage, “Stop and smell the roses.” The irony of life is that I easily fall in the trap of living in the past or the future and miss today completely.

Two ears but only one mouth

In my daily study today I came across an interesting quote from an ancient Greek philosopher, Epictetus, from the 1st century AD:

“Nature has given us two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”    — Epictetus

This got me thinking about the skill of listening and how I’ve discovered over my years how important it is and how difficult it is to master. I think it is fairly intuitive that listening is important; after all we spend the first 18 years of our life in school listening to facts and knowledge. It is almost tragically ironic that while I’ve been taught and mastered the skill of listening to facts, listening to people is an entirely different experience and skill set that I did not understand until just the last couple of years. Once I recognized its importance and my lack of skill, I felt like a blind man seeing for the first time. Quickly I could see my relationships across the board in a whole new and much more meaningful way.

There is a popular book written by Stephen Covey, an acclaimed businessman and teacher, titled “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” One of the habits in his list is the skill of listening that is summarized in the headline:

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Everyone must learn to master this skill for themselves and the importance of mastering it is an undeniable truth. It is an imperative that requires and demands my attention and effort. It is important enough that Solomon also spoke of it in Proverbs:

He who gives an answer before he hears,
It is folly and shame to him.       Proverbs 18:13

The reasons to master listening to people are broad and reaching. Fundamentally, listening tells the other person that they are worthy and important to be listened to. The quickest way to literally turn off someone’s mental switch is to stop listening to them; trust me I know this from extensive experience. But listening is not just about sitting there nodding your head, although helpful is not a complete application of the skill. Showing someone they have been heard requires feedback that understanding is achieved. One technique that I use to get this across is after listening to someone I ask the question, “Let me see if I understand what you’re saying is…..” and then I provide a brief explanation of what that is. That is just one method of a long list too long to enumerate.

As a guy, one of the things that I had to set aside was a “fix it” mode that was always engaged. Listening and fixing is the right approach in some settings but it is a really, REALLY bad idea to apply it in all circumstances. Setting that mode aside is important for the simple reason that a true sense of self as an adult, a mature person, is that I can solve MY problems in life. One method that is very effective to that goal is talking something through with another person that is a genuine and empathetic listener. I have come to find for myself that a truth I discover is stronger than a truth told and a lot of discovery happens in the course of talking and listening.

What is needed to be an effective listener and help for other people is going to be unique to all of us. The mastery is a life long endeavor but a journey that is well worth the time and effort.

Prudence is not just a name

I’m a “word person” much to the chagrin of my family. Some would say it’s because of the childhood influence of a father as a college English teacher but I think my sister would disagree since her mastery of the English language was a bit underwhelming. (Love ya sis!) At any rate, I am extremely attentive to the use of the English language in American culture and constantly amazed at how it is butchered and tortured. I won’t get on my soap box about the basics of “your” versus “you’re”, that’s just a side show to how key concepts just get lost because there is no clue of the word itself.

The picture is just some random person with the real life name Prudence, I have no personal knowledge of this person at all. But I’ve been surprised by some people that think Prudence is just an odd name for a person, literally no awareness of it as a real word. So, if Prudence is not just a name, what does it mean? Prudence involves the concepts of foresight and discretion. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/prudence

This relates to “life at the poles” because when a subject involves more than one principle, prudence comes into play and from personal experience life rarely is reduced to utilizing just one principle or truth. Why is prudence important and not just the ramblings of some dude that’s an admitted word person? Because I think that our culture has largely lost the notion that prudence is even valuable let along important.

When a culture begins to think that there are no risks in life or that the risks are “manageable” then why is there a need for foresight? Likewise, in a society steeped in personal liberty like America, then why is discretion needed? These are just a couple of questions that highlight how culture can blind us to core truths and start the process of redefinition by first forgetting what a core truth even means. I can guarantee that anyone that has lived a fair numbers of years of life realize that risks are not completely controllable (just ask the folks in Fukushima, Japan about nuclear reactors) and ignoring my impact on other people for the sake of my liberty leads to a pretty unhappy life.

Life is an extremely expensive teacher with a cost that does not have bounds. The only way to lessen that cost is to obtain prudence. As Solomon said of his sayings of wisdom in Proverbs:

“To give prudence to the naive,
To the youth knowledge and discretion”    Proverbs 1:4

Continuing the metaphor of life at the poles, not all of life is reduced into black and white. That may come as a shock for some people as it bleeds over into the subjects of business, religion, and politics. An example of this point is a statement I found one day:

“”Do not drink the cleaning solution” would be a rule of prudence. This rule would not be considered a moral rule because while it is not morally wrong to drink cleaning solution, it does serve your best interest to avoid doing so.”

And before you brush that off as a contrived example, think why adults teach children about cleaners and manufacturers put child safety caps on the bottles. Because some are naive about what the liquid is and it’s harmful effects if ingested. And there in is why Solomon sought to give prudence to the naive; not about trivial subjects like cleaning fluid but about things pertaining to life. I can be quite the child at times about life and need some help to remove my naivete before I end up paying yet another expensive life lesson.

Life at the poles

Think North pole and you might visualize something like this picture. But there are other concepts that draw from the idea of two poles. Politically the US government is built on a two party system versus a more common Parliamentary approach in the rest of the world. As a result, American culture is constantly divided between Dems and Republicans and all the debates our system of free press brings along. It also results in one party always portrayed as the one “in control” or dominating the other.

I’ve come to see a spill over effect into broader American culture that if we’re not careful can lead to some personally wonky ideas and biases. It’s as if life is broadly distilled into two camps as if no moderation or middle ground or alternatives exist. I remember when we moved to Alabama several years ago and people would ask us if we were going to pull for Auburn or Alabama. I’m a Gator fan, so we’d politely say we were not pulling for either one and you’d think I had two heads. To many, there are only two choices in football life, and any other choice just doesn’t make sense.

Just to be clear, I’m NOT talking about principles of right and wrong and it should be clearly understood that there is a right and a wrong way with certain truths. However, a major problem I see often is not realizing that an opinion is an opinion, not a matter of right and wrong, but then pressing or enforcing the opinion as if it was. This can have dramatic impact on relationships either casual or deep, on personal practices of moderation, on how I go about life in a broad range of areas.

Life is not often lived at the poles. Most of our time is spent walking around and bumping into others along the equator. We need a good compass and wise judgment to know where we are geographically (in a metaphorical sense) and how to live a healthy, happy, and good life.

Twinkie diet

I heard about this story several months ago as the debate about obesity was raging in US politics and culture. Here’s the facts in an article by a local news station where the professor lives:

http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=15294655

What does some guy losing weight by eating twinkies for a month have to do with this blog you might be asking? For one, truth has no boundaries and there are some really interesting truths in this story. Two, I’ve found the inverse to be true that stupid has no limits.

I travel a lot internationally and I’ve seen a lot of different places, cultures, people, politics, and beliefs. The details can be very different but if you distill it all down the simple core truth remains the same regardless of time, place, race, or age.

So, what are some of the core truths that the twinkie diet story can tell us?

  • Culture is not your friend. The antithesis of Twinkie-man’s story was the cultural craze a few years ago in the vignette “Super Size Me”. What does that tell you about American culture?
  • Personal accountability is still personal. My weight problem is MY weight problem. Until I decide to do something about my problems, they aren’t going away.
  • Methods and means do matter. The goal alone does not and cannot justify the means used to get there. If it’s not obvious that eating Twinkies the rest of your life is a bad idea, you missed the point of the original story.
  • A mind is a terrible thing to waste. So why do so many people, including myself at times, blindly accept everything they hear?
The simple tasks in life, like eating, are often times where we can see truth the easiest.

Just wow

Raj Rajaratnam, Raj Gupta, and Hector Ruiz are not household names and I doubt many have ever heard of them. These are by the world’s standards the Captains of Industry, people to be admired and aspired. They are also now the next round to be added to the wall of “Had it all and then blew themselves up.”

Rajaratnam was the founder of Galleon Group, a multi-billion dollar hedge fund based in New York. Gupta was former CEO of MacKenzie Consulting the world’s premier corporate consulting firm and later a Board member of Goldman Sachs. Hector Ruiz was the former CEO of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). What do these people have in common? They, along with others, gave out privileged insider information about a variety of companies and events resulting in trading profits of $50M to Rajaratnam in the past few years. You don’t make $50M on small tips either. Gupta tipped off Rajaratnam during the financial meltdown in late 2008 and early 2009 with a perch on Goldman’s Board and information that very few people had.

They now all share another thing in common: a destroyed life. Only they know what specifically motivated them to betray the trust of their clients, shareholders, peers, and family. In general it’s an old story of unbridled greed. This is the part that is mind boggling to me. Rajaratnam has a net worth over $1B; $50M is a drop in the bucket to this guy. But is it really that different from what anyone does that blows up their own lives in folly?

In American culture where greed is at times a national sport, the wisdom from Proverbs is timely and appropriate:

Keep lies far away from me.
Don’t make me either poor or rich,
but give me only the bread I need each day.        Proverbs 30:8

Decisions

Over the time of completing my MBA I learned a lot of basic truths about business but more than anything about people. One of the things I recall my Operations Management  instructor telling us one day about the subject of decisions, “Making a decision is the easy part. Getting people to act on the decision; that’s hard!” That doesn’t mean making decisions is easy, but that comparatively it’s easier than follow through and execution. And I’ve found that applies to me as much as it applies to other people.

These are the basic truths that I have found about decisions:

  • Learn as much as you can
  • Get good advice to provide a variety of perspectives
  • Know your personal values and stay true to them
  • Decide as quickly as possible
  • Work out ahead of time how you will know you made a good decision. Count the costs
  • Avoid “sunk cost” thinking. In other words, I can’t decide because I’ve invested so much already in current _______.
Execution and follow through of a decision is hard for a multitude of reasons. Some of them could be related to how I communicate it, a flaw in the decision, or a problem in the person executing it:
  • Decision is not focused
  • It is not clearly understood
  • I lack commitment to the decision
  • Looking too deeply into the past
  • Looking too far into the future
I recall a quote from George S. Patton, US General 4th Armored Division in WWII. This does not make a complete philosophy but it does embody many of the qualities of decision making and execution:
“A good plan executed violently today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”