Boundless #46: Things I'm Unsure About
The flaws of experts, 13 years of nomad lessons,
April 6th, 2019: Greeting from Taipei!
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“That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost”
#1 Some thoughts on stories, experts and what we can really know
This essay in the MIT Sloan Management review was a good reminder of how powerful a good story can be:
Most of what we read from scholars, scientists, and other experts are stories that emerge from analysis of patterns in data. Experts ask, “Which companies succeed?” or “Which people make good leaders?” and then weave narratives that describe the patterns: “Companies that ‘stick to their knitting’ succeed” or “Authentic people are better leaders.” These stories are conjectures, Sherlock Holmes-style.
All of us, including experts, fall in love with our guesses and the stories we tell about them. I once asked a world-famous business scientist if he had ever tested his theory by trying to predict future events. He said he didn’t need to, because his theory predicted the past so well. He had forgotten that a story explains and a theory predicts.
One of the most well-known business writers, James Collins, has written books like “Good To Great” that are the type of book you might spot on a manager’s office bookshelf kept in perfect condition because its never been opened.
This book remains one of the most popular business books. The problem? His explanations explain the past, but did not predict the future. The book highlighted “great” companies like Wells Fargo, Circuit City and Fannie Mae and explained why they were so great. This is why I think “The Halo Effect,” which does a compelling takedown of these kind of business books, is one of the business books worth reading.
I still think books like this can be entertaining, but it shines a light on how hard it is to really find good explanations for what is going on. Too often in the business world people seek definite answers and plans for things where it might be better off for everyone if we just accepted a little humility.
A friend recently sent a report about the future of work from a UK-based organization called the RSA. At the beginning of their report they start a shots-fired warnings at anyone crazy enough to predict the future:
“While they may be divided in their opinions, pundits share one thing in common: a tendency to make assertive and unjustifiably confident predictions about how the future will play out”
Then they spend the remaining 56 pages telling you what they think will happen in the future. Lets break it down a little more.
As you see from the chart below, they identified nine factors that they suppose are the most important. Then they create four scenarios each with a specific low/medium/high outcomes for each of the nine factors.
Except these four scenarios seem to be chosen in a completely random fashion. By introducing nine factors with three outcomes, there are actually 84 possible outcomes or scenarios.
I realized that the point of these articles is to create a framework so that there can be something to talk about, but this kind of thinking only shields us from the fact that we don’t know what the future is. It also tends to focus on things that can be measurable like employment rates and growth instead of things like human dignity and meaning.
We are sold a story instead of anything that can be predictive.
I thought one useful concept in the story was the four “types of people” who are emerging in conversations about the future of work (I similarly wrote about the “five conversations on the future of work”). I think this can be useful to understand where others are coming from so that you can communicate in different ways to get your points across.
The Alarmists who believe new technologies will decimate industries and lead to mass unemployment and economic turmoil.
The Dreamers who believe new technologies will be gamechanging, but that their power will be used to diminish the burden of work and phase in more leisure time.
The Incrementalists who claim new technologies will bring only marginal disruption as ‘lousy’ jobs are replaced by ‘lovely’ ones.
The Sceptics who suspect technological progress is slowing, and that new technologies like AI and robotics are less impressive than the innovations that preceded them.
I guess you would say I am a short-term sceptic, long-term dreamer with a pragmatic bend of incrementalism. I don’t believe that we will have mass unemployment in the next 5-10 years (participation rates <50%) mostly because of our deep cultural connections to the belief in the virtue of full-time wage work.
Other things I’m unsure of:
I’m not sure if the gig economy will take off or not
I’m not sure if UBI is a good idea or not at a national level
I’m not sure if anyone talking about the “future of work,” including me, knows any more than the average grandmother
I’m not sure which behaviors or practices actually matter for creating a place people enjoy working
If less of an obsession with more growth or money would be good for society as a whole
What are you unsure of?
Dump your comments in this google sheet and I’ll share some next week.
#2 Chris Kirkland: Lessons from 13 years of entrepreneurship & living nomadically
Chris Kirkland is a bootstrapped entrepreneur who has been living nomadically since 2006 and is the founder of several web businesses including artweb.com and tokyocheapo.com
We talk about how he has experimented with money, creativity, health and his lifestyle over the past 13 years. His nomadic journey started when he took a trip to Japan and after two days decided “fuck it,” I’m going to stay a bit longer.
We talk about his journey, entrepreneurship and his life experiments
Why entrepreneurs are really risk averse
His learnings from living nomadically and stoic exercises of living minimally
Prioritizing time over money as a bootstrapper
How running an online business was different in 2006 and why he “felt like he was cheating”
His experiments with becoming a “breatharian” and trying polyphasic sleep (do not try these at home)
How he thinks about running an online media business in 2019
His recommendations for cheap eats in Tokyo
#3 Reader Corner: Thoughts, Questions & Reflections From The Readers
Tanya Zhang, co-founder of Nimble Made (I shared Wesley’s story last week), shares her own reflections on how her Asian father influenced her to start the company and quit the corporate world:
There we were, 2 hours later, having tried maybe 8 different clothing brands going from Macy’s to JCPenny’s only to find that he was right. American dress shirts didn’t fit him. They were huge, long at the shirt length, wide in the sleeve width. Where are the XXS sizes? Also, my dad’s not a “small man” by any means. At 5’7” and 140 pounds, he’s just a slimmer and leaner guy.
Noel offers his reflections on trying to be a bit less miserable at work
So I suppose I see 3 areas where we influence our life/work satisfaction:
#1 Maximize situations where we have more good and fewer bad experiences in the moment — though don’t completely avoid the bad, if they’re good for personal growth and/or helping others.
#2 Reconsider our “sorting” algorithm whereby we savor the good and don’t ruminate on the bad — gratitude, mindfulness, rich discussions with friends/colleagues
#3 Decide our story — does the narrative overly focus on the bad or even recreate the “not so good” to make them seem “bad”. I think how we decide our story is largely up to us (vs. what our objective history entails).
If you have things you’d like to promote, share or ponder, send them my way!
#4 Quotes & Thoughts
Thoughts from Jordan Peterson:
One alternative to fragmentation is union under a banner – a collective ideal, cause, or purpose. The problem with uniting under a banner, as the postmodernists who push identity politics rightly point out, is that to value something means simultaneously to devalue other things. Thus to value is an exclusionary process. But the alternative is valuelessness, which is equivalent to nihilism – and nihilism does not produce freedom from exclusion. It just makes everyone excluded, and that is an intolerable state, directionless, uncertain, chaotic, and angst-ridden.
When such uncertainty reaches a critical level, the counter-response appears: first the unconscious and then the collectively expressed demand for a leader, possessed by the spirit of totalitarian certainty, who promises above all, to restore Order.
Thus, a society without a unifying principle, oscillates, unmoored, between nihilism and totalitarianism.
I want to make this newsletter an ongoing experiment and co-creation with the many members that read and follow along. What questions do you want me to write about? Anything you are working on that I can share? What quotes are inspiring you?
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