Purpose, satisfaction, and relevance have been ongoing topics of discussion in a workplace that has changed over the last several decades but is especially felt in our present time as the Wall Street Journal points out:
Companies may have to address the angst some workers feel about their relevance and the purpose behind their jobs. Decades of research show people crave a sense of purpose to feel motivated at work. Without the coffee dates, meetings and camaraderie of time with colleagues, “you’re left with the work itself,” and if the work starts to feel wanting, it can lead to painful reckonings.
It is probably not a stretch to say that everyone has had extended, contemplative stretches of time as many (if not most) of us have had more time on our hands (even those working) than in our entire adult lives, and it would appear rotating back into the workplace is more abrupt than expected:
“Purpose” has been invoked in recent years by business leaders and employees, who say they want their careers to have meaning broader than the bottom line. Companies have embraced the term as they recruit young employees, casting their work and mission as solving important problems.
In addition to several suggestions, I would add don’t miss this unique opportunity, while it is still fresh in our minds, to contemplate why and how we are not meant to be isolated. See the full post here.
The International Institute of Forecasters facilitated a very interesting discussion in the form of two scholarly blog posts – COVID-19: Ioannidis vs. Taleb, Learning from the positions of Nassim N. Taleb and John P. Ioannidis in the COVID-19 debate. The idea of this match up of differing views from such profound thinkers is literally brilliant. The setting is what may be the closest thing we have seen of an old fashioned discourse. Pardon me for being old fashioned but actual, respectful dialogue and discourse is what is desperately needed in our present time and has been missing for decades. How much more do we need such a thing in an age where many of our national and international challenges have taken on a complexity due to the natural order of progress, technology and globalization. From the introduction page:
“Two…voices have been highly visible in the public debate, with seemingly diverging opinions. I am thinking here of John P. Ioannidis and Nassim N. Taleb (arguably two of the greatest living thinkers) holding opposing views about how to deal with the present pandemic and its potentially destructive consequences.
…Nassim N. Taleb believes that all efforts and resources should be directed to halt its spread and reduce the number of infected and deaths without any concern about forecasting its future course as the uncertainty of doing so cannot be measured and the risks involved are highly asymmetric. John P. Ioannidis, on the other hand, claims that more reliable information is needed to make multiple billion-dollar decisions and that forecasting has failed us by being too pessimistic about the future growth of the pandemic and by exaggerating its negative effects.
…This debate will not only allow us to better understand the points of view of the two great thinkers but be also left as a guide for how to deal with future pandemics.”
I would only take issue with the comment, billion-dollar decisions, since we are already well north of multi-trillion dollar decisions. Of the two positions, Taleb remains consistent with his central theme for more than a decade, namely, the profound consequences of risk versus upside benefits, and this is only amplified in pandemics, where he states they “represent existential risk.” In other words, survive now:
“Science is a procedure to update knowledge; it can be wrong provided it produces interesting discussions that lead to more discoveries…for matters that have systemic effects and/or entail survival, the asymmetry is even more pronounced.”
Ioannidis, on the other hand, has been one of the few critics of our nation and the world being put on “horror-alert,” with models that he states have:
“Failed when they used more speculation and theoretical assumptions and tried to predict long-term outcomes, e.g. using early SIR-based models to predict what would happen in the entire season.”
One note that I frequently see as both a criticism and straw man argument against Ioannidis that is worth mentioning: he is clearly not saying to do nothing, or that COVID-19 is trivial. He opens his post with the following, “COVID-19 is a major acute crisis with unpredictable consequences.” Later he and his colleagues state, “a doomsday forecast may come handy to protect civilization, when and if calamity hits. However, even then, we have little evidence that aggressive measures which focus only on few dimensions of impact actually reduce death toll and do more good than harm.” See introductory post here, Taleb here, Ioannidis here.
In the past 3 decades, the weather forecasting community has made significant advances in data collection, assimilating heterogeneous data steams into models and communicating the uncertainty of their predictions to the general public. Epidemic modelers are struggling with these same issues in forecasting the spread of emerging diseases.
Sound familiar? Here’s why, “epidemic models rely on human interactions, multiple data sources such as clinical surveillance and Internet data, and environmental or biological factors that can change the pathogen dynamics.” This reminds me of the hasty rush to a positive affirmation of test and trace (which I would not argue against) but could prove fraught with problems associated with the many and variegated variables of human behavior, requisite cooperation, and potentially unknown interactions (such as if asymptomatic superspreaders prove as accurate as is being posited). On this side point, I am not arguing against the activity of test and trace as it may be the best option we have, but the declaration of its success, given the myriad of unknowns.
The authors make a very interesting observation given what we, the entire world have experienced in the last six months, with some profound policy decisions that have been ostensibly driven by data:
Epidemic forecasting is still in its infancy and is a growing field with great potential. The challenges for accurate epidemic forecasting include data availability and emergent changes in human behavior and pathogens.
They conclude with this hopeful note which could prove prescient from four years ago, as phones and data have only increased, “there will be a parallel world, similar to that for weather forecasting, where billions of sensors will be uploading real-time information to obtain personalized disease forecasts.” Full study found here.
For surfers, finding the “sweet spot,” the most powerful part of the wave, is part of the thrill and the challenge.
Nick Pizzo, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California postdoctoral researcher, has found the exact location on the wave where a surfer gains the greatest speed to get the best ride.
In a study published this month online in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, Pizzo applied principles of physics at the ocean’s surface—where air and water meet—to study how energy is transferred from the underlying wave to a particle on the surface, in this case, a surfer.
“Based upon the speed and geometry of the wave, you can determine the conditions to surf a wave and also where on the wave the maximum acceleration, or ‘sweet spot,’ will be located,” said Pizzo, the author of the National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research-funded paper and an avid surfer.
Pizzo and fellow researchers in the Air-Sea Interaction Laboratory at the Scripps Marine Physical Laboratory and Climate, Atmospheric Sciences, and Physical Oceanography division are studying the mass, momentum, and energy exchanged between the atmosphere and ocean due to breaking waves, to help improve our understanding of weather and climate.
As a wave breaks at the ocean surface, currents are generated and water droplets in the form of sea spray are ejected from the ocean into the atmosphere. These small-scale processes are critical pieces of information to improve weather and climate models to better forecast major storm events and the future climate.
The goal of this collaborative research is to build a stochastic Lagrangian parameterization of surface wave breaking that can subsequently be applied to wave and ocean modeling. The students and postdoctoral researchers employed in this project will gain experience in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The data and breaking parameterization developed here will subsequently find direct application in atmosphere and ocean modeling.
The following articles were the output of this research:
Deike, L., Popinet, S. & Melville,W.K.. “Capillary effects on wave breaking,” Journal of Fluid Mechanics, v.769, 2015, p. 541.
Deike, L., Melville, W.K. & Popinet, S.. “Air entrainment and bubble statistics in three dimensional breaking waves,” Journal of fluid mechanics, v.801, 2015, p. 91.
N. Pizzo, L. Deike and W.K. Melville. “Current generation by deep-water breaking waves.,” Journal of Fluid Mechanics, v.803, 2016, p. 275.
See also a post on this subject from the U-Cal site.
What could you learn (or benefit) from a Harvard Business Review article from nearly twenty years ago? Quite a bit. Emotion Intelligence, according to its great champion Daniel Goleman is remarkable in terms of impact among effective leaders:
To create some of the competency models, psychologists asked senior managers at the companies to identify the capabilities that typified the organization’s most outstanding leaders…When I analyzed all this data, I found dramatic results. To be sure, intellect was a driver of outstanding performance. Cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking and long-term vision were particularly important. But when I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels. (From Goleman, What Makes a Leader? in The Harvard Business Review, 1998).
EI is arguably the skill set above many, if not all others that distinguish a leader who is able to move things forward because she or he is good with others, being first and foremost, at ease with themselves, mature, experienced and in command of themselves. Goleman identified five distinctive elements that identify leaders who possess emotional intelligence in action, shown in the table below:
Irrational exuberance has been one of the most iconic and recognizable phrases in the financial markets for the last twenty years – to the day. I remember this like it was yesterday, being a recent graduate and shortly after, working in the capital market. This really was the advent of an era where there has been no looking back: a tenuous and ambivalent relationship with the Fed and every nuance uttered by the Chair. Here is the full quote in its context:
Clearly, sustained low inflation implies less uncertainty about the future, and lower risk premiums imply higher prices of stocks and other earning assets. We can see that in the inverse relationship exhibited by price/earnings ratios and the rate of inflation in the past. But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade? And how do we factor that assessment into monetary policy? We as central bankers need not be concerned if a collapsing financial asset bubble does not threaten to impair the real economy, its production, jobs, and price stability. Indeed, the sharp stock market break of 1987 had few negative consequences for the economy. But we should not underestimate or become complacent about the complexity of the interactions of asset markets and the economy. Thus, evaluating shifts in balance sheets generally, and in asset prices particularly, must be an integral part of the development of monetary policy.
Interestingly enough, here is some commentary in our present time declaring, “rationally exuberant,” (caveat emptor on long positions if you ask me):
Not everyone is convinced of this view to be sure:
In recent years the Fed has only doubled down on these policies by directly pursuing a “wealth effect.” Rather than give a boost to the broad economy, however, these central bankers have only accomplished an even greater and more pervasive financial asset perversion. Stocks, bonds and real estate have all become as overvalued as we have ever seen any one of them individually in this country. The end result of all of this money printing and interest rate manipulation is the worst economic expansion since the Great Depression and the greatest wealth inequality since that period, as well.
I found this excellent site in the Journal of Economic Education as I was researching another topic. In that article, the following overview describes the useful content cataloged on the site:
As the digitization of teaching resources becomes increasingly available, instructors can adapt by making course pedagogy more mobile through incorporating “bring your own device” into the course design. The number of available apps can be overwhelming. We identify many of the best apps with user rankings on a 5-point qualitative scale from Awful (1) to Excellent (5).
Why should we use apps in economics? Strategic selection of an app engages students. This selection offers understanding throughout a range of cognitive domains while providing connections to learning styles that link to individual strengths. Apps provide a hands-on study of economics that can intrigue and satisfy. When students have fun engaging economic apps, their learning and retention increases. Our Web site arranges the apps into seven categories: Study Aids, Calculators, Data, Events, Feedback, Quizzes, and Simulations. Study Aids provide resources for better understanding principles of economics. Calculators identify spreadsheets as well as financial, mortgage, and currency calculators. Data apps profile domestic and international macroeconomic data sources. Events allow class members to keep abreast of current events. Feedback offers instructors a variety of mechanisms to gather classroom responses. Quizzes afford students tools for selftesting of economic concepts. Simulations generate a virtual world to put economics into practice. (Cochran, Velikova, Childs & Simmons, 2015).
Nearly thirty years ago, Peter Drucker saw the need for and wrote of the imperative of change management within an information based, highly educated, “knowledge worker” economy and workforce:
To be sure, the fundamental task of management remains the same: to make people capable of joint performance through common goals, common values, the right structure, and the training and development they need to perform and to respond to change. But the very meaning of this task has changed, if only because the performance of management has converted the workforce from one composed largely of unskilled laborers to one of highly educated knowledge workers.
We live in a world obsessed with safety, and mitigation of risk. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with either of these elements, except for the fact that no matter how hard we try, we cannot guarantee either absolute safety or the absence of risk.
In an excellent post in the Harvard Business Review, as summarized in this morning’s Management Tip of the Day, the whole concept of risk versus safety is put to a challenge:
Most of us consider ourselves to be risk averse, but what we consider “safe” behavior often contains much more uncertainty than we suspect…The challenge is that there are very few environments that remain static. “Safe” investments like gold can lose value. You could be fired from your “safe” job. And yet we behave as if the current state will persist in perpetuity. While no one can predict the future, there are a few tactics you can use to get better at evaluating risk. Before you make a decision, do your research on all of the potential avenues of action. Ask credible experts to weigh in. And don’t forget to evaluate the inherent risk of doing nothing. Sometimes the status quo is actually riskier than taking a leap into the unknown.
Excellent advice, see the full post here. Of course, as noted above, risk must be carefully researched and thought out. To use an old word, to exercise prudence, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the, “ability to recognize and follow the most suitable or sensible course of action; good sense in practical or financial affairs; discretion, circumspection, caution.” In short, to exercise judgement when making a decision about the future. But too much caution, or worse, being restrained by fear amounts to the idea that we are actually in more control than we are, and that is little more than self-deception.
What is required to succeed at a rigorous challenge requiring a long-term commitment? While recently participating in an exercise to answer to this question, I thought of a number of ways I could address this. Many of which are true in the perspective they convey. We certainly need inspiration. We need a sense of realistic hope. We also need the right application of building habits that will see us through the long haul. But when it comes to completing a long-term goal that occupies a great deal of willpower, much of our success comes down to discipline. The rigors required to attain a significant goal require what Peter Drucker described as the Effective Executive: first managing ourselves. Here are three core components of the disciplines of success: focus, perseverance and persistence.
Focus. The first of these disciplines is the ability to and application of focus. It is a self-obviating understatement to say we live in a world of extreme distraction. And we can thank the remarkable world technology (of which I am very thankful for) for this. We have always had to battle distraction, but never at the amplified and accelerated pace that we now contend with. The higher the aspiration of leadership, the greater the need for the discipline of single-minded focus.
This involves two points, the first is the actual skill set of focus, next is the development of habits in order to successfully apply this skill set. To develop the necessary skill set to sharpen our focus, we need to perform an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses. This is simply part of self-awareness and the continuous improvement process. Where we are already strong (possible interests, etc.), we may need only modify our habits to capitalize on those strengths. But where we need improvement we need to take deliberate action to ratchet up our deficiencies. From here, we need to take deliberate actions to develop habits that will enable us to apply the skill set of focus.
Perseverance. The act of perseverance sounds a lot like persistence, and at some point, perseverance certainly means exercising persistence as well. But the distinction between the two is the origin of the needed resistance. Successful completion of a goal requires perseverance regarding any number of life events that originate internally as well as externally. External challenges such as managing time, home, family and work may require foregoing discretionary personal time. Internal challenges will involve fatigue and emotions. Both sets of challenges require perseverance and only those who persevere at a long-term challenge will complete it.
Persistence. Closely related to perseverance is persistence. As mentioned before, both are related but distinct. Perseverance requires resistance to internal and external challenges. But persistence requires mental and physical output of energy not only to resist the forces of challenges, but overcome obstacles that would prevent a successful work product. There is much that can be said about willpower, the instinct of it, and that we generally quit too easily. Those with unusual, pre-determined persistence will be successful and see long-term challenges through to completion. This is the willpower of leadership.
It’s easy to look back at a previous year and focus on what could have gone better, how different decisions may have affected outcomes to the good, or even how we may feel stuck in one way or another. As with many, I share the view that a new year is an excellent time to make or update goals, modify plans or start a strategic course of action for the upcoming year. This could be as simple as a reading list, a habit change, or a significant life changing decision. Either way, I think outlook and perspective can be a key driver in making this a positive exercise, whether reflecting or planning.
One of the benefits of experience is long-term perspective. I used to have promotional poster from a brokerage firm that read, “confidence through perspective.” Within the poster there was a montage of pictures, dates, graphic measurements and major event annotations. The idea being, when you look at current events with too much granularity, you may lose focus on an overall perspective on how things may turn out, given a certain trajectory, determination, diligence, planning, hard work, and a little more time. But at the same time, if we fail to look carefully, and with the proper focus, we may miss some of the obvious details right in front of us. For reflection purposes, consider the words from Henry David Thoreau’s Journal, June 10, 1853, titled, Looking through a Spy-Glass:
I amused myself yesterday afternoon with looking from my window, through a spy-glass, at the tops of the woods in the horizon. It was pleasant to bring them so near and individualize the trees, to examine in detail the tree-tops which before you had beheld only in the mass as the woods in the horizon. It was an exceedingly rich border, seen thus against, and the imperfections in a particular tree-top more than two miles off were quite apparent. I could easily have seen a hawk sailing over the top of the wood, and possibly his nest in some higher tree. Thus to contemplate, from my attic in the village, the hawks circling about their nests above some dense forest or swamp miles away, almost as if they were ﬂies on my own premises! I actually distinguished a taller white pine with which I am well acquainted, with a double top rising high above the surrounding woods, between two and three miles distant, which, with the naked eye, I had confounded with the nearer woods.
All of that from the view from an attic window, because the author took the time to look, focus and reflect. When you consider the outlook for this year and take time to think and plan, hear the words of my great hero, C. S. Lewis, “Mere change is not growth. Growth is the synthesis of change and continuity, and where there is no continuity there is no growth.”
Last year, the U.S. Census issued an excellent report, An Aging Nation: The Older Population in the United States – Population Estimates and Projections and as you might guess, the findings are nothing short of alarming. Why? Because the findings in the report have a number of significant implications connected with aging in general and all its added responsibilities such as health care and social security. What’s more, the very large baby boom cohort (the report uses the traditional timespan of those born from 1946-1964) has for some time represented such a significant part of the work force, but now its rotation out of the workforce is adding to the weight of what the report labels, “older population” (defined as those above 65 years of age). Combine this with the extrapolation of the older Generation X cohort in the next few decades, plus overall mortality projections showing increased life expectancies and you have a mind boggling number of people not only meeting the definition of older, but in excess of 85 years of age.
Historical Look Using an Interactive Graphic
Below is an interactive graphic from the Census Bureau that can be used in two ways. Slide the year along the bottom for a view of the population breakdown by age at a given point in time in the last ten to fifteen years. Going back fifteen years to the year 2000, you see a very large cohort in their thirties to early fifties. As you slide the year to the right (toward the present), you see the rising age, which is somewhat self-obviating given the starting point. But then as you reach the near present, you see a surprising trend of a new cohort, now in their early twenties to early thirties, representing a significant part of the population.
Implications of the Elderly
According to the projections in the Census report:
Between 2012 and 2050, the U.S. population is projected to grow from 314 million in 2012 to 400 million in 2050, an increase of 27 percent…By 2030, more than 20 percent of U.S. residents are projected to be aged 65 and over, compared with 13 percent in 2010 and 9.8 percent in 1970.
The report identifies mortality rates as the driver of trends:
The size and composition of the older population in 2050 will be largely determined by two factors: the size and composition of the population 27 years and over in 2012 and the future course of mortality for that population. While past fertility rates were the main driver shaping the size of these cohorts to date, mortality will influence the pace at which that population declines at the older ages.
…The mortality assumptions for these population projections are guided by past trends and current levels of mortality observed in the United States and in other developed nations. Trends in health-related conditions such as smoking and obesity were also assessed.
Survivorship rates have shown improvement for many decades. In the United States, life expectancy at age 65 was 15.2 years in 1972 and rose to 19.1 years in 2010—a net gain of 3.9 years. The survival gains for those turning 85 have also been impressive. In 1972, the average time to live for someone turning 85 was 5.5 years. By 2010, this had risen to 6.5 years—a net gain of 1 year. Similar trends have been observed in almost all developed nations. For example, life expectancy at age 65 in Sweden increased from 15.7 years in 1972 to 19.8 years in 2010. Life expectancy at age 85 in Sweden increased from 4.9 years in 1972 to 6.2 years in 2010.8
There is a little bit of irony in these trends. On the one hand, you have things like the reduction of smoking that is practically guaranteed to reduce health risks and increase life span in most people. But on the other:
The incidence of obesity increased dramatically between 1980 and 2008, doubling for adults and tripling for children (National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2011)…The direct effect of obesity on survival is less than that for smoking, and there is evidence that the trend is leveling off. The longer-term implications are yet unknown, but could dampen continued improvements in survivorship in future years.
These trends may simply point to the advancements of medicine and technology, but as the above quote points out, the long-term implications of this fairly recent trend are yet unknown. Where is this all leading? As mentioned previously, there are significant implications for Social Security and Medicare, but these are only two examples (although the largest by far) as there are many pension and health care systems throughout the different states and regions of the U.S. There is also the continuous discussion of potential growth in the overall economy. The idea that traditional growth of 4% is not currently realistic (or possible) given the number of workers from the boomer cohort reducing labor participation rates and thus reducing spending, is a common assumption. On the other hand, the very large cohort representing a younger population as well as those in their prime working ages cannot be ignored. While it’s true that availability of workers does not produce jobs, if a number of fundamentals change in the next few years, there could be expansion that we have not seen in years. How might this match off against the implications of an aging population? One thing is certain, in the traditional sense of employment, we have not yet figured out (cumulatively) how to best utilize this large, younger cohort. And we have still not yet adjusted to a post industrial era.
When you think of the modern iteration of your local public library, a couple things might spring to mind, such as the perverts sitting at the computers offending everyone around them in the name of free speech. But another might be the question, how long can this model of an institution last? Well chalk one up for another blow to the hard and fast rule of disruption. I have observed the growing catalogue in recent years of digital material available for check out, including audio as well as e-books. But in the age of streaming versus download, the for-profit sector has started rolling out its own version of subscription based reading, and they face headwinds of an unlikely competitor, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, Why the Public Library Beats Amazon—for Now:
A growing stack of companies would like you to pay a monthly fee to read e-books, just like you subscribe to Netflix to binge on movies and TV shows. Don’t bother. Go sign up for a public library card instead. Really, the public library? Amazon.com recently launched Kindle Unlimited, a $10-per-month service offering loans of 600,000 e-books. Startups called Oyster and Scribd offer something similar. It isn’t very often that a musty old institution can hold its own against tech disrupters. But it turns out librarians haven’t just been sitting around shushing people while the Internet drove them into irrelevance. More than 90% of American public libraries have amassed e-book collections you can read on your iPad, and often even on a Kindle. You don’t have to walk into a branch or risk an overdue fine. And they’re totally free. Though you still have to deal with due dates, hold lists and occasionally clumsy software, libraries, at least for now, have one killer feature that the others don’t: e-books you actually want to read.
E-books you want to read? That’s right. So instead of an all-you-can-read list of digital titles with the equivalent of Smokey and the Bandit III, you have access to many of the titles from Amazon’s top 20 Kindle best-sellers of 2013 list with the following impressive results:
See the full grid from the WSJ article here. The article goes on to explain an interesting history of this windfall for local libraries:
How did library e-book collections get such a leg up? Amazon is locked in a hate-hate relationship with many publishers, so none of the five largest will sell their whole collection to Amazon for its subscription service…Over at the library, the situation is different. All of the big five publishers sell their e-book collections for loans, usually on the same day they’re available for consumers to purchase. They haven’t always been so friendly with libraries, and still charge them a lot for e-books. Some library e-books are only allowed a set number of loans before “expiring.”
There are obvious limitations to free services, such as availability, wait lists and time span for checked out materials. But for now, this is a terrific example of a public institution in the local community showing itself able to respond to disruptive forces, and provide viable resources to a wider audience with limited resources. It is also an excellent example of how a business model can benefit from adapting to a model that helps a local community as “publishers have come to see libraries not only as a source of income, but also as a marketing vehicle…since the Internet has killed off so many bookstores, libraries have become de facto showrooms for discovering books.” See brief overview here: